All it took was a Goombay Smash at the sedately unhurried Abaco Beach Resort and Boat Harbour Marina in Marsh Harbour to prove how wrong I was about the Bahamas, having previously thought all of the islands were like Nassau, thick with cruise ships, tourists and shops.Pete’s Pub in Little Harbor. And maybe that Shotgun drink at Cracker P’s on Lubber’s Quarters, a tiny cay with great views of the Sea of Abaco. Then there was the all-you-can gorge Sunday pig roast at Nipper’s on Great Guana Cay. And also watching Joe Albury’s gnarled hands still crafting wooden boats over at Man-O-War cay.
So I was wrong. And couldn’t feel more right about it.
The Abacos, a collection of islands along the outer Bahamas, have that old Caribbean flair about them, simple little places that are popular but seemingly uncrowded, embraced by crystal waters, the ever-changing aquamarine tone of which I’ve not seen many other places. We stayed at Abaco Beach Resort, the largest hotel in Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco Island, but spread along a gorgeous beach enough to never feel cluttered. The food there at Angler’s Restaurant was typically tropical and downright delicious, such as the macadamia crusted grouper, and my favorite, the whopping half-pound grilled Bahamian lobster tail. They also have regular musical entertainment, which while we were there consisted of the crooning of local Esten Sawyer. There is also regular music at the resort pool bar. In the marina, one of the Bahamas biggest, are boats small and massive; during our stay, the yacht of the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars was moored. The resort also runs a wide range of fishing tournaments.
The resort is also a perfect hopping off point to hit the other islands by boat, including Little Harbor, where at Pete’s Pub, a low-slung, totally atmospheric sand-floored bar and restaurant, you can get terrific mahi mahi, grab a Monster (made with four rums and other less consequential stuff) and sit on the beach deck watching things like a Hemingwayesque fisherman pull up, grab a beer, and put back to sea, with his loyal dog hopping back aboard.
Over at Cracker P’s, a giant, multilevel structure with huge corner bar, amazing views and terrific Shotguns (a tequila bloody Mary spiked with house hot sauce), you can nosh on sweet-fried mahi mahi or amazing fish dip and then pull up a beach chair to relax it off. The place is named after Paul John Simmons, aka Cracker Pinder, Spanish-American War vet who, legend has it, killed a Georgia sheriff in 1915 and fled to the Bahamas. Legend also has it he didn’t fancy clothes and was the first naked person many locals had seen.
Nipper’s on Great Guana Cay is a must-do Sunday affair, an unremarkable pig roast made more tasty by the setting high on a bluff overlooking the ocean, with a packed bar and patio jammed with dancing people and a terrific party place to be.
My favorite place was a throwback, a visit to Albury & Sons on Man-O-War, where native Joe Albury, 68, still builds 14-foot dinghies with hands calloused, worn and practiced, usually using ancient tools handed down through the generations. He talks quietly and proudly of his craft, saying he quit school at 14 to do this and started helping out “since I was old enough to hold a saw,” days when as a youth he’d turn a wood grinder “until it felt like my arm would fall off.” In the picture-perfect harbor outside, the water was dotted with pastel-colored crafts created by Albury’s skilled hands.
And all of it is pretty close: Marsh Harbour is less than 170 miles off the coast of Florida. Deals abound this time of year as well. Abaco Beach Resort and Boat Harbour Marina is running a “Star Spangled Holiday Getaway” from July 4-7, an air-inclusive offer (from Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach or Orlando), which includes three nights, holiday beach barbecue, bonfire and fireworks, two round-trip ferry transfers to Elbow Cay, Guana Cay or Man-O-War Cay, and all taxes, service charges and tips on packaged items. Rates from $827 per person based on double occupancy. Check it out at www.abacobeachresort.com
Abaco Islands are pretty unrushed, and that’s the best place to be to enjoy a Goombay Smash, Shotgun, Blaster... .
Photos, top to bottom (by Paul E. Kandarian): Abaco Beach Resort and Boat Harbour; Pete's Pub; Cracker P's; Joe Albury; and Goombay Smash (courtesy of Abaco Beach Resort.