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Roatan, Honduras

Columbus reached this part of the Caribbean coast in 1502 and named the region Honduras, meaning "deep," for the waters in which his ships anchored. The Bay Islands chain, lying 40 miles off of the Honduran coast, is composed of more than 65 cays and eight islands, with Roatan Island being the largest of the group. Roatan's colorful history is quite different from that of mainland Honduras. The islanders are native English speakers and proud of their traditions. First inhabited by Paya Indians, in the beginning of the 17th century it became a refuge for British pirates who preyed on Spanish ships. Port Royal, at the island's eastern end, was a pirate stronghold and, according to local legend, the treasure from Henry Morgan's 1671 raid on Panama is buried somewhere nearby. Britain and Spain fought over Roatan for many years until it was finally settled by black and white farmers from the Cayman Islands, also a British colony at the time. Britain ceded Roatan to Honduras in 1859. Reefs of varying depths ring the island and water enthusiasts can explore canyons, shipwrecks, coral gardens and stunning walls rich in marine life. But the beauty of the island is more than skin (diving) deep; it also boasts breathtaking natural scenery. Roatan is bisected by a 1,300 foot mountain ridge which is covered with pine and oak forests. Down its slopes are stands of denser jungle which give way to palm-fringed secluded beaches along the shore.