One of my tennis teachers had his students visualize their “Happy Place” in order to get centered and relaxed before facing the fuzzy yellow ball. For me, one of those places is very specific. A soft white beach next to a sun-shot sea, embraced by ironshore arms, bordered with whispering casuarinas and clattering palmettos, perched on the eastern side of the Exuma Sound. Nowhere to be, no phone, no television. Ahhh, Cat Island. Thoughts of this Happy Place may not have helped my return of serve, but they definitely helped my mood momentarily. (That is, until I start longing to be there….)
Dreamy Fernandez Bay…. (Sorry about those distracting time/date stamps — in European-style notation as well as Ukrainian time, no less. More about my “new” camera below).
Although I don’t get to go there every time I feel the need, I am lucky enough to visit Cat Island in the Bahamas Out Islands every couple of years or so. Due to the island’s remoteness and small population (fewer than 2000 souls on a 46-mile long strip of limestone), and even smaller room inventory for visitors, things don’t change much on Cat Island. Over the 15 years Rick and I have visited, it feels like we pick up where we left off, with nary a ripple in that perfect blue sea.
We rented “Beach House,” just a few steps beyond Shane Shack (in the foreground) — with 2 bedrooms, 2 baths, and a large open kitchen/dining room/living room.
One thing that never changes is the challenge of getting there. Though just over 300 miles from Florida’s east coast, Cat Island can seem a world away to those who don’t have their own plane. We’ve flown through Ft. Lauderdale and Nassau, on Cat Island Air, Gulfstream, and Sky Bahamas, and we’ve sailed from the Exumas on Calypso. The air carriers may change, but the viability of the route is always tenuous, with the never-ending hope that someone will step in with regular, reliable service. The most recent great expectations rest on Silver Airways and Makers (f/k/a Watermakers) out of Ft. Lauderdale, though neither offers daily service.
Naturally, my own questionable travel karma seems to add an additional layer of challenges. We are already cutting our arrival times to the airport a little closer since we’ve gotten TSA Pre-check. So when the BWI Daily Garage shuttle was unable to leave the garage because a trainee driver had hit a wall at the exit (with no other way to get out to the airport! WTF?), we could have been in trouble had we not made the affirmative effort to get off the bus, leave the garage, and park in the Hourly lot. Likewise, at the Charlotte hotel where we’d spent the night before leaving for Nassau, the free shuttle left without actually stopping for waiting guests in the lobby. Add to this special security screening and other delays and nits, and you’ve got a signature travel experience for me.
From Nassau, we were to fly Sky Bahamas — and they chartered a Southern Airways plane (a teeny 9 passenger plane) for our group of travelers. Sky Bahamas changed their schedule for our return, but we had enough wiggle room to handle the later arrival. Flexibility is always the key, and our on-island hosts at Fernandez Bay Village are always in the know, so we never end up languishing in the one-room “international” airport waiting for a ride or flight. They know we want to maximize our island time.
Our friends Patrick and Emily joined us on this trip. Importantly, they are Out Island veterans (Abacos, off-season). Less seasoned visitors might not “get” it. They might be taken aback by the lack of room keys or bartenders. They might look amiss at the “money bats” flying through the great house or the frogs taking up residence in the garden bath. They might find the lack of action stifling. Not our crew.
One evening, Beach House had not one, not two, not three, but FOUR frogs in my and Rick’s shower alone. Another morning, a money bat took up residence on my beach coverup, hanging up to dry. And let’s not forget the money bat that got lost in our shower.
Days and nights slip into a soothing routine of as much — or as little — to do as you might wish. The “doing” generally involves self-propelled water sports and off-road exploration. My favorite activity is kayaking in the bay and the mangrove creek. I also keep working on stand-up paddle-boarding, and someday I’ll be able to take a spin around the bay without giving myself charlie horses in my feet from gripping so tight with my toes for fear of falling off. (It’s not so much the falling off that I fear — the landing in Fernandez Bay is about as soft you can imagine; for me, it’s the flailing around to get back on which is so humbling.)
There’s always Sands in the Sand to ease us through our … er … morning. But a bracing kayak trip justifies the empty (but delightful) calories.
Sometimes, I took off on my own. I love padding to a sandbar and searching for treasure.
I found this perfect conch shell on one of my solo paddles in the mangrove creek, while Rick dove up the sand dollar and sea biscuit while snorkeling in Fernandez Bay.
The main road on Cat Island is the Queen’s Highway, just like it is on most other Out Islands. The Queen’s Highway is decently paved, but most roads that branch off it are not. When I rent a car, I make a point of asking for a beat-up vehicle with high clearance; that way the inevitable scratches from the vegetation closing in on the small roads won’t be an issue, nor will the sand on the floors.
Can you imagine explaining the aftermath of road like this to Hertz?
As with many other Out Island business-people, our rental car purveyor (Gilbert’s) is also a grocer and liquor store owner. Typically, you can’t go to the store looking for anything particular other than Pringle’s (they are perennial). So, while I wanted Crystal Lite, I found none, but did find San Pellegrino sparkling fruit drinks (which make brilliant mixers, but the way). Last visit, we found plenty of ginger beer, but no Gosling’s rum; this time around, Gosling’s rum abounded, but I didn’t see the ginger beer. All of these transactions are accomplished with a great deal of trust on all parts. When I needed to get into the next-door locked liquor store, I was simply handed the key to help myself; the car rental (and later exchange, since the one we had suffered from engine trouble) took moments, including the cursory inspection.
The Queen’s Highway and rough roads also lead to other island entrepreneurs. A must-visit on every trip for me is Yardie’s in Bennett’s Harbour. Even though I don’t need the rental cars or gasoline on offer there, delicious conch salad, a cold beer, and whatever else comes from the kitchen is always appreciated.
Patrick and Emily chowing down on Yardie’s amazing conch salad.
Yardie’s is also a guidepost to a favorite secret beach. Typically, it’s a rough ride over unpaved road, but it’s a beautiful Atlantic Ocean beach where we’d yet to encounter another visitor. This year, however, the sandy area where we’d swum had washed away (likely the sand had been deposited elsewhere), and the length of the beach as far as we could see was choked with sargassum, some of it starting to rot. The same sight, though to a lesser degree, greeted us at Fine Bay. I’d read about Caribbean islands being choked with mountains of the weed, but naively believed that the Bahamas would be immune. Not so, although apparently the plague is less bad in the Bahamas.
Compare Fine Bay in November, 2018, to the way a windward beach looked in June of 2016.
Hence, another day of exploration points us to the truly timeless and certain: Mt. Alvernia and the Hermitage. We made the arduous 206 foot climb without the assistance of oxygen tanks or sherpas, and enjoyed the contemplation-inspiring site by ourselves.
Obligatory, but by no means uninspiring.
Because we are creatures of habit, and because there simply aren’t that many things to do on Cat Island, we followed our mountaineering with a long, luxurious swim at the long strand of beach at Old Bight, on the lee side of the island, where sargassum is not an issue.
The beach at Old Bight never disappoints.
After all of that brisk activity, we headed to the collection of beachfront food shacks on the beach in New Bight. As is our wont, we head to the one that is open but has no guests (yet). This led us to discover Hidden Treasures. Above the bar is a sign that says: “Fast food is not good; good food is not fast.” Proprietress Denise assured us that our food would be made to order, for just us, and could take a while. Beers and a two-story mango daiquri in hand, we explored her fascinating establishment while patiently awaiting our shared lunches of cracked lobster and jerk pork. The wait was worth it, as this was truly one of the most delicious meals we’d enjoyed in all of our travels in the Bahamas.
Lunch at Hidden Treasures. It may not look fancy, but the experience and food were top notch.
Another sure thing, and well worth the long journey to the top of Cat Island, is a lunch stop at Shanna’s Cove. We’d had ambitions of taking the hike from Shanna’s to Man O’ War Point, and pre-ordering lunch to have upon our return. But Gabi, one of the owners, took one look at our footwear (Keen slides and flip-flops), and estimated that we’d spend at least 45 minutes hiking each way in our inappropriate-for-the-journey shoes. Instead, we took the lazy way out (hey! it’s my vacation!), ordered drinks and pizzas, and let ourselves be entertained and fed and watered by Gabi and Frank.
The view of Port Royal beach from Shanna’s Cove is spectacular. Meanwhile, lunch prepares us for the long journey to the beach.
Sated and sun-stunned, we bumped and scraped our way through encroaching vegetation — the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard? nothing compared to sea grapes and palmettos scraping a CRV! — to uninhabited, spectacular Port Royal beach. This was the first time we’d visited at low tide, so Rick and I took the long walk to the “point” (which isn’t really a point; it’s just a spot that you reach that reveals the next “point,” so that you’ll never really see what’s around the corner until you’ve circumnavigated the entire island).
Port Royal beach, and the required photo of beachy toes.
Just before things got exciting, my new underwater camera died. It wasn’t really new; I needed to replace the one I’d had for 4 years and didn’t have time to do any research, so I purchased an inexpensive refurbished version of my old camera on eBay. Only after I got it did I realize it had come from a seller in a former Soviet bloc nation not known for its honest business dealings. Just as one should “never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line,” one should never buy goods on eBay from a Ukranian unless willing to lose his entire investment. Lesson reinforced, without too much expense. (Not only am I without a camera and stuck with annoying time/date stamps, my memory card is now corrupted as well. Ugh.)
The excitement wasn’t all that, but this is placid Cat Island after all, so I would have enjoyed photos of a 4-foot shark feeding in the shallows as the tide turned. Or seeing a southern stingray enjoying its meal of sand crabs on that same beach.
Surest, and most timeless of all, is lovely Fernandez Bay Village. Happy hour never really starts or ends here, because every hour is happy (other than those irksome little noseeums who think me appetizing around dawn and dusk, forcing me to retreat indoors).
Clouds blocking the sun make the sunset look like two different scenes, split exactly down the middle.
Happy hours slip into delicious dinners, and slide gently into hours around a beach campfire.
Nothing like a campfire on the beach, especially when the smoke keeps the bugs away. And nothing prosaic like s’mores for us — we were crafting our own exotic cocktails to keep us company.
November weather invites comfortable sleep nestled in crisp white bedding, with doors open to the whisper of pines and hush of waves just yards away.
We got to meet the newest of the FBV denizens — the third generation of innkeepers — Jason and Tameron’s 16-month old son, as well as spending time with the ones who started it all, Pam and Tony.
During our final full day, we found ourselves immersed in the water of the bay, drinks in hand, as the sun made its final descent over the horizon.
Those are actually flotation devices. Yup.
Pam and Tony joined us for a while. Still engrossed in conversation, but slowly making our way towards shore, something softly brushed against my calf — once I realized it was a 4-foot wide stingray, I left the water.
The southern stingrays we saw in Orange Creek on a past trip are probably related to the one which snuggled up to me.
These are gentle creatures, but their tails can pack a wallop if crossed, so I left the water and followed the stingray’s progress from the shore; I didn’t want a sting to be my last memory of yet another lovely journey to my Happy Place.
For more Cat Island adventures, look here. You’ll find that it is, indeed, truly timeless.