The previous night's sky had been filled with stars so big and so bright they reflected off the smooth surface of the Gulf Stream. The absence of even the slightest breath of wind slowed our northeastward progress from Key West to Green Turtle Cay in the Abacos to near nonexistence. At the rate we were traveling, caught in the stream's swift northerly flow, maybe we should have considered a vacation in Newfoundland.
Nobody aboard Craig Quirolo's 37-foot Tayana pilothouse cutter Magic Dragon seemed to care. All of us were caught up in the hypnotic magic of our solitude; the lethargic flap of lifeless Dacron; the gurgle of water against the rolling hull; the slow, rhythmic tapping of the halyards against the mast.
Fortunately, as the sun began to show itself several hours later, a stiff southerly kicked up from weather building over the islands, which were now visible on the horizon. As if frightened awake from a sound sleep, Magic Dragon sprang into action. Her sails filled with a snap, and she took off on a straight course.
Quirolo, our captain and the director of Marine Project's Reef Relief in Key West, was sailing to Green Turtle Cay to install reef-mooring buoys. This cooperative effort was funded by David Bethel and Ross Sawyer, board members of Green Turtle Cay Foundation; Cape Air; the Edith and Curtis Munson Foundation; and island residents. The buoys, secured around the island at key locations, provide boaters and divers with an easy, safe alternative to anchoring on the fragile coral reefs.
We reached Green Turtle Cay in the late afternoon and moored at the end of a long sliver of water named Black Sound. Our anchorage, ringed by mangroves and coconut palms, was a stone's throw from the dock at the western end of the 22-acre estate of Linton's Cottages and a few minutes by bicycle from the village of New Plymouth. In this protected lagoon, we had access to golf carts, bicycles, washing machines and showers at the cottages.
On an island that's only 3 miles long and a bit more than a mile wide-and supports a year-round population of about 450 people, 380 chickens, 93 cats and 37 dogs-the main attractions are the beaches and reefs. Green Turtle Cay is home to a complex coral reef system of mangroves, sandbars and grass flats, all teeming with bonefish and other game fish. The reef is several miles wide and has a substantial population of shark, grouper, snapper, rays, lobster and three species of turtle. Diving on the reef is great entertainment; if you're new to the area, pay a visit to Brendal's dive shop in the White Sound area.
By the time we had secured the boat and given her a rinse, Dr. Brian Lapointe, owner of Linton's Cottages and a colleague of Quirolo's, was greeting us at the dock with four bicycles. We charged off to Miss Emily's Blue Bee Bar to unwind with a few cups of Viola's original island sedative: the world-famous Goombay Smash.
I learned from Viola that Bahamians are closely linked to the origins of the United States. Two years prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Loyalists faction in the colonies began to suffer for its allegiance to England. By 1783, after losing their property and enduring all manner of social and physical abuse, about 100,000 of them fled, some to Canada and England and the remainder to the Caribbean. Green Turtle Cay was among their destinations.
The town of New Plymouth didn't become important until the heyday of trade among the islands, Europe and mainland America. Many of the merchants foundered on the eastern coasts of the Abacos, and New Plymouth found itself in the hub of a growing salvage business. In addition to the salvaged goods taken from wrecked ships, slaves seemed to come ashore as frequently as the tide. When King William of England abolished slavery, the islands were awash with black labor. Racial tensions caused violent confrontations between whites and blacks, and because of the escalating hostilities, hundreds of whites packed their belongings and left. In some cases, entire homes were piled onto barges and set up in Green Turtle's sister city of Key West. These homes still exist.
We discovered, as we pedaled through the historic downtown of New Plymouth, that the colonial New England influence still exists. I had no trouble imagining the streets as they might have been in the middle 1800s. Everyone was by the water's edge hacking away on a beached whale and dumping chunks of blubber into large, cast iron pots. Only the streetlights and my Schwinn Cruiser brought me back to the 21st century.
At David Bethell's Plymouth Rock Café, we planted ourselves on stools beside racks of every conceivable type of rum and boxes of Cuban cigars. Bethell serves the best conch burger in the islands, and it forever changed my view of the conch as being little more than a pretty ornament or a token source of protein served as rubbery bits tossed into a degrading hush-puppy mix.
Green Turtle Cay is a place to which you escape. The beaches rarely show footprints, and advertising signs are conspicuous in their absence. Even the junk at the far end of the harbor is cool, because it's nautical junk, and in town, traffic is sparse. Nevertheless, this place is not a wasteland. Even if your cruising yacht has the necessities for self-sufficiency aboard, you still may want to book one of the Green Turtle Club's 37 "superior deluxe" rooms and enjoy "gourmet dining by candlelight."
New Plymouth has several great restaurants: Laura's Kitchen, The Rooster's Nest, Sea View Restaurant and The Wrecking Tree. The three best-known hotels and restaurants on the island are the Green Turtle Club, Bluff House and the New Plymouth Hotel. The Bluff House sits atop an 80-foot hill and has the best view; the New Plymouth offers authenticity and tradition.
If your cruising route ever leads toward the Bahamas, be sure to drop anchor at Green Turtle for a cup of Goombay Smash and a conch burger. You won't be sorry.