One reason the Bahamas is less a charter epicenter than, say, the British Virgin Islands is that a good part of it is just too shallow. Except for a mile-deep trench that runs through the archipelago's northern end, most of the country is a flat plain under 15 feet of water. Scattered about this plateau are thousands of reefs, coral heads and islands just waiting for an unsuspecting yacht's hull.
Cruising the Bahamas requires a lot of local knowledge and a yacht built for the destination-particularly if you want to get away from Nassau and explore some secluded bays and vacant beaches. We found everything we needed to do just that during a week of family charter aboard the 116-foot AOS motoryacht Margaux.
We started in Nassau, as most Bahamas charters do, and Capt. Bill Kurtz immediately recommended the kind of interesting spot we were seeking: Dunmore Town. It is reached by cruising around the north end of the Eleuthera chain through a dangerous 11-mile stretch between the town and the small fishing village Spanish Wells.
It would be just the sort of trip that would show us what Margaux and her crew are capable of during a Bahamas charter. She draws about 6 feet, just barely shy of some of the 7-foot-deep grass beds we would have to pass over.
Kurtz, a stocky, genial sort with a mustache and wraparound glasses who favors a baseball cap, has cruised the Bahamas for decades. His experience and confidence are impressive, but he's not afraid to ask for help when doing so will ensure charter guests' safety and comfort. An example was hiring pilot Bradley Newbold to take Margaux through the perilous crossing.
Newbold, whose thin, jutting face is covered with freckles from a lifetime in the sun, is a Spanish Wellsian who greeted us with the clipped, faintly British accent common among the locals. He met us on a cold morning as a northerly front moved in and whipped up a stiff breeze. He climbed to the bridge-deck helm, sat down and gently pushed the throttles of the V-16 MTU diesels.
Our breakfast of baked popovers, fresh fruit, bacon and Scotch eggs with mango chutney was still warm as we idled through milky waters along a narrow, river-like harbor and past Spanish Wells, one of the oldest towns in the Bahamas.
The first settlers, the Eleutherian Adventurers, were religious dissidents from Bermuda whose ship hit a nearby reef in 1648. They spent their first months in a cave, then moved to St. George's Cay, site of the present-day town. The name Spanish Wells derives from Spanish conquistadors who felt the fresh water here was the best in the Bahamas, although now the water is imported. Through the generations, most of the population remained and intermarried. More than half have the last name Pinder and live mostly off fishing, tourism and farming on nearby Eleuthera island.
Just past the town, under Kurtz's careful watch, Newbold turned sharply north around Gun Point, then east again, keeping the shoreline barely 100 yards to starboard. He maneuvered expertly between the brown outlines of two shallow reefs, then hugged the beach 30 yards away, past the notorious Devil's Backbone reef, where the Eleutherian Adventurers were said to have been wrecked. On a bluff behind the shoreline, we could barely make out the cave where they spent their first season.
A few miles later we passed Current Point and finally reached the shallow, well-protected harbor just west of Harbour Island and Dunmore Town. For the next two days, we docked at the marina, soaked in the local flavor and dined on Chef Gale Cole's rich cuisine.
Cole's résumé boasts years of catering in New York City before working aboard boats. He has served on well-known yachts including the 197-foot Feadship New Horizon L, the 165-foot Oceanfast Lil Sis and the 100-foot Broward Mi Bella Christina. One meal included tri-color salad with balsamic vinaigrette; chateaubriand surrounded by béarnaise, bordelaise and horseradish sauces; potato crowns and a chocolate soufflé. Another included gingered salmon carpaccio with wasabi cream sauce, wild rice with sautéed pecans, tangerine-glazed baby carrots and crème brà»lée for dessert.
The chef helped us realize that the most important device on the yacht-more important than the Jet Skis, tender or Jacuzzi-is the treadmill.
Cole's style is a lot like Margaux herself: elegant and refined, but simple enough to keep guests of all ages happy. First Mate Tony LeMond and crewmate Amanda Dunham kept our two children, 10-year-old Katie and 11-year-old Ellie, happy and comfortable throughout the charter, whether they were lounging in front of the saloon's theater-style television or taking in the local sights and adventures.
Dunmore Town, for example, offered the languid pace you would expect in a small village, though its Eleuthera pedigree means it also boasts retreats for many of the wealthiest people in the Western Hemisphere. The nicest, most richly painted homes line Bay Street across from the water, and narrow alleys lead up a small hill to the town's center, a collection of New England-style homes interspersed with small shops and businesses.
It's a lovely spot, but not necessarily exciting for a couple of pre-teens. LeMond anticipated our touring needs by throwing us a set of golf cart keys and pointing the way east, toward one of the longest pink sand beaches in the Bahamas. Locals offer horseback rides, and Ellie and Katie didn't have to be asked twice. They trotted south out of sight, chased by the local trying to keep up with them.
These are the kind of memories many people look to create when chartering a yacht, and Margaux's crew made family fun easy. Kurtz, while taking us out of Nassau that first day through calm seas at 16 knots, called everyone to the bridge deck when he spotted pilot whales. He didn't hesitate a second before turning off course toward the huge pod of nearly four dozen whales, which normally run in colder climates and can reach 18 to 20 feet in length.
The kids loved it, almost as much as they enjoyed exploring aboard Margaux's Jet Skis and fishing. Kurtz threw in the chum bag late one afternoon and stuck minnows on the hooks of the yacht's spinning rods. Within a minute, Katie had pulled up a snapper; Ellie followed shortly afterward. For the next hour, they hauled up a couple dozen fish on Margaux's afterdeck. Most were too small to keep, and the children laughed and nervously held the snappers before throwing them back.
Such moments, paired with the luxury of Margaux herself, make for a memorable charter experience. If you're looking for a family-friendly yacht with a captain and crew who know their way around some of the Bahamas' farthest reaches, Margaux just may be your girl.
Contact: Bob Saxon Associates Inc., (954) 760-5801; fax (954) 467-8909; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bobsaxon.com, or any charter broker. Margaux charters at $29,500 per week, plus expenses, for six guests.