Hello The Bahamas, whose turquoise blue waters are dotted with a constellation of more than 700 green islands where beautiful beaches of fine sand simmer under the tropical sun. This evocative landscape has been the star of numerous Hollywood films and travel shows, making it a classic image of paradise.
“People who have never visited make the mistake of thinking that The Bahamas is only Nassau and Paradise Island,” says Andros Island bonefish guide Jeff Cartwright. Around five million people visit The Bahamas every year on a cruise and, in many cases, go no further than the capital. Paradise Island soaks up many others into all- inclusive mega resorts such as Atlantis, whose 800 employees service 600 luxury suites and almost 500 rooms.
“The Bahamas is different from any other destination,” says Jeff. “And Andros Island is especially different. It is the largest island and has the third largest barrier reef in the world. Its rich marine ecosystem makes it the world's saltwater fly-fishing capital.”
The Bahamas is a group of 700 islands that stretch in an arc from the coast of Florida almost to northwestern Haiti. Geographically considered to be in the southern Atlantic rather than the Caribbean, and only 80 kilometers off the coast of Florida, many of the islands are further south than parts of Cuba.
They conjure up a vision of James Bond for me, fed by the 007 films that have been shot in the many picturesque locations. Thunderball, The Spy Who Loved Me, Never Say Never Again and Casino Royale all give an exotic glimpse of island life. Just saying the name has always brought to my mind images of peace, relaxation and harmony, long before I got here. The vision turns out to be not that far from the reality.
Limousines are the normal way to travel
Stepping out of Nassau’s airport, I am fascinated by the number of parked limousines. It seems to be the normal way to travel to town, and not just for celebrities. The Bahamas tempts everyone to add a bit of glamor to their lives, while Mother Nature helps by delivering perfect days of sunshine. The island lifestyle appears to be one of permanent holiday.
In Nassau, the capital, the streets are being prepared for Junkanoo, a carnival which is celebrated on December 26 and New Year's Day, then repeated again for good measure in summer. I wander without direction, watching wealthy Americans shop compulsively along Bay Street. They emerge clutching bags of rum, cigars, jewelry and batik clothing. Buildings decorated in pastel tones, few above two storeys, contrast sharply with others in brighter colors, while diamond, emerald and ruby shops are on every corner.
Atlantis is a short taxi ride across the two- kilometer-long bridge to Paradise Island. It holds one of the largest aquariums in the world, depicting the Lost City of Atlantis through which swim over 14,000 fish. I am fascinated by the predators cruising lazily above us spectators in our glass tunnel. Their squalid tanks seem a poor home for these amazing creatures. More emerald and ruby stores share territory with ice cream shops and bars whose terraces are filled with visitors sipping multicolored cocktails and watching the crowds go by.
Millionaire spotting is a popular way to pass the time. At the marina full of luxurious yachts of varying sizes, I watch a large group, all dressed in spotless white, board one of the bigger boats. No doubt the casino hopes to win some of their money on its blinging slot machines, and blackjack, roulette, poker and baccarat tables.
I wonder if any of the casino owners are descendants of the pirates who once infested these waters, separating the wealthy from their wealth in less obvious ways. The Bahamas takes its name from the Spanish words “baja mar” – meaning “shallow water" and almost impossible to pronounce for English speakers – which were given to it by Columbus in 1492. The reefs and shoals around the islands, not to mention their strategic location, made them a perfect refuge for brigands and privateers flying the black flag. Numerous Spanish galleons laden with gold and precious stones passed through these waters, and legend says some of their treasure is still buried on the islands.
More than 175,000 bottles of wine
“If you are looking for buried treasure, you might find it in our cellar,” says Enrico Garzaroli, owner of the Graycliff Hotel & Restaurant in Nassau. “It is one of the best in the Caribbean, with more than 175,000 bottles of wine.” Food and drink is one of the great diversions here from all the sea, sand and sun. Seafood dominates, with finger-licking lobster and conch served in everything from salads to chowder, a delicious tomato consommé that combines the shells with pork, simmered with vegetables and herbs.
Bahamian cuisine is great at first – a hearty antidote to appetites sharpened by the sea air – but tends to be repetitive after a week. Peas 'n' rice were a staple diet of the first settlers in The Bahamas and the dish is now unavoidable. It is made from onions, celery, tomatoes, rice and pigeon peas, served highly spiced and seasoned. Fish dishes such as grouper usually come with a side of peas 'n' rice, as do any meat dishes.
I spend a few days on Cat Island, soaking up the sea and sun while bathing in the sea and relaxing in a good hammock. It is named for the notorious pirate Arthur Catt, although some insist it was for the number of wild cats abandoned by Spanish settlers.
With the highest point in The Bahamas, Mount Alvernia at 63 meters, it is also the wildest of the islands. Its wealth was built from 18th century cotton plantations, on the backs of slave labor whose heritage has given the country much of its music and folk culture. The African Obeah religion is still practiced by some locals, who supplement conventional medicine with healing plants and a taste of “black magic”. Voodoo charms protect orchards from thieves and can be seen atop homes to ward off evil spirits.
Many on Cat Island still claim it is the place where Columbus first landed in the New World before sailing on to Cuba and Hispaniola. His description of what he called “San Salvador” is so vague that it is hard to be sure where it is. Nearby Watlings Island, agreed to be a more likely site by key experts, renamed itself San Salvador in 1926 to cash in on the association.
Population descended from African slaves
The Spanish ultimately thought The Bahamas of little value and the islands were under British rule from 1718 until 1973, when independence was declared. The new national flag showed the colors turquoise, for the sea; black, for the population descended from African slaves; and yellow, symbolizing the sun.
When I feel energetic, I use a bicycle to explore away from my beachside hotel. I meet Iva Thompson, a kindly old woman who makes and sells all kinds of handicraft from straw: hats, baskets, and more baskets. I see other people, men and women, weaving on the porches of their homes. A group of men on horseback trot past, giving me a cheery greeting.
At sunset one evening I climb Mount Alvernia, where I enjoy the views from a hermitage built by Father Jerome, a Catholic priest who lived here for almost 20 years until the 1950s and is buried in its chapel. I can understand his attraction to this place of peace and beauty. Stretching away below me are thickly-wooded foothills and endless beaches of pink and white sand.
Despite its seeming remoteness, however, Cat Island is connected to Ft Lauderdale in Florida by an 80-minute flight, three times a week. “It’s one of our big advantages,” says fly fishing guide Elias Griffin. “That and our friendly people. I go fishing with visitors from all over the world and, in the middle of their stay, most are already talking about returning.”
Several local people have warned me against flying Bahamasair – “We call it ‘Bahamas Scare’,” says one – but one of its small aircraft delivers me without incident to Marsh Harbour Airport in the Abaco islands a few days later. These northern outer islands were settled in 1783 by a group of British Loyalists fleeing persecution before and during the time of American Independence. Their legacy is felt today with a mild flavor of New England: wooden houses with white picket fences and pastel tones. Boat building is another evocative activity, earning Abaco the title “Boating Capital of The Bahamas” and making it host to several major sailboat races.
Just 400 inhabitants, seemingly outnumbered by lizards
A boat from Marsh Harbour lands me in Elbow Cay, a charming place of just 400 inhabitants, seemingly outnumbered by lizards and feral cats. Many homes in the quaint settlement of Hope Town have their own jetties where visitors can moor up. Despite the many who come to admire it, the town has faithfully preserved nearly 100 houses from the 18th century. A red- and-white-striped lighthouse rewards those who climb its 100 steps with a great view of the sheltered harbor. The turquoise water of a palm-fringed lagoon is dotted with white fishing boats and countless moored yachts.
Two pretty pedestrianized streets, Bay Street and Back Street, divide Hope Town into two halves. Golf cars putt-putt across town, failing to disturb those who stretch in hammocks on the porches of houses, or others who try to memorialize its charms in paint.
I hop on another flight to Freeport, the capital of Grand Bahama. Only 80 kilometers from Miami, it is served by several ferries that shuttle a stream of North American visitors and make its living costs a third cheaper than the other islands. Duty-free shopping, golf courses, casinos, hotels, and “all inclusive” restaurants add to its attractions for most arrivals.
For me, its four natural parks are the draw and I have arranged to be collected at my hotel by Sam Rampersad of Kayak Nature Tours. We unload our boats at Lucayan National Park and are soon gliding slowly through a mangrove forest. Washed by tides, this mangrove lacks the overpowering smell of the typical mangrove swamp. It seems every part of nature cooperates to make The Bahamas idyllic.
After an hour, we get out at Gold Rock Beach, named for a large rock that glows at sunset. Sam points out some of the 80 native species of birds on the island and tells me some 2,000 more migrating species are visitors each year. That gets us talking about parrotfish, fish not birds, whose digestion is responsible for turning coral into the fine sand we are digging our toes into.
The bark is a remedy for toothache
Leaving the beach, we walk through a forest of trees of different types, with Sam pointing out the use of each. The bark of one was once used to stun fish – an act now banned under heavy penalty – while others are a remedy for toothache or stomach ailments.
Our destination is an underground cave into whose chilly depths we descend. A placid pool at the bottom covers the entrance to the world’s largest-known system of underwater caves, which makes me happy to hear swimming in the pool is not allowed. However, the park also has several “blue holes” for scuba divers.
From Nassau, it is a 20-minute boat ride to Dunmore Town pier on Harbour Island, a tiny gem off the northeast shore of Eleuthera, whose name in Greek means freedom. With its 9,000 inhabitants, Eleuthera is the most populated of the so-called outer islands.
“What I love about Harbour Island is the peace and tranquility,” says hotel manager Quinth Saunders. “Locals often leave their front doors open during the day and through the night. The beach can be visited at any time without danger. The sun is out most of the time, the pink sand is as soft as a baby’s bottom and the waters are clear blue. And the people are friendly, with the time to stop and allow the chicken to cross the street. The most difficult thing about living here is that all the islands are scattered, so getting supplies can be costly.”
I explore Harbour Island by golf cart, not out of necessity – it is easy to cross on foot – but to blend in with everyone else. It looks like a movie set, with white pillared mansions and not a deck chair out of place. Quinth works at the Pink Sands Resort and I head straight for its famous beach on the east coast, a short distance away on this long but very narrow isle.
Pink Sands Beach is indeed a delicate shade of pink and stretches from north to south as far as the eye can see, set off by green vegetation inshore and warm, crystal-clear waters. Some children are flying kites in the gentle breeze, while an intrepid few ride horses through the shallows. It is the image of paradise and I sit with a cold Kalik beer at the Vic-Hum Club to take it all in.
I take the same ferry boat back to Nassau that evening. It leaves me at the pier wondering if it was all a dream. It is a feeling I also have a few days later when I fly home, leaving The Bahamas behind me as a memory of paradise.