Sundowners Visit the Bahamas
Published: June 2009
By Geoff Dyer
A footloose couple goes wandering around the Bahamas. The goal: to get lost in a gorgeous vortex of sun, sand, and sea
Three things should be made clear before you set off. The first is that the Bahamas are expensive. The second is that they are very expensive. Even when a hotel or restaurant looks only moderately costly, a web of gratuities, taxes, and extras causes the total to vault upward. In effect, it's a surcharge added to cover the stunning natural beauty of the islands. Which is quite cheap, actually, considering how much bang—how much beauty—you get for your buck.
The third thing to know about the Bahamas is that they do not exist. Not in the sense that England, France, or Jamaica does. Those places exist in books and films, but the Bahamas exist almost exclusively in brochures. Other destinations offer the "desert experience" or the "trek experience"; the Bahamas offer the brochure experience. Even if you read neither books nor newspapers, you have some sense of the culture and history of a country like France. Of Bahamian culture and history, on the other hand, the prospective visitor knows next to nothing. The Bahamas exist as a visual ideal, a photograph. We don't look at this photograph and see the Bahamas (as, when looking at a picture of the Eiffel Tower, we see Paris); we see perfect beach, perfect water. "Bahamas" is simply the caption—a caption that runs something like "700 islands flung like jewels over thousands of miles of turquoise ocean"—summing up this dispersed conglomerate of perfect attributes. By a kind of reverse metonymy, a name—"the Bahamas"—substitutes for an array of qualities.
Harbour Island is the perfect example of this process. The island's name—Briland, for short—stands in for the qualities legendarily associated with the place, namely its pink sand beach. With Pink Sands, the resort, you can say you're going to pink sands—or Harbour Island, as these sands are often described—when you're going to Pink Sands.
My girlfriend, Daisy (a.k.a. Dazed), and I complicated things still further, spending much of our time lolling on the pink sands of Pink Sands while actually staying at Tingum Village. We had opted for Tingum as a way of saving money but stayed on because it was so much fun. Tingum's dozen pretty plain concrete rooms are presided over by the delightful Ma Ruby, who, after checking us in, urged us to feel at home. Which we did very quickly, unfortunately. We had come from rainy olde England, and almost as soon as we arrived the clouds began to appear. At first the weather was schizophrenic, lurching from searing sun to mounting clouds. It was terrible when the sun came out because that glimpse emphasized what was denied us the rest of the time. I was reading Nadezhda Mandelstam's grim memoir of the Stalin era, Hope Against Hope. Then, when an area of seriously low pressure moved in, bringing with it a duvet of unbearably familiar cloud—it almost had MADE IN ENGLAND stamped on it—I moved on to the sequel, Hope Abandoned.
The lovely Brilanders said it had not rained for, oh, I don't know, 6,000 years or something, but now—the English curse—it was catting and dogging. I wished I were in the Soviet Union, at the height of Stalin's purges, rather than here at this tantalizing distance from paradise. During brief, drizzly intermissions we scanned the horizon, trying to establish from which direction the weather was coming. I clutched at straws, preferring to believe the native plumber who said the cold front had almost passed through ("It gonna turn out nice") instead of the visiting sailor who, having spent a lifetime monitoring the weather, offered a more pessimistic forecast.
The plumber's forecast was authentic if inaccurate: Brilanders are reluctant to let you down in any way. Tammy, for example, the shy adolescent who brought us our food each day at Ma Ruby's restaurant, was so keen to avoid disappointing us that she seemed incapable of telling the truth.
"Is the orange juice fresh, Tammy?" asked Dazed.
"Yes," she whispered—and brought it to us from a tin of concentrate.
"Tammy, is potato available in any form other than baked?"
"Yes, it is," she whispered—and brought our baked potato.
"Could I have mango?" Tammy nodded—and brought grapefruit. The trick, we realized, was to order grouper. When we ordered grouper, Tammy brought grouper. We suspected she would have brought grouper in place of whatever we ordered, but since we usually ordered grouper, there was a pleasing harmony between supply and demand. One night, for a change, Dazed tried grouper fingers.
"If these were the fingers…" she said.
"I'd hate to see what the rest of it was like."
"You've heard it before," said Dazed, momentarily crestfallen. "How's your chicken?"
"Strangely dialectical. It's both dry and oily. A Bahamian equivalent of sweet-and-sour."
"At least it's not conch."
"Actually, I think it might be conch." We had been in the Bahamas only a few days, but I was already heartily sick of conch, conched out, so to speak. Conch fritters, frittered conch: if you aren't careful you can fritter away your entire vacation eating conch. We did have a couple of very elegant dinners at Harbour Lounge down by the dock, but the atmosphere was a tad stiff (to put it a tad stiffly) for our taste and we preferred the down-home feel of Ma Ruby's. We also loved the way Tammy, when asked about today's catch, would declare, as if announcing an event of unprecedented rarity, that today they had grouper.
So completely did this (excellent) fish come to dominate our diet that, after a while, we did not even talk about "going to dinner." We suggested, instead, that it was time "to fall back and regrouper."
After which, in the voodoo twilight, we walked past the cemetery and into town: Dunmore Town, a village really. Dazed was particularly eponymous one night.
"Is this like Kingston, darling?"
"I don't think so."
"If we were walking through Kingston we'd be frightened, wouldn't we?"
"We wouldn't be walking if we were in Kingston."
It might not be like Kingston, but Briland is like Jamaica in that Yardie culture is everywhere evident. Not the gangs, but the habit of accumulating stuff—cars, boats, junk, anything—in your yard. We became connoisseurs, appreciative of the quirks of random amassment, of the gradually shifting line between accumulation and abandonment. Sometimes we came across people rocking on their stoops, sitting by their yards as patiently as guards at MOMA.
There was the sound of singing everywhere, the tidal swell and surge of gospel. Generally, I detest Christianity with the vehemence of a Bolshevik, but here on Briland there is no denying the warmth and life-affirming vibrancy that emanates from the churches and provides the moral foundation on which the sign welcoming you to the island—HOME OF FRIENDLY PEOPLE—is built. As grateful recipients of this friendliness, we said "Hi" to everyone we met. Actually, not quite everyone. A sort of reverse prejudice took hold: we said "Hi" only to the resident blacks, not the visiting whites. By mutual consent, we whites acknowledged one another's existence only reluctantly, because we reminded one another that we were tourists.
As a tourist on pricey Briland, I was constantly preoccupied by the need to save money. Censoring Dazed's postcards, I deleted several references to "Cap'n Dyer's scurvy rations"—but as a humanitarian gesture I permitted us on occasion to dine at Pink Sands. Lunch is served at a patio restaurant perched over the beach and painted a skyish blue, eliding the distinction between interior and exterior. This is global fusion cuisine, of a freshness and imagination unsurpassed anywhere nearby.
The whole place is pretty unsurpassable, actually. The main reception area is decked out in the style of what, in the 19th century, used to be called the barbaric luxury of the Orient. It's designed by Barbara Hulanicki and has the look of a five-star opium den ("In Harbour Island," Dazed intoned, "did Hulanicki a stately pleasure dome decree"). Just off this area is a library, cozy as a gentlemen's club in reverse (air-conditioned to the point of freezing) and just as tranquil (or would have been, were it not for the gangsta rapper bitching about his girlfriend—it was a love song, I think—on MTV): a distinctly postmodern library, this. The chalets themselves are in Mod-Cott (modern cottage) style, the interior of each painted entirely in one color (powder blue, pale yellow). The effect is striking, certainly, but the yellow makes you feel you are inhabiting a butter dish.
Other, lesser men might have resigned themselves to the indifferent weather, made the best of a bad job, and enjoyed the beach in the dim half-light. Not I. As I saw it the weather was trying to break my spirit. An epic struggle was under way between me and the elements—a battle in which there could be only one victor.
The struggle culminated in an Old Testament storm, after which the sun emerged, sheepishly at first, and then blazing gloriously. The sand glowed, the sea erupted into turquoise, and over all of this towered the emerald-black wall of retreating clouds in which could still be glimpsed the residue of a hundred shades of gray. I was struck by the immensity of the distances we travel in order to see the very things—light, sky, stars—that are visible the world over.
In Tender Is the Night Scott Fitzgerald wrote famously of the "tan prayer rug of a beach" at Antibes. By these terms, Pink Sands' beach is the cathedral of beaches. Its length, color—beige most of the time, flushing pink at sunset—and freedom from litter are often remarked upon. Just as important, however, is the texture of the sand, which makes the grit at Miami Beach, for example, seem as though it had been Dumpstered in from a construction site. Also, crucially, the Briland beach is very wide and the sand by the water's edge rises slightly, so that if you're sitting near the back of the beach, what you see is not water breaking on the shore but a sand horizon. There are three bands of absolute color—glowing sand, turquoise sea, blue sky.
Signs discreetly advise that the beach facilities at Pink Sands ("Pink Hands," as Dazed insisted on calling it) are for the use of guests only, but this policy is not strictly enforced if it is enforced at all. To do so would be out of keeping with the spirit of an island on which the first requirement for a security guard—according to the notice advertising the position—is a "pleasant personality." I confess to trespassing on these very facilities when a troupe of a dozen people came plodding along. They looked like medieval pilgrims (one led a horse), which, in a sense, they were—except that these pilgrims roamed the globe to create a mecca the rest of us can aspire to but never quite attain. It was, in short, a fashion shoot. Their religion was glamour, and the Virgin herself could not have inspired more devotion than the pampered model. With some assistance, she mounted the horse, which paddled around in the turquoise a bit. A crowd of supplicants gathered, asking nothing more than to watch, savoring the spectacle. I inquired of one of the faithful—a makeup assistant, as it happened—what product was being modeled. Swimwear, apparently.
"What a shame," I said. "I hoped it was going to be a new horse feed. Something equine, at least, possibly to keep your coat nice and shiny." I considered this an extremely humorous remark, but the makeup man, eyes as alert as last night's grouper, looked at me as if I had said, "Spare a little change?" and went about his business.
A general rule: The farther an island is from Nassau, the more rustic it is bound to be (meaning that the service can get a bit loose, and things tend to run a bit late). Then again, that's the charm of the Bahamas.
Pink Sands Harbour Island; 800/688-7678 or 242/333-2030, fax 242/333-2060; doubles from $450, including breakfast and dinner. The coolest resort on Harbour Island, if not in all the Bahamas. Stunningly decorated and landscaped, in an even more stunning location. Pool, tennis courts, library, CD players in every cottage: everything you could ever want.
Tingum Village Harbour Island; phone and fax 242/333-2161; doubles from $85. Not in the same league as Pink Sands but only a five-minute walk from the same beach. The rooms are pretty basic but the atmosphere could not be more welcoming; you really feel as if you're staying on Briland instead of at a resort that happens to be on Harbour Island.
Dolphin Beach Resort Great Guana Cay, Abaco; 800/222-2646 or phone and fax 242/365-5137; doubles from $155. Surely set to become one of the best hideaways in the Abacos: an assortment of rooms and lovingly painted cottages right on the edge of the beach. It's a first-time venture for the folks running it—a fact that manifests itself not in any lack of professionalism, but in endless enthusiasm and commitment.
Compass Point W. Bay St., Gambier, Nassau; 800/688-7678 or 242/327-4500, fax 242/327-3299; doubles from $200. Way out on the northwest coast of New Providence (though only a few miles from the airport), Compass Point is another Island Outpost property (like Pink Sands) offering state-of-the-art R&R.
Greenwood Beach Resort Port Howe, Cat Island; 242/342-3053, fax 242/342-5035; doubles from $99. A remote island getaway with all the expected attractions. Bear in mind, though, that once you have got away there is not much to do—unless you are a diver—except be away from it all. Overall, the place could do with a bit of sprucing up. It's run by a German family and, not surprisingly, is very popular with Germans. The menu is at the mercy of the mail boat (i.e., the weather); dinner is served at a communal table, which is nice if you're on your own or if you and your partner have tired of conversational serve-and-volley.
Blue Bar At Pink Sands; lunch for two $20. Overlooking the beach at Pink Sands, this is the best way of sampling the resort without breaking the bank. Everything is super-fresh, and the global-fusion menu can come as welcome relief from the Bahamian standards. Also open for lunch, snacks, and drinks—you can happily while away the best part of the afternoon there. In the evening, try the more formal Garden Dining Room (dinner for two $140).
Harbour Lounge Harbour Island; 242/333-2031; dinner for two $90. International cuisine in a beautifully decorated environment. The crowd tends to be well-heeled and middle-aged.
Ma Ruby's At Tingum Village; dinner for two $52. The restaurant serves inexpensive burgers and assorted Bahamian favorites on an exquisitely lit terrace.
Nippers Beach Bar & Grill Great Guana Cay; 242/365-5143; dinner for two $35. A 10-minute walk along the beach from the Dolphin Beach Resort, Nippers is popular with tourists and locals alike. It does a brisk trade in cocktails, beers, burgers, and Bahamian dishes.
Compass Point At Compass Point; dinner for two $80. Probably the best food on New Providence. Imaginatively prepared breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks served by a lovely, friendly, relaxed staff either inside or on the seaside terrace.
ON THE WEB
Bahamasnet (www.bahamasnet.com)—A comprehensive guide with local travel advice and real estate links.
Near the main dock on Harbour Island, you can buy straw handbags—for $7—that look as if they were made by Kate Spade.