The view from the patio of The Bluff House Beach Hotel; New Plymouth is on the horizon.
Along the northern edge of the trade winds, just east of the Gulf Stream, the Abaco Islands stretch for nearly 200 miles to form the crown of the Bahamas. The largest island, Great Abaco, is the centerpiece of a jewel-like chain of cays strung a few miles east of her shores. In the lee of these cays, the Sea of Abaco provides protected cruising and access to many remote anchorages and quaint harbors. It is here that yachtsmen and lubbers alike have found Green Turtle Cay’s uneven coastline, beautiful beaches and turquoise sounds an irresistible attraction.
Three miles in length and a bit more than a mile wide, the island is named after the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) that once nested here in great numbers. Settled by British Loyalists who left the United States after the American Revolution, Green Turtle’s first colonists came from New York in the 1780s, followed by settlers from Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. To survive, they began farming, harvesting what little they could from the thin soil. Boatbuilding and fishing became the mainstays of the economy and the island served as the “wrecking capital of the region as wayward sailors frequently ran aground on the treacherous reefs offshore. In the 1880s large shipments of citrus and pineapples were exported to the U.S. A brief but lucrative sponge industry came and went; during World War I, sisal was in demand, followed by sharkskin and oil. Today, crawfishing, scale fishing and conch provide sustenance while tourism fuels the economy.
When seasoned yachtsmen think of the Abacos, they are likely to recall the bar at the Green Turtle Club-it is a must-see. Nestled in the toe of White Sound, it survives much as it was originally conceived. British boat designer Allan Charlesworth founded the club in 1964, wanting to offer cruising yachtsmen a bit of old English hospitality with a touch of island flair. An old boathouse became the bar, and visiting yachtsmen would hang signed dollar bills on the wall as an invitation for friends who followed to have a drink on them. Today, the walls are plastered with hundreds of dollar bills as well as a collection of yacht burgees and curious nautical artifacts. The bar features nightly hors d’oeuvres, friendly service and occasional Junkanoo band performances. The resort that has grown around it features a pool and a variety of accommodations, including Bahamian-style cottages and single rooms. The full service, 40-slip marina has a fuel dock, ship’s commissary, showers, laundry facilities and cable TV. Dining is by reservation only and is well worth the planning.
Across the harbor, the Bluff House Beach Hotel and Yacht Club sits atop the highest point on the island (80 feet). Landsmen can choose from suites, villas and cottages. A new 45-slip, full-service marina has a fuel dock, showers and laundry facilities. Guests can enjoy the resort’s private beach, pool and tennis court. Be certain not to miss the weekly Bahamian barbeque, dockside at the Jolly Roger Bar & Bistro. After dinner, the Gully Roosters, a local band, will keep you dancing into the wee hours and the whole island will likely join you! For more formal fare, try the Clubhouse dining room atop the bluff-make your reservations early.
For a tranquil berth, head over to Black Sound where you will find the Black Sound Marina and the Other Shore Club. Should marine service be required, Abaco Yacht Services is nearby and has a 50-ton marine hoist. Black Sound Marina has 15 slips, a two-bedroom cottage, showers and laundry facilities. The Other Shore Club offers a 15-slip marina, saltwater pool, three cottages and the new Pineapple Bar & Grill. If the dockmaster here looks familiar, it’s because he’s Kevin (Gully) McIntosh, the Gully Roosters lead guitar player who tends the marina by day. Both of these marinas are a short walk from the historic village of New Plymouth.
Named after the original settlement in Massachusetts, New Plymouth has a decidedly New England feel. The neat streets and colorful clapboard houses are home to most of the island’s 450 residents. Several stores sell supplies and groceries as well as homemade sweets and Bahamian artwork. The 130-year-old New Plymouth Club & Inn offers comfortable accommodations and excellent food. It stands next to the former home of past Prime Minister of England Neville Chamberlain. Legend has it that the ghost of the inn’s former owner, Captain Billy Roberts, can be seen upstairs in his rocking chair as he keeps a sharp eye on the buried treasure hidden on the property. While the island suffered hurricane damage in 2004, veterans of Green Turtle Cay will be pleased to learn that the venerable Blue Bee Bar survived, although many of the “wall decorations they may have left behind were swept away. Miss Emily’s legendary Goombay Smash lives on with her daughter Violet at the helm, still concocting the secret recipe at home in the traditional plastic jugs. A visit to this iconic watering hole is a must. For a bite to eat try the Rooster’s Rest or McIntosh’s where you may find the Gully Roosters holding court.
For a taste of Bahamian history be sure to visit the Albert Lowe Museum. Here, a restored Loyalist home provides the backdrop for the many artifacts, paintings and ship models that illustrate this island’s history. Albert’s son, Alton Lowe, is one of the Bahamas’ best-known artists, and while some of his paintings hang in the museum, you can also visit him at his own gallery just outside town. Across the street from the museum, the Loyalist Memorial Sculpture Garden is laid out in the shape of a Union Jack and exhibits 25 bronze busts of Loyalists and slaves from each Bahamian island. Around the corner you can visit Vert Lowe’s Model Ship Shoppe where he sculpts island designs.
While there are a number of beautiful beaches around the island, Gillam Bay Beach, located on the southeast end, is my favorite. It’s also well worth renting a small boat or taking your dinghy to visit the nearby uninhabited cays for shelling, a picnic or some snorkeling. Reef fishing and bonefishing are always popular and several charter boats are available.
If your timing is right, you might enjoy the Abaco Regatta; make slip reservations well ahead of time. This sailing celebration takes place each fall and features colorful daily races in the Sea of Abaco and lively parties after sunset. There are two traditional Junkanoo parades each year on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. New Plymouth transforms into a cacophony of clanging cowbells and blasting conch horns as the crowd weaves through town chasing “Bunce, an evil spirit who lives in the woods. He is shrouded in a sheet and maneuvered through the streets in a wheelbarrow terrifying the children. Bunce is ceremoniously captured and buried during the celebration.
Even with a crowd on hand, Green Turtle Cay remains a relaxed and unhurried escape and the island’s inhabitants are always gracious and welcoming. Summer is great for boating in the absence of hurricanes, and winter is cooler and quiet. Exploring this unique Bahamian out-island is a tantalizing treat for the senses. No matter when you decide to go, chances are you will likely return.
Getting There by Land
There are a number of daily scheduled flights from South Florida to Marsh Harbor, on Great Abaco. Charter companies also service the area and Marsh Harbor International Airport’s 5,000-foot runway can accommodate private aircraft. Taxis are available to take you from the airport to the ferry dock across the Sea of Abaco from Green Turtle Cay; it’s about a 25-minute taxi ride. Flights also arrive in Treasure Cay International Airport, which has a 6,900-foot runway. It is about a 5-minute taxi ride to the ferry dock and a 15-minute ferry ride to the island. The ferry lands at the Green Turtle Club, the Bluff House and in New Plymouth. Once on the island the best way to move about is by golf cart. There are cart rentals available at the Bluff House, the Green Turtle Club or in town.
Getting There by Sea
The Abacos lie approximately 135 nautical miles from the south Florida coast and can be approached from the north via the Little Bahama Bank or from the south passing offshore of the southern tip of Great Abaco. As is the case throughout the Bahamas, you should not rely entirely on electronic wizardry. A paper chart, a careful eye and common sense are your first line of defense. Green Turtle Cay’s protected shore is on the Sea of Abaco and vessels can approach directly from points north. A shallow bank across the Sea of Abaco to the south makes it necessary for all but the smallest vessels approaching from that direction to pass offshore of Whale Cay. This passage, given wind and seas, is considered the most treacherous in the Abacos. Strong Northeasters and ocean swells can create “rage conditions. Larger vessels visiting Green Turtle Cay will find the anchorage off the government dock comfortable in easterly winds. Settlement Harbor is useful only for smaller vessels and tenders. The entrance to Black Sound carries about four to five feet MLW and White Sound to the north about the same. Pay close attention to the markers, and if you have any questions contact one of the marinas for assistance. Both anchorages (Black Sound and White Sound) offer good protection and first-class marina facilities. It is best to clear customs elsewhere as the customs office requires a walk to town.
Green Turtle Club, Hotel, Resort and Marina (866) 528-0539, (242) 365-4271; www.greenturtleclub.com Bluff House Beach Hotel and Yacht Club (866) 863-2301, (242) 365-4247; www.bluffhouse.com The Other Shore Club (242) 365-4226, (242) 365-4338; www.othershoreclub.com The New Plymouth Club & Inn (242) 365-4161 (closed September and October) Black Sound Marina (242) 365-4531 Abaco Yacht Services (242) 365-4033 Green Turtle Ferry (242) 365-4151