Cat Island

Bahamas On this low-key string bean of land in the Out Islands, sip-sip and dominoes are about as rough as it gets

Nov 1, 2001
Outside Magazine
Isle File

The Worst PDAs
Sensuous green ST. LUCIA has so many honeymooners rustling in the bushes, groping in the hotel HOT TUB, nuzzling on the beach, and feeding each other conch morsels at dinner, that you'll feel like an extra in Boogie Nights

Access & Resources

MAYBE THERE'S SOMETHING on Cat Island that didn't arrive by mail boat—some bag of cement, some chicken coop, some case of Gilbey's gin, some straw-hatted old lady in a pretty calico dress. Anything is possible. But I came to Cat on the Sea Hauler, and so did a Chevy S-10 and a Ford F250 and an off-brand minivan, rolled aboard with much fanfare over two dry planks. And so did the gospel choir from the Dumfries Church of God and a side-by-side refrigerator marked "Frank" and a white sash window for "Mr. Butler Sr." and somewhere on board a live squid, whose owner, a well-groomed businessman, described his missing charge as "a member of the octopus family."

The Sea Hauler is a lovely old tug, diesel-soaked and coated in grime thick as bacon. We pulled out of Nassau on a hot, still afternoon, the conch sellers waving from Potter's Cay pier on one side, a booze cruise­load of sun-pickled tourists on the other. Captain Allen Russell steered us southeast, the Church of God congregation crowded into the wheelhouse with him, belting out "Uncloudy Day." We left the first of the Exuma Cays to starboard at sunset as men sprawled on coils of rope sat sipping Kaliks and two little Nassau girls—Lakeisha and Yeronnicker—taught me schoolyard games on the upper deck. We all slept where we lay, the girls and I spooned with our heads on my pack, safe under the stars and the satellites overhead.

At 4 a.m. on Cat Island, the bonefish were still sleeping, the clear waters of Smith Bay still opaque. A crowd had gathered, waiting for packages and family and news and sun. In the growing light Cat Island looked rough and beautiful, unapologetically unscrubbed, an older, more blessedly real Bahamas than the one we'd left behind.

Like everything else on Cat, the dock at Smith Bay clings to the lee side of the island, its gossip-linked small settlements strung 48 miles up and down Exuma Sound. I was picked up like a parcel and taken the mile south to Fernandez Bay Village resort, a collection of limestone cottages where, beware, days blur from beachside coffee to beachside cocktails with, if you're determined to rally, bonefishing or snorkeling in between. On the second morning (or was it the third?), a little 19-foot Abaco motored in, piloted by marine biologist Stevie Connett, dropping in to see resort owners Tony and Pam Armbrister and to check on Cat Island's sea turtles. The only way to count a turtle is to catch him, and so at high tide Stevie and I ran the Abaco south ten miles into Joe's Sound, me standing lookout, the skiff's deck blinding against the turquoise creek. The water moved and the clouds moved over it, tortoiseshelling the pocked sand bottom in shadows that resolved themselves into grass and algae and back into shadows again. Suddenly Stevie shouted and I cannonballed in, chasing a green sea turtle through the sun-filtered water. He was small, and I managed to grab a flipper, and then his shell; on deck we turned him over and he lay there panting, his turtle breast heaving. We tagged him with a leather punch, #BP9815, took his mug shot, released him. Track me, he said, see if I care.

In some elemental way, Cat Island is like that turtle. It just goes on doing its thing with or without you. Tourism is of the low-key, thatch-roofed variety— diving, a little bonefishing, catch a marlin, sure. Adventures, when they happen, happen on island time. The typical tourist is a naked German lady stuck in a cave at high tide, waiting for the police. The typical expat washed up on a sailboat and never left. Cat is the kind of place where on Sunday mornings in the village of Old Bight, the regulars at the Pass Me Not Bar lock the front door out of respect for the Baptist church across the street and play dominoes under the tamarind tree out back as the Baptist ladies holler scripture through megaphones. Where children roam under the midnight moon, catching hubcap-size palm crabs, and where you best not ask about obeah, or black magic, but where anyone will tell you that 21-Gun Salute, a bush-medicine Viagra, is "guaranteed to raise the dead." Cat is the kind of place that doesn't need you, but it likes you just fine.

There are unseen powers on Cat Island, demons that throw dishes, hands that reach down in the night. Cat has 2,000 caves and plenty of blue holes, but you won't catch a Cat Islander in any of them: "Take us to one of the blue holes," says island historian Eris Moncur, "and there's something that happens to our skin." Moncur is a sober man: white shirt, shiny shoes. As we sat under the thatched roof at Fernandez Bay, he told me about the island's namesake, the pirate Arthur Catt, its past life as San Salvador, Columbus's first landfall, and its first son, Sidney Poitier. Then he told me about spirits, and about the legendary nyankoo, a three-foot-tall gremlin with a human face. "You're laughing," Moncur rebuked me. "What we can't control," he intoned, "is safest for our sanity to deny."

Late one afternoon, as the sun slanted into Exuma Sound, I threw a mask and fins into a kayak and headed up Fernandez Bay's Bonefish Creek toward the Boiling Hole, a bluewater cavern that, through some alchemy of ocean, current, and creek, churns like a pot at high tide. I paddled for an hour, keeping the markers, tied to the mangrove branches, on my left. I passed the last one; no hole. I kept going. I got a feeling in my stomach that the water was sliding downhill, that I was being sucked into a drain. Spooked, I started to follow my wake back out, but the water had begun to percolate. Beneath the kayak the silt bottom opened into a limestone cavern, its recesses reaching farther than I could see. The idea had been to hop out and go snorkeling. You'd see great fish down there—snapper, grouper, barracuda.

But floating above the darkness, I suddenly understood. Cat Islanders have got it right; there are things you don't fool with, powers bigger than tourism, or recreation, or paradise. God only knew what monsters swam in that hole. "Maybe live, surely die," one islander had shrugged brightly to me at a midnight wake for his brother, who'd sat down on his front porch and never stood back up. You got to enjoy the time you got, drink your bush medicine, take the bright gifts the ocean offers. But don't mess with the invisible. Ain't no way, I thought, as I hung above that black water—ain't no way I'm going in that hole.

Access & Resources: Cat Island

Don't come down here thinking you're going to "do" Cat Island. Oh, it's all here to do—paddling, fishing, snorkeling, scuba diving—but you'll be too deep into your blissed-out island reverie for anything too ambitious. And rightly so.

Visit during the Rake 'n' Scrape Festival, a feast of traditional music the first weekend in June, or for the Cat Island Regatta, a rowdy homecoming the first Saturday in August. Forty dollars will buy you 12 hours of chop on the Sea Hauler— or dish out $70 for the 45-minute plane hop from Nassau on Bahamasair (800-222-4262; In New Bight, you'll pay dearly to rent a rusted-out Chevy Caprice at Gilbert's Car Rentals ($65 a day; 242-342-3011).

WHERE TO STAY: Fernandez Bay Village is all outdoor showers, crisp linens, and a thatch-roofed bar (cottages, $160­$305; 800-940-1905; The beachfront Hotel Greenwood, with its 20 motel-style rooms, is a mix of hippie Berliners and dolphin therapists from Miami ($79­$105; 800-343-0373). Sport fishermen stick to Hawk's Nest Resort and Marina ($124; 800-688-4752;

WILD CAT: Hotel Green-wood runs the only dive operation (two-tank dives, $75; 877-228-7475). Both scuba divers and fishermen will appreciate Cat's Tartar Bank, an abrupt plunge from 60 to 6,000 feet. Hawk's Nest's fishing charters cost $400 half-day, $675 full-day; Mark Keasler is the island's wiliest bonefish stalker ($195 half-day, $280 full-day; 242-342-3043). On your own, snorkel wherever the spirit moves you—any road off the Queen's Highway leads to another deserted Atlantic beach. Just don't leave Cat without a sunset picnic at the hermitage on 206-foot Mount Alvernia, the highest point in the Bahamas.

ISLAND EATS: Tear yourself away from that tenth plate of pigeon peas and rice at the Blue Bird Restaurant in New Bight and head for Hazel's Seaside Bar in Smith Bay, where sassy octogenarian Hazel Brown offers up Kaliks, sip-sip (gossip), and dominoes. Soon you'll be ready to lose your shirt down at the Pass Me Not in Old Bight, where the pros play. Dominoes under the tamarind tree and Percy Sledge on the jukebox—the perfect Cat Island combination.

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