The Bahamas

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Travel Guide, Winter 1995-1996

The Bahamas
By Bill Belleville

If glitzy Nassau and Freeport are the fast lanes of the Bahamas, then the 30 or so inhabited cays known as the Out Islands are spectacularly retro byways. Here the pace is driven by diving, snorkeling, sea kayaking, and sportfishing, and time is measured not by the spin of a roulette wheel or the pounding rhythm of a Jump Up, but by the gradual drifting of sand.

Best known for its role in the demise of Gary Hart's career, Bimini, just 50 miles from Miami across the straits of Florida, is one of the closest, smallest, and funkiest of the Out Islands. Fly into Alice Town's harbor at the tip of long, skinny North Bimini: Within a couple of hours, you can be leaping off the back of a dive boat in 80 to 100 feet of cobalt seas. Hover over the ghostly deck of the Bimini Barge, a seasoned wreck off the island's western shore, where oceanic tuna and wahoo circle French angels and grunts. Or, at Little Caverns, watch parrotfish bob and weave like wind-up toys (two-tank dive, $59; call Bimini Undersea Adventures in Alice Town, 800-348-4644).

Back in Alice Town at the Bimini Big Game Fishing Club (800-747-1007), fancy Bertrams are groomed to chase billfish in the rich lee waters of the Gulf Stream, while the flats skiffs head in the opposite direction to hunt for permit and bonefish over shallow seagrass pastures. Expect to pay $150 for a half-day bonefish charter; half-day deep-sea charters cost $400- $500 for up to eight people. Across the street is the historic Compleat Angler bar and lodge, with its richly aged tropical woods and Hemingway mementos; weeklong dive packages through Bimini Undersea Adventures, with lodging at the Compleat Angler, cost $509 per person.

The Exuma Cays
Counted as one Out Island, the Exumas are really a series of 365 cays rising from the ocean just 30 miles southeast of Nassau and winding along the windward edge of the Bahamas Banks for 120 miles. The best way to see them is from the seat of a sea kayak. Join up with Ibis Tours ($1,350 per person; 800-525-9411), which runs guided eight-day trips using sail-rigged kayaks from Staniel Cay, just south of the pristine Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park in the upper Exumas. The wilderness preserve is a 176-square-mile aquarium of reef fish and corals where even shell collecting is banned. Camp here in deserted sandy coves scalloped into the limestone cays and snorkel sea caves teeming with butterfly fish. Ecosummer Expeditions (604-669-7741) also launches one- and two-week trips throughout the winter ($1,195-$1,795).

Down in Georgetown, the laid-back village hub on Great Exuma, in the lower end of the chain, you'll find yacht-filled Elizabeth Harbour, where islanders sell hand-woven straw hats and explosively hot "goat peppers" in an outdoor market. Rent a Boston Whaler from Ed Haxby at Exuma Fantasea ($75-$105 per day; 809-336-3483) and explore expansive Exuma Sound. Or let Haxby, a marine biologist, take you on his own center console outboard across the harbor near Stocking Island's 100-foot-high bluffs to the phenomenon known as blue holes. Formed like sinkholes an Ice Age ago, the plunging holes create cerulean craters full of marine life in the otherwise shallow, sandy bottoms (single-tank dive, $65).

Not far from Angelfish blue hole, sport fishermen in thigh-deep water sight-cast to easily spooked bonefish, hoping for a run that will burn off half a reel of six-pound-test line in a heartbeat (single-day charters cost around $290). If you're slim on bonefish technique, sign up for a weeklong school with veteran flats master Bob Hyde ($2,250 per person; 809-345-5555). Class includes seven nights and all meals at the harborside Peace & Plenty Beach Inn or the Bonefish Lodge.

Nine live-aboard dive boats cruise the Bahamas, including the new, stable-hulled Nekton Pilot (weeklong trips, $1,395 per person, with all meals and unlimited dives; 800-899-6753), which sails from Great Exuma all winter carrying sea kayaks and a Zodiac for poking around uninhabited cays. The boat anchors at Rum Cay, Conception Island, and San Salvador, where deep walls drop off in 30 feet of water.

Due West from Nassau and the Exumas, Andros Island lies on the edge of the Tongue of the Ocean, a 6,000-foot-deep abyss in the Bahamas Banks. At 40 by 104 miles, it's the biggest of the Bahamas, covered with dense forests of mangrove, mahogany, and pine and inhabited by two-foot-long iguanas and a ground-burrowing parrot.

Like the Exumas, Andros is fragmented into lots of little cays, serrated by bonefish-rich bights and tidal flats, and punctuated with at least 400 blue holes. Offshore is a 120-mile-long barrier reef, the third longest in the hemisphere; a dive anywhere off its outer edge will take you soaring over the Tongue. On the island's east side is the family-run Small Hope Bay Lodge (doubles, $140-$165 per person, including three daily dives and all meals; 800-223-6961), where you can design just about any diving or snorkeling trip (single-tank dives, $45). Favorites include the Black Forest, where black coral grows in 70 feet of water, and Over the Wall, where you imitate a slo-mo free-fall into the Tongue. Try it at night--lights off--and watch shards of bioluminescence glowing around you like Cyalume sticks. Twenty rustic cottages front the hammock-strung beach, scattered with day sailors and sailboards.

Harbour Island
"Briland" is the name locals use for Harbour Island, a tiny, historic cay just off the northeast coast of Eleuthera. Geographically close to Nassau, Harbour Island couldn't be more distant in spirit, with its New England cottage architecture, which emigrated with eighteenth-century British Loyalists.

Drift dive through thick schools of blue tangs in the ten-knot Current Cut, an experience akin to flying with a jet pack. Farther offshore, slip down a hundred feet into the Arch, a partially collapsed coral cavern rife with schools of big jacks, barracuda, and rays. The island's entire windward shore is a luscious, three-mile-long, pink-sand beach. On calm days, you can snorkel patch reefs just offshore; on wilder days, bodysurfers can catch a few rollers. For seaside rooms and the feel of an old Cape Cod inn, stay at the ten-room Runaway Hill Club (doubles, $195-$210; 800-728-9803), with a pool and wraparound veranda high above the beach.

At the Romora Bay Club (doubles, $120-$150; 800-327-8286), on the island's bay side, rooms are terraced into a hillside landscaped with palms, ferns, and bromeliads. Ask for room seven, eight, or nine to get a shaded patio right next to the bay. At water's edge, you'll also find Jef Fox's dive shop (two-tank dives, $50; 809-333-2323), where you can arrange for sailboard and Sunfish rentals and sportfishing charters.

See also:

The Rum File

All-Inclusive Resorts

Islands You've Never Heard Of

Getting There and Around

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