Being able to escape the European winter and spend a few weeks in the Bahamas, where perennial summer is only occasionally marred by inclement weather, is luxury for some, a way of life for others.
Whether you are staying at the ultra-exclusive Lyford Cay, or island hopping on a yacht, or airbnb-ing it, the Bahamas remain a source of unadulterated joy.
Just waking up to the bright sunshine, the bluest sea on the horizon or at your doorstep, the palms swaying in the breeze, and the Bob Marley-esque rhythms in the air are sufficient to generate a feeling of profound satisfaction with life.
The Margarittaville pace encourages leaving problems behind and getting into the groove of things.
We landed in Nassau after a direct 9 hour flight from Europe and were greeted by a live band in the passport control area. A South-African school principal on his first visit to the islands looked bemused and remarked that the same welcome should be introduced at every airport around the world.
With almost a month in the Bahamas, we had made an extensive travelling program, using Nassau as a base for the first week.
Nassau is not short of high end hotels, resorts, villas and yachts and we have, in the lifetime of our publication, visited most of them, and featured them extensively in coffee table books dedicated to travel.
On this trip we decided to revisit Orange Hill, which is neither ultra-luxurious nor aspiring to be so, but is no less of an institution than say, Lyford Cay.
The Nassau of the wealthy
Nassau is geographically, socially, financially and psychologically split into several villages.
The West side of the island has seen rapid expansion and the kind of polished gated communities the well-heeled prefer for security and status validation. Right next to Orange Hill is the Caves Village development, which has its own beach, gym, vet, bakery and Italian restaurant.
The best of Nassau is the area of Old Fort Bay, home to several palatial villas, as well as the famous Lyford Cay Club.
Lyford Cay is a gated community too, but the label is light years from doing it justice. It is essentially a club for the international old money who have been established there for generations.
BBeyond has been hosted there on a number of occasions and can testify to the beauty of the expansive manicured grounds and the discreet charm of the club house.
Residents are a tight-knit lot, with many Americans who know each other from Nantucket, the Hamptons and other household name watering holes for the ultra-wealthy. There are many Europeans there too, which makes it such a winning ticket – the cultural diversity, combined with the knowledge that you belong to the same gilded group mostly born to privilege, mostly low key and effortlessly elegant.
When not dining at home or hosting a party, the well-heeled New Providence residents frequent Cafe Matisse which is strategically located by all the main Government buildings in Downtown Nassau, yet discreetly tucked away behind an anonymous front door in a small alley.
Once in, you are in a world far removed from the tourist hustle and bustle of West Bay Street and into a refined one of perfectly groomed waiters, a secret garden, and sophisticated menu and wine lists. Patrons greet one another as they walked past tables, reinforcing the club-like feeling Cafe Matisse clearly likes to cultivate.
Andros, the sleeping giant
Known as the bonefishing capital of the world and home to a number of blue holes, this is the largest in size, but least populated Bahamian island, just a few minutes flight from Nassau.
Except for Kamalame Cay, an islet off the north-east coast of Andros, conventional luxury has yet to touch the island with its magic-weaving wand. The magic of Andros is, however, potent in different ways: unexplored, and in parts even inaccessible, it teams with rare wild fowl, birds and orchids, and its coral reef is a diver’s paradise. The Andros Barrier Reef, measuring 190 miles long, is the world’s third-largest fringing barrier reef, and the third largest living organism on the planet.
The most important development since we last visited is the creation of The Bahamas Agriculture and Marine Science Institute (BAMSI) whose stated mission is to “revolutionize the agricultural and marine sectors in The Bahamas”. Not only does it provide agricultural qualifications, but it explores and promotes conservation, clean environment initiatives and management of marine resources.
A Mennonite farm has long been established on the island, but given that Andros remains the only island in the Bahamas with important fresh water resources and sufficient landmass, it is set to become fully self-sufficient in the near future.
The island is large enough to support 4 airports: San Andros in the north, Andros Town or Fresh Creek in the central and most populated part, and Mangrove Cay and Congo Town in the south. Several “bights” (water channels of sea water) split the landmass and the western part is a vast natural reserve.
The flight from New Providence to San Andros is a mere 6-7 minutes.
There is a small number of high end establishments that are not strictly speaking hotels: from Small Hope Bay Lodge in Fresh Creek to the self-contained Kamalame Cay, Flamingo Cay on the west coast and the ultra-eco Tiamo resort in the southern part of the Andros, these are family-developed and owned properties that cater to divers, fishing and shooting (wild fowl and boar) enthusiasts and lovers of personalised service and privacy.
These are a far cry from the garishness of Atlantis or Baha Mar in Paradise island and New Providence respectively.
The families who built them are reaping the benefits of being the first to “set up shop” there.
This has created something of an anomaly in Andros. Most of the land is either crown land (state-owned) or privately owned by a few perspicacious Androsian families who have invested with view to partition and sell lots. The property market is, therefore, quite restricted and prices often illogical. Trying to even visit a plot for sale is a challenge, and making an offer is an unnerving process.
This has inhibited growth and development on the island to a large extent and preserved it as the best-kept and possibly last remaining secret in the Bahamas.
There are a number of settlements, primarily around the main highway that runs all along the north part.
Nicholls Town is a small beach village with colourful wooden houses, many now converted into holiday homes.
You can have a meal at one of the numerous local food cafes serving steamed fish or conch in a spicy sauce. The coastline, some of it ravaged by recent hurricanes, is still beautiful precisely because it hasn’t seen the high rise development of Nassau. Most of it is covered with large pine forests.
The Middle part of Andros is serviced by Andros Town airport. The main settlement there is Fresh Creek.
We met with the Minister of agriculture and fisheries, Carlton Bowleg, because we knew he was a born and bred Androsian from the area of Mastic Point.
A personable and engaging man, he spoke about his passion for the island and its vast potential.
The Government, he assured me, would consider any investment projects in hospitality and manufacture.
The wealth of Andros, however, is in its natural resources and its ability to become totally self-sustainable in the way most cays are not. Combined with its spectacular nature, it is set to become another jewel in the Bahamian crown, so long its real estate market is unshackled.
Carlton Bowleg supports his native island in more ways than one. Every child on Andros has been, for the last decade, the lucky recipient of a Christmas gift, personally donated by him.
Our new friend, Glen…
Here is a great character I met briefly on my first day in Andros, but have since got to know better.
A former army man, Glen returned to his native island a few years ago and enjoys the laid back lifestyle: fishing, cooking, nature and, in the words of a song, “smoking big cigars”.
Glen is one of the funniest email correspondents I have ever had the pleasure to meet and a prodigious photographer of Andros scenery.
He has a painting and decorating business, but comes up with “Creative ways to make a substantial living”.
I wish I could tell you the above is my quote, but it’s not – it’s one of many things he says to make me guffaw with laughter, even when (or especially when) I am in the middle of some serious editorial work.
Glen has some interesting projects in the pipeline, one of which includes providing bio eggs for the community.
Andros wouldn’t be what it is without characters like Glen, although it has to be said, he is one of a kind.
From Nassau we took a flight to Treasure Cay which we were astonished to share with Dr Minnis, the Bahamas Prime Minister, who queued up to board the plane along with everyone else, while the speakers blared Married Man by Ronnie Butler, much to our merriment.
Dr Minnis got off at Marsh Town with minimal fuss.
No European PM would travel on a commercial flight, with the locals and a handful of tourists.
From Treasure Cay we took the “ferry”, a medium size speedboat that dropped us off on Green Turtle Cay, a sandbank in the Abacos that has seen a lot of development since our last visit there, some 15 years ago.
At the time we were guests of the legendary Paul Thompson, then manager of Lyford Cay and owner of Villa Pasha. He has since moved to Elbow Cay. No one has done more for promoting the Abacos than Paul and one hears stories about him on every cay.
Green Turtle is favoured by a number of small marinas that accommodate both sailing and motor yachts.
At Bluff Harbour, we met an Aussie sailor who turned out to be former tennis pro John Gardner, now blissfully retired and cruising the seas on a 42 ft Beneteau named Walkabout.
He and his daughter Dana invited us for a coffee on Walkabout and regaled us with stories of their cay-hopping adventures.
We stayed at a villa on the north side of the island, Coconut Beach House, which is perfect for people who enjoy some solitude and long beach walks. The neighbouring houses are a discreet distance away and the town of New Plymouth, some 20 min. drive by golf cart.
Golf carts are the main form of transportation on Green Turtle Cay and ours was provided by a great lady who has lived there for 33 years, Jean Lowe.
The sturdy cart negotiated some pretty rough terrain around the island as it took us pretty much all over the place. We had dinners at the Leward Yacht Club and at Bluff Harbour, and we enjoyed Coco Beach where the water is shallow a long way, but then as it deepens, you get to swim with turtles – a far better proposition than feeding the now overfed and vastly overrated swimming pigs, so popular with tourists.
Hope Town, Elbow Cay
Cap’n Jacks’ is on the main street of Hope Town and has the kind of wooden stilts dining terrace that habitual visitors to Cape Code would be perfectly well familiar with.
It serves the same type of food too and is patronised primarily by American tourists who seem to have embraced the Abacos wholeheartedly.
In fact, Hope Town, with its coastline fringed by pretty wooden villas and cottages, and sailing yacht marinas, is reminiscent of Cape Code in a multitude of ways.
Even our waiter at the Firefly later that evening spoke “American”.
The affluent tourists have brought prosperity to Elbow Cay that is missing in less-developed islands, but the price for enjoying near total civilisation is obfuscating local culture to some extent. There are valiant efforts to keep this alive through arts and crafts, and through the local museum documenting the culture of British loyalist settlers, but it is a losing battle.
Elbow Cay is a little jewel in the Bahamian seas and every weary traveller who has had to put up with various discomforts while island-hopping, would be only too delighted to repair to it for some home creature comforts, liberally laced with exotic cocktails.
Marty tells me Elbow Cay has “dethroned” Harbour Island and is now THE trendy place where everyone is buying or hoping to buy.
I asked him if he ever gets bored on the 6 mile stretch. He says not as there is always something to do and someone to take out boating, in between building some of the most remarkable homes in the Abacos.
At the end of this outstanding trip, I am reminded of the true joy of travelling: meeting new people and getting a glimpse of their life stories, each extraordinary in its own way.