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Uniquely Salt Cay and Grand Turk

The turquoise waters of the Bahamas Banks slipped under the wings of our Delta jet as we began our descent toward the airport on the island of Provo, Turks & Caicos. This was our second trip to Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI) and, in contrast to the hustle and bustle we encountered on Provo on our previous trip in 2011, we looked forward to the quiet and solitude of Salt Cay and, later, on Grand Turk.

I had carefully crafted arrangements for our trip some months before, and we anticipated fairly smooth sailing once we arrived on Provo from Atlanta, cleared Customs & Immigration,  and hopped on the small Caicos Express Airways Cessna for the 20 minute flight to Salt Cay.

To Salt Caye from Provo airport.

To Salt Cay from Provo airport.

Following my in-depth research on  TripAdvisor, Fodor’s Grand Turk forum and emails to various property and business owners, I had selected the Castaway property for our 3 night stay on tiny, quaint Salt Cay. Upon our arrival at the little airstrip on the island, we were met by the erstwhile, efficient and friendly property manager Paul, who drove us around in his golf cart and gave us a quick tour of the settlement and harbor area. Paul showed us the two places to eat and suggested we needed to make a res for that evening’s fare if we wanted a meal. We took him up on his offer to call the managers of Island Thyme restaurant and to let them know they’d have two guests around 7pm.

Castaway cottage on quiet Salt Cay

Castaway cottage “Shipwreck” on quiet Salt Cay, Turks & Caicos, Bahamas.

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Soon, we arrived at our little cottage on the secluded beach on the north end of the island. We had the buildings, the beach and surrounds totally to ourselves, with the exception of a few cows who wandered by, grazing placidly on the low scrub surrounding the cottage.

The refreshing wind off the ocean kept us cool while we unpacked and prepared to head to the settlement to dinner. Luckily, we had made arrangements to rent a golf cart, which waited patiently outside the cottage as we climbed aboard and thumped our way down a long, dusty limestone track through the scrub to the settlement to Island Thyme.

Salt Cay donkey

One of Salt Cay’s donkeys, as seen from our golf cart.

On our way we passed by numerous simple homes of the locals, many surrounded by low limestone walls with gates to keep the donkeys at bay. Old salt-raker cottages, some quite nicely updated, appeared among the small houses that clustered near a park-like area where donkeys and cattle rested under welcome shade from casuarinas pine trees, providing a bucolic and wind-swept scene as we tooled by in our golf cart.

The little restaurant was placed on what appeared to be a small “town square” of the quiet settlement. While we waited for our dinner of almond-encrusted red snapper to be prepared, we enjoyed the rooftop patio view of the late afternoon light casting a warm glow over the salt ponds in the center of the island. These “salinas” are the legacy of when Salt Cay was the world’s largest producer of salt in the 1800’s. In spite of multiple hurricane visits throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, much remains of the history of the salt trade on Salt Cay, as expressed on the Turks & Caicos Preservation Foundation website http://saltcaypreservation.org/saltcay/historicdistrict/saltcaytoday.htm

which proclaims “A stroll through Balfour Town is like a tour of an outdoor museum, 19th-century industry, with dilapidated windmills, salt sheds and abandoned salinas.”

Another interesting Salt Cay factoid can be found in Jimmy Buffett’s autobiography, “A Pirate Looks at Fifty”, in which Buffett mentions that his father, James Buffett, told stories of his father (Jimmy’s grandfather), one James Buffett, who was the skipper of a five-masted Barkentine sailing vessel named the Chickamauga, from Pascagoula, Mississippi. James told his family tales of Salt Cay, which he considered the place he had some of the best times of his life. While salt was being loaded onto the ship, bound for New Orleans, the six-year-old boy who would grow up to be Jimmy’s father would “take off with a group of local kids and…chase flamingos and catch lobsters from the beach.”

While herding flamingos was not on our agenda, snorkeling certainly was. We hooked up with a descendant of the “salt baron” family Harriott, one Tim Dunn, who is the proud owner of a lovely new twin-hulled boat which anchors his business Crystal Seas Adventures.

Snorkeling the reefs just offshore, Salt Cay

Snorkeling the reefs just offshore, Salt Cay, Turks & Caicos.

Snorkel gals, Salt Cay

Snorkel gals, Salt Cay

We had Tim’s undivided attention and his fast powerboat to ourselves, as we snorkeled several reefs over the next two days. The best reefs were located not far offshore right in front of our cottage. You can see this series of circular reef formations in the aerial photo I took. In the photo, the furthest reef to your right is the one where I spotted a bull shark, my very first (and I hope last!) sighting of these critters with the well-deserved reputation as seriously dangerous to human health.

I won’t stoop to the lurid “man-eater” moniker but let’s just say I was glad it was seemingly intent on cruising the sand at the base of the reef some 45 feet below me and that Robin was safely (?) swimming over a different part of the reef (ironically, trailing after a nurse shark) and managed to miss being buzzed by this 6+ footer.  The reef fish, at least, had holes in the reef to dart into, and I watched them scatter as the shark swam rapidly along. I remained very still and was glad the critter just kept going until it disappeared around a bend in the reef.

Another reef to snorkel, off Salt Cay, Turks & Caicos.

Another reef to snorkel, off Salt Cay, Turks & Caicos.

Robin soon appeared. I mentioned the sighting, and we agreed to slowly make our way back to the boat. I saw Tim pull himself aboard and give us a relaxed wave. I figured he hadn’t spotted our visitor, which Tim confirmed once we got back aboard. He said he’d seen  few bull sharks in his many years of diving the TCI (over 500 dives) and that the overall shark population was very healthy in these islands, which was most heartening to hear but I must admit that thoughts of ocean conservation weren’t uppermost in my mind when I first figured out I wasn’t gazing at a sleepy, harmless ol’ nurse shark!

In spite of SCUBA diving and snorkeling the Caribbean waters since the 1970s, (I have no idea how many dives I’ve been on but a coupla hundred would likely be a fair estimate), I’ve only been in the ocean with A) lots of nurse sharks (too many to count), B) one reef shark, C) one lemon shark and D) that’s quite enuf sharks for now, thank you.

Snorkeling reefs offshore, Salt Cay.

Snorkeling reefs offshore, Salt Cay.

Back on land, we totally loved the perfect quiet and isolation of the cottage. Over the course of our 3-night stay, we went to bed under a huge, bright-white-light full moon. The brisk breezes coursing through open screen doors and windows and the ceiling paddle fans made the mosquito netting superfluous and a light blanket welcome during the wee hours. We were nightly lulled to sleep and daily awakened to the sounds of the ocean waves rolling along the shoreline, the breeze through the scrub and the frequent calls of birds. No human voices. No planes or traffic sounds. No telephones. No radio or TV. No smart-phone alert sounds. Just nature. Bliss.

Deserted beach, Salt Cay.

Deserted beach in front of our cottage, Salt Cay.

Our decision to stay some distance away from the little community near the town dock/harbor was a wise one, as the resident donkeys and roosters kicked up enough noise and drama to steal some sleep from the only other visitors (four adults) on the island. The visitors had chosen to stay near the center of the settlement, where, apparently, the beasts and fowl also chose to hang out. Some of the tales the other party told about the jacks waging bloody battles over the jennies were amusing, if somewhat alarming. Wouldn’t want to get between them! (The jacks, not the visitors…)

When not snorkeling or resting at the cottage, we hung out at the Coral Reef Bar and Grill right next to the little harbor near the town “square”.

The little harbor, Salt Cay.

The little harbor, Salt Cay.

While our meals there ranged from just-passable to awesome, we mostly enjoyed chatting with “Miss Debbie”, the proprietress of the bar/grill, the Tradewinds guest suites nearby, Salt Cay Divers (the primary dive operator on the island), and Salt Cay Real estate. Before long we were chatting about the TCI, Grand Turk (where we were headed next), whale watching, the resident donkeys, island history and online marketing tactics. Debbie sure is connected, and as far as I could tell, is the Go-to person on all things Salt Cay. Debbie’s life is apparently deeply rooted on Salt Cay, which struck me as different than the other 60 or more ex-pats who call the island their second home. 

We were told by Tim and others that most of the ex-pats had left the island a few weeks ago, as the season wound down. Besides Paul and his wife, the only other folks we met on the island were locals (“Belongers”, as the folks in the TCI refer to themselves.)

After our three laid-back days of quiet on Salt Cay, we caught one of the few-and-far-between flights from Salt Cay over to nearby Grand Turk. Here we were slated to spend the next week enjoying the comfort of a 3br, 2 bath, fully air-conditioned private villa called “Palm Villa”, which I had found on VRO.com. We had secured the place, pre-paid, months before, after exchanging emails with the owner, a Canadian resident. We arrived at the airport to find we had no ride awaiting us from the owner’s on-island “property manager” and, abandoned at the airport, we stood around searching in vain for a pay phone (no such thing in the 21st century, anywhere, apparently).  Debbie had luckily caught the same Cessna we did to GT and came to our rescue, using her cell phone to call the number I had been given for the PM, whom she apparently woke up and who admitted he had “forgotten all about” picking us up! This after I had called him, using Paul’s cell phone, from Salt Cay to remind him of our scheduled arrival!

The situation went from bad to worse. The condition of the property was simply awful– broken down, worn out, no linens, no AC, filth, exposed wiring. Suffice to say we hired a lawyer while on-island due to rectify a situation where the owner lied, misrepresenting his property in dated photos, refusing to compensate us a cent, etc. The lawyer made as much as we recovered. Lesson learned. Buy the insurance to protect yourself from property owners who are less than honest.

We managed to squeeze lemonade from lemons, and ended up moving lock, stock and over-the-barrel to the Bohio resort on GT, which turned out to be a lovely spot on the relatively undeveloped north side of the island.

Bohio resort, Grand Turk.

Bohio Resort and a neighborly donkey.

Tom, the manager, was very kind to offer us a corporate rate on a standard, motel-like room when we washed up on his beach after our little surprise at “Palm Villa”. He, like everyone we spoke to over the course of the next few days, knew all about those brown houses, where they were, their decrepit state, etc and was as horrified as other islanders and business owners over the treatment we had received.  

Bohio Resort beach.

Bohio Resort beach.

For the next 6 days and nights, the Bohio management, staff and surrounds served up a combination of off-season quiet relaxation, delicious meals, and multiple opportunities for us to jump into a boat and run a couple of minutes out to the edge of the wall and 7,000 feet of ocean blue depths. We were delighted to be situated so close to the wall, and found ourselves on a boat every day, experiencing another amazing snorkel spot.

One afternoon Tim came over to GT from Salt Cay to help with cruise ship overflow for an outfit he used to work for. I saw his boat go by and gave him a quick call on a borrowed cell phone and sure enough he was free that afternoon. Soon he anchored off the beach in front of the tiki bar at the Bohio, we jumped aboard and he took us to the northwest point of the island to a dive spot he referred to as his favorite, the “Ampitheater”.

Grand Turk snorkelers.

Grand Turk snorkelers.

We ended up snorkeling the Amphitheater atrium, a shallow (15-45 foot) area shoreward of the marked dive location.  Wow, was that area teaming with fish! The (full moon!) tide was coming in, creating serious currents in a deep channel between fingers of reef. A large swell was running as well and the water was cold, all of which accounted for the fishy environs. The angle of the afternoon sun’s rays lit up the west-facing reef line like a spotlight, and all the colors of the hard corals, soft corals and tropical fish simply danced in our vision. Massive goose bumps under our thin dive skins finally drove us to get back aboard and we grinned like kids, enthusiastically thanking Tim for sharing a special spot with us.

Snorkeling The Wall, Grand Turk.

Snorkeling The Wall, Grand Turk.

Debbie’s Salt Cay Divers skiff, with skipper Ollie, was also available at the Bohio a couple of mornings, so we had Ollie and his boat all to ourselves as he took us to 3 different locations on the wall to snorkel. All in all I think we snorkeled eight different locations during the 5 days we had available for snorkeling. By the time we were ready to pack our gear, we discovered our skins were almost worn through and my mask and snorkel were getting pretty ragged and leaky after the past 3 years of Caribbean trips. Hey, a nice problem to have!

We actually got around GT quite a bit in the didn’t-want-to-start-or-keep-going golf cart, while we had access to it for the first two days on the island. We shopped for food stuffs and went to the bank to fetch money for the lawyer we hired, drove up and down Front Street innumerable times, popped into the national museum,  checked out a couple of other motel-like properties I had come across during my research, had a ho-hum lunch at one of them, took photos of the short stretch of historic Duke Street that most visitors photograph (believe me, the Abacos are far prettier as examples of scenic Bahamas streets!), ate lunch out of a food wagon on dusty, hot Front Street (cruise ships were in so the street vendors were out), ate another (not-so-great) lunch at a local hole-in-the-wall eatery on dusty, hot Middle Street (where to locals live), visited a couple of thinly-stocked “convenience stores”, and saw a lot of trash and stray dogs and the shanties where the homeless Haitians lived.

Duke Street, Grand Turk.

Duke Street, Grand Turk.

We also dodged speeding cars, kids who chased our golf cart for fun, crazed cruise-ship zombies racing rented golf carts up the main drag of Pond Street, a group of cruise-ship zombies being herded, er I mean led on a tour of the town salinas on their rental Segways, and gave way numerous times to donkeys and horses that would appear suddenly and either dash madly or stroll leisurely across the street in front of us and disappear in the brush or behind a modest dwelling where the folks sitting in the shade of the porch would wave at us and call “Hello!” We always returned the wave with a smile.

After such frenzied activity, we were glad to give up the golf cart and remain “stuck” at the Bohio the remainder of our stay.

Sunset from Bohio Resort beach.

Sunset from Bohio Resort beach.

All in all, I believe this vacation goes down as one of the more unusual. Not exactly what we had hoped for, much less planned, and the additional expense of paying for, in essence, two places to stay kinda put a damper on our enjoyment. But, really, I found it hard to stay upset for long while I rested my tired-out-from-snorkeling self on a lovely padded beach chaise lounge in the shade of the casuarinas, enjoying a terrific breeze, watching Robin leisurely paddle a sea kayak against a backdrop of layers of Caribbean greens and blues stretching out toward the setting sun. Somehow, the world and my tiny spot in it clicked right back into place and kept on going round, and round, and round.

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Long Island, Bahamas-Livin’ Like A Native 2002

 

Columbus Harbor

Columbus Harbor, Long Island, Bahamas

Experienced Caribbean travelers generally prefer to avoid heading toward the equator in the heat of July. However, the timing of our visit was determined by our Bahamian friend from the States, who invited us to join her for a family reunion on the island. The event was scheduled for the week of July 4, so off we went, in planes that decreased in size and became hotter and more cramped as we traveled from Tampa, Florida to Miami to Nassau, and then on to Long Island.

On our previous visit, we’d experienced Long Island in the heat of May, which is off season, where we had enjoyed the relative luxury of the Stella Maris Inn resort situated at the northern tip of the island.

OceanView, Stella Maris, Long Island, Bahamas

Ocean view, Stella Maris, Long Island, Bahamas.

This trip we looked forward to “Livin’ Like The Natives Do”, discovering local hangouts and foregoing expensive resort amenities.Our destination was one of only two airstrips on the island- the one closest to Cartwrights, the settlement named for our friend’s family, where I hoped a rental car awaited us.

Arriving on Long Island during a torrid summer mid-afternoon afforded a small taste of the heat and sun we were to endure for the week. But hey, we were used to the heat so we came prepared. Of course the (high-mileage, beat-up, standard shift) rental car had no air-conditioning but it did have fairly new tires, very critical to getting around on the extremely rough, boulder-strewn and potholed limestone roads that crisscross the island.

It is worth noting that the island is a bit over 100 miles long, with one major asphalt road (The Queen’s Road, which our friend’s uncle helped develop in the 1960s) that runs the length, along the leeward shore of the island. In places the island may be six miles wide. Rough roads that connect from the Queen’s Road to the rocky, windward shore are few and far between, due to the cost of bush hogging and putting in a (typically very steep) road. A consequence is that the beaches are deserted. It also helps that, the year of our visit, less than 5000 people were living year-round on the island, which made it rather sparsely populated.

After we collected our little Geo-type car at the tiny airport, we managed to make our way “up island” to hook up with our friend at the new Shell station, one of only two gas stations for many miles.

Family truck, Cartwrights, Long Islan, Bahamas

Family truck in grandmother’s yard, Cartwrights, Long Island, Bahamas.

Numerous family members had turned out to meet our friend at the airport, and at least five adults and four kids were piled in the family pickup truck, squeezed in the rusting cab and packed into the open bed. After hasty greetings in the broiling sunlight, we formed a caravan and headed down the road, looking like a vanguard from the Grapes of Wrath.

We soon arrived at the Cartwright family compound and the home that our host and his wife shared with their 2 pre-teens and Maw-Ma, the 85-year-old matriarch of the clan.

 

The three photos illustrate a 20th century homestead, the remains of a home circa late 1800s; and the ruins of a home from the early 1800s.

The family home was quite 20th century: a small, unfinished cinderblock house, like most homes on the island, situated close to the Queen’s Road and surrounded by several acres of banana and fruit trees. Across the road squatted the little community store, which, during our stay, the clan cleaned out of chicken, soft drinks, bottled water and Vienna sausage until the next arrival of the island supply boat. Next door was an uncle’s house and down the road was Aunt So-and-So and Cousin so-and-so and on it goes.

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Living on an island means making-do and learning to live with little or no access to services and amenities to which we in the States are accustomed. One must wait for the weekly mail boat to arrive, which brings car parts and machinery and doors and furniture and the like. There are finite limits to what the boat can bring, and to what people can afford. Thus, it’s very expensive to purchase many items that we take for granted, like clothing or shoes or floor mats or nails. Example- a plastic patio chair retailing here for $4.99 is over $17.00 there.

Most of the vehicles are pretty old and beat-up. It costs thousands to ship a vehicle to the island, after having bought it typically very used, in Florida. Upkeep is sporadic, parts unheard-of and very expensive, so many vehicles are cobbled together and in extreme states of wear and tear. In fact, the family truck broke down trying to climb one of the steep, rocky, rough-hewn tracks on the windward side of the island. Luckily, we were following the truck in the little rental car, and were able to run “up island”, or south, to find a relative with jumper cables. Once underway, the truck had to be backed up a steep incline in reverse because it only ran forward in third gear. With a few people pushing, the truck got over that hill. That was the end of visits to the rocky shore in the truck!

As for their homes, island residents build as they can afford, so it typically takes a few years to complete a house. We observed many cinderblock shells about the island, overgrown and apparently abandoned, but we were informed they were merely “under construction”.

This was the first time our friend had been back to her home since she was ten years old. She was excited to be back and to show her own children where she had grown up and attended school. A real treat for us was to watch her interact with her family and revisit her childhood haunts and activities, like clawing around in the cave system that, for generations, has protected island families from hurricanes.

Hurricane cave, Long Island, Bahamas.

Cartwright’s cave, a necessary hurricane haven. Long Island, Bahamas.

Our friend managed to locate carvings and scratching made by members of several generations of her family, and we even teased her uncle about a decades-old carving we discovered that advertised his attraction for a long-forgotten schoolgirl. We found a goat skull in the cave, and many bats, spiders, salamanders and land crabs. In places it was pitch black, and the damp limestone floor was uneven and slippery — thankfully we had our flashlights.

We spent our days and evenings with the clan, providing transport for the beach-or-blue-hole-of-the-day expedition. Because of the heat (and non-air-conditioned homes and businesses), the goal was to find a swimming spot with some shade and to relax for a few hours during the heat of the day, or at least until 2:00 pm when the truck was needed to go to the Shell to pick up Auntie from work. The truck also was needed at 4:00 pm to pick Uncle up from the construction site where he worked, a few miles from the house.

While Uncle and Auntie worked during the day, Maw-Ma sat in a breezy, shaded spot by a door or out back near the banana grove, weaving palmetto into strips that she would eventually use to weave hats or straw bags. Her handiwork was beautiful, and a source of income for the family.

Trip Pix Here

Maw-Ma would often have visitors, including her elderly sister and her sister’s daughter. The sister was wheelchair bound, toothless and fond of snuff. She wore a John Deere baseball cap and, like everyone else, she wore threadbare clothes (folks wear their clothes ’til they literally fall off their bodies).

The elderly sister and her middle-aged daughter were intimidating when we were first introduced– I suppose because we were unaccustomed to being stared at, but we soon realized this is the way of the locals, who apparently find visitors an infinite source of interest and amusement. We soon came to know these women as gentle, simple folk — and hearty! The daughter typically wheeled her overweight mother down the sun blasted Queen’s Road for several miles, to and from these daily visitations. Plus, the daughter was always barefooted, as are all the kids and most of the adults we encountered. We were told that shoes were saved for church, work and school!

I have now digressed well beyond our first evening, which found some thirteen of us piled into the truck and the car, slowly making our way to nearby Clarence Town to one of the few restaurants on the island, and the only one open after 7:00 pm on a Saturday. It took a couple of hours for the friendly staff to cook and serve food (chicken, grouper or conch) for the clan, but time flew by as we all chattered and laughed and did our best to decipher the range of accents represented. It wouldn’t be long before we Floridians were speaking in the soft patios and deliberate delivery common to the island.

The stars were close overhead and the almost-full moon high in the sky as we caravanned home along the dark Queen’s Road. We were invited to bunk in at another uncle’s nearby house, which proved to be a sleepless night. Amenities like a shower head, a light in the bathroom, a toilet that flushed and screens on the windows were conspicuously missing. We were hot, tired and dirty from a long day of travel and didn’t sleep a wink as we tossed and turned on an ancient, soggy mattress and were devoured by no-see-ums and mosquitoes. Yikes! Tough times for even us, who camp in mosquito-infested areas in the tropics! Of course, we use a tent with fine mesh screens — no such luck here.

Sunday dawn found us on the Queen’s Road, having unceremoniously abandoned our host’s home. I drove slowly along the Queen’s road, blearily looking for one of two fishing resorts I knew were in the area. Before too long we managed to locate our home-away-from-home at the Greenwich Lodge. We spoke with the proprietress as she was cooking breakfast for her only other guests, a rowdy group of high-school students from Washington State on a church outing. She was happy to have us check in right away, as we were to be the only guests in this 8-room facility the rest of the week, after the kids departed. Once she knew we were on the island to visit with the Cartwrights, we were treated as family.

We were soon happily showering in a brand new motel-like room, one with air conditioning. We caught the morning’s breakfast, which we soon discovered to be grits and something, usually dry scrambled eggs and greasy bacon or, interestingly, tuna salad. No bread. Coffee or juice but not both. Then we took a long nap.

By mid afternoon, we were ready to go play with the Cartwright clan. Everyone piled into the car and truck and off we went to what turned out to be one of several fantastically picturesque beaches. Maw-Ma rode with us in the rental car and we had the chance to hear of her stories of being raised on the island with no electricity, before her son put in the Queen’s Road.

We learned how many of the settlers, white and black, including her grandparents, arrived at the island. They jumped from their convict ship as it stopped to provision en-route from Puerto Rico to Nassau. Many of these people were poor and had been incarcerated for petty theft (food, mostly). Some were escaped slaves. They eventually populated the island and turned it into what is now the breadbasket of the Bahamas. Nearly all of the fresh fruit and most of the veggies served in the Bahamas come from Long Island, which has numerous sources of fresh water, including cave systems, springs and blue holes.

Fresh water is what brought Christopher Columbus to the island on a number of his crossings, which is why the west tip of the island and the harbor there are named for him and a monument erected.

Columbus Harbor Pan

Columbus Harbor, Long Island, Bahamas.

The harbor goes on for miles and is one of the most hauntingly picturesque and pristine areas I’ve ever seen. Except for flotsam and some litter, I doubt it looks one iota different from when he visited. No homes, no boats, no people, no power lines, and only one narrow, dangerously rutted, track of a road. We were captivated by this area on our last visit and were delighted to return, even if the drive was 1.5 hours to the north, or “down island”.

Subsequent forays took us to a couple of the island’s blue holes, including our favorite, Dean’s Blue Hole, located on Turtle Cove, which we had visited on our first trip to the island. Unbeknownst to us on our first visit to Long Island, the property surrounding Dean’s Blue Hole is owned by yet another Cartwright family member, so of course this visit we had permission to access this place that the world-famous Jacques Cousteau had made famous by featuring in one of his TV specials.

Deans Blue Hole, Long Island, Bahamas

Deans Blue Hole, Long Island, Bahamas.

These blue holes are found throughout the Caribbean, but this one is the deepest in the Bahamas, well over 600 feet. Fresh water wells up from below and mixes with salt water flowing from the adjacent protected lagoon, which I thought looked exactly like a pirate stronghold!

One day we adults slipped away from the kids and spent the morning at this wondrous place. Our friend and her brother were brave enough to climb up the razor sharp rocks that tower some 50 or more feet above the blue hole. After much egging-on by those of us on the sandy beach at the edge of the blue hole, they each jumped into the crystal clear, cold water below, scattering tropical fish and startling the large Nassau grouper that hung about in the depths below the cliff wall.

Lynn at Dean's Blue Hole, Long Island, Bahamas

Lynn at Dean’s Blue Hole, Long Island, Bahamas.

Another day and another incredible beach, named Lowes Beach.

Lowes beach, Long Island, Bahamas

Lowes Beach, Long Island, Bahamas.

This one was tucked into a small cove which was protected by a 30-foot high wall of the typical sharp iron shore rock. Here, a section of the wall had been worn down over the centuries, so the ocean waves poured through an opening approximately 40 feet wide. The tumble of rocks found on the lee side of the rock fall had formed a small reef that featured a swim-through at about 15 feet of depth and was festooned by colorful corals, urchins and small tropical fish.

This horseshoe shaped, protected lagoon with its gently sloping sandy bottom and crystal clear water was a perfect place for the kids to swim, snorkel and jump off the rocks. We all spent an entire afternoon there. Some folks walked over the dunes to the next cove, and the next, each uniquely beautiful. I sat in a small patch of shade and drank cold beer, avoiding the sun and enjoying the wind and the crashing of the ocean just over the wall.

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Another day trip took us up-island to a very large, deep blue hole. This one was tucked into a large cove. The cove was protected from the open ocean by an outer ring of reef that was about a mile away. Again, the sand was white and fine, the sun hot, the water crystal clear. But here, the edges of the blue hole dropped away to 50 feet and more, mere inches from the edge of the water. One could sit in waist-deep water, with their feet on the steep slope and see clearly through the pellucid water. A mere 20 feet from the water’s edge, the bottom was 60 feet down, and it just kept going. Fear of sharks and other unknowns seemed to keep people away from the depths here. It was a spooky place. Only one home was built on the cove. Otherwise, the entire area was deserted.

July 4 was the full moon, and plans were underway for 18 clan members to camp on the beach! Uncle and Auntie took the day off (remember, Independence Day is not a holiday in the Bahamas!). Fresh Bahama bread and mac n’ cheese (a staple) were baked, a huge coleslaw salad whipped up, chicken prepared and hotdogs purchased, in case the men were unlucky in spearing fish at the camping beach.

Late afternoon found the caravan at the windy, rocky beach. The men grabbed snorkel gear and spears and buckets balanced in tire inner tubes and swam out to the nearby reef. The kids played in the shallows in the lagoon. Women prowled the rocks, prying large “whelks” and “curbs” (we’d call them barnacles) from the rocks for steamed appetizers.

In a little over an hour the guys had speared a variety of fish and had grabbed a large slipper lobster and a larger crawfish. The lobster and crawfish were out of season, so they were referred to as “hush-your-mouth crabs”! A search party went out to find some land crabs (ghost crabs in other parts of the Caribbean) but none were found. That’s because they had migrated to the other side of the island, a fact we determined the next day when we ran over scores of these large-as-your-hand crustaceans as they crossed the Queen’s Road, heading back to their spawning grounds.

The fire was quickly made in a hole among the rocks on shore. As dusk fell, the kids were brought in from the water: (“Don’ let the shaaks get ya’! Com-in now!”). Foodstuffs in cardboard boxes and small coolers were placed among the rocks. The fish and veggies and spices were prepared and wrapped in foil and thrown on the big grate that served as a grill. Whelks, curbs and the lobsters were placed on the grill and soon we were all stuffing ourselves as the full moon drifted in and out of the clouds hanging low on the horizon. The evening ended as clan members settled into sheets and ground cloths above the high-tide mark. We soon left for the comfort of our air-conditioned motel room.

On Tuesday night, we were invited to join the adults at Doc Mel’s “club”, to drink beer and play pool. So off we went, caravanning in the two vehicles. Turns out that Doc Mel’s place was less than 2 miles from the clan compound, and years away from anything Americans might call a “club”.  A simple, concrete building painted a bright lime green, Doc Mel’s neighborhood bar features open doorways sporting unfinished 3/4′ plywood “doors”, windowless openings without screens, a bare and unfinished concrete floor and two small toilets, each with its attendant sign crudely written on the unfinished plywood door: “Ladys” or “Mens”. The proprietor himself is a gentle, ageless black man who seemed old to our friend when she was 10!

Count on the atmosphere at Doc Mel’s to be warm and friendly. In fact, count on it to be hotter than Hades, with barely a draft of breeze moving across the shrunken and beat-up pool table. But what did we care, we could barely see the balls anyway because the one bare bulb over the table was blown. So we opened the doors to the toilets and used the light spilling out to guide our pool game. A rusty fan tried to move the heavy air around but lost the struggle. Mosquitoes nipped. We passed around the one available roll of paper towels and gamely mopped brows, arms and necks as we slugged cold beer (Heineken or Kalik, awful island brew, or Bud, before we drank it out of stock.) We laughed and played dominos and visited with the one or two locals who stopped by to see what all the commotion was about.

The next day, word came to us that special preparations had been made at Doc Mel’s for our entertainment and comfort and we were asked to return. This time, the bulb over the pool table was lit and another fan added to the anemic airflow. A few more locals showed up to laugh at our behaviors, and someone had brought a boom box. Next thing you know it was Electric Slide time and we tore the house down! I’m sure our antics provided fuel for many a story passed through the community.

Doc Mels, Long Island, Bahamas

Doc Mels entertainment complex, Long Island, Bahamas.

So, yes we had a great time, being embraced as part of a large and extended family. Everyone we met was friendly and helpful. Having traveled the Caribbean, we were not put off by running on island time, the inevitable delays, or silly questions. We learned a lot about how to live on a sparsely populated island with limited resources and were reminded that we are very fortunate to enjoy our standard of living.

All too soon it was time for us to head home. Aboard the Bahamas Airways flight, I watched Long Island grow smaller and drop below the horizon and I thought that, of my many trips throughout the Caribbean, this one would linger long and fondly in my memory. PHOTOS HERE