Legends loom large (and small) on these northwestern Bahamas islands. On Bimini, you’ll hear about the lost underwater city of Atlantis, Ernest Hemingway’s visits, and the Fountain of Youth. Tiny birdlike creatures known as chickcharnies are said to inhabit the pine forests of Andros Island. On both islands, along with the Berry Islands, bonefishing has made legends of mere men.
Despite the stories, Andros, Bimini, and the Berries remain a secret mostly known to avid divers, boaters, and fishermen. These islands stash their reputation for superlative bonefishing, diving, blue holes, and other natural phenomena away from the glamour of nearby Nassau, just minutes away by plane but a world apart. Historic for its Hemingway lore and deep-sea fishing records, North Bimini has been transformed into a busier island by Resorts World; its casino and new Hilton hotel are fed with hundreds of golf-carting tourists that buy packages on the Bimini Superfast cruise ship. Although Andros is the largest Bahamas island, it is mostly uninhabitable and largely undiscovered. In fact, it offers only three notable resorts and a dozen or so bonefishing lodges. The 30-some cays of the Berry Islands are less known still, in spite of gorgeous, secluded beaches and superb snorkeling and fishing. None of the islands have traffic lights, movie theaters, or fast-food outlets—let alone water parks or shopping centers.
So, with that in mind, plan your trip here as an adventurer. If you’re not into diving, snorkeling, fishing, kayaking, hiking, biking, or secluded beach-vegetating, these are not the islands for you. If you are into any of the above, you will be thrilled and endlessly delighted. All three islands are spoken of synonymously with bone-, deep-sea, and bottom-fishing—focused on lobster, grouper, and snapper, and it is this fishing and commercial diving that sustains the economies of many of the smaller settlements. Andros thrives also on its harvest of land crabs, fruit and vegetable crops, and straw work that it exports to Nassau.
POINTS OF INTEREST
The Bahamas’ largest island (100 miles long and 40 miles wide) and one of the least explored, Andros’s landmass is carved up by myriad channels, creeks, lakes, and mangrove-covered cays. The natural Northern, Middle, and South bights cut through the width of the island, creating shallow boating access between both coasts. Andros is best known for its bonefishing and diving, and is also a glorious ecotourism spot with snorkeling, blue-hole exploration, sea kayaking, and nature hikes.
The Spaniards who came here in the 16th century called Andros La Isla del Espíritu Santo—the Island of the Holy Spirit—and it has retained its eerie mystique. The descendants of Seminole Indians and runaway slaves who left Florida in the mid-19th century settled in the North Andros settlement of Red Bays and remained hidden until a few decades ago. They continue to live as a tribal society, making a living by weaving straw goods. The Seminoles originated the myth of the island’s legendary (and elusive) chickcharnies—red-eyed, bearded, green-feathered creatures with three fingers and three toes that hang upside down by their tails from pine trees. These mythical characters supposedly wait deep in the forests to wish good luck to the friendly passerby and vent their mischief on the hostile trespasser. The rest of Andros’s roughly 8,000 residents live in a dozen settlements on the eastern shore. Farming and commercial fishing sustain the economy, and the island is the country’s largest source of fresh water.
Andros’s undeveloped West Side adjoins the Great Bahama Bank, a vast shallow-water haven for lobster, bonefish, and tarpon. Wild orchids and dense pine and mahogany forests cover the island’s lush green interior. The marine life–rich Andros Barrier Reef—the world’s third-largest—is within a mile of the eastern shore and runs for 140 miles. Sheltered waters within the reef average 6 to 15 feet, but on the other side (“over the wall”) they plunge to more than 6,000 feet at the Tongue of the Ocean.
Bimini has long been known as the Bahamas’ big game-fishing capital. Bimini’s strong tourist season falls from spring through summer, when calmer seas mean the arrival of fishing and pleasure boats from South Florida. The nearest of the Bahamian islands to the U.S. mainland, Bimini consists of two main islands and a few cays just 50 miles east of Miami, across the Gulf Stream that sweeps the area’s western shores. Most visitors spend their time on bustling North Bimini; South Bimini is quieter and more eco-oriented. Except for the vast new Resorts World Bimini development that occupies the island’s northern third, most of the hotels, restaurants, churches, and stores in Bimini are in capital Alice Town and neighboring Bailey Town and Porgy Bay, along North Bimini’s King’s and Queen’s highways. Along the east coast of North Bimini are long beaches; on the west, the protected harbor, docks, and marinas. Most of the islands’ 2,500 inhabitants reside in the southern 2-mile southern built-up area. Although Alice Town is walkable, the preferred (and fun) way to scoot around is by golf cart. Resorts World Bimini has increased North Bimini’s bustle and economy. Three times a week, its Superfast Bimini cruise ship brings over between 500 and 1,000 guests from Miami who spread around the island enjoying its beaches, eateries, bars, nightclubs, and casino.
Sparsely populated South Bimini is where Juan Ponce de León allegedly looked for the Fountain of Youth in 1513, and a site with a well and natural trail memorialize it. More engaging, however, is the island’s biological field station, known as the Sharklab for its study of lemon-, hammerhead-, and nurse-shark behavior and tracking, among other things. The main resort on this island is the modern, marina-based, Bimini Sands Resort & Marina with its South Bimini Beach Club in the south, which both stride a gorgeous mile-long beach and are home to the famous Neal Watson’s Bimini Scuba Center. South Bimini is much more low key than North Bimini, a slower pace loved by hundreds of visiting residents (and some visiting boating partiers) who have built nearly 80 homes in Port Royal on the island’s southern tip.
Salvagers, gunrunners, rum-runners, and the legendary Ernest Hemingway peopled the history of Bimini. Hemingway wrote much of To Have and Have Not and Islands in the Stream here between fishing forays and street brawls.
THE BERRY ISLANDS
Discovered by a lucky few and pristine in beauty, the Berry Islands consist of more than two-dozen small islands and almost a hundred tiny cays stretching in a thin crescent to the north of Andros and Nassau. Most of the Berries have breathtakingly beautiful beaches. Although a few of the islands are privately owned, most of them are uninhabited—except by rare birds who use the territory as their nesting grounds, or by visiting yachters dropping anchor in secluded havens. The Berry Islands start in the north at Great Stirrup Cay and Coco Cay where thousands of cruise passengers enjoy Bahama-island experiences and the Stingray City Bahamas attraction on neighboring Goat Cay. The Berries end in the south at Chub Cay, only 35 miles north of Nassau.
Most of the islands’ 700 residents live on Great Harbour Cay, which is 10 miles long and 1 mile wide. Great Harbour Cay, the largest of the Berry Islands, is tranquil, self-contained, and oriented toward yachting, family, beach, and water-sports vacationing. Its main settlement, Bullock’s Harbour, aka “the Village,” has a couple of good restaurants, two grocery and liquor stores, and small shops. A mile west, the Great Harbour Cay’s beach area, partly owned by the company that owns the marina, was developed in the early 1970s. More homes, condos, and villas have been built since then, and many of the older beach villas and cottages have been remodeled. The 65-slip protected marina has also been renovated and is once again popular with yachties. There are no big resorts on Great Harbour; instead, there’s a delightful, world-class boutique hotel, a motel, and homes and villas for rent on the marina and beaches. The GHC Property Owners Association is active and provides many fun activities and events, including the partial upkeep of 9 holes of the original golf course. Many private pilots have homes and fly in here. The Berries are reputed to have one of the world’s highest concentrations of millionaires per square mile, but, surprisingly, there are no banks or ATMs. So, make sure you bring some cash.
Although the area has long been geared toward deep-sea fishing, in recent years, family, wedding, honeymoon, and beach-seeking vacations and bonefishing have become more popular. In the south, Chub Cay is close to a deep-sea pocket where the Tongue of the Ocean meets the North West Providence Channel—a junction that traps big game fish. Remote flats south of Great Harbour, from Anderson Cay to Money Cay, are excellent bonefish habitats, as are the flats around Chub Cay. Deeper-water flats hold permit and tarpon.
Chub Cay, a popular halfway point for boaters crossing to and from Florida, is also experiencing a comeback with millions having been recently invested in the Chub Cay Resort & Marina. It’s a project in progress. For deep-sea fishing and bonefishing fans, Chub Cay’s extensive flats and deep ocean canyons are pure heaven. It’s a bit quiet for families where kids have to be kept occupied—unless they are fishermen, divers, and beach fans, too. On Chub, you’ll certainly connect with your friends and young ones but make sure you have a boat to get off land and give you freedom to explore, dive, and fish—and unless you want to dine at one place the whole time, bring lots of home-bought supplies: food, drink, etc. in a couple of coolers. Most rentals come with kitchens. Blessed with serenity, sea life, and beaches, the Berries are a tucked-away secret that vacationers wish they could find.