One reason people go to the Abaco islands is to roam the miles of smooth, empty beaches. Another reason people go is because the calm, blue-green waters of the Sea of Abaco are perfect for boating.
Still others are drawn to the signature Bahamian reefs, where even the most inexperienced snorkler is treated to a succession of breathtaking vistas.
And, of course, there are the deep-sea fishermen who come to have a go at the area's prized blue marlin. The water-leaping billfish are not always very cooperative, but grouper and yellowtail are abundant and far easier to catch.
Then there are people like me, the all-of-the-above sort who like options. And heaven knows, this 130-mile elbow-shaped chain of islands and islets in the northern Commonwealth of the Bahamas has options.
For the uninitiated, the Bahamas is a 750-mile archipelago beginning about 100 miles northeast of Palm Beach, Fla., and stretching southeast to within 50 miles of Cuba and Haiti. Although as warm and tropical as the other island nations in the region, the Bahamas, which were spared in the recent rash of hurricanes, are in the Atlantic Ocean, not the Caribbean Sea. While this has little bearing on the experience, it does mean that most guidebooks on the Caribbean will be useless to you.
But don't fret, mon, you'll still get to use the patois you learned on your travels to Jamaica and the other former British islands.
During a recent trip to Miami, I was invited to accompany some friends on a trip to Elbow Cay (pronounced "key," like the islands off the coast of Florida), one of the many tiny islets that parallel Great Abaco island on the eastern side, forming the Sea of Abaco in between. Most of the group was flying over from either Fort Lauderdale or Miami, but I decided to join a friend who was taking his boat. Several waterfront homes had been rented to accommodate us.
We left at 7 a.m. to begin the 210-mile trip in a 30-foot Intrepid, an open, center-console sport fisherman powered by twin 225-horsepower Johnson outboard Ocean Runners. Within two hours we were off the coast of North Bimini island, the larger and more popular of the Biminis. Located just 50 miles east of Miami, at the convergence of the Great Bahama Bank and the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, these tiny islands are world famous for big-game fishing. And big-name writers too. Ernest Hemingway prowled Bimini's seaside bars in the 1930s. Our ambitions were admittedly much smaller. We drifted offshore for half an hour, having a snack and covering ourselves in sun block. Charter fishing boats were pulling out of the harbor at Alice Town and heading toward patches of seaweed being dive-bombed by sea gulls, a likely indication that fish lurked beneath.
Our next stop was Great Harbour Cay, about 80 miles east, across the Great Bahama Bank, on an ocean that was as still as a mountain lake. Great Harbour is the largest of the 30 islands and cays known as the Berry Islands. We docked there and cleared customs. U.S. citizens do not need a visa to enter the Bahamas, but they do need proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate, passport or voter registration card. Cheryl Lloyd, Great Harbour's lone immigration agent, drove over from her post at the airport after being summoned by the dock master. The processing was friendly and efficient, and quite unlike clearing customs in, say, Paris or London.
Before leaving on our final leg, we were joined by Joe Darville, a Berry Islander who has fished against my friend, the boat's captain, in several Bahamian fishing competitions, of which there are many. Only 500 people live in the Berry Islands, so Darville is one of the few people on the planet who can make that claim. He also is one of a rare breed who can gaze out over the ocean and read what is happening at the bottom as assuredly as Native Americans followed an animal track. The ride to the Abacos took us out of the calm, shallow waters of the Great Bahama Bank into the wide expanse of the Atlantic. Here the water was deeper and bluer, and the sun hotter and more penetrating. The staccato humming of the outboard engines, the pitch rising up and down as we slammed through the four-foot swells, numbed my sense of time, which I realized only in retrospect after we rounded the limestone cliffs of Hole in the Wall, indentations in the hillside at the southern end of Great Abaco island.
Soon we were in the tranquil waters of the Sea of Abaco. We cut the engines and drifted for a spell. Joe Darville had brought along a couple of dozen conchs. With the grace and dexterity that come with years of experience, Joe wedged his knife into the spiral-shaped shells and pulled out the meaty mollusks. We dipped them in the ocean, doused them in lemon juice and devoured them raw. I now think cooking a conch is akin to cooking an orange: Just don't.
We arrived at the dock behind our house on Elbow Cay just as the sun was setting. The house had been rented through a real estate agency in Hope Town, the island's main population center. (The Bahamas are in the 809 area code, so calling to reserve a house, a boat, or any other service is as simple as calling anywhere in the United States.) Most of the other members of our group had rented villas at one of the island's resorts in White Sound, about two miles from Hope Town.
Ours was a two-bedroom, two-bath luxury home built into a hill overlooking White Sound. It had a fully equipped kitchen and dining area and a living room with book-lined shelves stocked with best-sellers. A wooden patio rimmed the back of the house, with benches and chairs facing the light-green-colored floor of the shallow sound. The rental was $750 a week for the four of us, with an additional $35 per day charge for a golf cart to scoot about the island.
The Abacos have several world-class hotels, particularly at Walker's Cay, Man-O-War Cay and Treasure Cay, which is actually on Great Abaco island. There is a hotel with oceanfront treehouses at Green Turtle Cay, and miles of unspoiled and rarely visited beaches on Great Guana Cay. That is likely to change soon because a recent Visa Gold advertising campaign was filmed there and has already spurred increased traffic.
The islands themselves are scraggy, limestone protrusions thick with tropical pines and flowering shrubs. Boar still run wild in some of the forests. Before the development of Nassau, on New Providence island, and Freeport on Grand Bahama, into huge tourist resorts, the Abacos were the most visited islands in the Bahamas. And the most famous visitor was perhaps one of the first: Ponce de Leon stopped here in 1513 on his way to find the fountain of youth, the quest that would lead him to Florida.
The English took over in the 17th Century and, although the Bahamas gained their independence from the English in 1972, the islanders haven't lost their Old World sensibilities. At least not in Hope Town, which looks more like a small Cape Cod fishing village than a lot of towns on Cape Cod. The lighthouse stands like a mighty sentry over the harbor and sound where 100-foot yachts and sleek twin-masted sloops rest quietly at anchor. The pastel-trimmed clapboard homes seem color-coordinated with the purple and orange bougainvillea that grow everywhere. Cars are prohibited from entering the town, so transportation is by foot, bike or golf cart.
There are half a dozen restaurants that specialize in Bahamian fare, which include such dishes as dolphin primavera, grouper almandine and turtle steaks. And there are many boat rental and dive shops as well as charter fishing boats and luxury yacht rental agencies. From the States, you could fly to Great Abaco, take a regularly scheduled boat taxi to Elbow Cay, and be dropped off at your seaside house where your 20-foot powerboat would be gassed up and ready at dockside.
The rental properties on Elbow Cay--part of the Bahamian Family Islands, or Out Islands--are mostly two-bedroom, two-bath homes with fully stocked kitchens and dining areas. Most are air-conditioned. Twelve of us gathered in one of the houses our first night for a dinner of fresh conch salad and pasta. Later we went into Hope Town for a little entertainment, which we found at the Harbour's Edge: a full-fledged bar with tropical island drinks, a CD player belting out a mix of reggae and American rock, and a pool table. You don't need to bring Bahamian money because their dollars are interchangeable with U.S. dollars, which is fine when you're there. But the value of the Bahamian dollars nose-dives if you cash them in the States.
The following day, some members of our group went for a hike with their children around to the south side of the island and spent the day at Tahiti Beach, a wide expanse of white sand shaded by a forest of palms. The rest of us spread the Intrepid's outriggers and went deep-sea fishing. The weather--a humid though breezy 90--was too warm to catch marlin and the other big-game fish that you normally troll for. But we dropped some lines to the bottom 100 feet below and brought up a chest-full of grouper, snapper and triggerfish--not to mention a barracuda, a jack and some other odds and ends. Although the boat was equipped with the latest sonar device for detecting fish, Joe Darville showed his mettle time and again as he'd direct the boat 20 yards to the port side or 15 yards aft. Not surprisingly, that night we had grouper a la Elbow Cay: pan-fried fillets with green peppers and onions.
The next day we went to the Pelican Cays Land and Sea Park by Sandy Cay. It would be hard to imagine a better place to skin dive. The Elkhorn coral reef, anywhere from three to 10 feet deep, is incredibly colorful in its changing parade of hues. And the pouty-lipped angel and parrot fish swaggered back and forth like royalty. To make it interesting, there was a three-foot nurse shark, and a couple of fiendish-looking barracudas. But they were inclined to keep their distance.
We fished again late that afternoon, and again pulled up a feast of grouper and yellowtail. That evening we ate at the Abaco Inn, where we had a tasty and filling meal on the oceanfront patio. Taking their cue from gatherings of fishermen throughout time, many of the patrons were swapping stories about the big one that got away. And everyone was talking excitedly about the next day's agenda.
I wasn't. The rest of the group was staying for 10 days. I was along for only three, and was flying back the following day from Marsh Harbour, the main drag on Great Abaco island. It is said that Marsh Harbour has the only traffic light in the Abacos. Within five minutes of driving away from Fort Lauderdale airport, I must have seen 100.
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Getting there: From Los Angeles, American and United offer package arrangements to Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco island (connecting through Miami or Fort Lauderdale) beginning at about $580, including taxes. From South Florida, American Eagle, Gulfstream International Airlines, Island Express and several small charter companies service Marsh Harbour for about $150 round trip. From the airport in Marsh Harbour, take a taxi for about $12 (ask before you get in) to the dock, where you'll board a ferry to Hope Town for $10 per person. From there, most of the hotels or rental agencies provide complimentary transportation.
Where to stay: The Hope Town Harbour Lodge (800-316-7844) has oceanfront doubles beginning at $125 a night. Facilities include two restaurants, two bars and a freshwater pool overlooking the Atlantic.
Sea Spray Resort & Villas (809-366-0065), in White Sound about 3 1/2 miles from Hope Town, offers one- and two-bedroom villas with yards overlooking the ocean and the harbor; fully equipped kitchens, living rooms and patios; catering service, pool and full-service marina. Per-night rates $120-$170 ($700-$950 weekly).
Waterfront homes and cottages, and often house-and-boat packages, are available through Hope Town Hideaways (809-366-0224), Lighthouse Rentals (809-366-0154) or Bahamas Vacation Rentals (800-462-2426). Weekly rates begin about $500 for a one-bedroom cottage away from the water, without air-conditioning. A fully equipped, two-bedroom oceanfront home starts about $750. Rates are seasonal and subject to great fluctuation.
Powerboat rentals: Try Island Marine (809-366-0282), or Hope Town Dive Shop and Boat Rentals (809-366-0029).
Where to eat: American and Bahamian fare at Harbour's Edge overlooking Hope Town harbor, includes $4.95 burgers to $14.95 dolphin primavera. Captain Jack's serves American-style breakfasts and island lunch and dinner fare; entrees $8-$15. The Abaco Inn on cliffs overlooking the ocean offers a higher-end lunch and dining experience for $10-$20. Hope Town Harbour Lodge also offers white-linen dining for $10-$20.
For more information: The Bahama Out Islands Promotion Board (800-688-4752) is a private organization that represents many properties and services in the Abacos. Also, the Bahamas Tourism Center, 3450 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 208, Los Angeles, CA 90010, (213) 385-0033; fax (213) 383-3966.