Bahamas: Postcards from the western Atlantic

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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).

Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Automotive Service Advisor - Franchised Main Dealer

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful, family owned m...

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable