Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Beautiful Berrys

North Palm Beach ‒ The Berry Islands
January 20 ‒ 27

Sugar Beach on Great Harbour Cay
The Berry Islands are a small chain of cays (“keys”) halfway between Freeport and Nassau. Easy to overlook on a map of the Bahamas, they don’t get much press. But that wasn’t always the case. Back in the 60s, an ambitious golf course, beach, and marina development on the largest of the islands, Great Harbour Cay, was the playground of the rich and famous. The Rat Pack, Brigitte Bardot, and other stars spent time there. Frank Sinatra owned a beach house on the north end. Jack Nicklaus had a home on the 18th green. Now the expansive stone clubhouse lies in ruins, the few holes left sport more divots and weeds than grass, and the celebrities have moved on. But the natural beauty remains—especially the gorgeous beach with four miles of white sugar sand.

The cut into Great Harbour Cay Marina basin
Great Harbour Cay Marina, part of that earlier development, is located in an interior basin accessible via a channel blasted through the rocks. Its protected harbor made a charming first stop on our Bahamas itinerary. When we came into the country, we flew a yellow Q (quarantine) flag until checking in with customs in a port of entry such as this one. Then we raised the Bahamian courtesy flag.

The local people welcomed us with smiles and friendly greetings. We rented a stripped-down Suzuki Samurai with homemade plywood and plastic seats to tour all seven miles of the island’s length: its beaches and coves and the village of Bullocks Harbor, which is the largest population center in the Berrys. Cooliemae’s Restaurant served up a delicious meal of hogfish while we enjoyed a Bahamian sunset and conversation with a lovely older couple who have wintered at their home on the island since its glory days.  
One of the beaches at our anchorage

After four days of settling into a more laid-back rhythm and seeing all that Great Harbour Cay offered, we wanted see other cays in the Berry Islands. Along with three other boats, we moved south to anchor between Hoffman’s and Devil’s Cays.

The blue hole on Hoffman's Cay
This anchorage is highly recommended in the guidebooks both for its protection from different wind directions and for its access to the blue hole on Hoffman’s Cay, to Flo’s Conch Bar, and to a small archipelago of little cays, all ringed with turquoise and green water and stretches of white beach.

It’s amazing how quickly community springs up in a marina or anchorage. The several boats anchored with us held varied and interesting people, including a couple from Norway who have lived on board for eight years and their two grandsons now joining them on holiday; a chemical engineering professor and his wife, a high school chemistry teacher (from Roseville, MN!); a public health nurse and her husband, a rock climber and guidebook writer.

Chris climbing a stalactite at the blue hole
We traveled with a flotilla of three dinghies to the blue hole. After a short hike through jungly growth, we topped a rise and there it was: an impressive cobalt pool 100 yards across encircled by a 30-foot-high rock rim. A path to the right led down into a water-level cave with stalactites. Most of us jumped in and found that the super-salty water made us extra buoyant. Keith (surprise!) was the only one in our group who jumped from the rim up above.
Chester of Flo's Conch Bar

Another place that can only be reached by boat is Flo’s Conch Bar, a small outpost of a restaurant on Little Harbour Cay. Chester Darville and Lovely, the only two inhabitants of the island (not counting chickens, ducks, dogs, and cats) make their living by welcoming and feeding cruisers. It’s necessary to contact them by VHF radio and place your order several hours in advance in order to eat dinner there. Mid-afternoon, sixteen of us scrambled into a fleet of four dinghies and splashed the 2.7 miles down to Flo’s for a taste of true Bahamian cooking and, especially, for the experience.
Our little community of cruisers at Flo's Conch Bar

Aside from those side trips, we spent our three days at this spot walking on beaches of different little cays, discovering a beach bar, shelling (Joanie), snorkeling for lobster and conch (Keith—no luck yet!), reading, relaxing, breathing in the warm salt air, taking in the picturesque views from every angle—and thanking God for all these gifts of beauty and joy and life!

"Beach bar" on Goulding Cay made from trash washed ashore
Keith lounging by the beach bar
Queen Helmet Conch
On an uninhabited cay
Maybe the saying originated in the beautiful Berrys: It really IS better in the Bahamas!

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