Travel: Diving - Cocktails and coral reefs

While the guests at one Bahamian hideaway came for yoga classes, but got distracted by the scuba diving, says Rachel Henry

Ah'm a 62-year-old grandmother," said Sue Weant, in her Scarlett O'Hara accent, as she flapped across the deck in wetsuit, flippers and air tank. "Ah cain't believe ah'm doin' this." Standing at a gap in the boat railings, she stepped over the side and vanished into the Caribbean.

Being a natural wimp, I couldn't believe it either as I stood in the sun, knees buckling under the weight of the tank, ready to follow Sue in a free-fall to the water's surface.

"Fix your eyes on the horizon," said Garvin, our Bahamian divemaster. "OK, now step forward." My brain tried to tell my leg to move but the leg wasn't keen. "Go on," said Garvin. "You'll be fine." So I stepped, and after a moment's confusion and noise, the turquoise world below became a place of deep calm and quiet. Except for the sound of breathing. In... out... in... out. We had been warned: if you hold your breath while swimming upwards, the pressure change expands the air; your lungs explode and you die.

I'd had no intention of diving when I arrived three days earlier at Small Hope Bay Lodge on Andros island, in the Bahamas. I'd booked in for a winter getaway - a week's yoga course - but everyone, including Dolly, the yoga instructor's mother-in-law, who is in her seventies, was snorkelling or diving between classes. It seemed a shame to miss out.

Sue and I did our safety training one afternoon. Garvin took us out to Goat Cay, a tiny island with a shelving white-sand beach. He was thorough, repeating the procedures until we had them right - how to breathe underwater, how to hold our noses and blow to equalise ear pressure, and how to replace mask and mouthpiece should they get knocked off. Knocked off by what, I wanted to know - barracuda? shark? whale?

On a morning dive, one member of our party, Carol, a paramedic, came across a 30ft (harmless) whale shark. She was shaking when she climbed back on board. Mark, a race-horse trainer from Kentucky, had a nose-to- nose encounter with a curious barracuda. "Man, I held my knees to my chin and just kept that fish in front of me," he said. "No way was I letting that sucker get round my back."

Diving was a revelation. Like flying over a glorious garden with jewel- coloured fish-butterflies. But as I swam towards the coral floor, a piercing pain shot through my head. I tried holding my nose and blowing, but the only relief came by swimming upwards. I looked for my "buddy" (no one dives alone) and couldn't see him. Suddenly the ocean seemed a vast and lonely place to be. Panicking, I struck out for the underside of the boat, pitching in the waves some 40ft away. But the harder I swam, the further away it seemed. Finally, I reached the boat's ladder and clung on; safe, but feeling rather silly. My buddy said he had been below me all the time.

Back at the lodge it was almost time for cocktails. I wanted a nice lie- down first, so I wandered through the palm trees to the row of wooden cabins. One of the truly wonderful things about Small Hope Bay Lodge is the beds. They are huge, laden with pillows, and have perfectly placed reading lamps. Clean, fluffy towels are delivered daily and rooms are spotless, with doors opening on to the beach. All this more than makes up for the dodgy plumbing. Power-showers are more power-dribble, and the loo lurched alarmingly. One night it was home to a sweet little frog who had swum up round the U-bend. An exception to the eccentric pipework is the hot pool, a Jacuzzi set in a sun-deck and sheltered by mangroves. Bliss.

In the lounge, guests can help themselves to drinks, but at 6.30pm the staff get behind the old cut-in-half boat that serves as the bar, and hand out cocktails. Garvin's creations taste like rum-flavoured fruit juice; Skeebo - another divemaster, with an Eddie Murphy grin - pours pure rocket fuel. Platters of melt-in-the-mouth conch fritters are passed round and half-an-hour or so later everyone files into the dining room. Meals are sociably buffet-based and delicious: pasta Bahamian-style, baked with lashings of butter and cheese, lobster, curries, local fish, salads - and chocolate fudge cake with everything. This is not a place to diet.

Jeff Birch owns and runs Small Hope Bay on lines set down by his late father, Dick, who founded the lodge in 1960. Dick Birch also pioneered the resort diving course. "Anybody can dive," Jeff says. "It's just a matter of sharing information in a safe, uncomplicated way."

An hour's flight from Fort Lauderdale or Miami, Small Hope Bay lies off the world's third-largest barrier reef, and is popular with experienced divers. Americans pop down for the weekend, even for just 24 hours. Some novice divers, such as Mike - a decorator from Columbus, Ohio, and a fellow yoga trainee - find water to be their natural element. Mike trained on Sunday and by Friday was 185ft down; a depth which brought a sharp intake of breath from diving instructors I spoke to in Britain. There's a risk of nitrogen narcosis at these levels, where inexperienced divers can become dangerously over-confident. But the divemasters are vigilant, and in its 39 years, the lodge has never lost anyone through a diving accident.

Mike's dives included wrecks, caverns and one called "Over the Wall", where the sea floor drops 6,000ft. I stuck to the pretty coral gardens, forced by blocked sinuses to stay near the surface. Another beginner, Rolly Miller, 12, quickly lost any nervousness. "He saw sharks, so he was happy," said his mother, Marcia.

Sue swam down to 50ft, but developed ear problems. A week after we left, she sent me an e-mail from Kentucky. I could almost hear her, saying: "It was wonderful. But ah still have half that ocean in mah head."

Rachel Henry paid pounds 367.40 for a flight from Heathrow to Nassau via Miami with Virgin (01293 747747) and Bahamasair, plus $84 (pounds 52) return via Bahamasair to Andros Town. BA (0345 222111) flies direct to Nassau for pounds 399 if you book this month and travel before 30 June.

A week at Small Hope Bay Lodge (001 242 368 2013/4; e-mail: SHBinfo@SmallHope.com; website: www. SmallHope.com), costs $1,120 (pounds 700), full board; dive training is free, and each dive costs $45/$55. Diving packages are $1,510 per week for adults; daily rates available.

Jeff Birch will be on the Small Hope Bay Lodge stand (306E) at the London International Dive Show, at Olympia, today and tomorrow.

Dive Diary

THE LONDON International Dive Show takes place today and tomorrow at Olympia, Hammersmith Road, London W14 (0171-385 1200 for details). Tickets cost pounds 5 per adult and pounds 2 for children under 14 and are available by credit card from Dive Show Ltd (0181-977 9878).

TO LEARN to scuba-dive in the UK, or for a list of dive centres, contact: British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC) on 0151-350 6200 (fax 0151-350 6215, website: www.bsac.com), or the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (Padi) - on 0117 300 7234 or 01179 710 400, or visit the Padi website (www.padi.com).

THE MINIMUM diving age is 12, but Padi has recently introduced a swimming- pool diving course called "Bubblemakers" for children aged 8 upwards.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform