Caribbean queen

Why’s everything painted pink? What’s up with those sunsets? And where is everyone? Katie Bowman can’t work out how the beautiful Bahamas remains under the radar

 

One email I received while away had the subject head ‘Howz Bermuda?’ (alongside a palm tree emoji). And on my return a colleague asked if I’d liked ‘Barbados?’, before another walked past, interrupting to say he’d really loved my ‘Instagram pictures from Barbuda’. ‘The water’s so clear!’ he enthused. ‘Which filter did you use?’

I hadn’t been to Bermuda. Or Barbados. Or Barbuda. (Or, for that matter, used a filter.) I had been to the Bahamas. And this, from a team of travel journalists.

There’s not a lot we know about the Bahamas. And that’s exactly what has attracted me for years now. All I had was a dreamy, sun-bleached vision of the 700-plus islands, fed by rock songs (Lenny Kravitz hails from Eleuthera and named a song after his home island), fashion shoots (Beyoncé’s first ever swimwear campaign — Google it), Bond movies (Daniel Craig in trunks emerging from the sea), and other equally sensible and reliable sources. This unpindownable archipelago seemed to have the very best bits of the Caribbean: the style of St Barts; the cool colonialist looks of Nevis; the scene and sass of Jamaica; the crystalline waters of the Caymans; the slick service (and efficient air con) of the Florida Keys. Yet, despite ticking every box in the classic Caribbean wishlist, and despite having, it seemed, something for every type of West Indies holidaymaker, it was about as well-discovered by tourists as a remote Hebridean islet. No-one I knew
had ever been to the Bahamas. No-one I knew even knew of anyone who had been to the Bahamas.

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Sure enough, Nassau airport – its domestic terminal, at least – is more like a bus station than a global hub. Locals take planes as casually as Dubaians take taxis, and the flights are as frequent, soaring off every few minutes to destinations that sound like fantastical fabrications from Pirates of the Caribbean: Deadman’s Cay, Black Point, Rock Sound, Treasure Cay. But it’s just another commute for islanders – one family on my flight was carrying home a giant pepperoni pizza that warranted its own luggage tag. This is great news for travellers, as reaching even the teeniest speck of paradise is a breeze in the Bahamas. Minutes later, I touched down in Marsh Harbour, the airport for the idyllic Abacos. This northerly string of ‘outer islands’ are timewarp treasures, sharing one traffic light across their 2,000sq km scattering. Locals drive around the sandy streets in golf carts, while the clapboard butcher’s and grocery store are painted in every shade from Parma Violet to Dipdab yellow. When my toes first sank into the sand on Winding Bay beach, I couldn’t help but snort a sort of laugh, an involuntary yelp of delighted incredulity at its baking-powder hue combined with preposterously high squeak-to-softness levels. Later, when I padded about the wooden floor of my beach cabana, I left powdery white footprints that looked as though detectives had dusted down for evidence at a crime scene. What was this place, this paradise? And where, exactly, was everyone?

Atlantis is not one hotel, but six. What it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in admirable chutzpah

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A craftsman displays his wooden creations to tourists near Fincastle in Nassau

I found a lot of people – maybe five – on the dry dock, peering over the edge at dark shadows cast by a fleet of stingrays on the clear seabed below… soon joined by a green sea turtle, cruising about in the shade of our wooden pier. It was a scene I should have had to sail kilometres out to sea for, weighed down by scuba gear on an expensive diving trip. But I was dry as a bone, my mahi-mahi tacos grilling nicely at the beach shack while I made this small detour. Two guys even casually clinked Kalik hops (pronounced ‘click’) at the watery wildlife tableau we’d just witnessed, as if to say, ‘Yeah, stuff like that happens here.’

Reaching even the teeniest speck of paradise is a breeze in the Bahamas.

I found four more people on the beach, playing ‘corn hole’ – a time-worn beach game that involves throwing small sacks filled with sand (corn in the old days) into small holes – and a further twosome trying their hand at ‘tiki toss’, where you swing a small ring, attached by string to a palm tree, in the hope of looping it around a hook. While drinking Kalik. No sports screen, no lounger wars, no queue for a single drink.

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Waves roll in on Pink Sands Beach

Instead, I moved on to the next Bahamian island. Could it out-serene the easy-going Abacos? The signs were good when I overheard a woman at tin-shack Eleuthera airport saying, as she threw her arms around a friend: ‘I’m burn out, girl! NP is such a rat race.’ We had flown to Eleuthera via New Providence (NP), picking the girl up on the way. Admittedly, NP is the busiest of the islands, but it’s still a place that considers three folk in a fish-fry queue ‘gridlock’.

As the taxi whizzed down Queen’s Highway, backbone to this skinny speck, my driver yelled out, rolling down his window. He was proudly pointing out Glass Window Bridge, a stretch where Eleuthera becomes so narrow that the inky Atlantic on your left side is a mere paddle from the sparkling Caribbean on your right. One solitary wooden kiosk enjoyed the full-frontal panorama, selling Kalik to visitors. Yet despite Glass Window Bridge fitting wonders-of-the-world criteria, just one man propped up the bar. Minutes later, we passed Queen’s Baths, striking rock pools that are heated each day by the sun, like natural Jacuzzis come evening; then the Cow and the Bull appeared in the dusk, two ravishing rock formations. Rumour has it they were displaced after a tsunami aeons ago, though they look more like they went astray en route to Tate Modern.

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Atlantis Paradise Island

Eleuthera’s shores were standard-issue stunning (it’s amazing how quickly you become immune to immaculate), but I heard the truly bucket-list beaches were on next-door neighbour, Harbour Island. Just a nine-minute ferry from gorgeous, but ungroomed Eleuthera, ‘Bri-land’ (say ‘Harbour Island’ quickly enough and you arrive at this local nickname) is much more coiffured. Crumbling old sugar mills have been converted into designer swimwear boutiques; discreet Sotheby’s for-sale signs hide among frangipani; and the 12-boutique-hotels-to-one-bank count is very revealing. But don’t go thinking stylish means sterile: on Harbour Island, roosters still roam the streets and you can grab a bowl of conch chowder for $5 – it’s just that you might be slurping your soup beside Diane von Furstenberg. Its star beach is Pink Sands, thus named because of its hue, created by a mix of fine coral and the shells of microscopic coral insects. It is deepest in colour at the water’s edge, a dazzling yet delicate tone that nail-polish manufacturers might call ‘Mouse’s Earlobe’. You can check in to the Pink Sands or Coral Sands hotels and wallow in the view from your five-star lounger, or you can just as easily take the public path and lay your towel down in the same patch, then watch as the sky turns from Colgate blue to a bloody fist-fight between Team Fuchsia and Team Mauve. Warning: if you are lucky enough ever to reach these islands, sunsets afterwards will never be as stirring again.

I left powdery white footprints that looked as though detectives had dusted down for evidence at a crime scene

On to New Providence, gateway for most of the tourists who make it to the Bahamas. Nassau is its pulsating capital, daubed in pink – the national colour. Here was a busy Caribbean city going about its business, and it was thrilling. In the few places it wasn’t pink, it was starched white to within an inch of its life: policemen and women – in crisp, white safari-style jacket, brass buttons, scarlet belt and pith helmet – hand-controlled street traffic, so immaculate and unflappable they seemed like props to wow the tourists. (It works.) Bankers hurried from one air- conditioned glass tower to another; old ladies beneath giant, beflowered raffia hats wove bags between open knees at the bustling Straw Market; and streams of cruise-ship passengers peered around in awe at the cool, calm, collected – yet colourful – scene.

A lot of the day-trippers were off to Atlantis, like its Dubai sister, a megawatt powerhouse of a hotel that, in many visitors’ opinion, is the Bahamas. While the other 699 islands would beg to differ, I had to see the phenomenon for myself. Atlantis is not one hotel, but six (with almost 4,000 rooms between them). It contains the former most expensive hotel suite in the world, and (similar to its Dubai counterpart) it has a waterslide that drops riders 20m through a shark tank. Understated it ain’t.

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Riding across powder-soft sand

But what it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in admirable chutzpah. At the end of my first day, I had kissed Electra the bottlenose dolphin (who lives on site in Dolphin Cay); and I’d eaten chocolate-dipped marshmallows for breakfast (hey, if a 7am buffet includes a chocolate fountain, I’m going to try it). And boy, was everyone happy. Children were happy. Parents were happy because the children were happy. And Grandma and Pop were happy because there were always reclining loungers available in the shade.

Atlantis, and Nassau, aren’t to everyone’s taste, but certainly suited the millions of families, honeymooners and young bucks who streamed through check-in desks on a daily basis. When it came to unabashed, in-your-face, dressed-in-diamante fun, Nassau nailed it, and did it so much better than any other resort in the Caribbean. Come to think of it, the Bahamas did every element of a textbook Caribbean trip – sunsets, skies, sand, beaches, beach shacks, fish fries, glam hotels, even geological wow factor – better than anywhere else in the Caribbean. After all, with those 700 islands, everyone is guaranteed to find one they’ll fall for – the odds of holiday success are heavily stacked in travellers’ favour. 

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Credit: Katie Bowman / The Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Licensing