As we began climbing the stairs from the infamous Baths on Virgin Gorda toward the top of the hill in search of a restaurant for five starving kids, we immediately regretted the decision. Nobody brought shoes so the sweltering bedrock heated by the tropic sun singed the bottoms of our feet with every step. I hoped the day would entail some light swimming, a little snorkeling, and maybe even a little afternoon libation. How we became involved in some sort of medieval fire-walking ritual was beyond me. But then just before our brood turned on each other, our prize revealed itself: the Top of the Baths Restaurant and Bar. We were saved! I'm pretty sure we freaked out the day trippers by raining our own shock and awe when our scorched feet found the pool.The stunning view across the Sir Francis Drake Channel, good food, and tasty tropical drinks gave us just the elixir we needed.
What stood out that day, besides the several layers of skin that our feet shed, was that this special hideaway propelled us into relaxation mode. The waiters weren't rushing us to eat up so they could turn the table. The trade winds provided a calming complement to the subdued tunes coming over the stereo, and the pool directly behind our table was an easy way to cool off between courses of island fare. The way you know if a place is truly special is by returning and trying to duplicate the same experience. I have been doing so for almost a decade and have never been disappointed.
During any cruise, discovering new places-shops, bars, atmospheric joints-is an enjoyable part of the experience. It's as if you're on a treasure hunt and the pot of gold is a grouper sandwich and a frosty beer. Besides Top of the Baths, we wanted to let you in on four other secret watering holes that our editors enjoy.
Cracker P's, Lubbers Quarters, Bahamas: This funky waterfront bar overlooks the Sea of Abaco, Elbow Cay, and Tahiti Beach. Don't be fooled by the laidback atmosphere of flip-flops and T-shirts: The food is first class. You can't go wrong with the catch of the day and a grilled conch appetizer. Or try the smoked Mahi-Mahi dip for a real taste of the islands. The bar is said to have the largest selection of rum in the Bahamas. Cracker P's is also a great lunch spot if you are running to or from Tahiti Beach on the southern end of Elbow Cay. A 200-foot dock allows room for tenders and center consoles-the commuting vehicle of choice in the Abacos.
Red Dog's, Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina: Some watering holes stand out thanks to the food, the view, or maybe a combination of both. In the case of Red Dog's, however, it is the patrons that make the rip-roaring good time. This is not to slight the libations, but the fun is contagious, especially after a local surf contest. The Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, icon was opened in 1975 by business partners Charlie Maultsby and Steve Parker, a.k.a. Red Dog. Maultsby continues to run the beach bar today. Just make sure you're in the mood for good bands, dancing, and a crowd of regulars that spread a little joy. This energy has kept Red Dog's going, despite several setbacks such as Hurricane Fran in 1996, and a few battles with the city's founding fathers.
Banana Bay Marina, Golfito, Costa Rica: If you hang out at the Banana Bay Marina long enough, chances are you'll meet up with just about every boat traveling the Pacific Coast. The town and marina lie just north of Panama and are an official port of entry for Costa Rica, making for an eclectic group of yachtsmen and anglers gathering around the Banana Bay Marina Bar and Grill. You can't help but be lulled into a pleasant trance by the mellow atmosphere of this former banana republic. If you're hungry after a long passage, be sure to have one of the chef's authentic Costa Rican meals. And if you're craving a "Cheeseburger in Paradise," the kitchen makes a seriously tasty burger, along with a variety of other "Gringo" fare.
Boatyard Bar and Grill, Annapolis, Maryland: This watering hole is certainly not a secret to local Annapolitans who made the establishment an almost instant success. But some transients may not have had the chance to absorb the local color that flocks to the bar almost every evening. If you're cruising through Maryland's capital, take a walk over the Spa Creek Bridge into the Eastport section of the city to the Boatyard Bar and Grill. The bar and restaurant capitalize on the city's nautical heritage and are filled with maritime art, artifacts, and memorabilia. It satisfied a void after the default hangout for boaters, Marmaduke's, turned into a Ruth's Chris Steakhouse some years ago-an act that shook this seafaring community to the core. I know people who still won't go into Ruth's Chris, despite the fact that they serve great steak, because of the perceived violation of world order.
The location, on the corner of Severn Avenue and 4th Street, places the Boatyard right in the middle of the marine industry, surrounded by brokers, yacht designers, ship's stores, and yes, boatyards. If you're looking to buy, build, or service a boat, chances are you can find a good contact spinning tales around the bar.
The food is also fresh and tasty, and the Sunday brunch has become a popular happening. Breakfast is served daily.
There is certainly more to cruising than finding the next watering hole and meal. This is only one special element of why we boat. But when you can find a place entrenched in the local culture that turns up the fun factor, it may be worth the stop.