This is pirate land, says Captain Bruce, sweeping his tan arm across the surrounding bay. “Perfect waters for adventure.” I’ve just been scooped from a creaky old dock in Little Marsh Harbour and am bouncing about in Bruce Ost’s dinghy. As we speed out into the ocean toward the S/Y Shearwater, his gorgeous 57-foot catamaran, Captain Bruce spouts tales of Abacos’ past, occasionally interrupting himself to point out pirate ship-esque sailboats and his favorite cays. His sun-streaked, wavy blonde hair blows in the wind, and, despite the salty sea spray kicking up in his face, he seems completely at ease. He wears that certain smile. The sly smile of a man who lucked into a secret, and that secret, I soon learn, is the Abacos.
Catamaran Cruising + Barefoot Luxury
There are few places in the Caribbean — in the world for that matter — that still feel truly undiscovered. The Abacos, a 120-mile-long chain of islands in the northern Bahamas, is one of these rare spots. Most people stumble upon the Abacos by mistake, and instantly decide they never want to leave. That’s exactly how Captain Bruce found himself sailing these crystal waters nine years ago. When a music career in New York City failed to take off (including a storied tour with the band Aerosmith), Captain Bruce took to the water and, like most sailors, headed for the British Virgin Islands. Enroute, he ended up in the Abaco Cays, and immediately dropped anchor. “I realized this was a sailing paradise, without the crowds,” he tells me. “There was natural beauty, but also this great mix of whacky locals, artist colonies, old settlements and really fun beach bars. You come here because you love being on the water and you love life.”
The Abacos are the ideal place to get lost. No matter where you land, you find smiling locals, dreamy beaches, rum-fueled stories and colorful surprises. A bridge connects Great Abaco and Little Abaco, the main base for exploring the 100-plus cays. Ferries, sailboats, dinghies, cruiser bikes, and off-road golf-carts are the necessary mode of transportation here. In fact, after I leave Marsh Harbour, the one-stoplight capital of Great Abaco and the third largest city in the Bahamas, I don’t pass a single car. From Marsh Harbour International Airport it’s a 30-minute drive along pine forest-lined Ernest A. Dean Highway to Exclusive Resorts’ villas at The Abaco Club on Winding Bay.
This private retreat, set on a two-mile crescent-shaped stretch of beach, is the epitome of barefoot luxury. Exclusive Resorts Manager Vandea Stuart greets me with the type of embrace that says “welcome home.” Though from the Bahamas, she’s got an energy and sass that would easily hold its own in New York City. I’m given keys to my own golf cart and putter along 10-minutes past the resort’s old horse stables and famous golf course to a quiet stretch of road that leads to seven member villas, each named for one of the Abaco cays.
Tilloo, a four-bedroom villa that looks as if it were crafted from driftwood, is the beach house of my dreams, complete with wraparound decks and nautical décor. I scramble up to the rooftop balcony with its views of the surrounding jungle and sparkling sea. This will become the perch for sunset cocktails and late-night star-gazing throughout the week.
Any overambitious desire to see the whole island on day one fades as embrace the tranquility of Winding Bay. My first afternoon is spent stand-up paddleboarding around Sugar Cay, a tiny island just beyond the resort. The water is so clear I can easily spot stingrays, turtles, and schools of fish. Anticipating jet lag, Vandea has arranged for a private chef to prepare dinner at the villa that evening. As I sip a sunset cocktail on the deck, Elizabeth fires up a feast of surf n’ turf on the outdoor grill and tells me if I want a taste of authentic island cooking — and if I can handle the heat — I should go to her father’s restaurant, Siaha’s Jerk Pit, in “local town.” I make a mental note, yet wonder how anything can taste better than the meal she’s just cooked.
Salty Dogs + Reef Treats
Any true introduction to the Abacos should start at Pete’s Pub and Gallery in Little Marsh Harbour. Pete’s may lie just up the road from Winding Bay, but the pot-holed, one-lane road makes the journey an adventure. This quirky artists’ colony was settled by the Johnston family more than 60 years ago. Marooned during a hurricane, Randolph Johnston sought shelter with his family in the surrounding caves. When the weather cleared, Randolph set up a foundry where he cast nature-inspired bronze figurines. Today, his son Pete carries on his legacy, running the foundry, a gallery, and a legendary beach bar. While you can — and should — tour the foundry and admire the gallery’s life-sized sculptures of sea turtles and other artworks, the experience that warrants retelling stories back home awaits at the pub.
Pete’s Pub lives up to that castaway Caribbean beach bar fantasy, one you’ve had since watching the movie Cocktail. Perhaps this is why I find myself here nearly every day for lunch. Stadium-style seats in the bar are crowded with salty dogs weathered by the sun and tolerant to the potency of Pete’s signature rum-infused Blaster cocktails. The ceiling reads like a naughty diary, lined with dangling tee shirts and beer koozies signed by past visitors. Without food, no man would be left standing, and luckily the food is as tempting as the drinks. Seafood is caught that day, and a chalkboard menu lists dishes such as conch burgers and blackened mahi sandwiches, served with traditional Bahamian sides of peas and rice and coleslaw. I place my order and take a seat at a picnic table overlooking the water, slowly sipping my Blaster from a plastic cup. As the stereo alternates from Bobby Marley to Jimmy Buffet, I can’t help but think that Pete’s is largely responsible for Abaco’s nickname: a beach bum’s heaven.
I resist the urge to order another Blaster, knowing Captain Bruce is meant to pick me up on the neighboring dock for a day of island hopping aboard his catamaran. Normally Shearwater is privately chartered by small groups who want a don’t-lift-a-finger sailing experience, complete with champagne and sunset cocktails. However, once a year Captain Bruce hosts a marine eco-tourism charter with a group from Colorado State University and they’ve invited me to crash today’s lesson. The course combines sailing 101 and marine conservation. I try to appear studious as Captain Bruce throws around terms like starboard tack, jib, and luff, and pray I don’t get called upon to answer any questions. After our 30-minute tutorial a dozen students scatter to their posts, executing orders until the sails are out and suddenly the wind is carrying us along the sea.
You can’t say you’ve really experienced the Abacos until you’ve seen them by boat. Our route today explores the southern cays: Elbow Cay, Great Guana Cay, Lubbers Quarters, and Man-O-War Cay. Each holds its own unique attractions. The six-mile-long Elbow Cay is home to Hope Town, a quaint, 18th century fishing village that was originally settled by Loyalists who relocated to the Abacos after the American Revolution. Narrow lanes and saltbox cottages give this car-free village an old world charm. First-time visitors should scramble up the 101 steps of the candy cane-striped lighthouse to get the lay of the land. Elbow Cay’s real gem, however, is Tahiti Beach, a secluded stretch of soft white sand located on the southern tip of the island. I decided right then and there that if the Shearwater sinks, this is where I hope to be stranded.
Great Guana Cay is in our sights. “It’s debatable whether this island is better known for Nipper’s or its reef,” Captain Bruce informs me with a laugh. Nipper’s, a beach bar with a reputation for rowdy crowds, is not on the Colorado State syllabus. Snorkeling the third largest barrier reef, which sits just off Great Guana, is. I suit up with the students, sliding on fins and a mask, and am asked to buddy up before jumping off the back of the ship into the glassy water. We’re mesmerized by swaying sea fans, purple sea cucumbers, and technicolor parrot-fish. I find myself swimming calmly alongside a spotted eagle ray and then face-to-face with a barracuda, a scare that has me paddling back to the safety of Shearwater.
Our final stop is Man-O-War, a dry town that’s known as the heart of the Bahamian ship building industry. The students have finished their lessons and opt to play football on an empty beach. Captain Bruce volunteers to play history professor and joins me on a tour of the island. Man-O-War is like a living boating museum. You can walk into studios like Joe’s and Albury Brothers and watch craftsmen building wooden boats as they have for hundreds of years. Just off the conch-lined dock is Albury’s Sail Shop, a family-owned business that’s been crafting bags from canvas fabric for three generations. I can’t think of a better souvenir for my friends back home. Just two miles long, it doesn’t take much time to walk the island and Captain Bruce drops me at the ferry with a minute to spare. Though I’m tempted to spend a night at sea, I know more fun awaits at The Abaco Club. Locals and visitors alike talk of the Wednesday night barbecues at Buster’s, the pastel-hued beach bar at The Abaco Club. The night starts innocently with a spread of barbecued ribs, chicken and grouper and sides of gooey mac n’ cheese and coleslaw. Then DJ Brown Tips starts to crank up the rake and scrape and before I know it Vandea has got me on the dance floor, maracas in hand. By 9 p.m. the restaurant has turned into a full-on dance party.
Betting on a Bonesfish
“Bonefish are spooks,” whispers Charles in his Bahamian drawl. “You don’t fish for them, you stalk them.” It’s 8 a.m. and we’ve just set out from the dock at Cherokee Sound, an isolated community on the east coast of Great Abaco. Charles is masterfully poling our skiff through the white-sand flats and mangroves as we hunt for these famous silver fish. Die-hard fishermen from around the world come to the Abacos in hopes of hooking the powerful, yet stealthy bonefish. I’m far from die hard, but Charles promises me, “we’re gonna get some fish.”
Born in the Abacos, Charles caught his first bonefish at age 3. His father, JR, is considered one of the top fishing guides in the Bahamas and his son is following in dad’s footsteps. Charles cracks open shiny pink conchs with a hammer, pulls out the innards and chops them up for bait. We spot a school of bonefish hiding in the sea grass and he shows me how to cast so that ’ll land the bait just right. My first attempt hooks a tree. Charles remains patient and slowly nods his approval as I find my rhythm with the rod. As I cast, Charles starts cutting up ingredients to make me conch ceviche, seasoned with loads of salt and lime juice. “Your reward if you hook a boney,” he teases. Standing atop the skiff I try to keep my eye on the fish but it’s hard not to be distracted by the water, which magically takes on more hues of blue than I ever knew existed. The moody sky also tugs at my focus. In the distance we can see the rain rolling toward us. Just as I get a bite, lightning cracks and Charles yanks my rod into the boat and we’re hightailing it back to the safety of land. “A boney isn’t worth getting struck by lightning,” he says seriously.
That evening, feel a bit left out of the dinner conversation as everyone swaps bonefish stories and all can boast is having almost caught what Charles assured me was a whopper. It doesn’t help that I’m dining with fishing fanatics. The Delphi Club is an eight-bedroom lodge straight out of Gone with the Wind, right down to the wraparound verandahs that overlook Rolling Harbour. When I arrive, I’m thrown by the sophistication — the well-stocked library, the bar with proper glassware and fine wines, the staff that offer me canapés. If Mr. Howell from Gilligan’s Island were a fisherman, this would be his preferred hotel, I think. But then I meet the lodge manager, Max, and notice that while he’s dudded out in Vineyard Vines, he’s also not wearing any shoes. Max, a scruffy haired, fishing-obsessed young Brit, is the consummate host and sets the laidback dinner party tone, pouring beers and mixing cocktails as we settle around a long table in the Great Room. Curried butternut squash soup is followed by a choice of grilled rack of lamb and roast salmon. By the time dessert arrives, we’re still on the topic of fishing. Despite my lack of experience, I find I’m absolutely captivated. Maybe there’s hope for me as a fisherwoman after all?
Da Bush n' Da Beach: Blue Hole Beauty
Cerulean waters and untouched beaches immediately capture travelers’ imaginations. But turn inward, and you find a beautiful mess of wilderness buried like treasure on these islands. Marcus Davis, my guide from Da Bush n Da Beach Nature Tours, has promised to show me Abacos’ hidden wild side. Marcus exudes local knowledge. He grew up in the small settlement of Crossing Rocks, and as we drive to the southern tip of Great Abaco he tells me stories of the island’s wild boars, endangered parrots and then we swerve out of the way as one of the resident peacocks scurries out of the brush. He turns his truck down what can barely be called a road, into dense rocky pine forest. After a few miles he stops and instructs me to get out. A short walk leads us to a clearing and what can only be described as nature’s version of the most perfect swimming pool. I cautiously walk down the manmade deck and dip a toe in the water, which appears to be glowing from the depths below. Marcus informs me that this is Sawmill Sink, a 170-foot-deep blue hole that has been studied by National Geographic. “People come to dive Abaco’s coral reefs, but they are missing out on this labyrinth of underwater caves and blue holes which are, in my opinion, even more spectacular.”
Spend enough time in the Abacos and you realize all things lead back to Pete’s. Marcus has me donning a head lamp and wandering the bat-filled cave that the Johnston family once called home. When I reenter the sun-filled I world can’t resist a final Blaster at Pete’s Pub before I head home. I contemplate calling Captain Bruce to see if he needs a first mate, but then I remember Vandea’s promise that every visitor to the Abacos somehow finds their way home. I know I’ll be back. After all, I have a bonefish to catch.