Bahamas: Postcards from the western Atlantic

Climb aboard a local mailboat to discover that there's more to this chain of tropical islands than casinos and cruise ships, says Mark Stratton discovers

All was calm at sea. The Grandmaster mailboat eased across a turquoise ocean so flawlessly translucent that it exposed shallow undersea sandbanks – and offered scant concealment to a passing stingray. Later, when my cabin became unbearably stifling I stargazed on deck, peering upwards at a luminously bright Big Dipper.

Such was my DIY cruise, as I rode the network of mailboats plying the 700 Bahamian islands and cays. This chain of coral atolls, which won independence from Britain in 1976, begins 50 miles off the Florida seaboard and flows south-east along the northern coast of Cuba. There are around 15 government-subsidised mailboats, and they are the islands' lifeblood, delivering post and vital cargo to these communities. All are privately owned but have government contracts for weekly mail deliveries. Few ferries operate in the Bahamas, with most tourists relying on short air transfers. Happily, the mailboats take paying passengers; I hoped that by climbing aboard I'd discover the cultural underbelly beneath images of resorts, casinos and cruise-liners.

The vagaries of mailboats' schedules do, however, make using them a logistical challenge. Departure information is scarce, and I discovered that timings can alter with the first sea breeze. Neither do they link multiple islands together, or spend long enough at their final destinations for sightseeing.

My first port-of-call was the westernmost outpost, the Bimini Islands, which can be reached by a new super-fast casino cruise-ship operated by Resorts World. It runs scheduled services from Miami to its holiday resort, but independent travellers can also make the three-hour crossing from $99. Once there, I downsized my aspirations to the royal-blue Sherice M mailboat, a steel-hulled 126ft vessel smothered in quayside cargo as her forward-deck crane off-loaded essentials supplies from food to engine-parts. More exotic produce – frozen lobsters, potted palms – were loaded on board, for her weekly voyage back to Nassau.

Before departing, there was time to explore North Bimini's flat, beach-fringed island, described by local tourism officer Renee Robbins as "nine miles long, with 10 churches and scarcely the width of a football field". Ernest Hemmingway came here regularly in the 1930s, indulging his passion for game fishing. Little of Hemmingway remains, because the Compleat Angler Hotel, at which he stayed, burnt down in 2006 along with much memorabilia. However, 81-year-old islander Ansil Saunders, who crafts exquisite oak bone-fishing boats, recalls tales of Hemmingway's derring-do.

"He was macho," tutted Saunders. "He used to spray sharks with a machine-gun if they came near his marlin catch. His boat rocked one day and he shot himself in both feet."

Saunders also recalled ferrying Martin Luther-King Jnr around when he visited in 1968, shortly before his assassination. "He made me feel I was in the presence of angels," Saunders sighed.

Once several cars and a speedboat had been jammed on to Sherice M's forward deck, we set sail for Nassau, 130 miles east. My ticket cost $65, for which I was allocated a bunk in a cramped cabin and a cooked meal. I shared with "Smith", Bimini's immigration officer, a colossus of a man travelling with his cargo of furnishings who seemed perplexed about why I was bothering with a 13-hour journey when I could fly.

Necessity may have made him immune to the romantic allure of slow, sea travel, but I was soon entranced, as the sunset painted the sides of our vessel a burnt-orange. Twelve miles from Nassau, we called in at the private residential island of Cat Cay to offload cargo. I disembarked to buy a cold Kalik beer from a local store, which also sold imported French champagne. "You need $25m in your bank account to qualify for residency here," scoffed Smith.

All Nassau-bound mailboats arrive at Potter's Cay dock, on New Providence Island, where I quizzed new arrivals about their likely departure times and wiled away hours watching vigorously contested domino matches, inspecting semi-sunken wrecks and enjoying fresh seafood. Lobster is no delicacy here; it's unceremoniously fried in batter and served with chips. A healthier option is the lime-and-tomato-infused conch ceviche, which has a reputation as an aphrodisiac. A vendor preparing conch for me hummed as she chopped her ingredients before exclaiming : "Oh honey, you're going to give your lady a good time tonight."

Making concrete plans to visit the "Out Islands" beyond Nassau proved challenging. I had accommodation booked on San Salvador (where Columbus stepped ashore, in 1492) but upon arriving to board the appointed mailboat, the Lady Frances, I was told she wouldn't be leaving for 48 hours because of rough sea. Fortunately, I found an alternative: the Island Link mailboat, a modern-looking catamaran, was loading for Long Island. "We're departing soon," said Captain Munroe. "How are your sea-legs?"

Ours proved to be a ponderous 21-hour journey south, crossing the Tropic of Cancer, as the captain sought shelter from choppy seas by navigating the remarkable Great Bahama Bank, an immense sandbank. At one point, mid-ocean, the seabed was just 3.5ft below our keel. Large orange starfish were visible on the bottom.

Fate had dealt me a kind hand. Long Island, 160 nautical miles from Nassau, is a pretty coral ribbon of continuous sandy beaches with a welcoming 3,000-strong community strung along its 80-miles. An enthusiastic crowd greeted us, part of the excited atmosphere that formed whenever a mailboat was due. At Simms Wharf, Ms Oreme, the schoolteacher, waited for the school uniforms she'd ordered from Nassau, while sponge fisherman Mandie Constantitis, a second-generation Greek, used the mailboat to export his harvest.

Island Link, however, wasn't hanging around, so I jumped ship and booked a cheap Bahamasair flight online back to Nassau the next day. This bought me enough time to hike to Long Island's wild northern cape, to the monument to Columbus's passage, and to swim above the world's deepest blue hole at Dean's, where the turquoise ocean disappears down a vertical cave into an abyss. I spent the night at Long Island Breeze, on Salt Pond wharf, where British-born former America's Cup yachtsman Michael Mcknought-Smith offers comfortable lodgings inside a lovely lemon-yellow colonial-style house from just $75 per night.

Cheap accommodation is available across the Bahamas for island-hoppers, despite it being known as a pricey destination. Even the smallest islands have B&Bs catering for the local market or for passing yachties. Nowhere I stayed cost more than $125 per night for a double.

The majority of the mailboat services run on weekdays, so I had the weekends to play with during my 16-day trip. Bahamas Ferries offers a few routes closer to Nassau for those preferring shorter sea journeys. Three-hours east of Nassau is Northern Eleuthera's popular Harbour Island. Here, 19th-century wooden cottages, painted in an array of colours and built by loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, line the western seafront. The island's Pink Sands beach is touted as one of the Caribbean's finest, and is apparently popular with celebrities.

"Lenny Kravitz and Mick Jagger often drop by to chill. And Naomi's here all the time," boasted "Hitler", owner of Harbour Island's Vic-Hum nightclub. "And look," added Hitler, pointing to a picture of Jack Nicklaus's yacht. "You should see it. Like a goddam palace." I was naturally curious as to how Hitler had got his name. "I'm kind of direct; I get things done," he barked.

I spent a weekend's shore-leave on Nassau, getting under the skin of the Georgian-era capital away from the commercialised waterfront where cruise-ship passengers are bombarded with pirate paraphernalia, cigars and tax-free goods.

Alanna Rodgers' food-tasting tour offered a mouth-watering way to discover Bahamian cuisine through restaurant tastings: from The Pepperpot Grill's spicy jerk chicken to divinely-rich Key-lime flavoured homemade truffles at the Graycliff Hotel's chocolaterie. "The one thing islanders actually agree upon is how good our food is," she told me. Meanwhile, the Bahamas Tourist Board runs a "People to People" cultural exchange programme, which allowed me to join an evening dinner party at musician Patricia Bazard's house. One guest, a hotelier called Julius Chisholm, recalled how he'd received post via mailboats in the 1950s. "I remember it used to arrive monthly," he said. "The whole town would turn out. If it came on a Sunday, even church was cancelled".

The Grandmaster departed Potter's Cay the following Tuesday on its weekly trip to George Town. Owner Lennie Brozozog welcomed me aboard. His boat business had been in the family for several generations and his son, Lance, was skippering that day. Lance revealed his experience of piloting Jack Sparrow's Black Pearl on the location scenes for the filming of Pirates of the Caribbean.

From George Town, the next morning I joined a speedboat excursion to retrace what I'd missed overnight. "Welcome to the playground of the rich and famous," exclaimed the skipper, and as if on cue, not long after passing Nicholas Cage's private island, celebrity magician David Copperfield zipped by on his launch.

From Nassau, I boarded the Fiesta mailboat, bound for Grand Bahama Island from where I was to fly back to Miami. Freeport's dockyard scarcely hinted at the loveliness of this large island's beautiful pine forests and tidal mangrove creeks. Nevertheless, my arrival was tinged with regret. Shortly before boarding Fiesta I'd seen the Captain C at Potter's Cay. Captain Eddie was overseeing her cargo before setting sail for the remote Ragged Island. He said he was due to dock there for just a few hours but, on seeing my interest, added: "If you want to see it, we'll stay over for a day. I'm from Ragged Island so I'll introduce you to everyone."

Ragged Island's population, at last count, was 72. If only I'd had a little more time.

Getting there and around

Mark Stratton travelled with Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com), which offers flights from Heathrow to Miami from £616 return.

Resorts World Bimini has regular sea departures from Port Miami to Bimini Islands (from £60 one-way) and has holiday accommodation (rwbimini.com). For mailboat information and itineraries, see mailboatbahamas.com

Staying there

Towne Hotel, Nassau (001 242 322 8450; townehotel.com). Doubles start at $85 (£57), including breakfast.

Tingum Village, Harbour Island (001 242 333 2161; tingumvillage.com). Doubles start at $125 (£83), room only.

Long Island Breeze Resort, Long Island (001 242 338 0170; longislandbreezeresort.com). Doubles from $75 (£50), room only.

Visiting there

Tru Bahamian Food Tours (trubahamianfoodtours.com).

Bahamas Outdoors (bahamasoutdoors.com).

People to People Experience (bahamas.com/peopletopeople).

Exuma Water Tours (exumawatertours.com).

Grand Bahama Nature Tours (grandbahamanaturetours.com).

More information

Bahamas Tourist Office (bahamas.co.uk).

Bahamas Ferries (bahamasferries.com).

Bahamasair (bahamasair.com).

Tropic Ocean Airways (flytropic.com).

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