A three-piece band is playing rock and reggae as a soft Caribbean breeze drifts across the patio. The boaters are at the bar comparing notes on the past day and the days ahead, and various other vacationers are just hanging out, sipping beers and cocktails. I am standing a few feet from the bar, holding a chunky metal ring hanging on a piece of fishing line, my attention focused on the hook nailed into a post supporting the bar’s thatched roof.
This is the big action tonight, at least as far as my companions and I are concerned: dropping the ring so that it swings just right and gets caught by the hook on the post.
I drop the ring. And in a perfect confluence of aim, distance and just-right flick of the wrist, the ring catches on the hook. On my first try.
Impeccable skill? Maybe. Beginner’s luck? More likely. It doesn’t really matter why it happened; the point is that it did — and that it handed me the perfect ending to a perfect day in the Abacos, a still-unspoiled paradise of clear water and white sand. Here in the Bahamas Out Islands — their very name whispers, “Getaway” — it doesn’t take long to see why Abacoans proudly call their corner of paradise “the real Bahamas.”
I have come for a weekend of boating, diving and sightseeing, based in comfort at Abaco Beach Resort, a 52-acre refuge in Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco Island. Up-to-date and attentively maintained, this charmer recalls the classic Caribbean aura of relaxed elegance. Its many top-flight indulgences include tennis courts, a fitness room, two swimming pools (one with swim-up bar), a 198-slip marina and a private, soft-sand beach. Besides hotel rooms, suites and villas, the resort sells 1, 2 and 3-bedroom condominiums which owners can rent out to those seeking an extended stay.
The condos are luxurious, but like the rest of the resort, it’s a comfortable kind of luxury — the kind in which the well-heeled kick off their designer footwear for well-broken-in deck shoes.
A quick one-hour hop by plane from Palm Beach International Airport, the Abacos are in the northern edge of The Bahamas, just north of Nassau/Paradise Island and east of Grand Bahama Island. The 120-mile-long chain consists of Great Abaco, Little Abaco and a collection of barrier islands, some of which bear names that evoke an adventurous, slightly romantic past: Hard Bargain. Hope Town. Treasure Cay. Man-O-War Cay. Many families here trace their roots to just after the American Revolution, when still-resolute British Loyalists rejected their new country and fled to The Bahamas.
Ferries run regularly between the islands, with service starting in Marsh Harbour, but locals and visitors tend to make their way around on private vessels: The Abacos care known as “the Boating Capital of the World,” with plenty of marinas tucked into protected coves along the Great Abaco coastline. The calm, expansive waters of the Abaco Sea offer plentiful fishing, diving and snorkeling opportunities. They’re also the scene of many sport-fishing tournaments; many include segments dedicated to eradicating the lionfish, a non-native species so pervasive it’s considered a grave threat to native marine life.
Many of the islands’ underwater sites are in only 60 feet of water, and the brilliant reefs often rise to within just a few feet of the surface in places — ideal for both scuba and snorkeling together.
The snorkelers in our group delight in the view from the surface while Keith Rogers, the affable and knowledgeable owner of Marsh Harbour’s Dive Abaco shop, skims along the bottom with Michael Choiniere, our host from Abaco Beach Resort. Of all the mixed dives I’ve done, this is one of the few times I don’t feel bottom envy: Much of the reef rises to within a few feet of the surface, and a quick free-dive brings me close enough.
Armies of grunts and other bright fish flutter among the coral set along clean white sand. Visibility is a good 50 feet, the surface waves only about a foot high. We would happily stay here for hours, if other Abacos attractions weren’t beckoning. Here’s how we spend a too-short afternoon in the Abacos, visiting just a few of the islands:
Great Guana Cay: Relax
A right turn from Great Guana’s unassuming dock takes us down a narrow, winding road — golf carts are the only vehicles — fronted by pastel-painted cottages and white picket fences. The Great Guana Cay Cemetery sits at a turn in the road, a reminder that The Bahamas is not a place where people come just to relax for a weekend but long ago settled here to live day by day.
We, however, are mere visitors, and so we continue to Nippers Beach Bar & Grill, a sprawling waterfront hangout that sits atop a 40-foot dune overlooking Great Abaco Barrier Reef. Nippers’ Sunday afternoon pig roasts are the island’s highlight.
Walking back through town and past the dock, we head to Grabbers Bed, Bar & Grill, a pretty hideaway that offers a hotel, marina and beach bar. The specialty here is the Guana Grabber, a high-octane rum-and-fruit-juice concoction said to knock your flip-flops off. I find it to be rather tame, but your results may vary.
Prime beach access also is available from the cottages and villas of the top-rated Dolphin Beach Resort and its sister property, the upscale Flip Flops on the Beach.
Hope Town: Pastel Perfection
The candy-striped lighthouse at Elbow Reef is the best-known attraction in Hope Town, a charming settlement where the islands’ British Colonial past is alive and well. Here the Malone name is ubiquitous, most notably at the Wyannie Malone Historical Museum. The museum, located just off Hope Town’s upper dock, is named for Hope Town founder Wyannie Malone, a widow who came here in 1785 from South Carolina.
The lighthouse was built in 1864, over the protests of local salvagers who plundered (legally) the cargo of shipwrecks that crashed in the dark. If you persevere in a climb up its 101 steps, you’ll be rewarded with a breathtaking panoramic view of the islands; at night, the lighthouse beacon reaches 17 miles. One of the last manual lighthouses in the world, it is painstakingly maintained every two hours by keepers who must wind up the weights that rotate the light and keep it shining for approaching sailors.
Lodging in Hope Town tends toward the cottage-rental variety; “for rent” signs seem to be everywhere. The magnificent Hope Town Harbour Lodge offers hotel rooms, villas and a two-story cottage, all with access to a soft, wide beach on the Atlantic Ocean. A brilliant coral reef is just a 30-yard swim from the beach, according to the hotel.
Man-O-War Cay: Boaters’ Home
The Abacos’ maritime heritage is strong on Man-O-War Cay, where boat-fitting and sail shops abound. You’ll see the name Albury on just about everything from Albury’s Ferry to Albury’s Sail Shop; the family was among those first colonial ex-pats to settle here. At the sail shop, you’re likely to find Annie Albury sewing canvas boat bags just as her grandmother did before her.
Joe Albury, a seventh-generation Man-O-War resident, keeps alive the islands’ authentic boat-building traditions in his highly prized handcrafted wooden dinghies. He also makes scale-model replicas that are sold at his gift shop, Joe’s Studio.
Albury’s Harbour Store sells snacks and beverages, but no alcohol: This is a dry island, meaning alcohol sales are illegal.
Visitors who headquarter here for a few days of relaxation often stay at Schooner’s Landing Ocean Club, where the two-story lodging units were made for groups of four to six people.
Marsh Harbour: The Big City
The closest thing you’ll find to an actual city in the Abacos, Marsh Harbour boasts shopping, dining, a bit of laid-back nightlife, numerous resorts including Abaco Beach Resort, and several marinas and dive shops including the popular Dive Abaco. The island has one of the Abacos’ two international airports (the other being in Treasure Cay) and the islands’ one and only stop light.
From the looks of things, a second light won’t be added anytime soon — nor, I suspect, would it be too welcome by either locals or visitors.