05 Jul It’s Better in the Bahamas
“Where are you taking Amy for your 30th anniversary?”
“The Bahamas.” I answered
“Oh you’re going to love Atlantis”
My mind suddenly filled with visions of turbo-charged slides rocketing screaming kids under shark filled pools while sea turtles languidly swam through massive salt-water tanks tugging signs for “all you can eat conch fritters.”
“Uh…well we’re not actually going to Atlantis.”
Not us. We’ve been to Disney World many times so why bother with a Bahamian version? We wanted to see the real Bahamas, up close and personal. For years we’ve seen the commercials and often wondered; is the water really that blue, that clean, that amazing?
Are the people really that friendly? Are the starfish really that big?
Six months ago, with our 30th anniversary on the horizon, we started to plan our trip. We knocked around a multitude of destinations and we both kept coming back to the tropics. We’ve never been to the Caribbean and the thought of sinking our toes into a place that keeps time with the tides, where the sea is the clock, where we could enjoy the peace and serenity that only a natural setting offers was just too intriguing. And as we looked around we were captivated by the Instagram profile of one Katie Storr.
She’s a dive master with Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas and her underwater photos sold us on the Bahamas.
We blocked off our calendars and made our plans. We would stay at Sandyport Beach Resort, go bird watching with Scott Johnson, a science officer with the BNT, snorkel on Sandyport Beach, take a cooking class at the Graycliff Hotel, find the best bar in Nassau, seek out Bahamian cuisine, take in the national art Gallery, take a seaplane ride to a small hotel on another island, leap into a 600-foot-deep blue hole, and of course go diving with the folks at Stuart Cove. After we’d made our plans and were counting the days, the owner of Carriearl reached out and asked if we’d mind being their guest chefs for a night.
Would we mind? Are you kidding me? So how was it and what did we learn that would be of assistance to those planning their own Bahamas adventure? Well for one we brought too much underwear and I’ll explain later.
On a miserable, dreary day, we flew out of Charlotte, NC and had a bumpy flight dodging thunderheads until we were off the coast of Florida. The weather broke, the clouds and turbulence gave way to a gorgeous horizon that slowly turned from black to a shimmering turquoise. Bahamas means “shallow sea” a name given by Christopher Columbus. If you’ve never been to the Bahamas, the sight of that water can really bring out the child in an adult. As we eased below ten thousand feet and the vista opened, animated voices filled the aircraft. We touched down at Lynden Pindling International, so named for their first Prime Minister.
Now to find an Uber. Uh…first lesson learned, Uber hasn’t made it to the Bahamas and there are no taxi services, only private taxis. Each taxi is independent, so if you’re at a hotel or Airbnb, the manager will have a few drivers he or she prefers.
As the Bahamas are surrounded by 20 mph salt-laden air, the cars tend to look like outcasts from the latest Transformers movie. And they drive on the wrong side of the road. So, our first impression was a bit of a culture shock.
“We drive on the proper side of the road, John,” claims our friend Serena Williams. If you don’t know, this group of islands was a British territory until 1973. And apparently the British left behind so many right-hand drive vehicle and wrong side of the road drivers, it made sense to carry on this tradition.
Our first three days were spent at Sandyport Beach Resort. If you’re looking for a shimmering steel and glass high-rise hotel where a bucket of ice costs $5.00 ($6.50 with tip), look elsewhere.
Sandyport is about five miles from downtown and an equal distance from the airport. Their rooms are tailored for those of us a little more self-sufficient. There’s a laundry, fully stocked kitchenettes, and three or four restaurants within walking distance. Many more if you don’t mind a mile’s walk.
Their beach is a very short walk away. Prior to check in, Serena brought us to a local market and we picked up some gorgeous local grouper, tuna, and a few necessities, such as rum and limes.
Vernon Moss welcomed us with a disarming smile and a beefy handshake. The hotel’s General Manager, he was also our concierge and de facto guide for our stay. He’s a native Bahamian and happy to share the ins, outs, and quirks of the Bahamas. Our second day we were schedule to fly to Andros island via a local airline with a 6:45 am departure. He wisely recommended arriving an hour early. As it was, we departed 25 minutes early. Why? Because all the passengers were there. Thanks, Vernon.
Check in, had a quick look around then into shorts and off to the beach. And it’s breathtaking. The water is well, see for yourself
Two hours into our vacation and this is our first view from the beach. The bartender actually said “It’s a bit hazy today. Maybe tomorrow it will be beautiful.” Sandyport is more than a hotel, there’s condos, apartments, shops and businesses. And they are all connected by a small harbor. The view from the balcony is worth the price of admission. From here we saw a multitude of fish, rays, birds, and even sea turtles. We were told a manatee and her calf dwelled in the harbor, but we did not see them. The staff at Sandyport offered us snorkeling gear and we were off to the water.
If you’ve never snorkeled, the Bahamas is a great place to learn. The water is clean enough that if you accidentally gulp down a quart, you won’t become ill. Try that on an Atlantic coast beach and you might end up in ICU. And because the water is so shallow there’s little waves so you won’t be dodging surf boards. The small rock jetty at Sandyport provided a haven for all manner of sea life including snappers, grunt, angelfish, sea stars, barracuda, porcupine fish…I could keep going. Complimentary snorkel gear, a three-minute walk to the beach and we were swimming through a massive saltwater aquarium. We’d been in the Bahamas less than three hours and we were already on sensory overload. When it was time for a drink, we didn’t have to go far. The Blue Sail Café, owned by Chef Jacques Carlino, a Frenchman for a penchant for turning out amazing pastries, is right there. And with this view, why get into a taxi? The lunch menu looked familiar to anyone that’s dined at a country club in the states. A variety of sandwiches, burgers, cold salads and macaroni and cheese. Wait a minute. I thought I was in the Caribbean? Where were the mangos, papayas, pineapples, etc. “Sorry Chef. This is the West Indies, not the Caribbean. There’s little agriculture so not much locally grown fruits and vegetables.”
We settled on the wood fired pizza, and it was damn good especially when it was paired with the local beer Kalik. Soon we were back in the water for another swim because we wanted to earn our massage. We don’t do yoga poses or juice cleanses, but we’re all about a real massage. And Sandyport has a great masseuse and an amazing setting for a massage.
Eventually we made it to downtown Nassau for a visit to the Graycliff Hotel and a cooking class with their chef, Elijah Bowe. Many years ago, Chef Bowe spent time in South Louisiana working for Chef John Folse, so we had plenty to talk about. Like me, he’s a disciple of Paul Prudhomme. Chef Bowe is a natural showman, he engaged with us readily, and entertained us with vignettes of his career and life in the Bahamas. He provided a station for each of us to join in on making conch chowder, snapper en papillote, Caribbean slaw and macaroni and cheese. The Graycliff is perhaps the most well known restaurant in the tropics due to their 200K+ bottle wine list.
Our class was a 3+ hour affair and if you’re one for cooking classes and having fun in a professional kitchen, you’ll certainly enjoy this. After our class, it was time for a walk around downtown Nassau.
That evening, Vernon Moss and his wife took us to the Fish Fry neighborhood for Bahamian cuisine. Finally, I thought, we’re going to have something local and authentic. And the menu is closer to a Calabash, North Carolina fish house than what I was expecting. Fried fish, shrimp, conch, chicken wings, and cheeseburgers. French fries, slaw, and macaroni and cheese.
Vernon senses my disappointment and explains how everything on the islands must come in on a boat or barge. And due to the shallow topsoil and limestone, agriculture is tough. Alright, I understand the limitations of transportation, however, if we’re going to stuff a barge full of French fries and hot house tomatoes, we could just as easily be sailing in tropical fruit and vegetables. I was dumbfounded as to why someone wasn’t serving or at least trying to create Bahamian cuisine. Sure, we had delicious conch dishes, but I couldn’t find a distinct cuisine. Macaroni and cheese? Sorry but there’s nothing about that dish that can lay any sort of geographical stamp to the Bahamas or West Indies. Yet it was everywhere. Yes, we had delicious food at the Graycliff and the conch chowder, poached snapper and guava duff felt very Bahamian/Caribbean, but that was it as far as local dishes. Everywhere we went we were greeted with burgers, fries, pizza, etc. The place several Bahamians recommended to us, Oh Andros!, served us a mountain of fries, rice, Cole slaw and macaroni and cheese. I understand it’s tough to grow anything and most of the tourist clientele are American, but how come some Bahamian chef hasn’t stepped up and defined a Bahamian cuisine?
So, if you’re looking for a fine meal in the Bahamas, you’ll end up at the Graycliff or a French or Italian themed restaurant. On one of our evening forays into Nassau, we spent a pastoral hour at bar of Café Matisse. BJ Ramsay, their bartender, was the perfect antidote for a hectic afternoon downtown. He’s the bartender that every fine restaurant should have, a knowledgeable, engaging soul with an appreciation for spirits.
After asking me if prefer Scotch or Bourbon, (Bourbon), he poured me a glass of locally produced, wood-aged sugar cane rum from Jab. And damn was it good. Notes of dried fig, apricot, white pepper and vanilla bean and that sweetness of cane. I’ve got a small bottle now at home.
When we left Café Matisse about 6:00 pm, downtown Nassau had rolled up the sidewalks. When the big cruise ships are docked, Nassau is teeming with activity. When the ship’s whistle blows at 4:00 pm, most of the shops close too. By 5:00 pm there’s not much going on. On our fourth day, we headed to Carriearl Hotel on Great Harbor Cay, via Tropic Ocean Airways. When we first thought about a tropical vacation, Carriearl was what we had in mind. A boutique hotel, only four rooms, on a quiet island with little distraction save for the water and adult beverages. When the opportunity to stay at Carriearl came around, we were all in.
On a trip of many firsts for us, perhaps my favorite was the seaplane flight. Our pilots were professional and courteous while they entertained all of my questions. While Amy and Serena enjoyed the ride from the cheap seats. During our thirty-minute flight, the visual majesty of the Bahamas was on full display. Shades of turquoise, sapphire, crystal, and indigo floated across our field of vision. In every direction, stretched out to the horizon the water shimmered and glistened like a Monet in motion.
Soon we were over Great Harbor Cay. We flew parallel to the island, spotted our hosts on the beach, then cut across the island and landed perpendicular to the beach. When we touched, the water dispersed by the floats sparkled like diamonds in the sun.
We taxied to the beach, the engine was cut then Kent tugged the Cessna in backwards while Marty and his son Oliver helped us off. Seriously that might’ve been the coolest thing I’ve ever done. From there it was a short walk to Carriearl.
So how do I accurately describe a visit to Carriearl? Again, if you’re looking for a Disney-style vacation, Carriearl is not for you. Great Harbor Cay is sparsely populated. No theatres, no museums, hardly any night life. However, if you fantasized of spending real down time in with 48 hours or more to do as little as possible and do it on the prettiest, quietest beach in this hemisphere, then Carriearl is waiting for you. Go for a swim, grab a book off their shelf, a beer or rum at the bar then disappear into the luxury that such solitude can supply.
While our bedroom had an excellent air conditioner, we spent a lot of time in their common room which was anything but. In the morning, Marty would open the expansive glass doors and their common area became an extension of the beach. Of our three days there, the highs were in the mid 80’s with a steady sea breeze.
Angie and Marty have owned Carriearl for 12 years and turned into a hotel in 2012. Built in 1965 by Earl Blackwell, New York’s “Mr. Celebrity” and the publisher of The Celebrity Register, named for his parents, Carrie and Earl, it’s easily the most memorable hotel we’ve visited. Since we arrived on a Saturday and we were their guest chefs for the evening, we didn’t have much time for lounging. Two appetizers, two entrees and two desserts had to be prepared. When we agreed to do this, we didn’t ask for anything special in the kitchen. Great Harbor Cay is no different than the rest of the Bahamas, plenty of great seafood but very little locally grown anything. So along with Chef Eddison Lightbourne, we went to work. Chef had local shrimp, sweet and spicy red peppers, garlic, onion, romaine and that became Grilled Romaine lettuce with pickled shrimp and spicy rouille. Loaves of whole wheat bread, English peas, lemon, fresh mozzarella, and pea shoots became Welsh Rarebit with an English pea and lemon puree. My bride turned almonds, eggs and fresh mint into almond macarons sandwiched with mint buttercream and vanilla ice cream. By 7:00 PM their dining room echoed with that happy sound of satisfied diners. It’s a combination of forks on plates, glasses being hoisted, bread being buttered and wine being poured. For those of us behind the scenes, we often judge the satisfaction level of our guests by the tempo of the dining rooms melody.
The next morning, one of our guests, Steve Johnson, local harbor master and legendary bush mechanic, along with friends Jay and Karen Campbell, took us to Hoffman’s Cay where we snorkeled through spectacular water and caught enough conch for us to make a heavenly lunch of conch salad. As conch are over fished by commercial operators, Steve was careful to make sure we only used the larger conch, and we only used what we needed.
After a long day of boating, fishing and swimming, we were grateful for the comfort of Carriearl, the cold beer and the hospitality of Angie and Marty. Did I mention they are British? On Sunday evenings, Chef Lightbourne prepares a classic English Sunday dinner of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding (popovers to you and me) and roasted vegetables. Sure, it feels out of place, but so what? It was an amazing dinner, expertly prepared and graciously served.
Remember I mentioned taking too much underwear? Well on this leg of our adventure, we realized we had too much clothing. If you’re headed to the Bahamas, it’s likely you won’t need but one pair of dressy clothes. A nice pair of slacks and shirt for the men, a simple black dress for the ladies. It’s warm and of course humid so keep it casual. Dress loose and light. Shorts, loose clothing walking shoes, swimsuit and definitely a wide-brimmed hat are necessary. The sun is relentless and there’s plenty of shallow water and shiny sand for those rays to bounce off, so use sunscreen. Keep in mind that snorkeling is a great way to fry your head. Our hotels had a solid supply of snorkeling gear so we’re glad we didn’t bring any along. Seriously though, when you’re hanging out at a bar with a view like this, you’re not going to care what you’re wearing.
Carriearl harkens back to a different time. It’s an oasis in the middle of the sea, a simple, rustic retreat that’s delightfully luxurious and properly British. Even though there’s wi-fi, we tried to stay off it. Because Facebook will always be there, but a view like this was only going to be ours for a few days. And in those days, we danced across the prettiest, most secluded beach, swam with an amazing collection of fish and sea life, jumped into the deepest blue hole, enjoyed wonderful meals, and made friends for life.
Enjoy this short video I’ve made on our flight and stay at Carriearl.
Eventually it was time to return to reality, and Nassau. We had one full day left before headed back to Greenville and it was spent with Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas. After four or five snorkeling trips, it was time for something bigger and better, SNUBA.
With SNUBA, one is attached to an air tank that sits in a raft. The raft holds two tanks, one for each couple, and each diver has about 25 feet of airline. The dive master (Jody Ford) is on tanks and she tugged the small raft while we swam. The tank gave each couple over 45 minutes in the water while Jody kept her eyes out for something unusual. She had several and signals, one being for a shark which she used about 30 minutes into our dive. Myself and Nick were down about 20 feet when she pointed to the shark. We took off in the direction of the shark so enthusiastically that she had to show us the “Whoa!” sign. We were dragging the raft, and our wives, towards the shark and for whatever reason, they didn’t share our enthusiasm.
We came within twenty feet or so of a four-foot reef shark that obviously saw us and paid no attention to us. We watched him/her languidly swim across the coral for a few minutes then he slipped out of focus and was gone. It was one more first on a trip of many. If you’ve never snorkeled or gone diving, don’t worry. Stuart Cove provides a thorough hands-on training session prior to getting into the water. Our final day in Nassau was spent at Sandyport and our last Bahamian meal was a fine latte and an exquisite almond tart, courtesy Chef Carlino.
The Bahamas isn’t perfect. It’s a bit on the funky side and there’s a level of organization it hasn’t achieved. If you prefer your vacation destinations to aspire to a Four Seasons level of cultivated reality, best to look elsewhere.
While we were told to watch out for crime, we never felt threatened. So, if you’re looking for a Caribbean destination and you revel in authentic travel, absorbing the local culture, snorkeling or diving, and you’re able to unplug and truly relax, you’re going to love the Bahamas.
One vignette sticks out. One afternoon we boarded a # 10 bus to head back to Sandyport. Another couple came on then the husband asked the driver if he had a minute to run around the corner to grab a sandwich for his wife.
“No problem, mahn. I pick you up.”
After our bus filled up, we made a short detour and picked him up. No problem.
Care to book a room at Sandyport Beach Resort? Click here
The solitude of Carriearl more to your liking? Click here
Tru Bahamian Food Tours & The Graycliff Hotel
Want to fly in a seaplane? Tropic Ocean Airways
Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas