Retire on Roatan

Roatan

The clock on The dash of Eric Anderson’s dusty truck is four hours fast. Or maybe it’s eight hours slow. It doesn’t matter. Not here. “Want some gum?” Eric asks, jawing on his own piece of Eclipse. Eric is 68, looks 49-ish and plans his day like he’s 14. He has toyed with retirement and real estate since he moved to Roatan in 1971, so I’ve asked him to take me to my island dream home. Not a pipe-dream monstrosity, but a real deal that I could afford with a wad of cash barely bigger than the wad of gum in his mouth. I’m looking at the island, 35 miles off the coast of Honduras, as a place to chuck the daily work routine for a Roatan retirement life. Whatever that is. But instead of hustling through ocean-view floor plans, we’re bouncing over a side of the island that’s still better suited for mule transit.

“I used to be anxious to get the road paved up here, but now I really don’t care,” says Eric, tapping the brakes with his sea-foam Crocs. “Oh good! You wore your swimsuit.”

Looks like we will not be looking at property today.

Eric pulls up to his multilevel, multicolor second home on Camp Bay Beach. We’re 90 minutes, or as far removed as possible, from Roatan’s cruise-ship port and its busy all-inclusives. There are no other houses in sight. No toe prints in the most beautiful sand nobody’s seen. The man believed to be the first American expat to build a home on Roatan (it’s still his primary residence, 15 minutes away in Port Royal) disappears into a bedroom. He re-emerges holding his 3-year-old son, Axel. They’re wearing their big-guy and little-guy swimsuits.

"He keeps me young," Eric says, tossing Axel into the ocean water. A hundred yards out, small waves break over a reef second in size only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef. "We come here at least once a week. Swim. Sail. Kayak. It's all to ourselves."

An hour later I’m folding myself onto a hammock. Around me, a young islander named Rolando sweeps the patio for the third time since we’ve been here. “If you’re at the beach once a week,” I ask Eric, “what do you do the other six days?”

“Roatan’s an exciting place,” he says, standing in the outdoor shower with Axel. “People who retire here don’t veg out in front of the TV. Boredom is the enemy.”

The next morning a sea breeze flows Through The wood-slat blinds in my bungalow at Barefoot Cay Resort. It's 5:20. The sun won't let me sleep in. I shuffle out the door, down the dock and, swimsuit and snorkel mask on, jump into the lagoon. The question on Roatan isn't boxers or briefs. It's drawstring or elastic waistband.

I’m still dripping when I arrive at the island’s only golf course, the Black Pearl, framed with new homes on three sides and the ever-present reef on the other.

“Which hole do you want to start on?” asks the pro-shop attendant. Like Camp Bay Beach, the fairways are wide open. I order the $3 breakfast instead of the $85 golf shirt and slide into the cart with my caddy, Dennest.

When he isn’t looking for my tee shots in ponds and construction sites, Dennest, 20, tells me he hadn’t seen golf until six months ago. He’s never been off the island. Lives in a village where the cow-foot soup is good enough to lick the bowl. When I turn around to find the sunglasses I left on the sixth green, Dennest says, “You didn’t forget,” and hands them to me. I ask if expat dreamers like me ever get on his nerves.

“I love Americans,” he says. “You give us jobs, and opportunities.”

The same thought prevails, unspoken, back at Barefoot Cay. At noon I notice five people working the kitchen and the open-air dining area. There will be three guests for lunch. Away from Roatan’s tourist-heavy West End, the cost of living is so low that every retiree I meet employs an islander, even in the modest homes. Eric Anderson pays 12 people to do things like sweep, or stare at his undeveloped properties.

"It's an easy way to give back," says Gary Chamer, who has 80 people working around his Palmetto Bay Plantation Resort. Guest capacity: 88. "What are you going to do, tell someone you can't pay them $12 a day so they can feed their family?"

Eric’s line about “boredom is the enemy” still teases me as I take Roatan’s only paved road to meet Ted and Cam O’Brien. They bought the first air-conditioned resort in 1994 after moving from Juno Beach, Florida. Thinking they might slow their pace, they closed the resort in early 2010.

“We took a walk out there to talk about what to do next,” says Cam, nodding at their 44 acres. “I said, ‘We can’t retire and watch the palm trees grow.’”

Cam is surrounded by hundreds of books and a dry-erase board. Near us dozens of children ages 5 to 18 are reading Go, Dog. Go! and writing their first full sentences in English. This was once Cam and Ted’s house. It’s now an after-school education center run on donations.

“Most kids on this island don’t go to school,” says Cam, not pausing as the lights flicker and the hum of the AC dies. “The children downstairs know that English means jobs. Ted and I have found a purpose for whatever time is left for us.”

Still wearing a swimsuit, I walk outside with 12 kids and a soccer ball. I have no more questions. This experiment isn’t about retiring anymore. It’s about living. Marcie, 18, kicks the ball through a goal marked by coconut husks. Three boys give chase. The ball bounces through a pavilion where guests once lounged on hammocks, rolls over an empty beach and lands in the Caribbean Sea.