Wyannie Malone and her children left South Carolina after her husband had been killed in battle, and her side had lost the war. It was 1785, America was independent now, and Wyannie and her loyalist sympathies were looking for a new home. Although destined for the mainland, the ship ended up 150 miles off the coast of Florida, at what is now Elbow Cay, a mile or so off the Bahamian island of Abaco. The South Carolinians liked the clear water, the abundant seafood and the fact that potatoes grew easily there, so they settled. Later, the King of England, always ready to give away a part of the earth to loyalists, granted them their home, which became Hope Town.
Today Florida is the gateway to the Bahamas for most people. The young man at the Island Express check-in desk in Fort Lauderdale looked like a skinny, Latin, George Clooney. He apologized for the half-hour weather-related delay, and when we finally walked through the gate, the plane was standing in the warm spring sun, its engines still, but ticking with heat after their morning run from Abaco. Something about the relationship between an eight-seater twin-prop and the behemoths that come and go from Fort Lauderdale eases you into Abaco’s island mentality. We hurtled down the runway, rivets vibrating and seats groaning, at full speed, as the jumbos behind us lumbered into position. Once airborne, we quickly got out of their flight path and leveled off at about five thousand feet.
“Just ask the taxi driver for ‘Tween Waters,” the owner of the rental property had said. “They’ll know it.” Approaching from the air you can believe that everyone knows each other — the island is not heavily populated. The western side is largely uninhabited, made up of very low-lying areas of pine forest, managed by the Abaco Pulp Company. The coastline here is a maze of shallows, known as “the Marls” — a 400 square-mile wonderland of lagoons, spits, sand bars and crab-claws, deeply inviting to fishermen, especially those in search the feisty Bonefish, the local specialty. Looking closely at the turquoise water as we flew over I could almost see the shadows of individual fish.
The airport was nicely secluded among the pine trees, and when we taxied to a standstill we were disgorged immediately outside a one story shed which served as both departure and arrival terminal. A decisive stamp in the passport from an enthusiastic customs official reminded us that we were, indeed, in a foreign country, although one which happily accepted our currency, (the US dollar is on par with the Bahamian dollar) and which spoke our language. The taxi driver, as promised, nodded with recognition as we mentioned “Tween waters,” and sped off in the minivan, the standard vehicle of choice for all Abaco cabbies.
The frequency of some of the last names reinforces the feeling of tight community here. The name Albury, in particular, recurs with great frequency; the family owns the island’s main ferry service, running fast launches out to many of the cays, getting commuters and school children where they need to be. It also runs a number of the island’s taxis, several gas stations, and a list of local Bone fishing guides is full of them. And they do a good job of providing the kind of infrastructure tourists need; taxis are plentiful, rental cars are readily available, as are bikes, in Marsh Harbor, and you can rent a boat from one of several outfitters in Marsh Harbor or several of the larger cays. Like many small island communities, however, some of the prices are anything but standardized. Taxis charge just about whatever they please, so it’s worth negotiating. We even noticed that two identical cartons of milk were priced at $2.50 and $4.00 respectively, in Marsh Harbor’s only supermarket.
The house we ended up renting, discovered on a website called Bahamasvacations.com, sat on a small rise on a peninsula a mile from downtown Marsh Harbor. It was owned by an American family, like most of the other houses on the peninsular, and had been extensively rebuilt after successive hurricanes. On one side of the house was a dock, and phenomenal views looking south down the island’s coast. On the other side was a small beach and a stretch of sea of perhaps two miles to Man of War and Scotland Cays. Standing on the dock you were likely to spot sea turtles and sting rays, squid and ballyhoo, gliding by.
The man who tended the small, rocky garden was a Jamaican Rasta named Charles, and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of plants. He showed us several types of Aloes in the garden, and soon had us applying their sap to the children’s cuts and scrapes. Coconuts were also in abundance; they fell from the trees on a regular basis, and, after much hammering to open, were a good breakfast supplement. But Charles brought us fruit that was difficult to find elsewhere. He lived on the unpopulated western side of the island, in the marshes, on a small fruit farm. He brought some grapefruit for us, the like of which I have never tasted: pink, extraordinarily sweet, fresh to the point of exploding with juiciness. And then the sugar cane. It came in two main colors — a deep, eggplant purple, and a subtler olive green. We quickly became expert at peeling the hard exterior from the cane, and too familiar with the intoxicating sensation of sucking the cane juice from the inside.
This was the kind of laid-back vacation we had been looking for: hanging out on the dock, snorkeling, eating fresh fish, wandering around the island and its cays, checking out bays and beaches. But it was soon apparent that Abaco was chiefly visited by dive junkies; most visitors, in other words, perched on the edge of the cays, looking out to sea, relatively heedless of the island to their back, their thoughts focused underwater. Abaco boasts what locals claim to be the third longest barrier reef in the world, but it is less well known as a resort island, although this seems to be slowly changing. There is plentiful beachfront on the island and its various cays. Some of these have been developed to a certain extent, like Treasure Cay (actually a peninsula), which has its own small airport, serviced by several of the puddle jumpers from Florida, and a new hotel resort and marina catering to the sport fishing and golf crowd.
Marsh Harbor itself was until recently a Podunk village with scarce resources, considered a way station to the beauty of the cays. Now it boasts several good restaurants and bars, a couple of large marinas and several options for lodgings, including an inn and a condominium complex. We discovered that our neighbors on the peninsula were the owners of “Mangoes,” one of the restaurant/Marina complexes in Marsh Harbor. The couple, an English woman and her Columbian husband, asked us all round to dinner; it was still early in the season and the place was kind of quiet — sometimes islanders have to make the most of visitors.
Although the islanders are busy attracting attention to themselves by upgrading their infrastructure and improving their facilities, much of Abaco’s charm lies in its modest state of development. At the only fish market in town we discovered, one windy day, the fisherman himself. He was drunk, and explained to us that when the wind is in the north he spends his diesel money on rum instead, knowing that he’ll not catch anything. This is not the kind of colorful detail you would discover if you were staying in a resort.
Driving south from Marsh Harbor to Cherokee Sound on the two-lane road through the forest, you pass barely any buildings or discernable signs of population. You do, however, pass the parrot reserve, several hundred acres of forest inundated with the ground-dwelling, endangered Bahama Parrot, as well as the Bahama Yellowthroat and Mockingbird. If you are lucky you might spot the 13 wild horses on the island whose DNA identifies them as the direct descendents of Spanish Barbs, the conquistadors’ mount.
On arrival in Cherokee Sound there is a discreet beach club, nestled in the bushes, and further on, a tiny, scruffy hamlet sitting on some world-class beachfront. Shacks and one-story dwellings with dilapidated boats in the driveways constitute the extent of development at Cherokee Sound. Off the main road you find Little Harbor, a pristine hurricane hole, where, in the sixties, an American artist built an iron foundry. Today it’s still there, as is a small gallery, and a ramshackle bar called Pete’s Pub, serving awesome conch fritters (an island staple) and rum punch to a small group of weather-beaten yachtsmen and women. Half an hour further south, in Sandy Point, we found another one-horse town with a collection of shacks, abutting a three-mile, pristine white sand beach. After a morning’s swimming, we stopped for a fresh fish lunch at the town’s only restaurant, and watched three fishermen on the pier cutting the inedible bits off the conches, and then recycling them to catch grunts in the emerald green of the water below them.
With all its lack of pretension, Abaco has a genuine quality. The new resorts and marinas apart — which will always be available throughout the Caribbean for those who need them — Abaco has a life — a local, indigenous quality which is often the most interesting aspect of a foreign place, even a Caribbean island whose essence is usually overlooked because of its white sands.
We had a letter from Charles recently. He had acquired some government-subsidized farmland, and had started producing tomatoes and fruit. Last fall a storm flooded the entire crop. Needless to say, he was still gardening over at ‘Tween Waters, although much of that had been destroyed too. One man’s playground is another man’s factory, and that’s worth bearing in mind when we go looking for sun. We can only hope that in going there we spread some of the love.