Spanish Wells A Bahamas outpost that dwells in another time is a choice for sunshine and serenity

Times Travel Editor

What, no Pizza Hut, no crazy shopping-mad tourists, no condominium developers, no scrimshaw on sale?

What sort of island is this, anyway? Hasn't anyone heard about the crowds those fancy high-rise hotels attract, with their glass elevators and golf courses and fleets of sightseeing buses that foul up the air?

And get this: There's not a single rental car on Spanish Wells. Imagine, no Hertz or Avis. And this is really weird: no Hilton or Sheraton, either. Not even a Holiday Inn.

This island is out of touch with the times. I mean, who needs all this peacefulness and sunshine when they could sink the entire island with high-rises and fast-food joints, sully the air and litter the beaches?

Confidentially, the folks on Spanish Wells simply aren't with it. Instead of big-time tourism, they're satisfied with clean air, nice peaceful roads and near-deserted beaches. If the truth be known, these people are impotent when it comes to exploiting their island. They're unimpressed with an industry that attracts developers, souvenir peddlers and jet-loads of visitors who could endanger the ecology and corrupt forever sacred personal values.

All this had been on my mind since an earlier visit, and so I decided to learn if this indeed is utopia. It's a hazard, this business of chasing dreams. It can be disappointing. Sometimes it's best not to tamper with memories. Was it really all so perfect?

I traveled precisely the same circuitous route I had before, Nassau to Eleuthera, then took the water taxi to Spanish Wells, a 10-minute trip beyond the twilight zone.

It was high noon as Harrison Pinder eased his boat alongside the dock, tossing a line to a grizzled old man in faded denims. At first glance, nothing appeared to have changed. The scene was exactly as I had remembered. Except for a lad pedaling by on a bicycle, the narrow street running parallel to the waterfront was deserted. Alongside the dock a familiar freighter, the Spanish Rose, was taking on provisions. She'd be sailing at dawn the following day, delivering cargo and passengers to Nassau. If you're in no hurry, it's a bargain--only $18 for the five-hour ride, which includes a soft drink and a sandwich and a world of untroubled waters.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't the Queen Elizabeth 2. Sometimes an errant chicken will run squawking along the deck in a flurry of feathers, a dog hot on its spurs. But there are compensations. If the seas are smooth, it's a pleasant journey, and occasionally someone will break out a guitar and strum calypso melodies.

While the old freighter took on cargo, we hitched a ride to Spanish Wells Beach Resort, which is laid back, folksy and comfortably shopworn. With 22 rooms and eight cottages on a talcum-sand beach, it ranks as Spanish Wells' spiffiest resort. This, however, isn't to say that it's elegant. Not on an island featuring only one other resort, the Harbour Club, with its noisy bar (but we'll get to that later).

Lill Campbell, a transplanted Canadian, is the leading lady at Spanish Wells Beach Club. A few years back Lill grew weary of Montreal's winters and popped for a $100,000 bungalow smack on the beach near the hotel. The former owner gave her the key, which she misplaced almost immediately, with the result that she hasn't locked a door since. Besides, it isn't necessary on this ocean speck that's yet to report a serious crime.

Says the buxom blonde, "There's never been a murder, a rape or a scrape on the island."

No one bothers to lock their doors or remove keys from their car ignitions. Sometimes the fuzz goes weeks without issuing so much as a traffic citation.

"It's the least-worked police force in the world," said Philip Pinder, the 45-year-old headmaster at the island's only school.

Only three cops and no crime. They'd probably go loony except for issuing speeding citations to motorists who exceed the 15 m.p.h. limit.

The fact is, so few disturbances occur on Spanish Wells that a magistrate isn't even needed. (The few traffic violators travel to Eleuthera to pay their fines.)

Schoolmaster Pinder, who still practices corporal punishment, figures this may be why there's such an absence of serious crime on Spanish Wells. It may also be the reason that no one sticks around to graduate. Pinder canes obstreperous students, and this year only one 12th grader is graduating. That's it, a class of one.

Still, there are more practical reasons why youngsters leave school. With the highest per-capita income of any community on earth, students drop out to become fishermen. By the time they're in their late teens or early 20s they've built expensive homes and big bank accounts. It doesn't take a knowledge of geometry or Greek history to set nets, and the waters around Spanish Wells are among the richest in the world.

They are what draws hundreds of scuba divers--the fish, along with unusual currents and a graveyard of shipwrecks, particularly those on Devil's Backbone with its clumps of razor-sharp coral. Divers ride an underwater tide--it's to them what Hawaii's Banzai pipeline is to surfers. Through the narrow, deep channel millions of gallons of water rush, carrying divers on a roller-coaster crossing at full flood tide between Eleuthera Sound and the open sea.

Shipwrecks cover the ocean floor. One, a 250-foot freighter, serves as a natural aquarium for schools of grouper, margates, parrotfish, glass-eye sweepers and angelfish.

Without question, though, the most unusual wreck in the entire Bahamas isn't a ship but a locomotive that sank while being barged to Cuba in 1865. A few hundred yards away other divers explore the twisted remains of a passenger steamer that slammed into the reef during a storm in 1895.

The Devil's Backbone is an underwater junkyard.

Before all the shipwrecks, religious separatists from Britain fled to Spanish Wells. Later they were joined by Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution and others who left American shores during the Civil War. To this day Spanish Wells remains a near-all-white island, not out of prejudice but because of an abhorrence to slavery. Early settlers with their slaves were turned away.

Less than two miles long and a quarter mile wide, Spanish Wells dwells in another time--an outpost divorced from the gravitational pulls of civilization's madness, its deserted beaches, quiet streets and New England-style cottages scattered along a Cape Cod-like shore.

As Philip Pinder tells it, there's little to do but fish, snorkel, sunbathe, read a book or watch a sunset.

Spanish Wells has neither a movie theater nor live theater. Neither does it have a newspaper, and none are delivered. What news the islanders get is via television. (Imagine going a day without hearing how the Russians intend to blow us from here to eternity?)

Those on Spanish Wells are caught up in a vacuum, existing in a peculiar world of their own. Still, what the island lacks in culture it makes up for in peace of mind. There's never been a robbery or a murder. Not even a theft. In addition, the folks on Spanish Wells are caring. Several years ago when an islander became critically ill, residents raised $13,000 in a single afternoon by auctioning off cakes, pies, quilts and shawls. Try that in Los Angeles or Chicago or one of our other big cities.

Spanish Wells' nearest neighbor, Russell Island, is tethered to utopia by a small bridge. On the other side a group of Haitians raise watermelons, papayas and other produce that they sell to the folks on Spanish Wells.

Resort With Pluses

Tourism took off several years ago with the establishment of Spanish Wells Beach Resort and the 18-room Harbour Club. The big attraction? No telephones, no TV--and that, say the innkeepers, is a plus. On the other hand, an acquaintance who spent the night at the Harbour Club complained of sleeplessness due to recorded rock in the pub downstairs and motorbikes whining off at 3 a.m.

Time is catching up with Spanish Wells. Across the road from Lill Campbell's resort the kids do their thing in a club called the Generation Gap. And there are the X-rated picnics produced by Lill herself. The cost is $20 for the entire day. Not $20 per person but $20 per couple, which covers the cost for delivering picnickers to an uninhabited island.

Says Lill: "There is a beach just large enough for two, with casuarina trees coincidentally just the right distance apart for stringing a hammock. Also, there are some low bushes just right for hanging up your bathing suits. Tell us when you want to be picked up and the rest is up to you."

Memories of X

Lill provides the hammock, an umbrella, a box lunch and ice. All she asks in return is that the couple "set aside a few moments each month in the future to meditate on the fond memories of your X-rated picnic."

Knowledgeable visitors sign in at Lill's Spanish Wells Beach Resort. The bar, a friendly place, is beyond earshot of the guest rooms. Instead of using the door, a stunning blonde slipped through an open window the other night. Later, dropout Bob Tait dropped by barefoot.

Tait sailed his sloop here four years ago after abandoning a thriving photo business and a wife he loathed in New York. En route he picked up a new companion in Fort Lauderdale and insists he hasn't looked back since. Last year he beat the living rap with an income of $1,000. Tait junked the old life not only because of his former bride, but because of nasty memories of Nam, Nixon and polluted lakes in upstate New York. OK, but tell us truthfully, Mr. Tait--ever regret splitting?

Tait ran a hand through his sun-bleached hair. "Yeah, sometimes, sometimes I do. . . . "

Not Enough Action

This may be utopia, but not everyone agrees. A waitress at Lill Campbell's tossed her head petulantly. She wants to be, she confessed, "where the action is."

Later the pretty blonde who'd stumbled through the window at Lill's bar interrupted her game of snooker at the Harbour Club. She shrugged. "I can hardly wait to get off this island," she sighed.

Still, the majority want to stay. They're content to live out their lives on Spanish Wells.

"I wouldn't go for $1 million," said a gent named Pinder. No relation to schoolmaster Philip Pinder, whose surname is shared by 700 other souls on Spanish Wells. The Pinders operate the local supermarket, Pinder's Taxi, Pinder's Tuneup, Pinder's Marine Hardware, ad infinitum.

It's a nightmare for a telephone operator. Because on Spanish Wells one doesn't dial a number. One asks for the person by name--and you'd bloody well know which Pinder you're calling.

Utopia? It's all in the mind.

For other details on the Bahamas, contact:

--Bahamas Tourist Office, 3450 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 208, Los Angeles 90018. Telephone (213) 385-0033 or toll-free (800) 457-8205.

--Spanish Wells Resorts Ltd., P.O. Box 31, Spanish Wells, Bahamas, or call the U.S. representative (Win Chesley Associates) toll-free (800) 327-5118 nationwide or (800) 432-1362 if phoning in Florida.

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