Marsh Harbour: Hopetown on Elbow Cay was a possible next stop, but we opted instead for Marsh Harbour, the third largest city in the Bahamas. (Nassau on New Providence is the largest and Freeport on Grand Bahamas Island is second). “Large” here in the Bahamas means access to decent provisioning (a large grocery store), banking, a post office that is open more than a few hours a week or when the clerk decides to come in, paved roads designed for full size cars not golf carts and a major receiving port for supplies coming into the Abaco Islands for distribution to the outer cays. In fact, Marsh Harbour on Grand Abaco Island is called “the mainland”. Resort, inn, restaurant, construction and marine workers commute daily to or from Marsh Harbour via ferry to live and work.
To most of us in the States, Marsh Harbour is a still a small town like Marathon, Florida or Brunswick, Georgia. It’s bigger than a cay “settlement”. This Bahamas experience confirmed for me that the cays’ settlements with their beaches, narrow rocky roads and layback lifestyles are fun and relaxing for a while, but we wouldn’t want to hang out for too long. It only takes a week to eat in all the restaurants, peak in the sparse shops, hunt for food in small grocery stores, visit the post office (John’ personal project) and sit in the sand to enjoy ocean views, breathtaking though they may be. This attitude (and it is only our attitude) is a big indication that our cruising life is destined to end when we return. Unlike die-hard cruisers who love unpopulated cays and sparse settlements filled with lazy days, snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing and the like, John and I miss the action and intensity of city life as well as the Chesapeake Bay with its minor tides, weak currents and lack of hazardous coral heads to worry about.
Back to Hopetown. It’s the quintessential Bahamian settlement, a famously cute, well-structured and tidy British Loyalist settlement, with its red and white striped lighthouse. Its keeper climbs its stairs every evening to light the kerosene powered rotating light. But, it’s more than an outpost like the New Plymouth settlement on Green Turtle or the Great Guana settlement.
Although New Plymouth (Green Turtle Cay) is the sister city to Key West in Florida through long ago ties of several shipping and scavenging family businesses, Hopetown is actually more like Key West, but with a lot fewer tourists. We walked the narrow, winding streets, admiring the colorfully painted extremely well-kept and restored wooden homes, guest houses, and elegant inns. We brushed aside overhanging palm leaves and plant branches bearing bright yellow, red and orange blooms as we walked. It was like stepping back in time to village life before the revolutionary war. It’s a place that doesn’t want to change. Its residents like the way it is. Hopetown has money. You can feel it. The other settlements seem to struggle, because development is seeping into the landscape slower in some places than others. Throughout the Abacos, we saw many “land for sale” signs and gated communities with big houses with seemingly few positive impacts on the settlements themselves.
A golf cart tour of Elbow Cay, like the other cays, took us over rutted, dusty dirt roads that are actually secluded paths to new hurricane secure homes built into small hills and sand dunes just like those we saw on our tours of Green Turtle and Great Guana. Again the views were spectacular and the waters reflected a dozen shades of blue as we munched on lunch at a small walk up outdoor bar that sits two stories above the sand dune, facing the ocean.
So the pattern of island cruising is clear no matter what season you travel to the Bahamas or make your boat a full-time home. There was Green Turtle (my personal favorite), Great Guana (with Nippers, the best beach bar with views to the best beaches), Hopetown (where we traveled to by ferry to see the oldest kerosene run light house and the Cay’s distinctive British flavor), NoName (where we anchored off the shore to feed the wild pigs), Manjack, Spanish Wells (our last marina stop), and Great Sale Cay (one last perfect evening at anchor before heading out into the ocean).
For me, the Abacos, these bits of paradise, melded together into a single stream framed by the weather and the sea. Each cay is different is some small way, but the same in many others whether it’s populated or not. Some provide protected anchorages, bright sun and cool breezes, ocean beaches, two or three great restaurants. Everywhere we traveled, Bahamians were kind, helpful and knowledgeable. From my previous trip to the Bahamas, the farther south you cruise, the cays and islands become more “outback” with settlements farther and farther apart.
Trust me. The Bahamas are beautiful and no matter where you cruise in the Abacos or points south, it is worth doing at least once. We just like the pace and pattern of city life vacations a bit more.