A double rainbow over Bita Bay, our home base on Green Turtle Cay. [NOTE: Many of the photos on this post have been contributed by Harriet — hers are the especially good ones.]
It’s never easy for me to decide where to go for my next island adventure, but I suppose I’ve reached the point that, more often than not, I’m going back to places that are on the top of the list again and again. Because no matter how many times I go, it’s never the same. Sure, many touchstones remain, but time leaves few places untouched. This has proven especially true of the Abacos, which time’s heavy hand flattened by means of Hurricane Dorian.
The Abacos are the first islands I ever returned to, and I’ve brought family and friends along for the ride. I returned repeatedly, staying at small inns, chartering sailboats, and finally arriving on Calypso. When Dorian hit over 3 years ago, the devastation in the Abacos was unfathomable. With little industry other than tourism, the only way Great Abaco and the cays would recover was to welcome visitors back, though it would take a while before there was adequate infrastructure for visitors. I was more than happy to pour a bit of money back in to the economy.
This time around, we decided to rent a house on Green Turtle Cay named Bita Breeze. My group consisted of our stalwart travel companions Skip and Harriet (Out Island veterans), and Skip’s daughter Jen and her husband Bill, who have also visited the Abacos and, like me, don’t like to travel where there are other people. (They are Coloradans who gave up skiing because it’s too crowded).
Our house looked small from the road, but it offered plenty of space. And, most importantly, a screened porch allowed us to be outdoors most of the time. The beach was mere steps away.
There is always a catch when you’re traveling to places that don’t get much traffic: it’s not easy to get there. The Abacos used to be easier to reach, but even before Dorian, getting to Green Turtle Cay was a bit more challenging than getting to the other cays. The ferry to GTC runs between Treasure Cay and GTC, rather than from Marsh Harbour, which is where the bulk of scheduled flights land. As cruise director, I plotted an itinerary that would be wonderful if it all worked, and a mess if it didn’t.
We decided that it would make sense for our gang to book a charter flight from Ft. Lauderdale’s executive airport to Treasure Cay. FXE was a convenient gathering point, and with a charter, we could manage flight times and choose our destination (there is no scheduled air into TCB these days, and “scheduled” charters don’t run everyday), as well as eliminating the long taxi ride from Marsh Harbour to Treasure Cay. While it’s not exactly cheap, when divided by 6 travelers, the cost of a charter was not exorbitant either.
I flew shotgun on our flight to Treasure Cay, and was amazed to discover that there was no radar on our plane. What a great way to arrive in the islands.
The other steps included:
- Taxi from TCB to the ferry dock (it’s advisable to book this in advance; without scheduled air service, the taxis aren’t otherwise hanging out at the landing strip);
- Ferry from Treasure Cay to Green Turtle Cay (we were fine with the regularly scheduled service — especially since there appears to be a new bar at the dock called The Drop Off, where you can officially christen your arrival to the Abacos with an icy Sands beer. You can also charter a ferry if the schedule doesn’t suit).
- Being met at a ferry dock with our rented golf carts (Kool Karts — highly recommended); and
- Meeting Bita Breeze’s caretaker, Carol Jean Lowe, who also happened to be our golf cart provider and led us to our house.
Hitting the road with two speedy gas-powered golf carts. Remember to drive on the left. Harriet and Jen have their Thelma and Louise moment while on the search for baked goods.
Carol Jean arranged for our house to be ready before the official check-in time, so that we were done with the next steps — grocery run and liquor store run — and back at the house by the time it would otherwise have been available.
I didn’t appreciate how tense managing all the arrangements had made me until my jaw finally relaxed with the first round of Dark ‘n’ Stormys we enjoyed from our beautiful screened porch. For a change, everything went as expected. One of the things I always appreciate about Abaconians is that while they embrace “island time,” business runs as scheduled whenever possible.
A Dark ‘n’ Stormy (not in its official copper cup) and a view. Luckily, with the exception of a few blustery moments now and then, we had good weather during our trip.
Breath caught, I had a chance to reflect on the ravages of Dorian. Customs and immigration at the TCB airport were now run out of a trailer provided by the Bahamas’ equivalent of FEMA — checking in felt like ordering from a food truck. Most nearby buildings were boarded up or destroyed. The backward view from the departing ferry revealed a stubble of barren pine trees poking out of browned vegetation. GTC also had many destroyed or heavily damaged buildings, and the “waste transfer station” (i.e. dump) was a mountain of spent building materials. A handful of docks were in good repair, but there was still plentiful evidence of destruction. There were enough businesses open to meet our needs, but some favorites — like the Leeward Yacht Club and the seafood shop — were gone.
This is what remains of the TCB airport, and in the background, you can see bare trees and the barren landscape.
Bita Breeze had reportedly survived Dorian with minimal damage, despite its beachfront location. The house is located on Bita Bay, a tiny bight on the Atlantic Ocean side of the cay — nothing between this tiny cay and Africa but the mighty sea. But there is a islet off the beach, and a reef, both of which provide some protection.
Every time I felt the urge for some beach time before our trip, I pulled up this image of what would be “our” beach on Green Turtle Cay.
The house sported 4 bedrooms and 3 baths and an open-plan kitchen, dining area and living area. The kitchen was beautiful and well-designed, so it was possible for us to make 3 dinners and several lunches at “home.” Most appealingly, there was a screened porch (even screened from below, covering any gaps between decking) to allow us to enjoy the outdoors and ocean without doing battle with mosquitos and no-see-ums.
Despite the loss of many businesses, there were at least 2 grocery stores operating, as well as liquor store/cafe, a couple of bakeries, and even a sometimes-open coffee shop. We got most of the groceries we needed at Sid’s in the New Plymouth settlement, which was reached by a quick golf cart ride. Sid’s had clearly been refurbished since Dorian, and after my first shop there, I was welcomed there as a friend (apparently memorable because I bring my own bags with me — does that make me a Bag Lady? Even though the Bahamas had banned single-use bags, the stores were using approved biodegradable ones, so most people don’t bother with their own). What couldn’t be had, I could improvise around. Buying seafood was a typically Out Island experience: we were told to turn right at the Wrecking Tree, then another right before Miss Emily’s, and then knock on the door of the blue house and ask Mr. Bode if he has anything — I got lobster tails (10 tails for $38!).
Our last remaining administrative task was claiming our rental boat on Sunday morning — a necessity for island-hopping. We rented a 21 foot Boston Whaler from Sunset Marine, which we kept at their dock, mere moments from our house. Check-out was efficient and painless. Now we were set for adventures.
Our Whaler, aptly named Stingray. Later in the week, we swapped it for a 22-foot Mako, since there were some engine glitches. Kudos to Sunset Marine for taking care of us.
Rick takes the helm, while Skip and Harriet enjoy the ride.
[I’ll concede that the rental house experience is not for someone who wants to be catered to in a totally carefree vacation experience — though if you bring me along with you, I’ll be happy to make your drinks. For that matter, the Out Islands really aren’t the place for that kind of pampering regardless of where you stay. But for me, the tradeoffs are worthwhile: a much roomier place to stay with the comforts of privacy and convenience, and the freedom to NOT eat every meal out.]
As far as I’m concerned, the Abacos, like the Exumas, are all about island exploration, my endless quest for secret spots. On this trip, we took our boat to familiar spots, new spots, and familiar spots which felt new because of how they’d been rearranged.
One of my favorite spots has long been Gillam Bay. Besides swimming and beach walking, it felt like sand dollars popped right up out of the surf. I am obsessed with sand dollars. However, as the years have passed, access via road has tightened to the point where the bay is now inaccessible due to all of the private property and an ill-considered seawall. On our first boat day, that side of the cay was too rough to consider going in by boat either. Instead, we found ourselves around the corner.
The squishy yellow asterisk marks the first spot we anchored, around the corner from Gillam Bay. The squishy orange asterisk marks Big O’s, on No Name Cay.
The beach here is rough, with enough sand spurs and other artifacts everywhere to remind me to bring my beach shoes. But it didn’t disappoint — I found my first and only sand dollar of the trip. Box checked.
Found my treasure: a sand dollar! In additional to flawless navigation, boat crew provides beer service.
Next, a completely new spot: the provocatively named Big O’s on neighboring No Name Cay. It’s a beachfront bar and restaurant with a swimming pool, with sturdy new docks to handle the boat traffic that is the only way to get there. However, the principal attraction seems to be the establishment’s entry into the Swimming Pig stakes. I hate the swimming pig attractions, especially the ones which are pallid imitations of of the originals at Big Major Spot in the Exumas. I don’t hate the pigs per se — they are mildly entertaining, and the piglets are cute. But they are also potentially aggressive animals, only slightly more aggressive than the brand of tourism they attract. Pigs aside, Big O’s is an appealing destination: the food is good (on our second trip there, I had the most delicious grouper wrap), the drinks are cold (had my first-ever Sand’s Radler, a surprisingly good combination of beer and grapefruit juice), and the vibe is chill.
Silly pigs! But if they have pens and houses, they’re not really feral, are they?
Manjack (pronounced Munjack) Cay to the northwest of GTC used to be my favorite spot in the Abacos. It used to be a beachcomber’s paradise, and included a beguiling little water passage between the northernmost bay and a tiny limestone islet; the currents running between the two attracted sharks and stingrays. The bay itself invited hours of floating around, and a short walk to the Atlantic beach offered more boisterous water play.
The way the bay at the north end of Manjack Cay used to look in 2005. It was much the same in 2013-2014, though the once-uninhabited cay seemed to have become a bit more discovered.
These days, the little passage between the beach and tiny cay has been filled with gunky sand and scrubby vegetation. The edge of the bay, at least as far as I walked, was covered in mounds of sea grass and the sand was sludgy and wet.
The “creek” through which water used to flow is now filled in.
Nevertheless, we found a likely spot to anchor and engage in the strenuous sport of floating. While their usual spot was filled in, the stingrays were still in the area, and we spent close to an hour with a five-some of rays doing slalom runs between our legs.
The stingrays were friendly, but Bill looks dubious.
The Manjack beach might not be the same, but it’s still good for quality floating (and the obligatory foot photo — this time with water shoes).
Studious review of Google Earth also led us to beaches at the north end of Green Turtle Cay, as well as neighboring Fiddle Cay.
The beach at the north end of Green Turtle Cay gave us the feeling of having it all to ourselves.
The beach at Fiddle Cay looks like it gets used for “deserted island” excursions, but as is our wont, we were there by ourselves. A stretch of the beach yielded dozens and dozens of sea biscuits.
All of this was well and good, great even. But can you really spend time in the Abacos without visiting world-famous Nipper’s? We watched the weather and the sea, and visited Barometer Bob, to find the best day to cross the infamous and potentially treacherous Whale Cay passage between Green Turtle and Great Guana cays. This channel is known for the “rage” conditions which crop up from time to time, putting boats in peril. Thankfully, the conditions on the day we chose were okay, and between breadcrumbs dropped on our chartplotter and the Whaler’s relatively shallow draft, Rick was able to pilot us via the west side of Whale Cay. Still, the seas were substantial, though not breaking, so no one got sick and we arrived triumphantly in Settlement Harbour, thirsty for frozen Nippers.
Just follow the signs….
A great many docks in the harbour were still trashed, and many waterfront properties were smashed or missing entirely. Nipper’s itself still bore the smell of fresh lumber, having recently rebuilt. But it was all there: the lethal cocktails, the bi-level swimming pool, the joyfully colored tables and stools, the delicious local food, the friendly hubbub among the visitors, and the breathtaking beach. The frothing waves made it feel like I was swimming in champagne (and the waves knocked me on my backside, making me feel like I’d drunk too much of it). Better to keep to the pool, at least with that day’s surf conditions.
Happy faces at Nipper’s.
Swimming at Nipper’s — pool, beach or both?
Beach time necessarily gets interrupted by meal times. Our most popular breakfast was Pop-Tarts — I guess vacation takes away the inhibitions, since Pop-Tarts haven’t been inside my home in decades, but they have made it into vacation shopping carts and onto boat provision lists.
With that view, Pop Tarts never tasted better.
There were a handful of restaurants available for our dining pleasure. In addition to Big O’s and Nippers, we ate at the Green Turtle Club twice, but not before scouring the walls for the artifacts we’d left behind on past visits which had somehow survived Dorian.
The Green Turtle Club will always be one of my favorite places. I can hardly believe that the AYC burgee to which we’d attached our autographed dollar bill is still there; you can’t see our dollar anymore, but our friends’ — Bob and Phyllis — is still there.
We also had dinners at the Wrecking Tree, Pineapples, and the McIntosh Restaurant.
There is something about waterfront that inspires people to leave their artifacts. Pineapple’s has a nice collection.
And what trip to Green Turtle Cay is complete without a visit to beloved Miss Emily’s Blue Bee Bar in New Plymouth. It is, after all, the birthplace of the Goombay Smash, a deceptively potent libation. Sadly, walls once plastered with boat cards, stickers, flags and photos are now largely virgin and awaiting visitors’ contributions. Rick and I were happy to be the first ones to install our yacht club’s burgee from a rafter, our boat card from previous stops being long gone.
You’d think we coordinated our outfits to the decor.
The steady diet of grouper, lobster and conch — grilled, blackened, cracked, fried, frittered, sandwiched, etc. — grew tedious after a while, so it was a relief to be able to cook meals at Bita Breeze. It was always group effort, and we produced lobster creole, lobster salad, West Indian style chicken curry, and steaks (Sid’s carries nice New York strips). And we also produced Dark ‘n’ Stormys, pina coladas, and Painkillers galore, while cracking open countless Sands beers.
Painkillers on the porch; steaks getting ready for the grill.
As fun as it was to explore, our home base was awfully enticing. The ever-changing view of the ocean from the screened porch was at once soothing and invigorating. The surf on the beach directly in front of our house could be a bit much, but a walk a few yards north yielded a spot that was perfect for bobbing around, and close enough to handily get refills of our beverages. (Yes, I’ll admit that we drink and swim.) Most of the time, we were the only ones there. While I generally don’t like people, I like my people, and loved just hanging out.
Saying goodbye to this beach would not be easy.
As our week wound down, the good weather started turning. By departure day, the wind and seas were kicking, pushed by a developing low that ultimately became Hurricane Nicole. For a change, I was beating the bad weather instead of following it, and was glad to see that the Abacos fared well. But my travel karma is such that I can’t count on all going entirely well. Due to miscommunication and weather, our charter flight arrived in Treasure Cay 90 minutes late, which would make our connections home very tight. Thankfully, FXE has a dedicated (read: very fast) U.S. Immigration and Customs station, and we and Bill and Jen were lucky to catch a waiting taxi to FLL. Bill and Jen arrived at their FLL gate just as their flight to Denver was boarding, while Rick and I had a handful more minutes to spare.
The TCB waiting area.
This trip reminded me why I kept returning to the Abacos, but made me wonder why I’d gone 8 years since my last visit. The islands still have a long way to recover from Hurricane Dorian, and may never do so. But what I saw of Green Turtle Cay showed me that there is enough of a recovery to host visitors, their contributions to the economy being welcome. So many residents have given up and found lives elsewhere in the Bahamas, but those that have stuck it out need us. I’ll be happy to oblige again.