For a thrill, try island-hopping by seaplane, then go deepsea fishing like Hemingway
By Neil Leiberman
The moment of truth had come. Here I was, about to make my first landing by seaplane at the first of five of the Out Islands of the Bahamas (out of 60) that we would be visiting this trip. I had been intrigued at the prospect of a form of transportation that would use both air and water.
I must confess, I was nervous about landing on the water in a seaplane: Is it like landing on concrete without tires? What happens if the sea is too rough? Do you wind up circling or trying to find another landing place? While waiting to board for our 25-mile flight from Fort Lauderdale to Bimini, I posed these concerns to the Chalk Ocean Airways pilot, who informed me not to worry–we could land on land if necessary.
Chalk operates with Grumman G073T Turbine Mallard, a twin-engine amphibious aircraft powered by two Pratt & Whitney-Canada PT-6 turbine engines capable of operating from water as well as land-based airports. The aircraft accommodates 17 passengers in air-conditioned comfort, and boasts a cruising speed of 200 mph.
The Out Islands are so-named because they are relatively isolated from the main islands of Nassau/Paradise Island, which draws two million visitors a year, and Grand Bahama Island, which draws 500,000. Yet, very possibly because of more air service, the Out Islands are now drawing one million visitors a year.
Island hopping, though, is a wonderful way to get a flavor for the Bahamas, a 100,000 sq. mile archipelago that extends over 500 miles, surrounded by the clearest water in the world. Each island has its own character, but everywhere, are the pastel colors of buildings that reflect the tropical colors of the water and marine life.
All this came into thrilling view as we soared above Bimini. My first landing by seaplane proved to be unforgettable, a sensation not to be missed – like a combination of parasailing and motorized waterskiing.
I have many pleasant memories of Bimini from when I last visited as a college student, more than 30 years ago. Bimini remains an unspoiled island with perhaps the same people greeting me – but like myself, they too now have families and are some years wiser.
I followed in the footsteps of such notables as Ernest Hemingway, who made regular trips to Bimini, and Ponce de Leon, who visited in his search for the Fountain of Youth in 1513 (you can make your own visit to the Healing Hole – a special pool on the south of Bimini which is said to hold the potential magical power of rejuvenation and healing).
Indeed, the Bahamas have had a long tradition in tourism. The tourism industry began in the mid-19th century with government support for the construction of hotels and subsidized steamship service. Tourism once again blossomed in the 1920s when Prohibition brought well-to-do American tourists to the islands (clearly Hemingway was among their number). The influx of visitors increased the demand for food, lodging and other items. Consequently, the banking industry boomed as The Islands of The Bahamas built new hotels, warehouses, bars, distilleries and wharves.
Settled in the early 1920s, Bimini once served as a base of operations for rumrunners from Nassau. Once Prohibition took effect in the United States, the economy began to prosper. And when famed author Ernest Hemingway found his way here in 1935, more people discovered Bimini’s tropical vacation allure.
When Hemingway wasn’t drinking in local saloons, writing memorable novels or starting fights with locals (and visitors), he tapped into a resource that would ultimately bring The Bimini Islands to national prominence – game fishing.
In fact, fishing is the most popular activity on Bimini – both deep sea fishing and bone fishing, which is akin to fly-fishing.
Bonefishing takes place in the flats where guides slowly pole small flat-bottomed boats for anglers; those who are truly dedicated quietly stalk these elusive fish by wading through knee-deep water. These quicksilver fighters, weighing up to 15 pounds, inspire fly fishermen and spin casters alike with their power and speed. Unpredictable and wily, the bonefish are often found in schools of 100 or more, making for exciting bursts of action. (Don’t try to eat these bottom skimmers – you’ll quickly realize how they got their name.)
Deep-sea fishing takes place off the cays where the drop-off from the reef to the Atlantic is steep. This type of fishing involves trolling the deep waters with large fishing tackle (furnished), baited for marlin, sailfish, tuna, mahimahi or mackerel. Charters are available throughout the Islands, and tournaments are scheduled year-round.
Other attractions include snorkeling and scuba diving to reefs and wrecks to see the magnificent multi-colored marine life below the ocean surface, swimming with Bimini’s dolphins, and kayaking amid crystal clear waters, gentle waves and gorgeous vistas.
Geology aficionados will be fascinated to explore the Lost City of Atlantis – a huge limestone block off the northern coast, so named because local legend says it was once an undersea road to Atlantis. Divers can get a guide and explore it more thoroughly.
Literary buffs will want to visit the Compleat Angler Hotel, a veritable shrine to Ernest Hemingway, where he spent most of his time on Bimini. The ground floor of the hotel has been transformed into The Hemingway Museum, where you can find old photos and excerpts from his writings. While in Bimini, Hemingway worked on several of his books and magazine articles, including “To Have And Have Not” and “On the Blue Water.”
With the sea being so vitally important to the islanders, you can see the art of boat building at Ansil Saunders, a fifth generation boat-builder.
Bimini Island does have an airstrip, but I recommend the unique magic of landing on the liquid surface, an experience available from Chalk Ocean Airways (800-424-2557).
Our next stop was The Exumas, a collection of 365 cays and islands stretching over 120 miles. Two main islands, Great Exuma and Little Exuma, form the southern tip. Hidden coves, bays, and harbours throughout are magnets for yachts and sport fisherman.
So spectacular is the scenery, you might recognize the Exumas from the memorable scenes in James Bond’s “Thunderball” and “Never Say Never Again,” as well as Disney’s “Splash.” These were filmed at Thunderball Grotto, a breathtaking hollowed out island near Staniel Cay, which abounds with tropical fish, rare sponges and coral.
The 176-square mile Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park is the first of its kind, offering a spectacular pristine marine environment. The first marine fishery reserve in the Caribbean, it is accessible by boat only (for more information, Park Warden, 242-359-1821).
Snorkeling or diving here will let you discover blue holes, a natural beauty, such as Angelfish Blue Hole and Crab Cay Crevasse, that are filled with more fish than most blue holes.
Other attractions include The Hermitage, ruins of one of the last cotton plantations, originally built by the Kendall family in the late 1700s; Salt Beacon, in Williams Town, Little Exuma, was built in the early 19th century to guide ships engaged in th sale trade, stands 30 feet high, and is a popular attraction for visitors to Little Exuma.
Four Seasons Resort Great Exuma at Emerald Bay is an intimate 183-room year-round destination resort surrounded by tranquil turquoise waters and a mile-long bay with a powdery white sand beach. Special features of the resort include the Greg Norman designed 18-hole, par-72 golf course, a full-service spa and fitness center, as well a tennis facility with six courts. The resort offers two swimming pools, along with a selection of non-motorized water sports by the beach. Two restaurants with dramatic views over Emerald Bay include the main dining room and poolside grill featuring regional cuisine of local seafood. The resort also provides a full-range of children’s indoor and outdoor activities organized by full-time, professional staff in the complimentary “Kids For All Seasons” program (242-336-6800, or local sales office, 212-688-2268,www.fourseasons.com/greatexuma).
Accommodations choices include the Club Peace and Plenty (800-525-2210); Hotel Higgins Landing; Palm Bay Beach Club; Peace and Plenty Beach Inn; Regatta Point; Staniel Cay Yacht Club; and Two Turtles Inn.
The Abacos remained largely unexplored until the late 18th century; the first known settlers were British Loyalists who left the United States after the American Revolution. Six hundred of these refugees founded the first settlement, Carleton, on Great Abaco. Because of this, Loyalist heritage remains strong, with some of the residents even opposing Bahamian independence from Britain.
The Abacos, a 120-mile necklace of islands and often-uninhabited cays and beaches, are known for their beautiful beaches, Great Abaco at Treasure Cay and Ocean Beach on the eastern end.
With over 65 species of birds on The Abacos, it truly is a bird-watcher’s paradise. It is one of the few places in The Islands of The Bahamas where you can find the green Abaco or Bahama Parrot, mainly in South Abaco near Hole-In-The-Wall. Other species include the Bahama Yellow-Throat, the Cuban Emerald Woodpecker, the Red-Legged Thrush, the Olive-Capped Warbler and the Flamingo, national bird of The Bahamas.
Fishing is superb, especially at Walker’s Cay, Marsh Harbour, Treasure Cay and Green Turtle Cay, where fishermen come to take part in summer tournaments. Deep-sea fishing is just a short boat ride from the cays.
Popular events include the annual Boating Regatta in July and the Goombay Summer Festival, which features native music, food, dance and arts and crafts, from June through August.
Popular attractions include the Loyalist Memorial Sculpture Garden, with 24 busts of prominent Bahamians; the candy-striped Hope Town Lighthouse, built during the 1860s (one of only two remaining beacons that is not automated, it still relies on kerosene-burning apparatus); Pelican Cays Land & Sea Park, a 2,100-acre preserve with undersea caves, coral reefs and an array of terrestrial plants and animals, accessible by boat; Albert Lowe Museum, a historical located in the restored Victorian-era family home; Abaco National Park, comprising 20,500 acres including, 5000 acres of forest that is the nesting area and habitat for the Abaco Parrot; and a 3,800-acre preserve and conservation area for the endangered Wild Barbary Horses of Abaco, with a lineage traced back to Spanish Colonial times.
The Abaco Beach Resort & Boat Harbour offers a gym, tennis, water sports (kayaks, sunfish, windsurfing), children’s playground, volleyball, bocce, horseshoes and crochet, diving at its own dive center (800-753-9259).
The Treasure Cay Hotel Resort & Marina is part of a quaint village on a 3 1/2 mile beach, with a 150-slip marina. There is fishing, boat rentals, scuba diving, snorkeling and a wide variety of watersports, plus fresh water swimming pools, and four tennis courts. Golfers delight in the challenging, tropically landscaped, 186-acre, 18-hole championship golf course designed by Dick Wilson (800-327-1584, www.treasurecay.com).
The Abaco Club on Winding Bay is British entrepreneur Peter de Savary’s new $250 million golf and sporting retreat, consisting of 75 oceanfront cottages on a 500-acre peninsula surrounded by 2.25 miles of deep powder sand beach and bluffs. The centerpiece is a Scottish style tropical links golf course (the first in the world, apparently), designed by Donald Steel and Tom Mackenzie The retreat also offers bone and deep-sea fishing, scuba diving and other water sports, health spa with Elemis treatments, horseback riding, an extensive children’s program, tennis and other leisure activities. The Club is designed as members-only (membership is $65,000), but nonmembers can visit the club once. Savary has developed other elegant private estates including Bovey Castle in Datmor National Park in England (631-465-2070,www.theabacoclub.com).
During fall, a number of the resorts offer specials:
Treasure Cay is offering a “Continental Golf Package” through Dec. 15, which features a 2 or 3 night stay that includes round trip air fare between Fort Lauderdale and Treasure Cay on Continental Gulfstream, accommodation, unlimited green fees, tax and service charge. Package rates for the “Continental Golf Package” are from $476 per person double occupancy for 2 nights and $555 per person double occupancy for 3 nights. (Bahamasair, 800-222-4262 or access www.bahamasair.com).
Green Turtle Cay Club is offering the “Free Room Special” through Dec. 25. Guests staying a minimum of two nights will receive a credit equal to their room rate applicable to food and beverage at the resort including bottled wine. Waterfront room rates begin at $170 per night and range to a two bedroom villa, accommodating up to six people, for $370 per night (866-528-0539, www.greenturtleclub.com).
Or, “Fall Into Luxury” at the Bluff House Beach Hotel, which, for $320 per person based on double occupancy (through Dec. 18), is providing 3 nights in a deluxe room, full breakfast for 2 people each morning, one romantic dinner for 2, and the choice of either an in room massage for 2 people by licensed masseuse or a 3 day golf cart rental (800-745-4911, www.bluffhouse.com).
Other accommodations choices include Abaco Inn; Hope Town Harbor Lodge; Bahamas Beach Cub Resort and Orchid Bay Yacht Club & Marina.
Eleuthera, located off the southeast coast of Florida, is a mere two miles wide and 110 miles long and famous for its pink sand beaches, colonial villas and pineapple plantations.
It was founded by 70 hearty souls who sailed from Bermuda in 1648 to found a colony where they could practice Puritanism. After being shipwrecked on the treacherous “Devil’s backbone,” they found shelter in a cave. Called Preachers Cave, it had a natural pulpit and was used for religious services even after the colonists left to establish towns elsewhere. Preacher’s Cave, located about 10 miles outside the “Bluff” is still a popular attraction.
The colonists established a government based on the first tue democracy in the Western Hemisphere, and named the island, Eleuthera, from the Greek word for freedom.
Its heritage is on view at Hayne’s Library, built by Governor William Frederick Haynes Smith in 1897, which today serves as a public library.
Glass Window Bridge, located about two miles east of Upper Bouge at the narrowest part of the island (just 30 feet wide), is a striking rock formation.
The Cove Eleuthera, located in Gregory Town on the west coast, is a wluxurious haven with 22 rooms and deluxe suites, pool, two private powdery pink sand beaches from which you can watch stunning sunsets. The resort was originally built in 1969 as the Arawack Club, but underwent extensive renovation in 2005, but the aim is to be a luxurious retreat–there is even WiFi on the beach though no TVs or telephones in the rooms. Amenities include snorkeling, kayaking, tennis equipment, bicycles to explore the island, pool. (800-552-5060,www.TheCoveEleuthera.com).
U.S. currency is interchangeable with the Bahamaian dollar throughout the islands.
Bahamasair, the flag carrier for The Islands Of Bahamas, is expands its direct service to the destination Nov. 17, with new flights from Ft. Lauderdale to Marsh Harbour, Abaco. Fares for the new flight begin at $99 (about $100 saving compared to other carriers).
Bahamasair will depart Ft. Lauderdale (FLL) Thursdays at 1 pm and Sundays at 2:50 pm for the 45-minute flight to Marsh Harbour (MHH). Return flights to Ft. Lauderdale from Marsh Harbour will depart on Thursdays at 2:15 pm and on Sundays at 1:05 pm. Flights are timed to allow easy connection with scheduled service of US Airways, a codeshare partner of Bahamasair.
The Islands of the Bahamas website offers details about the different islands, accommodations, attractions, travel arrangements and vacation packages: www.bahamas.com. You can take your own island hopping streaming video tour, at http://www.bahamas.com/bahamas/biih/index.aspx
© 2005 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.