On earth as it was in Abaco, 1987.....................
SHELTERED BAHAMA ISLES
By SARAH BIRD WRIGHT: SARAH BIRD WRIGHT of Midlothian, Va.
Published: Sunday, January 18, 1987
Competition for the accolade of the most idyllic outpost in the Caribbean is stiff, but for tranquil shallow waters, Lilliputian villages with an 18th-century flavor and sun-drenched beaches, the Abacos are arguably the best.
The Abacos are a group of islands and cays forming a boomerang shape around the Sea of Abaco about 180 miles east of Fort Lauderdale. Low-lying, with sand fine enough for egg timers and water averaging 6 to 12 feet, they have escaped excessive commercial development. About 8,000 people live in 20 communities on seven of the islands. Great Abaco and Little Abaco (joined by a causeway) are the largest; among the others are Green Turtle Cay (pronounced key), Treasure Cay, Great Guana Cay, Elbow Cay and Man-O-War Cay. Most of today's inhabitants are descended from Loyalists who fled New England after the American Revolution in 1783.
The residents of the Abacos are deeply religious. They welcome visitors, as there is no income tax in the Bahamas and the economy depends on tourist income along with high import duties. After more than 300 years as a British Colony, the Bahama Islands became independent in 1973.
The Abacos have long been known to yachtsmen. The waters within the cays and reefs are ideal for small power and sailing vessels, and boating people cross year round from Florida, bringing sloops, ketches, yachts and trawlers in convoys, linked by radio. Other visitors fly in, although it can be difficult to get to the islands by air. If not guests on private boats, they may rent a cottage or stay in one of the attractive small inns.
Large cruise ships cannot enter Great Abaco Sound, and even yachts drawing six to seven feet must wait for the tide or be precluded from some of the more appealing harbors.
Almost everybody can have a cay; they form a rippling selvage along the east coast, and, with the exception of a few that are privately owned, are easily accessible to small power boats. These are included in many cottage rentals, and inns often have them for hire. From Red Shank Cay to Manjack Cay to the Double Breasted Cays, they have sandy beaches and shallow reefs suitable for snorkeling. (A glass-bottom bucket is a good substitute for the full plunge.) Coconut palms, Casuarinas, sea grape and other tropical foliage cover the interior of most cays.
Don't look for fancy shopping arcades or glittering night life. The metropolis, Marsh Harbour, is a settlement of 3,500 with one traffic light. Most boating people come there to shop in the marine hardware stores, restock groceries and do laundry. At the Conch Inn Marina you might find yourself moored next to Walter Cronkite's crisp white blue-trimmed Wyntje. The Conch Inn has outstanding food, with such Bahamian specialties as conch fritters and turtle steak. The town itself, however, is not as walkable as many others owing to construction traffic.
Colonial Hope Town on Elbow Cay is like a model village: one function, one building. The main street is a wide winding sidewalk; the town's public telephone is housed in a toy -size blue telecommunications center set amid palms and outstretched pink and magenta bougainvillea. Tycoon and budget visitor alike queue for calls to the United States. The library, beauty shop, clinic, grocery store and apothecary are on a similar miniature scale. The Wyannie Malone Historical Museum chronicles Hope Town's history in old manuscripts.
The Hope Town Harbour Lodge offers Sunday Champagne brunch; boaters radio days ahead for reservations. The menu is a bargain at $15 a person, with roast beef, chicken, fish, as well as vegetables, salad bar and a dessert bar and unlimited Champagne.
At dawn the harbor is full of yachts drifting beneath the candy-striped Hope Town Harbour Lighthouse. The scene belies the mad confusion attendant on successful anchoring on the grassy bottom. This may give even an expert sailor what Oscar Grant of North Carolina, owner of the 42-foot ketch Sea Fever, calls ''a spell.'' Bahamians use two bow anchors to guard against tricky cross currents and wind changes.
But spells don't last long in the Abacos, especially at another diminutive center, Man-O-War Cay. From here there is ferry service, run by the Albury family, to Marsh Harbour, Hope Town and Guana Cay.
There are two places to eat on Man-O-War Cay: the Bite Site, a sandwich and ice cream shop offering carry-out lunches but providing scenic shaded picnic tables (a hamburger on homemade bun, soft drink and apple crisp costs $4 to $5), and the Dock 'n' Dine, serving hot meals for $13 to $16. No alcoholic drinks are sold on Man-O-War Cay. The grocery stores offer a mixture of British and American fare (Cadbury's chocolates mingle with Campbell's soups), and Estelle's Bakery has delicious Bahamian bread. If you don't have a boat, it is worth renting one to visit Little Harbour, an almost circular refuge south of Marsh Harbour with sandy beaches and, on one side, tall cliffs with caves; here certain species, such as the green Bahama parrot (one of five subspecies of Amazona leucocephala) are protected.
Little Harbour is the home of the sculptor Randolph Johnston; his studio and bronze foundry are open to the public from 10 to 11 A.M. and 2 to 3 P.M. Mr. Johnston left Smith College, where he taught sculpture, in 1951 and is now a well-known artist who sells to individuals and museums, many of them in Europe. He does reproductive casting, and his wife, Margot, does Impressionist-style pottery. Prices for the bronze castings range from a few hundred to many thousands of dollars, depending on size and subject.
There is nothing commercial at Little Harbour except Pete's Pub, owned by one of Mr. Johnston's sons. It is the deckhouse of Mr. Johnston's former charter boat, Langosta, with which he supported the family during his early years in the Bahamas. Pete Johnston sounds a clarion call on a conch each evening at 5:30 to announce the opening; a cluster of pygmy dinghies then sets out from the sailboats anchored in the harbor for two hours of Pete's Punch and convivial conversation. Pete Johnston is also an artist, specializing in marine sculpture and gold jewelry.
Boat rentals vary, but the Hope Town Harbour Lodge can arrange a large whaler for $50 a day. The Outboard Shop in Marsh Harbour rents a 21-foot Paramount for $75 a day.
New Plymouth is an old fishing village on Green Turtle Cay. The Nassau mail boat calls there weekly. The Albert Lowe Museum, opened by his son, the artist Alton Lowe, in 1976, has an interesting collection of model ships, paintings and marine artifacts; the entry fee is about $3.
For formal dining, residents gather at the restored New Plymouth Inn; Bahamian seafood specialties can also be found at Betty and Alphonso McIntosh's Sea View Restaurant or Vena Bethel's Plymouth Rock next to the town pier.
Miss Emily's Blue Bee Bar is a landmark in New Plymouth. Covering the walls and ceiling are thousands of business cards from all over the world. The Green Turtle Club, affiliated with the Green Turtle Yacht Club, has cottages, villas, guest rooms and a good dining room. Its bar, a former boat shed bedecked with pennants, is a favorite gathering spot for yachtsmen.
South of Green Turtle Cay is Great Guana Cay, at seven miles the longest of the cays. There is a small village with about 85 Abaconians, an Anglican church, a one-room school and houses reminiscent of early New England, built in the Colonial tradition - clapboard with peaked roofs, gingerbread cornices and pastel shutters, surrounded by tidy gardens. The Guana Beach Resort, owned by Kathy and Howard Masselle, has eight rooms and seven villas. The Masselles offer snorkeling, scuba diving, day sailing trips and rental power boats for shell collecting on deserted beaches.
Treasure Cay, where ''The Day of the Dolphin'' was filmed, is north of Marsh Harbour and has a 1,500-acre resort containing 200 rooms. In addition to the hotel, there are villas, townhouses, apartments, 10 tennis courts, 5 pools, a marina, cable television, palm-fringed grass, an 18-hole golf course, a white sand beach, a dive shop and an airport. It seems almost an anomaly in the noncommercial atmosphere that prevails elsewhere in the Abacos.
A well-known fishing resort is Walker's Cay, north of the tip of Little Abaco, where Ponce de Leon is said to have stopped for water before discovering Florida in 1513. The Walker's Cay Hotel and Marina, with 62 rooms, specializes in fishing (blue marlin, sailfish, group, bonefish, dolphin), snorkeling, scuba diving and views of coral reefs dropping off to 1,000 foot-depths. However, there are no telephones, TV's or nightclubs.
Charter yachts, both with hired crew and bareboat (you take full responsibility), are available at Bahamas Yachting Services at Marsh Harbour, Abaco Bahamas Charters at Hope Town and Abaco Yacht Services at Green Turtle Cay.
Bahamas Yachting offers an Endeavour 32 sloop, sleeping four, for $1,050 a week. Full provisioning for four is $504 and split-meal provisioning, full for four days, partial for three (allowing dinners out) is $444. Abaco Bahamas has a Morgan 35 sleeping six for $900 a week, a CSY 33 sloop sleeping five for $1,150 and a CSY 44 cutter sleeping seven for $2,100. Some provisioning may well be worth having to avoid shopping; also, visitors are allowed to bring in groceries worth only $25 a person without paying duty. Prospective bareboaters must have solid experience or previous charter references.
Bahamas Home Rentals, a cooperative of home owners, has houses available throughout the Bahamas; they rent from about $450 to $2,100 a week. Some rentals include a 13 1/2-foot Boston whaler runabout. Listings in the Abacos include a three-bedroom beachfront condominium townhouse in a low-key area of Treasure Cay for $1,078 a week (golf cart included) and a four-bedroom house on private Channel Cay for $1,500 a week for four people. The Abaco Chamber of Commerce also has listings, many moderately priced. Whether you are visiting by boat, chartering one or staying in an inn or cottage, flying to or from the Abacos is probably not going to be a highlight of your visit. Wear comfortable clothes and take a snack if you're going on a small commuter airline from Florida; they serve nothing but scenery, and the schedules to and from Miami, Fort Lauderdale or West Palm Beach are unreliable. From New York it is easier (but considerably more expensive) to go through Nassau. Do not check luggage straight through to or from the Abacos; transfer it yourself, even through the Florida airports, and make sure you see it put aboard. There are many stories of luggage having been lost for up to two weeks.
There are commercial airports at Marsh Harbour, Walker's Cay and Treasure Cay, and there is ferry service between the Treasure Cay airport dock and Green Turtle Cay, as well as from Marsh Harbour to Man-O-War and Hope Town.
The Marsh Harbour International Airport is a shabby low pink building studded with patches of blue stucco, and the counters may not be manned until about 2 P.M., when Florida and Nassau flights start coming in. If you're leaving, accept the condolences offered by your taxi driver to departing visitors and relax. Get a soft drink from the cart outside, and stop worrying that your bags will be snatched.
It is more likely that your small commuter airline may, for some reason, not fly that day, as happened with our return and those of friends at other times. In each case, Bahamasair honored the tickets. Should you have such a mishap, don't be surprised if deferring your return seems singularly appealing; Abaconian fever has stolen over you unnoticed.
PLANNING A TRIP TO THE ABACOS
The following is intended as historical reference and for nostalgic purposes. Much is inaccurate today.
Hotels and Resorts Reservations at the Conch Inn in Marsh Harbour ($70 for two a night without meals), the Green Turtle Club ($86 to $110 for two without meals) and the Guana Beach Resort ($45 to $60 for two without meals) may be made with Bahamas Hotel Reservation Service (800-327-0787).
Other hotels may be booked individually. Hope Town Harbour Lodge (800-626-5690; 809-367-2277) charges $81.20 a night for two without meals. New Plymouth Inn (locally 5211; 305-665-5309) charges $100 a night for two with two meals. Treasure Cay Beach Hotel (800-327-1584 or, in Florida, 800-432-8257) charges $131 for two without meals and offers a seven-night package from Fort Lauderdale for $575 a person in double occupancy including air fare, transfers, greens fees, use of tennis courts, snorkeling equipment and a sailboat but no meals. Walker's Cay Hotel (800-327-3714 or, in Florida, 800-432-2092) charges $100 for two without meals and offers a two-night package from Fort Lauderdale for $249 a person including air fare but no meals. A two-night diver's package is also available from Fort Lauderdale for $379 a person including air fare, two meals a day and four dives. Air Fares Round-trip fare from New York to Marsh Harbour on Eastern Airlines connecting with Bahamasair in Nassau is approximately $700 a person. Aero-Coach has a $170 round-trip fare to Marsh Harbour from Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Airways International has a $158 round-trip fare to Marsh Harbour from Miami, and Pro Air Services makes the round trip for $181. The round-trip fare on Eastern between New York and either Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach or Miami is $298.
Charter Yachts Bahamas Yachting Services, Post Office Box 21830, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. 33335; 800-327-2276. Abaco Bahamas Charters, 10905 Cowgill Place, Louisville, Ky. 40243; 800-626-5690. Abaco Yacht Services, Green Turtle Cay, Abaco, Bahamas; locally 5833. Outboard Shop, Post Office Box 419, Marsh Harbour, Bahamas; 809-367-2703.
Home Rentals Virginia Wellman (412-828-1048) is the coordinator for Bahamas Home Rentals. Bill Johnston of the Abaco Chamber of Commerce, Post Office Box 428, Marsh Harbour, Bahamas, also arranges home rentals. More Information General information about the Abacos may be obtained from the Bahamas Tourist Office, 150 East 52d Street, 28th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10022; 212-758-2777.