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The Abacos

The attitude of the Abacos might best be expressed by the sign posted in the window of Vernon’s Grocery in Hope Town: “If you’re looking for Wal-Mart—it’s 200 miles to the right.” In other words, the residents of this chain of more than 100 islands know that there’s another world out there, but don’t necessarily care to abandon theirs, which is a little more traditional, slow-paced, and out of the way than most alternatives.

Here you’ll feel content in an uncrowded environment, yet still have access to whatever level of accommodations and services you desire. Ecotourism is popular, and aficionados have revitalized exploration of Abacos’ Caribbean pine forests, which are home to wild boar, wild horses, the rare Abaco parrot, and myriad other bird and plant life. Hiking and biking through these forests and along abandoned beaches at the forest’s edges are popular activities. Sea kayaking in pristine protected areas also provides a rewarding sense of adventure, and more conventional activities such as golf, tennis, and beach volleyball are available, too. But if you don’t feel like doing anything at all, that’s also a highly rated activity.

Of course, this is the Bahamas, so you shouldn’t neglect activities happening in one of its most magnificent assets—the water. Snorkeling and diving have long been staple activities for visitors. Abaconians are proud of their marine environment and have worked with the government to protect some of the more vibrant reefs. The islands’ calm, naturally protected waters, long admired for their beauty, have also helped the area become the Bahamas’ sailing capital. Man-O-War Cay remains the Bahamas’ boatbuilding center; its residents turn out traditionally crafted wood dinghies as well as high-tech fiberglass craft. The Abacos play host annually to internationally famous regattas and to a half-dozen game-fish tournaments.

From island-long stretches to strips as short as your boat, with powder-white to pink to warm-cream sand, the roar of the surf or the silence of a slow-rising tide, the Abacos have a beach suited to everyone’s liking. And most likely, you’ll find a secluded spot to call your own.

Oceanside beaches are long expanses of white powder that change their form throughout the year depending on the surge brought in by weather. Beaches sheltered from strong winds, on the lee sides of islands, are small, narrow, and stable. Trees are taller on the lee sides of the islands and provide shaded areas for picnics. On the outer cays beaches make popular surf spots and snorkel sites, with the barrier reef running along the shore. Most Abaco beaches are secluded, but if you’re looking for a beach party, head to Great Guana Cay for the Nippers’s Sunday pig roast.

POINTS OF INTEREST

ELBOW CAY

Five-mile-long Elbow Cay’s main attraction is the charming village of Hope Town. The saltbox cottages—painted in bright colors—with their white picket fences, flowering gardens, and porches and sills decorated with conch shells, will remind you of a New England seaside community, Bahamian style. Most of the 300-odd residents’ families have lived here for several generations, in some cases as many as 10. For an interesting walking or bicycling tour of Hope Town, follow the two narrow lanes that circle the village and harbor. (Most of the village is closed to motor vehicles.)

Although modern conveniences like high-speed Internet and satellite TV are becoming more common, they are a relatively new development. In fact, most residents remember the day the island first got telephone service—back in 1988. Before that, everyone called each other the way many still do here and in the other Out Islands: by VHF, the party line for boaters. If you are boating, want to communicate with the locals, or would like to make a dinner reservation on one of the cays, you should carry a VHF radio and have it tuned to channel 16.

GREAT ABACO ISLAND

If arriving by air, your trip will begin on Great Abaco, the main island. It’s bordered on its eastern side by a chain of cays that extend from the north to about midway down the island, and on the western side by a fishing flat called the Marls, a shallow-water area of mangrove creeks and islands. Great Abaco was once logged for its pine trees, and traveling by car allows you to access many old logging trails that will lead you to secluded beaches along the coast. The island is home to wild horses, cows, and boars, and the endangered Abaco parrots, who make their homes in the pine forests.

Marsh Harbour is the main hub of activity on the island, and where most visitors stay. Heading north on the S.C. Bootle Highway will take you to Treasure Cay peninsula, a resort development. There’s another, smaller, airport here. Farther north are Cooper’s Town and the small communities of Little Abaco, which don’t provide much for visitors besides nearly total seclusion. South of Marsh Harbour off the Ernest Dean Highway are artists’ retreat Little Harbour, and Cherokee Sound and Sandy Point, both small fishing communities. Also, there is the quaint yet upscale second home and vacation community Schooner Bay.

GREAT GUANA CAY

The essence of Great Guana Cay can be summed up by its unofficial motto, painted on a hand-lettered sign: “It’s better in the Bahamas, but it’s gooder in Guana.” This sliver of an islet just off Great Abaco, accessible by ferry from Marsh Harbour or by private boat, is the kind of place people picture when they dream of running off to disappear on an exotic island, complete with alluring deserted beaches and grassy dunes. Only 100 full-time residents live on 7-mile-long Great Guana Cay, where you’re more likely to run into a rooster than a car during your stroll around the tranquil village. Still, there are just enough luxuries here to make your stay comfortable, including a couple of small, laid-back resorts and a restaurant–bar with one of the best party scenes in the Abacos. The island also has easy access to bonefishing flats you can explore on your own.

GREEN TURTLE CAY

This tiny 3-mile-by-½-mile island is steeped in Loyalist history; some residents can trace their heritage back more than 200 years. Dotted with ancestral New England–style cottage homes, the cay is surrounded by several deep bays, sounds, bonefish flats, and irresistible beaches. New Plymouth, first settled in 1783, is Green Turtle’s main community. Many of its approximately 550 residents earn a living by diving for conch or selling lobster and fish. There are a few grocery and hardware stores, several gift shops, a post office, a bank, a handful of restaurants, and several offices.

MAN-O-WAR CAY

Fewer than 300 people live on skinny, 2½-mile-long Man-O-War Cay, many of them descendants of early Loyalist settlers who started the tradition of handcrafting boats more than two centuries ago. These residents remain proud of their heritage and continue to build their famous fiberglass boats today. The island is secluded, and the old-fashioned, family-oriented roots show in the local policy toward liquor: it isn’t sold anywhere on the island. (But most folks won’t mind if you bring your own.) Three churches, a one-room schoolhouse, several boutique shops, small grocery stores, and just one restaurant round out the tiny island’s offerings.

A mile north of the island you can dive to the wreck of the USS Adirondack, which sank after hitting a reef in 1862. It lies among a host of cannons in 20 feet of water.

SPANISH CAY

Only 3 miles long, this privately owned island was once the exclusive retreat of millionaires, and many visitors still arrive by yacht or private plane. Although several private upscale homes dot the coast, a small resort also rents rooms and condos. A well-equipped marina, great fishing, and some fine beaches are among the attractions here.