The moment you land at San Pedro Sula's airport, you know Honduras: The destination is still a work in progress. Once you get past the arrival informalities and customs, however, a verdant and rustic beauty unfolds into breathtaking Panavision-style views.
Likewise, proud hoteliers, innovative eco-minded resorts and deliciously hearty regional food add to its evident charm. While you'll probably still rely on bottled water, Honduras' tourism commission and other organizations such as FIDE (Foundation for Investment & Development of Exports) are genuinely committed to working with local businesses and hospitality executives to resolve this and other issues.
In other words, please don't call Honduras "the next Costa Rica." It's coming into its own, and on its own terms.
Though the Jewish population in Honduras, not surprisingly, is small, you will find thriving synagogues in its main cities (Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula). It is also interesting to note that several Jewish expats who have fallen in love with Honduras and its Bay Islands are firmly installed and not only committed to generating tourism, but helping their local populace as well.
In the charming colonial city of Copàn Ruinas, for example, American journalist Howard Rosenzweig not only maintains a B&B, but also writes regularly about Copàn for Honduras This Week. Todd Murray, a successful Miami-bred developer, is poised to open a new Nikki Beach resort and residential complex that will unite unsurpassed amenities with direct benefits to the people and environment of Roatàn (one of Honduras' Bay Islands).
Hollywood in Honduras?
In La Ceiba, along Honduras' northern Caribbean coast, the upscale eco-lodge Pico Bonito is a favorite hideaway for Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones and their brood ... and one of its owners is, yes, Jewish.
Flavia Cueva, owner of Hacienda San Lucas resort near Copàn Ruinas best sums up Honduras' appeal: "People who come here are looking for some authenticity, culture and spirituality."
"They are people who have everything, but welcome the simplicity of the rooms and appreciate the earthy qualities of the food. It brings them to a whole different reality. They may be CEOs and diplomats, but they need to feel real. People who come are contributing to the continuation of local traditions and improving the lives of the 22 people on staff, most from the village.
"They feel good about the fact that their money is going to somebody's benefit and not a corporation."
While Flavia's vision of "geo-tourism" includes yoga, horseback riding and wellness services within the earthily elegant property, she considers the restaurant and the cooking program to be one of the experience's highlights.
Imagine your favorite botanical garden and zoo rolled into one, with several animal species thriving in their own element right before your eyes. Throw in a canopy ("zip line") tour or some R&R at a pool or beach (at a superb new place like Infinity Bay Spa & Beach Resort), and you have a perfect day.
Larger cities, meanwhile, offer their share of urban charm. San Pedro Sula offers excellent malls (especially for fans of high-end, handcrafted Mayan and South American silver jewelry), vibrant craft markets such as El Mercado de Artesanias Guamilito, and steakhouse fare at Pat's, a decidedly local spot where simple preparation highlights the quality of the food.
Back in Roatàn, developer Murray is working on bringing the best of Honduras to his Nikki Beach property (opening around 2010), making it Honduras' first with LEED certification (a suite of standards for environmentally sustainable construction and operation). While this project is no small undertaking, his resume (which includes homes for Cher and Gianni Versace, as well as quality tract homes for middle-class buyers) shows he has the right mix of savvy and selflessness to pull it off.
As he describes his vision, my colleagues and I are sampling a taste of it at the View, a destination restaurant that will be absorbed into the property. Our meal consisted of Honduran, Caribbean and Asian fusion cuisine using locally sourced ingredients from their own on-premise garden and local growers.
On his own, Murray also likes to keep connected to his Jewish roots by inviting other resident expats and visitors to observe holidays, Honduras-style.
"The local police chief is Jewish, as is a local English language D.J. known as Roatàn Bruce," he explains. "There are eight or nine Jewish people on the entire island. However, we find that people of all kinds travel, so whenever a Jewish holiday like Chanukah rolls around, we put out announcements on the radio inviting anybody who is visiting and Jewish to come over, and join in on our celebration. The first time we did it, we had about 15 people."
If Murray and others continue in this direction, he can safely expect his holiday gatherings at the View to multiply.
For more information on Honduras, log on to: www.hondurasinfo.hn .