Welcome to the Bahamas Most People Have Never Heard Of

Last Friday (December 6), when we left Grand Bahama, was the last time Rick and I will set foot on a Bahamian island most people have ever heard of.  The casual traveler has heard of Nassau (New Providence Island), Paradise Island (adjacent to New Providence, and home to Atlantis) and Freeport (Grand Bahama).  But beyond those tourist meccas are another roughly 697 islands that most people don’t know about.

The remaining islands are known as the Out Islands.  For a while, the tourist board tried to re-brand them as the “Family Islands,” but it hasn’t stuck.  “Out” makes more sense – they are remote, out of the mainstream, and most are difficult to reach.  We’re now in the Abacos – what I call “Out Islands for Beginners.”  While the Abacos are largely unknown and deliciously laid-back, they have some modest tourism infrastructure, so if you’re interested in trying an Out Island, start here.

Rick and I first heard of the Abacos when we were visiting another Out Island, Eleuthera, way back in 1990.  We didn’t actually visit the Abacos ourselves until the late 90s, but we were smitten and 4 other visits (not including our current stay) followed.  The last 3 trips were sailing charters – the Sea of Abaco is perfect for sailors.

Like some of the other island groups in the Bahamas, the Abacos are a chain of tiny cays (pronounced “keys”).  In the Abacos, most of them lie off the large Great Abaco, where the third largest settlement in the Bahamas – Marsh Harbour – is located.  I’ve likened the cays to an irregular string of pearls tossed about a blue topaz sea.  Most of the cays are not inhabited, or if they are, have only a handful of private residences.  A few of the most populous cays are connected to the “mainland” of Great Abaco by regular ferry service.

The only other two settlements of consequence (i.e. big enough to have names) in the cays are New Plymouth on Green Turtle Cay and Hopetown on Elbow Cay.  Both New Plymouth and Hopetown resemble New England villages, but with houses painted in the joyful colors of Easter eggs and streets barely wide enough to accommodate two golf carts passing abreast.  The center of commerce on these little islands is the government dock, where ferries, goods, and visitors arrive.

During our stay in Green Turtle Cay, New Plymouth is decked out for the holidays.  It hardly registers to us that Christmas and New Year are days away, as the weather has been so pleasantly warm and mostly sunny.  Around here, Christmas seems to retain much of its religious significance, while New Year, with the attendant Junkanoo celebration, carries more commercial weight.  It’s not surprising, since many of the residents of New Plymouth are descendants of Loyalists and maintain traditional values (and New England-y sounding accents too, if you didn’t know better).

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New Plymouth, from a hilltop, decked out for Christmas.

Being near New Plymouth has been convenient for us, since we’ve needed some supplies and provisions (ahem, Sands Beer and Ron Ricardo pineapple rum).  The people are uniformly friendly – residents and visitors alike; you’ll never pass anyone without a greeting, and when we had our obligatory Goombay Smashes at Miss Emily’s Blue Bee Bar, we spent a good half hour chatting with her daughter, Miss Violet.

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Hanging out with Miss Violet at the Blue Bee Bar.

But as soon as we got a chance, we headed further afield – a short walk from the dinghy dock in town is stunning Gillam Bay.  Although the beach has eroded significantly since our last visit, and some well-heeled residents are erecting a sea wall to hold back the sea, the un-developed end of the beach still sports beautiful water and white sand.  We spent an afternoon here, happily bobbing in the tumbling sea and walking the beach.

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Gillam Bay, at Green Turtle’s south end, provided a delicious spot to while away an afternoon.

After two days in Green Turtle – necessitated by my visit to the clinic – we left its relative “civilization” and went to semi-inhabited Manjack (pronounced “MUNjack”) Cay.  Our only company here has been a handful of other boats anchored with us between Manjack and Crab Cays; there are no facilities for visitors here, so if you plan to stay for more than a few hours, you’ve got to bring your stuff with you, like us cruisers do.  The seclusion has been good for me, as I’ve been practicing falling off our stand-up paddleboard and shouting “I’m going in” in privacy.

Here, the full impact of Bahamian water strikes you.  It’s so clear, you can easily count each ribbon of turtle grass or each ripple in the sand beneath you – even if it’s a good 10 feet below.  Where the bottom is sandy, the water is that otherworldly blue that is the signature of these islands.  The cays are rimmed with multiple pocket-sized (or bigger) beaches, ripe for exploration.  At the northwest end of Manjack Cay, the resident stingrays and sharks paid us a visit, the stingrays rubbing up against my shins; I’m guessing they were looking for a handout.

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The stingrays posed for photos, coming right up to our feet; the sharks were a little more shy.

Manjack Cay was the highlight of my prior visit to the Abacos, and though it still retains its charms, it feels like it’s been discovered.  Last time we were here, we were the ONLY ones here.  This time, there were those other boats and a few daytrippers (many visitors to the Abacos rent runabouts and go island-hopping).

Ocean beach Manjack Swimming pool Manjack

Manjack Cay’s ocean side beach (left) takes a bit of a hike, but offers lots of treasure hunting and good swimming.  The lee side beach has a great sandy bottom and you can bob around for hours.

So, after two blissful days at Manjack, we motored off to Powell Cay in the windless calm.  When passing over the sandy bottom, we could see our shadow clearly below us.  Rick had to throttle back a few times, because the charts aren’t kidding about “shifting sands” (and on the way back, we did thunk the bottom).  For the most part, the depths on the charts are reliable, but you do need to watch the depth sounder.

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Through a horizonless sea

You can see our shadow clearly on the sandy bottom in about 8 feet of water, as we make our way to Powell Cay.  When not over sand, the horizon blends into the view of the sea.

Powell Cay is north of Manjack, even further from civilization, and completely new to us.  We arrived just as a storm front was passing through, and the air cooled noticeably.  That didn’t stop us from a long walk on a leeward beach.  The two days we spent there, we were the only boat.  We had Powell Cay to ourselves as we walked along the beaches at both high and low tide, bushwhacked through trails that clearly hadn’t seen human passage in a long time, hunted for treasure (mostly shells and sand dollars), and I got a little better and stand-up paddleboarding.

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Calypso alone off one of Powell Cay’s many deserted beaches.  They are particularly interesting at low tide, as the beach appears wider and uncovers some of its treasures.

Big footprints on NW beach of Powell Cay Size 9 footprints

A big bird made those footprints.  It wears about a Size 9 shoe.

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