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The Southern Out Islands

Wild and windswept, the southern Bahamian islands are idyllic Edens for those adventurers who want to battle a tarpon, dive a “wall” that drops thousands of feet, photograph the world’s largest group of West Indian flamingos, or just sprawl on a sun-splashed beach with no sign of life—except maybe for a Bahama parrot pelting seeds from a guinep tree.

The quiet, simpler way of life on the southern Out Islands is startlingly different from Nassau’s fast-paced glitz and glamour, and even more secluded than the northern Out Islands. You won’t find huge resorts, casinos, or fast-food restaurants here, not to mention stoplights. Instead, you’ll be rewarded with a serene vacation that will make your blood pressure drop faster than a fisherman’s hook and sinker.

Sportsmen are drawn to the southern islands to outsmart the swift bonefish, and fish for marlin, black and bluefin tuna, wahoo, and swordfish. Yachties roam these islands on their way to the Caribbean, and vacationers rent Hobie Cats and kayaks. On all these islands, divers and snorkelers come to see healthy reefs and abundant underwater wildlife and even sharks. Romantics and honeymooners head south for the glorious sunsets viewed from the verandas of beachside cottages, and for the lovely pink beaches. Bird-watchers arrive with binoculars in hand to see the green and red Bahama parrots, Bahama pintails, tricolored and crested night herons, and, of course, flamingos. They can also try to spot the Bahama woodstar hummingbird, which is very similar to one of the world’s newest discovered species, the Inaguan lyretail hummingbird.

The friendliness of residents is well known, but visitors are often taken aback by their instant inclusion in the community. You can’t walk 100 feet without someone offering a welcome ride on a hot day. Ask an islander where a certain restaurant is and they will walk with you until you see it. On Inagua, express any disappointment such as not seeing a flamingo up close, and the person standing behind you at the store will get on their cell phone. (There’s a big flock now at the Town Pond!) The scenery is gorgeous, but this genuine rapport is what brings regulars back time and again to these tiny communities.

POINTS OF INTEREST

CAT ISLAND

You’ll be purring on Cat Island’s exquisite pink-sand beaches and sparkling white-sand-ringed coves, as calm and clear as a spa pool. Largely undeveloped, Cat Island has the tallest hill in the Bahamas, a dizzying 206 feet high, with a historic tiny stone abbey on top, a lovely spot for reflection or a picnic. The two-lane Queen’s Highway runs the 48-mile length of the island from north to south, mostly along the western gorgeous sandy coastline, through quaint seaside settlements and past hundreds of abandoned stone cottages. Some are 200-year-old slave houses, crumbling testaments to cotton and sisal plantation days, while others were just too old to have modern utilities so were abandoned. Trees and vines twist through spaces that used to be windows and roofs and the deep-blue ocean can be seen through missing walls. In 1938 the island had 5,000 residents and today only about 1,500. Many of the inhabitants left the cottages long ago out of necessity, to find work in Nassau and Florida, but the houses remain because they still mark family land.

Cat Island was named after a frequent visitor, the notorious pirate Arthur Catt, a contemporary of Edward “Blackbeard” Teach. Another famous islander is Sir Sidney Poitier, who grew up here before leaving to become a groundbreaking Academy Award-winning movie actor and director.

CROOKED AND ACKLINS ISLANDS

Crooked Island is 30 miles long and surrounded by 45 miles of barrier reefs that are ideal for diving and fishing. They slope from 4 feet to 50 feet, then plunge to 3,600 feet in the Crooked Island Passage, once one of the most important sea roads for ships following the southerly route from the West Indies to the Old World. If you drive up to the Cove settlement, you get an uninterrupted view of the region all the way to the narrow passage at Lovely Baybetween Crooked Island and Acklins Island. Two lighthouses alert mariners that they are nearing the islands.

The tepid controversy continues today over whether Columbus actually set foot on Crooked Island and its southern neighbor, Acklins Island. What’s known for sure is that Columbus sailed close enough to Crooked Island to get a whiff of its native herbs. Soon after, the two islands became known as the “Fragrant Islands.” Today Crooked and Acklins islands are known as remote and unspoiled destinations for fishermen, divers, and sailors who value solitude. Here phone service can be intermittent, Internet connections can be hard to find, and some residents depend on generators for electricity. Even credit-card use is a relatively new development. The first known settlers didn’t arrive until the late 18th century when Loyalists brought slaves from the United States to work on cotton plantations. About 400 people, mostly fishermen, and farmers, live on each island today. Two plantation-era sites, preserved by the Bahamas National Trust, are on Crooked Island’s northern end, which overlooks Crooked Island Passage that separates the cay from Long Island. Spanish guns have been discovered at one ruin, Marine Farm, which may have been used as a fortification. An old structure, Hope Great House, has orchards and gardens.

INAGUA

Inagua does indeed feel like the southernmost island in the Bahamas’ 700 mile-long chain. Just 50 miles from Cuba, it’s not easy to get to—there are only three flights a week from Nassau, and you must overnight there to catch the 9 am flight. At night the lonely beacon of the Inagua Lighthouse sweeps the sky over the southern part of the island and the only community, Matthew Town, as it has since 1870. The coastline is rocky and rugged, with little coves of golden sand. The terrain is mostly flat and covered with palmetto palms, wind-stunted buttonwoods, and mangroves ringing ponds and a huge inland saltwater lake. Parts of it look very much like the Florida Everglades, only without the alligators and poisonous snakes.

Matthew Town feels like the Wild West, with sun-faded wooden buildings and vintage and modern trucks usually parked in front. It’s obviously not a tourist mecca, but it’s a shame that more people don’t make it here. They are missing one of the great spectacles of the Western Hemisphere: the 70,000-some West Indian pink-scarlet flamingos that nest here alongside rare Bahama parrots and roseate spoonbills. If you’re not a bird lover, there’s extraordinary diving and fishing off the virgin reefs. Although there are few tourists, this remote island is prosperous. An unusual climate of little rainfall and continual trade winds creates rich salt ponds. The Morton Salt Company harvests a million tons of salt annually at its Matthew Town factory, where most of the 1,000 Inaguans work.

LONG ISLAND

Long Island lives up to its name—80 gorgeous miles are available for you to explore. The Queen’s Highway traverses its length, through the Tropic of Cancer and many diverse settlements and farming communities. The island is 4 miles at its widest, so at hilly vantage points you can view both the white cliffs and the raging Atlantic on the east side, and the gentle surf coming to you like a shy child on the Caribbean side. It is truly spectacular.

Long Island was the third island discovered by Christopher Columbus, and a monument to him stands on the north end. Loyalist families came to the island in support of the Crown, and to this day there are Crown properties all over the island, deeded by the king of England. Fleeing the Revolution, their attempt at re-creating life in America was short-lived. The soil and lack of rainfall did not support their crops, cotton being their mainstay. Today you can see wild cotton growing in patches up and down the island, along with the ruins of the plantations.
Fishing and tourism support the 3,000 residents of Long Island. Farms growing bananas, mangoes, papaya, and limes also dot the landscape. Boatbuilding is a natural art here, and in the south, you can always see a boat in progress as you travel the Queen’s Highway.

Progress has come to the island slowly. There is now high-speed Internet and cell-phone service, but shops and modern forms of entertainment are still limited. People who come to Long Island don’t seem to mind; they’re here for the beauty, tranquillity, and friendly people. Deep-sea fishing and diving are readily available, and bonefishing flats attract sport fishermen from all over the world. The beaches provide breathtaking views, shelling, exploring, and magnificent pieces of sea glass. The laid-back lifestyle is reminiscent of a slower, gentler time.

SAN SALVADOR ISLAND

On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus disrupted the lives of the peaceful Lucayan Indians when he landed on the island of Guanahani, which he renamed San Salvador. Apparently, he knelt on the beach and claimed the land for Spain. (Skeptics of this story point to a study published in a 1986 National Geographic article in which Samana Cay, 60 miles southeast, is identified as the exact point of the weary explorer’s landing.) Three monuments on the island commemorate Columbus’s arrival, and the 500th anniversary of the event was officially celebrated here.

The island is 14 miles long—a little longer than Manhattan Island—and about 6 miles wide, with a lake-filled interior. Some of the most dazzling deserted beaches in the country are here, and most visitors come for Club Med’s unique blend of fun and activities; others, for the peaceful isolation and the diving. There are more than 50 dive sites and world-renowned offshore fishing and good bonefishing. The friendly locals have a lot to be proud of for their special island and their warmth shows it.