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Eleuthera & Harbour Island

You haven’t experienced a real escape until you’ve vacationed in Eleuthera. Simple luxury resorts are the norm, deserted expanses of white- or pink-sand beaches are your playground, and islanders are genuinely friendly. Although the low-key, relax-and-relax-some-more island vacation isn’t for everyone, Eleuthera is the place to go when you need to recharge your batteries. Seclusion, sun, and starry skies—just what the doctor ordered.

Eleuthera was founded in 1648 by a British group fleeing religious persecution; the name is taken from the Greek word for freedom. These settlers, who called themselves the Eleutheran Adventurers, gave the Bahamas its first written constitution. “Adventurers” has taken on new meaning as a clarion call to sailors, tourists, and, more recently, retirees looking for adventures of their own.

Largely undeveloped rolling green hills and untrammeled sandy coves, along with sleepy 19th-century towns, offer an authentic Bahamas experience that is quickly disappearing. Try not to notice the ubiquitous HG Christie and Sotheby’s “For Sale” signs unless, of course, you’re so smitten you want to stay. Rent a car—or even better, an SUV—for washboard back roads, and explore the island’s secluded beaches and sandy coves fringing turquoise and aqua water that rivals anything in the Caribbean. The island is among the prettiest in the Bahamas, with gentle hills, unspoiled “bush” (backwoods), and gardens of tumbling purple lantana and sky-blue plumbago. Hotels and inns are painted in the shades of Bahamian bays and sunset, which is best watched from the comfort of inviting verandas and seaside decks.

If you’re looking for all of this and a bit more action, ferry over to Harbour Island, Eleuthera’s chic neighbor. With its uninterrupted 3-mile pink-sand beach, top-notch dining, and sumptuous inns, the island has long been a favorite hideaway for jet-setters and celebrities. For splendid beaches with few, if any, tourists, head to Spanish Wells, a quiet, secluded island.

Eleuthera and Harbour Island beaches are some of the best in the world, thanks to their pristine beauty and dazzling variety. Deep-blue ocean fading to aqua shallows makes gorgeous backdrops for gourmet restaurants and the wooden decks of fishing shacks. The sand is for bonfires, celebrity-watching, Friday-night fish fries, dancing, and music, as much as it is for afternoon naps and stargazing.

Tranquil coves’ sparkling white sand are as calm as a pool on the west side of Eleuthera, while the Atlantic’s winter waves challenge skilled surfers on the east side, which has long stretches of pink sand. On Harbour Island, pink sand is on the ocean side and the white-sand coves face the calm channel. Home to shells that tumble in with every wave and starfish resting just offshore, the island’s occasional glitz can’t compete with the beaches’ natural beauty.

POINTS OF INTEREST

GOVERNOR’S HARBOUR

Governor’s Harbour, the capital of Eleuthera and home to government offices, is the largest town on the island and one of the prettiest. Victorian-era houses were built on Buccaneer Hill, which overlooks the harbor, bordered on the south by a narrow peninsula and Cupid’s Cay at the tip. To fully understand its appeal, you have to settle in for a few days and explore on foot—if you don’t mind the steep climb up the narrow lanes. The town is a step into a gentler, more genteel time. Everyone says hello, and entertainment means wading into the harbor to cast a line, or taking a painting class taught by Martha’s Vineyard artist Donna Allen at the 19th-century pink library on Monday mornings. You can see a current movie at the balconied Globe Princess, the only theater on the island, which also serves the best hamburgers in town. Or swim at the gorgeous beaches on either side of town, which stretch from the pink sands of the ocean to the white sands of the Bight of Eleuthera. There are three banks, a few grocery stores, and some of the island’s wealthiest residents, who prefer the quiet of Eleuthera to the fashionable party scene of Harbour Island.

GREGORY TOWN AND NORTH ELEUTHERA

Gregory Town is a sleepy community, except on Friday nights when people are looking for music, whether that is speakers blasting reggae or a local musician playing Rake ’n’ Scrape at a roadside barbecue. There’s action, too, at Surfer’s Beach, where winter waves bring surfers from around the world. They hang their surfboards from the ceiling at Elvina’s Bar for free summer storage. The famous Glass Window Bridge is north of town, and Preacher’s Cave, landing of the earliest settlers, is on the northern tip of the island. Gregory Town is home to a little more than 400 people, residing in small houses on a hillside that slides down to the sea. The town’s annual Pineapple Festival begins on the Thursday evening of the Bahamian Labor Day weekend, at the beginning of June, with live music continuing into the wee hours.

HARBOUR ISLAND

Harbour Island has often been called the Nantucket of the Caribbean and the prettiest of the Out Islands because of its powdery pink-sand beaches (3 miles’ worth!) and its pastel-color clapboard houses with dormer windows, set among white picket fences, narrow lanes, cute shops, and tropical flowers.

The frequent parade of the fashionable and famous, and the chic small inns that accommodate them, have earned the island another name: the St. Bart’s of the Bahamas. But residents have long called it Briland, their faster way of pronouncing “Harbour Island.” These inhabitants include families who go back generations to the island’s early settlement, as well as a growing number of celebrities, supermodels, and tycoons who feel that Briland is the perfect haven to bask in small-town charm against a stunning oceanscape. Some of the Bahamas’ most handsome small hotels, each strikingly distinct, are tucked within the island’s 2 square miles. At several, perched on a bluff above the shore, you can fall asleep with the windows open and listen to the waves lapping the beach. Take a walking tour of the narrow streets of Dunmore Town, named after the 18th-century royal governor of the Bahamas, Lord Dunmore, who built a summer home here and laid out the town, which served as the first capital of the Bahamas. It’s the only town on Harbour Island, and you can take in all its attractions during a 20-minute stroll.

HATCHET BAY

Hatchet Bay, which has one of mid-Eleuthera’s few marinas, is a good place to find a fishing guide and friendly locals. Take note of the town’s side roads, which have such colorful names as Lazy Road, Happy Hill Road, and Smile Lane. Just south of town, the Rainbow Inn and restaurant is the hub of activity for this stretch of the island.

“The Country’s Safest Harbour” is Hatchet Bay’s claim to fame. The naturally protected harbor is a popular place to anchor sailboats and fishing vessels when storms are coming. One of the most memorable days for the harbor, however, wasn’t a storm but the day years ago when Jackie Kennedy Onassis came in on a friend’s yacht.

The pastoral scenery outside of Hatchet Bay is some of the island’s most memorable—towering, long-empty grain silos, windswept green hillsides, and wild cotton, remnants of the old cotton plantations. Don’t miss James Cistern, a seaside settlement to the south.

ROCK SOUND AND SOUTH ELEUTHERA

One of Eleuthera’s largest settlements, the village of Rock Sound has a small airport serving the island’s southern part. Front Street, the main thoroughfare, runs along the seashore, where fishing boats are tied up. If you walk down the street, you’ll eventually come to the pretty, whitewashed St. Luke’s Anglican Church, a contrast to the deep-blue and greenhouses nearby, with their colorful gardens full of poinsettia, hibiscus, and marigolds. If you pass the church on a Sunday, you’ll surely hear fervent hymn singing through the open windows. Rock Sound has the island’s largest supermarket shopping center, where locals stock up on groceries and supplies.

The tiny settlement of Bannerman Town (population 40) is 25 miles from Rock Sound at the island’s southern tip, which is punctuated by an old cliff-top lighthouse. Rent an SUV if you plan to drive out to it; the rutted sand road is often barely passable. The pink-sand beach here is gorgeous, and on a clear day you can see the Bahamas’ highest point, Mt. Alvernia (elevation 206 feet), on distant Cat Island. The town lies about 30 miles from the residential Cotton Bay Club, past the quiet little fishing villages of Wemyss Bight (named after Lord Gordon Wemyss, a 17th-century Scottish slave owner) and John Millars (population 15), barely touched over the years.

SPANISH WELLS

Off Eleuthera’s northern tip lies St. George’s Cay, the site of Spanish Wells. The Spaniards used this as a safe harbor during the 17th century while they transferred their riches from the New World to the Old. Residents—the few surnames go back generations—live on the island’s eastern end in clapboard houses that look as if they’ve been transported from a New England fishing village. Descendants of the Eleutheran Adventurers continue to sail these waters and bring back to shore fish and lobster (most of the Bahamas’ langoustes are caught here), which are prepared and boxed for export in a factory at the dock. So lucrative is the trade in crawfish, the local term for Bahamian lobsters, that the 1,500 inhabitants may be the most prosperous Out Islanders.