The trip to Eleuthera this time around was much smoother than the last. This time, a cool 40-minute flight from Fort Lauderdale over stunning shades of shallow turquoise sea. Last time, a 7 a.m. flight out of JFK on New Year's Day (after reveling in Manhattan until the wee hours of the morning), stealing sleep at every opportunity--the cab ride to the airport, the airport floor, the entire flight to Nassau--and was jarred to consciousness on the pipe-of-an-airplane from Nassau to North Eleuthera airport, convinced that the only thing keeping us in the air was my death grip on Jake's arm. When we first arrived at the tiny airport (oh how I love island airports - Martha's Vineyard takes the cake so far), there were about 10 people there and one of them was, apparently, expecting us. "Paul's son?" said a man who would turned out to be Wallace, the house manager. "Yep!" We are instructed to wait outside for the "small black Suzuki" Jake's dad would be pulling up in, which never appeared. So we hop into Wallace's van and go searching for Jake's dad, who we find lost with a local guy in the passenger seat with apparently no navigation skills, hitching a ride to nowhere I guess. I ask if we're now headed the right way, Jake's dad responds with "Yes. Assuming, of course, we are." And so the tone was set for Eleuthera.
Fast forward four months and we're lucky enough to return to this Bahamian Out Island, this time bringing with us skateboard ramps, skateboards, safety gear, and plenty of apparel to donate to the youth as part of Modern Advocate's first community project.
Not much had changed in the four months since our last visit - in fact, not much has changed on Eleuthera in the past 25 years, according to our South Carolinian-turned-Eleutheran friend Mo who moved there in the 80s. The skipping stones we had collected in January were still gathered under the bench at the cove down the street, waiting for their moments of glory (15 skips was it, Jake?). My laptop, less romantically, remembered the wireless network password. The clocks on the same Suzuki rental and the house stove were still perpetually incorrect, jumping a few hours ahead of or behind their (previously incorrect) reading every time the car starts or the power goes out - an endearing little "island time" touch. If you managed to check the clock before you headed out, you might have some indication of a base point from which to start adding time passed. Otherwise, it all just reinforced the point that it doesn't really matter.
Upon arrival, we make a trip to the supermarket to obtain the essentials, adhering to a list (photo below) thoughtfully put together by our travel companion Joey. But I forgot that businesses in the Caribbean - including markets and liquor stores - are often closed on Sundays. Instead, we pick up a few things at the extremely convenient "7 to 11" down the road, where the aforementioned Mo rocks up in an old wrangler with two friends. They're headed to a nearby beach--Gaulding Cay--for a fundraiser for the upcoming Pineapple Festival; incidentally, Jake and I had not 30 minutes turned around from that same beach because it appeared overtaken by a local Sunday fete. Go figure. So we swing through to pick up Joey at the house and for a few welcome mango daiquiris for our new guests (which I am all too thrilled to recreate; according to Joey I am an "expert alcoholic maker"), and now the six of us are piled into this jeep, en route to the same party we were previously too timid to intrude upon.
And what a party it was!
There are the requisite speakers blasting island music, rudimentary smoker grill wafting the scent of pork, and a makeshift bar beneath the casuarina trees - all endearingly familiar elements of a "Sunday lime" in Barbados. Gaulding Cay is a beautiful beach five minutes up the road, its namesake a small island jutting up just off shore of the northern stretch. I imagine the snorkeling around that pile of rock is fantastic, however I'm too scared to venture out there on account of the sharks (but more on them later).
We all order rum and pineapples and take them into the calm sea just in time for sunset. Nothing better, I think to myself, and on cue (and so randomly) my all-time favorite song comes on: Mariah Carey's "Always Be My Baby". Yesssssss. A stranger pulls up offering rides on a jet ski, and Mo somehow talks him in to letting him and Jake take it out for a spin. They ride off into the sunset and out of view, returning 10 minutes later plus one chance encounter with Lenny Kravitz on his boat and minus one cell phone: Jake had been carrying his iPhone in a (awesome) water-proof case in his back pocket, but somewhere between all the bouncing and meeting a world famous rock star, it was lost. A veritable buzz-kill, until I look down into the crystal clear water and see it lightly covered in sand not two feet from me, and once again all is right with the world.
There are at times no signs for Eleuthera's natural attractions, let alone an admission fee. In fact, I'm not sure we would have even found the incredible Blue Hole if not for the expertise of our wonderful hosts. Down one dirt road, down another, turn on the grassy path, walk a bit through brush...and the Blue Hole unveils itself (not to be confused with the similarly impressive Ocean Hole 90 miles south). An almost artificial-looking shade of cobalt, like the water of a Pirates of the Caribbean theme-park ride, but here, all natural and all the more incredible for it. And what a thrill to jump off the surrounding cliffs into this mysterious inland cave! "You use the rope to climb back up", Jake lovingly explained. "No shit", I equally lovingly replied.
About 15 minutes south you'll find the Glass Window Bridge - another natural wonder to behold (and much easier to locate, as it constitutes a critical part of the island's one main road). We park on the side of the road and carefully navigate across craggly coral cliffs made up of what look like tiny, concrete drip sandcastles that defy my suspicions they will crumble beneath my flip flops. Here, at the narrowest point of the island (which is only two miles at its widest), the calm Exuma Sound, with the color palette that has my heart, meets the ferocious Atlantic, thousands of feet deep, in a spectacular display of the Atlantic's tremendous force. Atlantic swells pound the eastern side, sending water soaring twenty feet up and through the narrow channel. As the water recedes, it flows down over the rocks, creating a temporary brilliant waterfall of whitewash. Once the next swell inevitably rolls in though, it's as if the ocean has staged a revolution, defiantly reversing the direction of the waterfall and triggering a brief sense of panic in me. Rogue waves can wash away an unsuspecting onlooker, and when Jake peers too close for my comfort over the edge, I actually yelled out in anger. Oh, and there's also a blowhole caused by all this force, for further dramatic effect. I left my helicopter at home, but there are some pretty fantastic aerial photos here.
On a calmer note, we also spent a day on our own private island. If there were ever cause to use #winning, this would be it. The company Eleuthera Tours has this trip absolutely perfected. On their website it's listed as the " Explore Schooner Cays" tour, but the last sentence of the description is what especially caught my eye: "This tour can also be provided 'Adam and Eve' style, where we drop you on the deserted island with all the fixin's for lunch, leave you for your privacy, and come pick you up at a later time." Where do I sign?! We departed from Cape Eleuthera, at the southern end of the island. It's about an hour and 40 minute drive from Gregory Town, where we're staying (the island is 110 miles long, after all). Along the way, I passed such amusing signs as "Free Parking" next to an opening in the brush but near nothing else, and an advertisement outside a house that read "Digital Photos and Secretarial Services" - how niche. Once we reach the fueling dock, our trusty Captain Donald arrives right on time to transport us to heaven. It's a 1/2 hour boat ride out to our cay for the day, and "Da Reef Jumper" (so named for its flat bottom and outboard motor which can navigate low tide's shallow sandbars where most boats can't) pulls right up to the sandy slope. Donald hops out and begins setting up camp like a seasoned pro - table, chairs, umbrella, cooler full of drinks and lunch, a tablecloth (melt), bougainvillea bouquets delicately placed inside conch shells to hold down said tablecloth (double melt) - and even sets up a fire, perfectly ready to be lit whenever we chose to heat up our lunch (triple melt - ha! pun intended) of very tender and tasty grilled conch. "This is the best idea we've ever had!" I exclaim. "It's up there", Jake responds. "Oh yeah?" I question, "What else rivals this?" Jake thinks for a second and replies, "The first time we decided to come to Eleuthera." Exactly.
Donald returns four hours later (leading up to the trip, the thought crossed my mind that we'd be brought to this sandbar which only exists during low tide but adversely is submerged with the high tide, and what if the tour guide "forgot" about us and we'd have no way to get off...and then I started to wonder if Jake had any enemies - luckily, he doesn't, the island does not disappear in high tide, and Eleuthera Tours leaves you with a 2-way radio for emergencies) and we begin the ride back to the "main land". Though at this hour the sea is choppier, and Donald must have assumed my expert wave riding skills were cue to go faster, so now we are at times airborne and slamming down against the larger waves on a discus-crushing ride that I cannot imagine most people would be up for. We finally reach the harbour and start put-putting toward the dock, and I, relieved to be in calmer waters, stick my leg out and drag my foot alongside the boat, hoping Captain Donald doesn't object. But he does. Here it comes, I mumble to myself, once I hear him say "Oh, excuse me". Ugh, I'm not going to crush my leg between the dock or something. Did you not see how I rode those waves? "You don't want to do that here," he continues. "See, this is where the fishing charters come in, and that right there is the dock where they clean all the fish. We have about 18-20 sharks that patrol the area, follow every boat in thinking they'll get a free meal. Mostly nurse sharks, but a few resident bulls. Wouldn't want this day to turn into a nightmare." Oh. my. God. Okay. Yeah, I'll pull my leg in now. No sooner do we step off the boat and onto the dock that six sharks start circling, just waiting for something to drop into the water so they can snatch it up. Ah! My foot! An incredible sight nonetheless.
This is not a drill
Captain Donald's handiwork
The next day, we head over to another island off an island - Harbour Island. Known as the "Nantucket of the Caribbean" due to its New England-style architecture, the approach from the 10-minute ferry ride from Eleuthera is simply picturesque - pastel houses on a gentle slope across the ubiquitous turquoise sea. For $40 we rent a golf cart for the day, and take our pick of scenic routes to the other side of the island, where a 3-mile stretch of expansive pink sand beach awaits.We have a fantastic lunch on the seaside terrace of the Coral Sands hotel, not to be confused with the Pink Sands resort next door, whose periwinkle beachfront restaurant also beckoned, but will have to wait until next time. Though beach chairs are for hotel guests only, a vendor right next to the hotel rents chair and umbrellas (and sells $5 cold Kaliks). After a perfect beach afternoon, we once again cross the mini-island to catch a ferry to North Eleuthera, casually leaving the golf cart with the keys in it on the jetty since our guy was nowhere to be seen...talk about easy returns. To further emphasis the DIY style of Eleuthera, we head to the Sugar Apple Bar (and I use the word "bar" loosely - it looks more like an overgrown, abandoned lot than an establishment, and you love it all the more for it) for the local Wednesday nights jam session, where the "bartender" simply hands us the bottle of Myers rum and pineapple juice to fix our own drink. The evening comes to a gentle close on the lounge chairs of the deck back at the house, beneath the starry, planetary, galaxy-revealing sky.
Coral Sands restaurant
Table for two
It also turns out that there is excellent surfing in Eleuthera - who knew? Mo is an avid surfer and is living every boy's dream in a surf shack/tree house he built entirely from recycled materials from the dump. The first time we saw it, even my eyes widened just out of sheer curious awe. We scrambled up his lookout tower and are met with 360° island views, sea-to-sea, where you can check the local surf breaks. He lives strategically not five minutes from Surfer's Beach and has plenty of boards we can borrow for the trip. On our way out, I notice a laptop overturned on the raised walkway. He tells us that earlier that morning, he spilled a huge mug of coffee all over it, so he pulled out the battery, hosed the computer down to get rid of the coffee, and is now drying it out in the hot Caribbean sun.
I'm not sure that's the best remedy, but I'm now curious to know if it worked. Maybe Mo makes his own rules.
The entrance to Mo's surf shack, which is not in fact a restaurant, despite the signage
Spot the lookout tower!
The "swell of the year" hits while we are there, and Jake can't resist paddling out in overhead waves that were too large for me. I couldn't even swim Surfer's Beach that day, the shore pound was too heavy. The first time a breaking wave snaps his leash, I run down the beach 50 yards and pick up the washed up board, and Jake swims in without trouble. The second time he loses his board, after surfing an epic wave, I again run to get it, awaiting Jake on shore. He's having some trouble swimming in this time, and 10 long minutes go by with him still swimming, not making progress toward the beach but instead getting dragged out farther. Rip current. Five more minutes...still swimming. Now I'm starting to panic, never taking my eyes off of him and considering the fact that I might need to take the board out to him. But without a leash, if I lose the board paddling out too, we're both screwed. So I'm just standing on the beach, watching and now praying. Alternating from his back to front stroke, he makes it to shore, sprints up the beach and collapses safely out of reach of the surf. I ran over and can all but hear his heart pounding out of his chest. After a few moments he catches his breath, opens his eyes, looks up at me and says, "Please tell me you got a photo of that wave."(I didn't.)
Surfer's Beach (if I ever saw one)
Between the near-death experiences and endless beach hopping, we steal a few moments to take advantage of some local pleasures. Relaxing on the house's spacious deck and built-in cushions, the only sounds are a prop plane humming by overhead, palms rustling, birds chirping, and waves breaking. Just down the road lies The Cove, which gets an A for entrance in my book - behind the gate unfolds a gently winding driveway flanked by palms on either side, which induces immediate relaxation (if you weren't, already) and further reveals a beautiful, low-slung, white-linen-and-natural-wood-decor resort that recently underwent a $30 million renovation and boasts two private (manmade) sandy beaches, a clifftop infinity pool, hammocks at every turn, and to-die-for views. For $35 you can purchase a day pass, which includes use of their kayaks and paddle boards, in addition to the aforementioned. Or you can just order a few drinks and walk around the grounds, but be prepared to pay $35 for 2 pi
ña coladas. Dining out on Eleuthera's restaurants can be pricey - as with most islands - and after spending about $100 per meal during the first few days, we established our routine of packing picnic lunches and cooking dinners at home. Alternatively, Monica's Dis-n-Dat offers delicious $4 fish burgers, and Unca Gene's serves up an addictive $14 cracked lobster burger (I want it right now), two casual establishments both in Gregory Town.
Cliff jumping in front of the house
As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. I have found the better the vacation, the deeper the post-vacation blues. When I awoke at our layover destination after a brief nap on the flight home, the trip was already starting to feel like a half-daquiri-half-piña-colada swirly dream. But just as I was blessed enough to return this trip, so I keep my hopes high that another visit lies in my future. Until then, I just might seek out some cream of coconut, pineapple juice, rum, and ice, and blend away.