New Providence and Staniel Cay
With all the wet weather we’ve been having, we decided it was time for a bit of sun during winter so we ventured southeast to visit Dave and Angie Stuart in the Bahamas. Dave and Angie have been in the Bahamas for a few months working on a friend’s house. Where do we start…
The house, I guess. The house is a story unto itself… Upon King Edward VIII’s abdication of the English throne in 1936 he left England with his new wife, American divorcée Wallis Simpson, to live in the Bahamas. The house that Dave and Ang are working on was Governor and Commander-In-Chief Edward’s house. It really is an amazing place: extensive gardens, ornate wood- and stone-work throughout the house, some of the most fantastic wrought iron work I’ve ever seen… Extending almost the entire length of the main house is a giant rainwater tank that Dave and I ventured into; kids would have a lot of fun in this place, it’s a hide-and-seek dream.
The house overlooks a golf course with Cable Beach in the distance (right). Jack (right) is one of the two full-time gardeners that maintain the estate. Jack and Luke, the other gardener, were a very funny couple: the ride-on lawnmower here is only for Jack’s use, Luke has to use the push mower. Same goes with tools, there’s two of everything, one for each gardener!
Nassau is New Providence’s main town and the largest settlement in the Bahamas, housing a little over 200,000 people. The main port always seemed to have between one and five gigantic cruise ships docked, those ships really were something to see up close, like floating cities. While the cruise ships have brought a lot of the global retail chains to the shopping district around the wharves, there’s still a lot of local culture to be found if you venture away from the main docks. Angie took us down to Potter’s Cay, the section of Nassau’s port where the local fisherman dock to sell their wares, mail boats come and go, and a plethora of other street vendors can be found.
We sampled a Caribbean delicacy, conch salad, which is basically raw conch, onion, tomato and jalapeno dowsed in citrus juice, as well as conch fritters, deep fried cubes of conch. The conch was about as fresh as it comes: the stalls store their conch on ropes in the ocean behind their storefronts, when an order’s made they pull up the rope and crack a conch right in front of you. I also sampled a conch tube (I’m not sure if that’s the correct terminology), a clear cylinder the locals extract from the conch before it’s filleted and suck down raw as an aphrodisiac. I don’t know if I’ll be consuming too many conch tubes!
I’m not usually a big fan of dominoes, or as the folk around northern California call it, Mexican Train. But the retired Bahamian men sure make the game worth watching. It seems that once retired, Bahamian men are quite happy to sit out their existence at the local domino table, talking their fair share of B.S. to each other and playing eight-stack dominoes. The fun part of the game is playing the domino each time: these guys slam down the dominoes so hard that most of the domino tables in the Bahamas are specially reinforced to withstand the continual pounding! It really was a hoot to watch, the guy above is standing up while slamming down a domino to impart maximal force. He’s probably giving the other players a mouthful about how he good he is at the same time!
Dave and Ang thought they’d better show us some of the extravagances of the island, so we toured through a couple of gated communities where the estates seemed to be as big as regular American suburbs (Sean Connery lives in one of them), and also ventured over to Paradise Island. Paradise Island is connected to New Providence by a toll bridge, it’s perched above the northern end of New Providence across the water from Nassau and Potter’s Cay. Paradise Island houses Nassau’s largest resort, Atlantis, and also a mega-yacht harbor. Once inside Atlantis you’d almost swear you were in Las Vegas. There’s casinos, restaurants, shopping, everything a consumer could want! The mega-yacht harbor was really something to see, I can’t imagine how much some of the boats moored in there would be worth. You know a boat’s worth some good coin when it’s got a spa on the back and a helicopter pad on the top!
One of the reasons we ventured over to Atlantis was to check out the aquarium Dave and Angie had said was definitely worth seeing. They weren’t wrong… Underneath the casino is a sea water aquarium called The Dig, the Atlantis designers really did an amazing job with the display. The aquarium housed everything from eels to manta rays. Tuna, clown fish, seahorses, sharks, if it swims in the Caribbean seas it’s in this aquarium!
Another adventure on Paradise Island was getting to see a Junkanoo. Traditionally the junkanoo is performed around Christmas and New Year, the one at Atlantis runs to add to the Caribbean feel of the resort, but it was still great to watch. One of the locals told us that the junkanoos at Christmas and New Year can run for more than 12 hours; that’s some serious endurance, the performers are running around, singing and dancing the whole time. The parade we saw had some amazing costumes, a full brass band and a bunch of dancers following the entourage.
Dave was pretty adamant that we go to church on one of the Sundays we were in Nassau. On our second day in the Bahamas we visited Transfiguration Baptist Church, what a fun morning. The five of us were the only white people in the church, the kids in the children’s choir couldn’t keep their eyes of us. Dave said the service wasn’t as lively as another church he’d been to, but it was a lot of fun, a real life Sister Act experience with a full band and three different choirs singing their praises.
While Nassau and New Providence offer a great deal, at Dave and Ang’s suggestion we took a five-seater plane south into the Exumas chain to a fantastic island called Staniel Cay. When I was purchasing the tickets for our flight I first learned (the hard way) one of the cardinal rules of the Bahamas: when you ask for a price you’d better take it the first time because most of the time additional price requests will result in a different amount, and that amount will likely increase each time you ask! So, after haggling about our flights for a day or two, we hopped a plane for the 30 minute ride down to Staniel Cay. The plane was even smaller than the one we took to hop between islands in Fiji, a little five-seater, my long legs got me a seat next to the pilot up front. The flight was a real treat, the Exumas chain has hundreds of islands, the small plane gave us a bird’s eye view of the mostly uninhabited cays, the beautiful turquoise of the Caribbean and deep blue of the Atlantic to the east. We met Joshua and his mum on our flight, we later met Joshua’s dad in the bar on Valentine’s Day. I think I’m lucky someone didn’t end up bringing Joshua home with us!
Staniel Cay is the only place in the world with the distinction of having two James Bond movies filmed on location, Thunderball and Never Say Never Again, and was also the site where Splash was filmed. The island is picture perfect, it’s only a few miles long and maybe a mile wide, home to around 50 full-time residents. There is a general store, a supermarket (if you could call it that), three bars and two restaurants. The “airport” terminal to the right is very well ventilated and boasts some great views… The supermarket took a little time to find, once we figured out that it was hidden behind a shed (pictured below) we were all set. The pricing in the supermarket was quite interesting, everything seemed to be $3.50. Dave and Ang pointed us to some quaint cottages on the beach for our accommodations, we woke every morning to the sound of water lapping on the sand and beautiful views of the Caribbean. Life’s tough… Dave and Ang also clued us in on some of the island’s secrets, one of which was finding a local woman who pretty much cooks lunch for all the locals each day. So upon arrival we sought out Bernadette’s mum (as she’s fondly known on the island) for a traditional Bahamian lunch of lamb, chicken, rice and steamed vegetables. Good tucker.
We spent a good portion of our dining and drinking time at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club, which was about five minutes walk from our beach-side cottage. For an island where everything has to be shipped in from Nassau or the United States, the fare at the Yacht Club was very good and surprisingly inexpensive. The bartenders at the Yacht Club were great to talk to, we befriended one of them from Jamaica named Dave, who clued us in on more of the island’s secrets, particularly the best places on the island to snorkel. We were pretty stoked to find that Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay was the best-selling wine at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club, the winemaker of the family enjoyed celebrity status with some folk at the bar when they discovered that she has a hand in making it.
There are a few cars on the island, but the majority of people use electric golf carts to get around. For the first day we walked around the northern end of the island, then splurged on a golf cart for the rest of our stay. There is only one paved road stretching from north to south, beach access usually involved motoring our cart through the dunes to one of the island’s many beaches. Those little carts have amazing off-road capabilities! The photo on the right is one of the trails we took at David’s (the bartender) recommendation to do some snorkeling on the Atlantic side of the island. While a lot rougher than the tranquil Caribbean waters, the sea life on the Atlantic reef was absolutely amazing. The fish were everywhere, a lot bigger than the species only a mile away on the other side of the island. I was almost done with my diving on the Atlantic reef and was swimming back into the beach through a sandy clearing in the reef when I got a shot of adrenaline at seeing five black-tip reef sharks swimming about three or four meters away. Sure got my heart beating! I managed to snap a shot of one of them as it cruised past, you can kind of make it out on the right. Needless to say, I didn’t stay in the water too much longer after taking the shot below.
The majority of visitors to Staniel Cay are sailors making their way through the Exumas chain and stopping off for supplies and a meal. We decided to join the boats one day and rented a small Boston Whaler from the general store to cruise through some of the nearby cays. We started out heading south of Staniel Cay to an uninhabited island (the name escapes me) for a bit of a snorkel. We also stopped off at Big Major Spot, one of the larger cays to the north of Staniel, where the locals told us we could feed the semi-wild pigs inhabiting the island. We were cruising into one of the beaches on Big Major Spot, wondering how to find the pigs, when down the beach one came running. I was a little tentative being in the water with her at the beginning (yes, she swam) but all she wanted was some of the bread we had with us. A real hoot, she liked a bit of a scratch behind the ears as well as our bread… The beaches on the islands surrounding Staniel were beautiful, we had all of them to ourselves all day. We’d just see one that looked nice, pull our dinghy in to shore, and take it all in!
We’d also been told by both Dave and Angie and the Staniel locals that we should stop off at Thunderball Grotto, named after the 007 Thunderball movie that had a number of scenes shot there. The grotto is inside a small, limestone island just north of Staniel Cay, you’d never know by looking from the outside that the island is hollow. The view of the grotto opening, which was underwater, from our Boston Whaler is pictured to the right. We’d also been told to take some bread with us to feed the plethora of fish inside the grotto. It was an amazing experience, the fish came so thick as soon as the bread hit the water that we were able to swipe our hands through the schools and touch them. I even had my leg bitten by one because I don’t think it could tell what was food and what was me!
It was a little tough to get a good shot of the inside of the grotto because there was water all over the lens of our little digital underwater camera, but the shot to the right shows the roof of the cave with the small opening that lit up everything inside. A pretty cool little spot…
On Valentine’s Day the place to be on Staniel Cay was Club Thunderball, a restaurant and bar perched at the very northernmost tip of the island next to Pirate Trap Beach. We had to book a day ahead of time (using a CB radio) to get a reservation, but had a fantastic dinner of steak and lobster, and also had a chance to schmooze with some of the locals. It was quite an event, everyone was dressed up to the nines, Cookie (pictured below) was one of the workmen on the island that worked with Joshua’s dad.
Ho Te Kai Beach at the southern end of Staniel Cay (left). We visited this spot twice, a beautiful beach with some great snorkeling just around the corner. We had to drive our golf cart around the airplane runway to access the beach (right), not exactly high security at this airport, the sign telling us to stay off the runway made for a good laugh…
Pirate Trap Beach at the northern tip of the island with Thunderball Grotto island in the center and Big Major Spot (the pig island) on the right (left), the Atlantic Ocean at the northern end of Staniel Cay with more of the Exumas islands stretching north (middle), and Staniel Cay from the air on our way back to Nassau (right).
Sadly we had to leave Staniel Cay, such a beautiful and fun place, but we had a few days left back in Nassau with Dave and Angie. The Nassau Cricket Club was one of our dining stops during our last weekend on the island, they had some seriously good steak and mushroom pies, made me think of the Dulwich Bakery. I think both Dave and I had a little too much to drink at the Cricket Club, I don’t quite remember how I got home that night! Dave’s daily afternoon gin and tonics probably helped with the amnesia, the glasses he uses are the length of my forearm.
On our second to last day Dave decided he wanted to tackle the driveway and the less-than-ideal boat ramps on New Providence with the 30-foot boat that came with the property where we were staying. What an adventure… We ended up getting the little Isuzu truck bogged in the sand while trying to launch the boat, and had to have some of the locals help us rock the boat off the trailer to get it into the water. But it was a beautiful day on the ocean and we had the chance to do some of the best snorkeling we’ve ever done off of an island just west of New Providence. Lobsters, sting rays, I even saw a turtle and a pretty good sized grey nurse shark in the water with me.
If getting the boat in the water wasn’t hard enough, getting it out was a whole different challenge. Dave decided we were going to dig through the almost two foot deep sand on top of the ramp and down to the concrete for better traction. After digging channels for the trailer and truck tires for about 30 minutes, the skies opened up and turned our trenches into small creeks. Scrap that idea… We ultimately used a concrete ramp in one of the gated communities nearby, but getting in there was… Well… A tale for a different day.
Breakfast at Compass Point (left), and the pool at the Compass Point Hotel (right).
I don’t think either of us could have asked for a more enjoyable trip or better hosts. Hopefully Dave and Angie will stop over in San Fran on their way back to Oz so we can return their hospitality…