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Exploring Out Islands, Bahamas

Fish stew at Sip Sip bistro, on Harbour Island.

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

After breakfast the next day, I putter up Gaol Street in my own golf cart to Pink Sand beach, a three-mile stretch of gentle surf, certainly one of the best in the Bahamas. Stopping for conch chili at Sip Sip, a bistro on the bluff above the Atlantic surf, I discover folk paintings by the late Bahamian artist Amos Ferguson on the walls. Next door, Pip Simmons’s Ocean View Club, a favorite hideaway of British milliner Philip Treacy, has a more extensive collection of Ferguson’s artwork. His Outsider-art portraits of Bahamian women chronicle daily rituals in the islands with a touch of humor. Over the next couple of days, I quickly fall into rituals of my own. I pass Fisherman’s Dock to see if T. J.’s sister at the Queen Conch stand has saved me a container of fresh conch marinated in lime juice; watch the same little girl yank porgies out of knee-deep water with a bare hook and hand line; browse posh lime-green beach tunics at India Hicks’s Sugar Mill boutique; surrender to the lime-curd tart at Arthur’s Bakery; and wind up back at the Landing in time to rinse pink sand off my toes before ordering chef Ken Gomes’s pan-fried grouper in the hotel’s paprika-hued restaurant.

My next stop is Marsh Harbour, on Great Abaco. A junior Junkanoo band makes a racket with cowbells, whistles, and drums on the porte cochère as I arrive at the Abaco Club at Winding Bay, a Ritz-Carlton Managed Club. In nominal ways, the Bahamian tradition of Junkanoo resembles Carnival (elaborate costumes; dance crews; parades), but was originally a celebration of freedom from slavery. This destination club (open to nonmembers) supports the local arts, so the children sing and proudly show off their sequin-and-satin outfits before I’m taken to an octagonal cabana. A bicycle parked outside my cream-and-coral bedroom is a welcome shift in transportation; I slowly pedal around the cove and wind up high on a sea bluff at the resort’s breeze-cooled Cliffhouse, where I sip a Goombay Smash, the Bahamian coconut-rum potion that was a particular favorite of my seafaring father.

Before his own boat sank, my dad sailed through the Bahamas while working on a series of lighthouse paintings. One of his favorites was the red-and-white candy-striped tower at Hope Town, on nearby Elbow Cay. Erected in 1863 despite protests by Abaco’s islanders, it put an abrupt end to a lucrative cottage industry of salvaging ships “accidentally” wrecked on the offshore reefs. So the next day, I commandeer the club’s catamaran and its captain, “Fun” Bob Russell, to cruise past a snorkeling point off Tilloo National Park and cut back on the throttle at the entrance to Hope Town’s harbor. The lighthouse looks freshly painted. We tie up at the post office’s dock, and I skip the arduous climb up a 101-step spiral staircase to see the Fresnel lens and decide instead to hunt for hand-painted postcards. This settlement has quirky clapboard cottages lining a bicycle-only lane known as Queen’s Highway. If not for the coconut palms, Hope Town might easily be found on Cape Hatteras or the North Fork of Long Island. But walking into Sweetings Grocery, I’m reminded that the mainland is worlds away by a notice tacked next to the register: If you’re looking for Walmart, it’s 200 miles to the right.

As the sole passenger riding the public ferry the next day between Marsh Harbour and Green Turtle Cay, I stand in the wheelhouse next to Captain Nigel Lowe, who has the leathery grin of a man steeped too long in salt water. “Nassau is the big city,” he says. “This is the real Bahamas out here.” Lowe’s ancestors emigrated from the Carolinas in the 18th century, and we banter about the divergent history of our families. His were shipwrights and privateers on this isolated archipelago, while mine scraped out an existence as vegetable farmers in the Sea Islands south of Charleston, South Carolina. However, Lowe doesn’t strike me as a man unhappy with his lot. He whistles while maneuvering the launch into a slip and then radios his wife to let her know he’ll be home soon for lunch. Lowe suggests I pick up a copy of Wind From the Carolinas, the Bahamian version of Gone With the Wind. But the true connection between the two places doesn’t sink in until I finally land on Cat Island.

I wait for a taxi in Arthur’s Town, where I overhear two men talking about fishing behind me. “I’m going out at day clean,” says one voice. “What about you?” That’s when I turn around and look closely at these elderly islanders. Gullah is a singsong dialect once spoken along the Carolina coast, and yet here was someone far out in the Atlantic using an expression for sunrise that almost no one remembers back home. They laugh when I tell them so and then they teach me that the phrase for night is “black crow.” This is far better than buried treasure, supposedly left on the four-mile-wide island by an obscure buccaneer named Arthur Catt. It explains to a certain extent why my father, who spent his childhood in South Carolina, felt so attached to this place. I pass the afternoon searching for women who weave straw, mostly to hear more of this rare dialect. At age 83, Ella Larrimore Thurston still turns dried soursop-palm fronds into hats adorned with curlicues and bows. Standing in the doorway of her small blue house by the paved main road, she recites poetry in Gullah for me. Emily Rolle, who has a straw stall in town, plaits “stingy brim” sisal hats and makes potions for gentlemen needing extra encouragement in the romance department. She gives me a coconut cookie and a straw change purse with Bahamas stitched on it.

By the end of the day, I’m ready to cool off with a swim at Bennett’s Harbour, where Samuel Thurston has built a guesthouse in the dunes. Sammy T’s, as he calls his modest inn, has seven clapboard bungalows around a main lodge with a dining room that serves conch stew and grilled lobster. In this westward cove, punctuated by two coral points, the clear ocean water ripples as schools of silver “little jack” fish leap in the air. Still damp, I walk back onto Thurston’s porch, where he hands me a bottle of Kalik beer, and the two of us watch an old tramp steamer slowly chug around the point to disappear over the horizon. It looks familiar. Suddenly, I remember one of my father’s best sketches of Cat Island, drawn decades earlier. “I’ve seen that rusty bucket before,” I say. Thurston replies, “That thing? It’s our mail boat.”

Shane Mitchell is Travel + Leisure’s special correspondent.

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