What follows is a report of a trip to Eleuthera in March, 1990. Though the names may have changed, by most accounts, life on that island has not changed much in the intervening 15 years. And, it's the first place I really tasted "Island Time" -- infecting me with an incurable case of Dreaded Island Fever.
Eleuthera is one of the “Out Islands” of the Bahamas, named after the Greek word for freedom. While our experience on this island was freeing and liberating (in a very different sense than that experienced by those who fled other countries to settle here), a more appropriate term for our experience of Eleuthera was EPIPHANY, or even EUREKA, for here we had found what we were looking for... elusive Islandtime.
In the winter of 1990, Rick and I found ourselves with a few extra bucks on our hands and very cold. We decided that the perfect cure for spare cash and chattering teeth would be an island vacation, even though at this time we were hardly island addicts, not having found exactly what we were looking for in St. Maarten. Because we had limited time (I was on spring break during my last semester of law school), we wanted to go somewhere relatively close, so we chose the Bahamas. I called the tourist board for brochures, wanting to find somewhere relatively close, but still wanting to get off the beaten path.
The Out Islands seemed to fit the bill. The brochures were full of obscure islands with wonderful names like Bimini, Exuma and the Abacos. We chose, rather arbitrarily, Eleuthera, a skinny island east of the more traveled Nassau and Freeport, and chose a resort called the Rainbow Inn because the price was right, it was near the water and the airport, and had tennis courts and an on-site restaurant and bar.
We set out for the Bahamas on a dreary March Sunday, which followed one of the rainiest Saturdays in memory. Indeed, I had spent the better part of that Saturday getting soaked in the driving rain as I ran from shop to shop at Harborplace, looking for the perfect outfit to wear on a romantic moonlit tropical night. I never did find the outfit, but it didn’t really matter. All that mattered was that we were getting out of Baltimore.
Getting to Eleuthera was no simple feat; we spent the better part of the day traveling. Once arriving in Miami, we were to fly a small carrier called Aero Coach. We knew we were flying small when they weighed our bags and asked us how much we weighed, the better to balance the tiny plane. We were transported to a terminal used by the commuter airlines to wait for our flight, which ended up being delayed because, rather than running our flight to Governor’s Harbour alone, they elected to combine it with a flight to Georgetown in the Exumas, clearing everyone through customs at Governor’s Harbour.
When it came time to depart Miami, we walked out of the terminal onto the tarmac to our small 8-seat propeller plane, where we were joined by the pilot and the family heading to Georgetown. Rick was invited to sit in the co-pilot’s seat, but he declined; sitting right behind the pilot was interesting enough, being so close to the action that we could watch the radar and other instruments. The view from the plane was arresting; the skies were clear, the water deep blue, and little islands were visible everywhere, like small pebbles strewn across a blue tile floor. Eleuthera finally came into sight, a long narrow strip of coral fringed with beaches. On the east side of the highway, a pinkish beach seemed to stretch for miles.
By the time we arrived after 5 p.m., the airport was already closed, but the customs officers waited for our arrival and whisked us through, stopping us long enough to stamp my passport and apply “Bahamas” stickers to our bags. Cabs were waiting to take us to our destination, but we hoped to rent a car, so they brought Hilton Johnson to us. Hilton didn’t have any cars available at the moment, so he gave us his own. He wanted a deposit, but didn’t want our credit card, so he said he would find us the next day to collect cash for our deposit (after he directed us to go to Barclay's Bank to get a cash advance on our credit card; it turns out that because telephones were not widely available or reliable on the island, credit cards were not widely accepted).
After putting our luggage in Hilton’s big boat of an American car, we headed for the Rainbow Inn, which was just down the road from the Governor’s Harbour airport. Indeed, everything in Eleuthera was either up or down the road, as the Queen’s Highway, the only real road there was, ran up and down the island like a 110-mile long spine. We arrived within 20 minutes, to be met by Ken Keene, the owner. We “checked in” (i.e. Ken gave us some xeroxed materials introducing us to the island) and Ken led us to our room, half of the top floor of a weathered octagonal cottage. We waited for Ken to hand us a key, but he didn’t, explaining that there was no need for them. He told us to slow down and relax – we were now on Island Time.
Our room was not the height of luxury, but all of the necessities were there. The semi-round space contained a bed with a ceiling fan over it; a table and chairs; a refrigerator, sink and some cabinets behind a small partition; a bathroom; and a closet. The floor was tiled and the walls panelled. There were many screened, jalousie windows, and the door led out to a small deck complete with table and chairs, affording a view of the grounds. The area was studded with coconut palms leading down to the sea, and featured a freshwater pool.
Since it was Sunday, dinner was not served at the Rainbow Inn, so Ken invited all of the guests to ride with him in the resort’s yellow VW bus (with a rainbow painted on the side) to a local restaurant hidden behind Cambridge’s Electrical Supply. Along with Ken, we were joined in the sickly flourescent glow of this restaurant by Jan and Bud from Boston, a USAir pilot named Mel, and Mary and Dick from Canada. While it was hardly haute cuisine, we feasted on grouper and beer; to this day, Rick claims that he has yet to eat better-tasting fish than he ate that night.
By the time dinner was over, the sun was long gone and we were ready for bed. The black velvet darkness of the night, coupled with the dearth of streetlights or other visible light on the island, made a spectacular show of the stars, the multitudes of which one might never guess if they never left the mainland. Though it was relatively early, we crashed, setting a pattern of early retiring and early rising for the week.
Monday morning, we joined Mary and Dick and Jan and Bud on the screened porch of the main building for breakfast. Ken served up corned beef hash (made from corned beef leftovers from St. Patrick’s Day) and eggs, and we helped oursleves to coffee. After breakfast, which we put on our tab, Ken helped us to orient ourselves and we set off for the various adventures to be had on Eleuthera. First, of course, we had to get cash to pay Hilton, who found us in the parking lot of Barclay’s Bank when we got there. After picking up cash and swapping cars with Hilton, we picked up some groceries as well.
Those essential tasks behind us, we went looking for a beach. The Rainbow Inn, though waterfront, lacked one, but Rainbow Beach was about half a mile away on the western side of the island. It was a double crescent of sand bordered at both ends with outcroppings of coral. When the tide was out, the water receded away from a large rock in the middle of the bay, creating a small sandy island around it accessible by wading. Though not ideal for swimming, the beach was great for sunning and exploring. With the exception of an occasional visitor, we were alone here.
Ken also directed us to a beach he called Paradise Beach. He told us to drive as far as the airport, then pull off the road, get out of the car, and tramp through the underbrush. Within moments of leaving the car, we could see what was indeed a beach lover’s paradise. After hacking through the brush and skirting the sea grape trees, we found ourselves on a wide, pristine beach on the Atlantic Ocean which reportedly stretched for 15 miles. And we were all alone on this long stretch of pink-tinged sand. Though we were on the east side of the island, which bears the brunt of the fury of the Atlantic Ocean, we could hardly recognize it as the same ocean we visit in Maryland and Delaware. The water at the sand’s edge was crystal clear, turning progressively darker shades of turquoise as the water got deeper. Dry sand, bearing just the slightest hint of pink, turned deeper pink when wet, a color photographs don’t begin to capture. The surf, though not especially rough, reminded us that this is the ocean.
For sheer beauty and size, Paradise Beach took the prize. But for intimacy and charm, “Come and Go” Beach won hands down. Much of the coast of Eleuthera is composed of coral cliffs, and Come and Go Beach is a little niche carved out of the cliffs by the action of the surf. It is barely visible from above because it is an undercut in the cliff and is accessible only be a stone staircase carved into a small crevice in the limestone, which we didn’t even see the first time we went looking for it. The beach is called “Come and Go” because it is only sandy on the occasions that the tides conspire to bring some of that famous pink sand in; otherwise, it is a hard wave-swept slab of limestone. For utter privacy, the beach was unbeatable.
We soon became friendly with Mary and Dick, whom we had only met briefly at dinner our first night and breakfast the next morning. They had just spent a week sailing in the Abacos and were in Eleuthera to unwind from that. We soon began sharing our meager supplies of food (some devilled ham, some AWESOME Bahamian bread, and a cantaloupe), while they shared their vast supply of Kalik beer, the local brew that costed less than a Coke at the time. Since Ken did not serve lunch at the Rainbow Inn, our afternoon snacks usually tided us over til dinner, or at least happy hour. Indeed, our little lunches with Mary and Dick stretched on until happy hour as we lolled about on our respective decks or at poolside. We soon came to share our adventures and meals with these fun Canadian grandparents who sure didn’t act their age.
Days soon fell into a routine. We generally got up with the sun and took a walk up “Cardiac Hill,” as Dick dubbed it. Straddling the island, we had sea views to the east and west. Breakfast followed, which was a leisurely affair for which Ken cooked up eggs or hash, or sliced up a sweet Bahamian pineapple (though smaller, much sweeter and more tender than the Hawaiian version, and even the core is edible). Dick helped himself behind the bar, enriching his coffee with Kahlua. Mornings after breakfast were reserved for our little excursions, as often with Mary and Dick as not. Everywhere we went, Ken reminded us to relax, to slow down, to enjoy; we were, after all, on Bahamian time. Life was slow and informal and we had found it: Island Time.
One morning, Ken drew us a map of the Hatchet Bay Caves (located near the Hatchet Bay “Yatch” Club) and gave us flashlights. The caves, although widely explored, were hardly tourist caves, lacking such amenities as handrails or lights. The first chamber of the caves was large and bright, being close to the surface; plainly, it was used by the islanders as a gathering place, complete with graffiti and spent beer cans. As we began our descent into the cave down a rickety ladder, grabbing one of the strings that previous explorers used, it was obvious that we would soon be plunged in primordial darkness. A sense of heretofore-unknown claustrophobia gripped me, so I decided to wait for Rick, Mary and Dick at the top, telling them I would run for help if they didn’t return in 45 minutes. To my relief, they returned on time.
Another morning, we went to Governor’s Harbour with Mary and Dick. The town borders a small, shallow, swimming-pool-blue bay with a few fishing boats moored in it. The town itself is tiny, with none of the shops and resorts that clutter cruise-ship destinations. Governor’s Harbour is gently colorful, with the blue of the bay, the pinks, yellows and whites of the buildings, the green of the palms, and the riotous fuschias, yellows and oranges of the flowers draped over whitewashed walls. The view from the top of a hill was postcard perfect, with a white-fence and flower bordered raod seemingly dropping into the sun-dappled sea, with only the faded blue jean sky shimmering above. Governor’s Harbour is what all island towns should be. We wandered about the few streets of Governor’s Harbour, stopping off to buy some sweet Bahamian bread and a case of Kalik. Dick and Mary treated us to a cracked conch, rice and beer lunch at a divey spot called the Buccaneer to thank us for chauffering them around. By the time lunch was over, we had exhausted all of the attractions of town and headed back to the Rainbow Inn.
By midweek, the weather had turned dark and blustery, as a typical late winter/early spring “norther” had rolled in. While not tanning weather, there was plenty more to see on the island. One morning, Ken took us, Mary and Dick, and a pair of German travel agents in the VW bus to Surfer’s Beach. The road to reach it was barely visible from the Queen’s Highway, and was steep and rutted, carved out of ironshore, winding through scrubby underbrush and scraggly palms. Every now and then we sighted a carload of sleeping surfers or a makeshift lean-to constructed of palm fronds. On the beach, there was a deserted shack which may have served, on a sunnier day, as a surf shop or beach bar. Watching the dark grey waves roll in and crash, Ken told us that Surfer’s Beach was the prime surfing destination in the Atlantic, though that day, the wind was blowing in the wrong direction to help form the waves that surfers live for.
On another blustery day, we ventured to The Cliffs, signposted along the highway on a hand-lettered plank of driftwood. Following yet another rutted road, we came upon a couple who had gotten their rental car stuck in the mud. We helped them back out of the mire, and determined not to follow them, but to leave our huge American car where it was dry. The Cliffs dropped 50 feet straight down into a churning Atlantic Ocean. Their surface is pocked like the moon’s face. We worked our way to the edge and watched in wonder as huge waves crashed up against the cliffs and exploded in spray that reached well above the tops of the cliffs. Ken told us that during the storms of the preceding December, the waves were so large that they came over the top of the cliffs and flooded the island; once the water found its way to the flat top of the cliffs, it had no way to get back down. In order to alleviate the flooding, holes had to be cut in the cliffs to allow the water to drain.
By far, the most arresting sight on Eleuthera was Glass Window, located at the northern end of the island. En route, we picked up a ‘Lutran lady and her young daughter (sharing rides with hitchhikers encouraged) and drove them to Upper Bogue, well past Glass Window and out of our way. But, we felt sorry for them – they looked so cold – and not only gave them a ride, but bought a huge deep pink conch shell for $20 from the mother (Ken told us we could have any of his for free….)
Glass Window is the narrowest point on Eleuthera. At almost any point on the island, you can stand atop a ridge and see the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Exuma Sound on the other, but no other place paints the distinction between the two bodies of water as vividly as Glass Window. A small bridge, a continuation of the Queen’s Highway, spans what time will soon erode into a channel dividing North Eleuthera from South Eleuthera. Below it is a narrow stretch of limestone, maybe ten feet wide and standing a foot or so above the water. It’s a tiny piece of rock connecting one half of the island to the other, and dividing the Atlantic Ocean from the calm Exuma Sound.
We parked our car several yards up the highway, then climbed a hill to get a better view, facing south. To our left were the leaden, choppy waters of the Atlantic, looking so much like wintry seas. In contrast was the Sound, looking smugly like summer, with small turquoise wavelets lapping placidly against the shore. The cloudy skies heightened the contrast, and all that divided these disparate bodies of water was that small strip of stone.
Mornings of discovery gave way to afternoons and evenings which were the best of island time. The afternoon heat did little to inspire activity, being better suited to siesta. Rick and I spent most of our afternoons lolling about pooside or on our decks with Mary and Dick, drinking Kalik, sharing our meager provisions, and telling tales. After a few hours, we would go to our respective rooms and spruce up for Happy Hour, often showering for the first time all day, for we rarely bothered getting cleaned up for a morning at the beach.
Happy Hour was the highlight of the day, beginning at 5:30. Since we and Mary and Dick were virtually the only guests at the resort, we also had the run of the restaurant until the yachties and other islanders made their way there later in the evening. As soon as Happy Hour officially began, we were at the bar, ordering up Goombay Smashes, Bahama Mamas, or rum punches. They were almost identical, varying only, I think, in the proportion the various juices bore to each other. The Bahamian pineapple rum base was common to all of my favorite poisons. We then staked a claim to a table on the screened-in porch, and enjoyed the sight of the ever-changing seas, the sunset, and each other’s company, all the while acquiring a gentle buzz.
As soon as dinner hours began, we would claim a table inside, calling for more drinks to ease us into the evening and spice up conversation. After that first night at Cambridge’s, we never felt the need to go beyond the Rainbow Inn for dinner. It certainly had atmosphere, packed full of cruisers and locals, and was even more appealing when the electricity went out, which it regularly did. Lack of electricity certainly failed to stop the action, because the cooks worked with gas stoves and there were enough hurricane lamps to keep the place at least dimly lit. The food, though, was the highlight. After hammering away all day, the kitchen staff led by Theresa provided us with either conch chowder or conch fritters every night, both of which were delicious. My favorite dinner was “Bahamian Style Steamed Grouper,” which was not really steamed but fried and then smothered in a delicious sauce of tomatos, onions, peppers and whatever else the chef slipped in. With seafood like that, red meat didn’t even cross my mind.
After all that rum, and all that wonderful food, and all that great conversation, we were usually wiped out by 8, stumbling through the pitch darkeness and slight intoxication to our unlocked rooms. The exception to that rule was Wednesday night, the night which brought Dr. Seabreeze to the Rainbow Inn. He was a big Bahamian with greying hair and beard, with a big voice, who accompanied himself on the guitar singing his own songs, full of island lore and bravado. He didn’t have a very large repertoire, so it wasn’t surprising to hear the same songs more than once. The audience loved him, even the stiff German travel agents, and it was impossible not to tap your feet, sing along, or get up and dance.
And so our first true experience of Island Time wound to an end. We settled up our surprisingly small food bill with Ken by personal check, which he preferred to a credit card. We returned Hilton’s car. We said fond goodbyes to Mary and Dick. And we flew a tiny Aero Coach plane to Miami so that we could return to cold Baltimore.
As it turns out, we could never bring ourselves to return to Eleuthera, for fear that we could never re-create the magical experience we had there. It was a serendipitous combination of place and people. We have stayed in touch with Mary and Dick, even had them visit our home, and on their inspiration, have visited the Abacos so many times that those small and wondrous cays feel like our island home. And we learned what exactly we seek from our island travels, though we have not always found it.
I've got a Caribbean Soul I can barely control... (JB)