The Abacos, another Bahamian archipelago, lie about 50 miles north of Eleuthera. Great Abaco and Grand Bahama, with Freeport its main city, are the large islands but the other Abacos are generally not much longer than six or seven miles and many are so narrow you can walk from the quaint bay side, with sailboats sitting in smoothly lapping waters, to the wild and magnificent ocean side.
Like Harbour Island, the Abacos were developed long before the Exumas, mainly after the American Revolutionary War by English Crown loyalists afraid for their lives at the hands of the victorious patriots. The black population was not indigenous but rather came originally as slaves.
The Abacos are greener than the Exumas, fringed by tall Australian pines and showy palms but boast the same extraordinary glittering sand beaches. These cays have been more highly developed, with small towns, bigger homes—frequently eaved and dormered—more hotels, restaurants and marinas. The climate is generally sunny and clear, though even in April, the air feels somewhat nippy in the wind.
On Great Abaco, we land at Marsh Harbour—a tourist and commercial settlement that suffered considerable hurricane damage last summer, but is recovering quickly. After several good meals, we decide to spend our limited time in a few of the smaller cays. We visit utterly adorable Hope Town with its signature red and white candy-cane lighthouse.
Next we stop at Man-O-War Cay, which is the antithesis of warlike and ought to be rechristened Albury Island. Albury because the Albury family forms the island’s commercial backbone; there’s the Albury General Store, the Albury Grocery, the Albury Bakery, Albury Gift, Albury Hardware and Albury Sailmakers. Then there’s the Albury who’s a half-hull model builder and the Albury who’s a snorkel and fishing guide. Presumably other Alburys living outside the two-block-square downtown area display similar signs announcing their trades. The Albury Boat Works is famed for small, finely crafted, handbuilt skiffs and fishing boats—all special orders which command high prices and take years to get. Some family member owns the Albury Ferry Service, which links the primary Abaco islands and delivers myriad tourists, day laborers and school children from cay to cay.
Still other businesses are operated by Albury women who dared to take their spouses’ names. Even the island’s sole park bench bears a brass plaque commemorating Lewis and Mizpah Albury, who presumably had something to do with starting it all.
Though we don’t search out the cemetery we have a good idea what name might adorn the majority of its headstones.
In fact, “bury” becomes the operative word as we tour Man O War’s “town.” All commerce has ground to a halt for the afternoon, paper signs on every shop door so attesting, so that the citizenry and work force, largely Albury-related, can attend the funeral services of one Hezkeil Albury. Hezkeil, dead at 80 of heart-related complications, was for more than 40 years the island postmaster, justice of the peace, deed-writer, headmaster and most popular schoolteacher. Author of “My Island Home”—which has yet to appear on my night table—he was also knighted by the Queen—which inclines me to buy the book and find out why.
Luckily the Hibiscus Café sees fit to close at 2PM, which enables Gary to continue his research into the best hamburger in the Abacos, or indeed the entire Bahamian chain. This kind of diet-breaking, artery-constricting culinary quest is not unlike combing diners for the finest Duck à L’Orange. Though if you think about it there is at least a bit of fruit in the average Duck à l’Orange. .
Far, far from a juicy hamburger, the Bahamian national food specialty centers on the conch—a tough, ugly, slimy, for the most part tasteless—mollusk whose only attractive attribute is the large frilly, pink shell it lives burrowed within, hiding from conch harvesters and presumably contemplating why exactly they would be hunting it for food rather than the soles of sandals.
“A contender,” votes Gary, his hands and forearms still dripping various escapist ingredients from Hibiscus Café’s Everything Burger— lettuce, tomato, cheese, pickles, sautéed onions and mushrooms, mayo, ketchup, mustard.
Leaving many burgers left unsampled, we head for Paradise Island to meet two families of our kids and grandchildren.
In February our daughter, Susan, rejected the quaint, adorable, low-key Staniel Cay Yacht Club with its delicious food, spotless and darling two-bedroom, two bath cottages and its all-too-inviting all-inclusive price of $190 per day for a family of four—for three meals a day, plus personal golf cart, speedboat, kayak and snorkel equipment. Instead she unearthed the remarkable bargain of $345 a day for continental breakfast and a “junior suite,” consisting of one room, two double beds plus conch-shell-sized alcove with sofa-bed, at the Comfort Suites. The Comfort Suites is the No-Frills alternative to its next-door neighbor, the Atlantis, offering all privileges of that hotel without having to pay $600-and-up, per-day, per room. No bargain at all is that to avoid the choppy Nassau harbor, ill suited for anchoring and known for boat break-ins, LULU will have to be berthed in the Atlantis Marina—$3.50 per foot per day, plus electricity and water. For 10 days.
We arrive a day before the first family and are elated to be given a prime slip directly across from the monumentally oversized pink sandstone castle—the centerpiece of a resort/casino paying relentless homage to Neptune, Poseidon, the phantom Lost City of Atlantis and, of course, Mammon. Giving it its due, Atlantis is well done for the Taj Mahal School of Hotel Architecture, which is perhaps a dubious achievement but still an achievement. Our backyard view, aside from a series of three-story waterfalls, is an enormous pink cupola from which erupt giant dancing stone swordfish.
In addition to the full-color, half-inch thick Atlantis brochure, we get a full-page daily summary of activities. Today, for example, at 9:AM the children could have gone to camp, learned about bugs and slugs while pursuing various related art projects, at 2PM attended to Scuba for Kids ages 5 to 7, fed any number of marine species and seen Lemony Snicket at 7:15.
Karen, David, 7-year-old Ronnie and 5-year-old Sammy arrive the next morning. Their luggage does not.
“Have No Clue,” responds the American Airlines luggage-tracking computer.
Susan and Tony, arriving the next day with 5-year-old Ryan, are almost exactly Karen and David’s sizes, as well as notorious overpackers. We enroll them in bringing sharable clothing. Ronnie will simply not fit into 18-month old Casey’s sundresses. Thus, we explore the various Atlantian clothing-replacement options and find the pickings slim—literally slim—indeed. If you're 30ish, a size 2, have no belly (and never did, even as a baby), are entranced by ruffles, sequins, stilettos and feeling like if you inhale your pants are going to fall down, then this is the place to buy clothing in case your own ruffles, sequins and stilettos don't arrive.
Gucci has quite a nice beach bag, straw with snippets of snakeskin, at $4,300.
At first glance, Ronnie, hailing from a family of hardy camping folk, pronounces Atlantis “too fancy for us.” The Comfort Suites, drab, without a scintilla of native charm and last decorated circa 1970 seems more to her taste. But after a second, more detailed Palace tour, she is hooked on Atlantis’s myriad beaches, pools, slides and aquariums.
The lost luggage materializes the next morning, as do the Gomes’s, with $50 in surplus baggage charges.
The week is otherwise enchanting and entirely exhausting. Atlantis can be likened to if God developed a theme park with the devil wisecracking in the background. It's simply amazing in scale, the venting of imagination, slick execution and unabashed tackiness. The official company motto is apparently "Blow the Customer Away.” Which they pretty much do. Especially if you’re under 16 years of age.
I’m guessing we walk hundreds of miles, around and through the casino and grounds from our end of the complex to their off-campus annex. During which time everyone gawks; the kids count sharks, the adults boob jobs. The children walk without a whine, so taken are they with the variety of stimuli: a barrage of gilt and glass, flashing lights, snapping cards, whirring, jangling slots, clattering coins and water everywhere splashing, burbling, crashing and thundering. But it’s primarily the startling array of marine life that captivates all of us: the rays, the jellys, the lobsters, the sharks, the Brazilian piranhas, the giant grouper that bangs into an aquarium wall and shakes up not only itself but the entire fish neighborhood.
Susan, David and Tony take The Leap of Faith, plunging down Atlantis's terrifying water slide, which begins at the summit of the pseudo-Mayan Temple. Having trudged up all six stories these lucky devils then get to push off into a 60-foot nearly vertical drop, rocketing down at 40 miles an hour, then careening through a clear acrylic tunnel submerged in a shark-filled lagoon. There’s no time for even a shriek. More likely there’s no available breath.
The kids come for a supermarket run in our car—the dinghy—which we point out is also our garbage truck. This delights them no end.
“Grandma,” asks Ryan. “Do kids ever go to school in a boat?” We have clearly expanded their known universe.
The three older cousins are inseparable and share two sleepovers on the boat, which includes a full complement of 10PM bedtimes and 6AM wakeups, plus tickling, giggling, jumping between bunks, climbing ladders and hosing down decks—as well as each other. When the Nitkins leave Ryan spends two more subdued nights all by himself. One day we take everyone for a harbor cruise and hot-dog barbecue at anchor.
We are euphoric that our family loves hanging out on the boat.
Our granddaughter, Casey, is this drop-dead redhead— with temper to match—who has the world drooling and slavering at her feet. And when she says, "Lulu, Nup!'' meaning "Lulu get me out of this fucking highchair and take me for a walk!" I can hardly accommodate because I've just melted into the sidewalk.
The parents are also terrific, but you know, these days it's not about them...
On April 24, at 11, we leave the Gomes family on the dock amid many waves and some tears. We are United States bound. Reversing our November track, the 50-mile sail from Paradise Island to Chub Cay starts out glorious—we are actually making 7 1/2 knots in 22-knot winds coming in at a 35- to 40-degree-angle. It happens that this is virtually impossible. We decide, given this, LULU’s more lackluster performance with the wind on her rear quarter may be our failings and not hers.
At any rate, we fly...for about 2 1/2 hours. Then suddenly the wind shifts to starboard, coming completely on the nose, with some fairly big waves. For another 3 hours we take a lot of water over the bow and gunwales. An inspection tour finds that we’ve sprung a leak in the V-berth, which thoroughly douses this, the Official Cousins' Sleeping Quarters, as well as both nearby heads. The small flood turns out to be my fault. It seems after Ryan made his last solo climb up the wall steps and out the V-berth hatch, I forgot to shut it, leaving a nice gap for the salt water to flow through.
We’re happy the mess wasn't caused by any structural problem.
Next day we cross the shallow Bahama banks to Miami with 16 knots from the Southeast—a perfect direction—coming at about 60 degrees and we're making 9 knots. Fantastic. When conditions are right there's nothing like sailing.
We expect to wave at the Statue of Liberty in earlyish June.