Travel: Land of the five-dollar pineapple

Eleuthera offers superb beaches, great weather (give or take the odd hurricane) and prices to make you weep. By Andrew Thorman
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Outside Gregory Town there's a sign welcoming visitors to the "International Pineapple Festival". Gregory Town is a dusty, dirty collection of run-down shacks nestling on the edge of a beautiful bay on the island of Eleuthera, a narrow strip of land 100 miles long that lies in the milky- blue Caribbean about 25 minutes' flying time from Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas.

"So, where are the pineapples?" we innocently enquired.

At this point we were sitting in a local bar, having cycled 12 miles in temperatures of 80 degrees plus. Hanging over our heads was a large paper pineapple.

"There aren't any."

"Hang on a second; do you mean that you've got a pineapple festival without any pineapples?"

Our hostess simply shrugged her ample shoulders and explained that the weather had been a bit dry.

At that point we were joined by a farmer who was carrying two peppers - which he promptly exchanged for a beer.

Surely he'd know all about pineapple growing?

"Nothing's growing. We keep looking for pineapples, but there aren't any. We might get a couple from another island."

With that, the festival got under way. The four of us. Four bottles of beer and a bowl of peanuts.

Now, all of that was a bit disappointing, given the tourist blurb. It describes the island as boasting pink and white sand beaches (true); serene colonial villages (where?), and acres of pineapple plantations.

The clue as to why this last claim might have been a bit off-course may well lie in the following promotional statement: "The cool laziness of Eleutheran life, and the dusty-yet-drenched colours of the island, give it the feel of a giant illusion."

The Spanish - who first landed on these shores back in 1492 - had another way of describing these islands: "useless".

In fact Eleuthera, like the rest of the Bahamas, is largely flat, featureless and devoid of most wildlife. What Eleuthera does have, like pretty much all 700 Bahamian islands, is fantastic beaches. On Eleuthera one shoreline is lapped by the Atlantic, the other by the Caribbean.

A couple of miles from Gregory Town the two are separated only by a bridge. It's an extraordinary sight - the dark blue of the Atlantic crashing against the calmness of the aquamarine Caribbean. The bridge, like just about everything else on the island, is in a state of disrepair after being badly damaged by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

We were in fact staying on Harbour Island - five minutes away by speedboat ferry. It regularly features in glossy magazines thanks to the three miles of pink sand, which line one side of the island, and its quaint, coloured-wood homes.

Harbour Island once served briefly as the British capital - but today it has largely been taken over by Americans. Disgruntled Anglophiles, employed to do the jobs the Bahamians turn their noses up at, such as teaching and nannying, call them the "Waw-Waws" - an unkind reference to their tonal outpourings. Here house prices start at around $600,000 and rise rapidly to $1m plus if they boast an ocean view.

Most of the islands - the Family Islands - have long had black populations: early on they were stripped of indigenous Arawaks by Spanish slavers and left to pirates before coming under British rule.

Today there are still pockets of white "resistance", as on nearby Spanish Wells. The trip from Harbour Island was a highlight of our visit. We made it by hitching a $10 ride on the Eleutheran Express, one of the regular supply boats that leave Harbour Island every Friday. The trip takes about an hour, and you can see the sandy ocean floor the whole way. At one point the boat has to negotiate a reef by sailing 15ft from the shore of a deserted island.

Spanish Wells is just two miles long and half a mile wide, but it's one of the richest islands in the Bahamas. The 2,000 inhabitants are mainly white descendants of those loyalists who fled the US-to-be after the American Revolution.

Today they live well on the fruits of a thriving crayfish industry. The place is packed with the latest American technology and everyone seems to drive a chrome-laden 4x4. We watched all-American-looking kids rush out of school, to be picked up by parents who had to drive all of 300 yards home.

The few blacks on the island have been recruited from Haiti, apparently because they're cheaper to employ than Bahamians. They live in squalor across a bridge on the adjoining Russell Island. Spanish Wells refuses to bow to the government policy of cultural integration.

Back in reality on Harbour Island - if you can call it that - we hired an example of the local transport and headed off to do a little fishing. While drivers on Spanish Wells choose V8 power, here they prefer a gentler option: golf carts.

Yup - it's true. As far as street cred goes you're well and truly bunkered. As for speed - well, suffice it to say that our golf cart was overtaken by a power-walker.

Still, we got there and managed to catch something large with brown and white stripes. God knows what it was, but it tasted - well - fishy. We then went in search of pudding

I couldn't believe my eyes. On the harbour front was a stall selling - you guessed it - pineapples. However, the catch was that they cost five dollars each.

"You know you can get one of these in Sainsbury's for less than a pound?"

"Yes," he said. "But these come from Eleuthera."

Andrew Thorman flew on American Airlines via Miami to Nassau, and on Bahamas Air from Nassau to North Eleuthera (30 minutes). From there a speedboat ferry to Harbour Island took 5 minutes and cost $4 each. His total flight cost was pounds 367.

Because there are no landing lights at North Eleuthera, he had to overnight in Nassau. Bicycle hire on Eleuthera costs $10 a day. Golf cart hire about $50 a day. Half a day's fishing can be had for $100 if you find a willing local fisherman with a boat. Ask for Herman