24 March 2015 | The Bight Anchorage, Cat Island, Bahamas
Caroline / 80º, sunny, winds variable
Sitting well south in the Exuma Islands chain, George Town (on Great Exuma Island) is a very popular destination for cruisers. Its geographic location makes it the last really great spot to provision for Caribbean-bound sailors, as the Ragged Islands, Turks and Caicos, and other more southerly cays and islands are considerably more remote. And George Town is large enough - and popular enough - to offer a wide variety of attractions, including a sizable open anchorage, an airport, two grocery stores, two liquor stores, numerous restaurants and cute shops, a daily Cruiser’s Net on the VHF radio, and a wildly popular beach bar and grill called Chat ‘n’ Chill.
Most Bahamas-traveling sailors make their way down here eventually, as did we. But having talked to a lot of folks prior to arriving here, and having read many reviews on the Active Captain app, we weren’t sure we were going to like the place. Reviews were quite mixed, ranging from “Gtown is really just a place to pick up people or re-provision...” to “This isn’t what I come to the Bahamas for...” As we value our privacy and dislike crowded and over-developed places, we had our doubts.
On our way down, we spent about a week at the wonderful, inexpensive marina in Emerald Bay - also on Great Exuma and just ten or so miles north of George Town - to wait out some very windy weather in a protected harbor. While there, we decided to share a rental car one day with some friends, and drove down to the town to check it out.
We were very pleasantly surprised: it’s a cute town in the best, funky Bahamian tradition. Our timing was good, too: the large Exuma Market in town was fully stocked, as the supply boat had arrived just the day before.
(Note: Throughout the Bahamas, grocery stores are typically tiny buildings, often looking more like a home than a store. When the weekly supply boat arrives, their shelves are generally reasonably well stocked with dairy products, produce, and frozen meats. If you show up several days later, though, you’re unlikely to find much of anything besides canned goods and wildly expensive American convenience foods like chips and crackers.)
We saw enough that first day to agree we’d like to continue exploring the area, so eight days ago when the winds finally calmed down, we motor-sailed down, picked our way through the sand bars and coral heads, and dropped anchor in Elizabeth Harbour just off Monument Beach, reportedly a quieter spot than the lively Chat ‘n’ Chill beach. The anchorage seemed pretty crowded to us, but according to the next morning’s Cruiser’s Net, the 170 or so boats currently in the harbor are only about half the number they’d seen just a few weeks ago, during the popular annual Cruiser’s Regatta. We’d heard about this event, of course, but decided not to try to jam into that harbor with 300 other boats on our first year there.
We ended up staying eight nights, and had a wonderful time. A number of friends arrived in their boats just a few days after us, and anchored right near us. We did a lot together: a gorgeous hike up to the monument, provisioning runs, trips over to Chat ‘n’ Chill for cold beer and live music, and happy hours aboard one boat or another. George Town does live up to its reputation of being a very social place, in our experience. We really enjoyed having such a busy week, meeting a few new friends and deepening connections with those we had met back in Bimini in early February.
Larry and I also finally went diving, something we’d been meaning to do for weeks, but hadn’t due to either weather or - in the case of Staniel Cay - a dive shop that had gone out of business. Just outside of Elizabeth Harbour in George Town, on the ocean side, there are numerous dive sites, including a wreck we dove at 70 feet, as well as Stingray reef, a healthy looking site with a lot of soft corals and juvenile fish. Interestingly, we saw very few large fish, which caused us to wonder just how taxed the populations are by all the humans who now live here or visit here. The dives were nice, if not quite as colorful as the Yucatan Peninsula, and it was good to be back underwater after nearly three years (our last dives were in Isla Mujeres, Mexico back in July 2012).
I think George Town paints a great picture of how the Bahamas life differs from the States. On the way to the laundromat in town, we walked by a small commercial building with a sign painted on its side advertising software consulting services, groceries, copying and duplicating, cold sodas, and about six other seemingly unrelated offerings. It reminded me of Ida in Black Point Settlement, who runs a very successful laundromat. She also cuts and braids hair, stocks snacks and convenience store items, coordinates with local fishermen to sell what they catch, bakes and sells carrot cake, and drives guests around in her golf cart. This kind of scrappy entrepreneurship is very common here.
Another example is the local butcher, Prime Island Meats. Located about three miles north of George Town, it is the first butcher shop we’ve seen in the Bahamas. (Meat is almost always sold frozen in small packages in chest freezers in Mom and Pop stores). This place, however, is a really nice find, run by a New Jersey native and a Bahamian, and featuring a lovely fresh meat counter. There’s also frozen meat and seafood, shelves of good pasta and canned tomatoes, and unheard-of treats like pita bread, whole milk ricotta, and Cuban coffee and honey.
The best part is, to get there, you just wait outside a now shuttered liquor store in downtown George Town at 10:30 am on Mondays and Fridays, or 1:00 pm on Wednesdays. Right on schedule, a dusty extended cab pickup truck pulls up, and folks pile into the cab as well as the truck bed for a ride up to the store. Once everyone has completed their shopping, they’re driven back. I rode up with a couple of friends and about six others in the back of the truck, and it was great fun. I couldn’t imagine that kind of experience in the States, but around here, it’s all just a part of a more cooperative way of doing things.
In addition to the Exuma Market, there’s a second, smaller grocery store favored by the locals, with none of Exuma Market’s exotic offerings (foie gras! jars of pesto! fresh fennel!), but better prices. Most exciting to us, though, are the two local farmers who sell homegrown produce. Our favorite, the Rev. Leone Williams, supplied us all week with really good tomatoes, peppers, kale, scallions, and broccoli raab.
There’s nowhere in George Town to fill a boat’s tanks with water, but the Exuma Market installed a free water spigot at the dinghy dock behind the store. Throughout each day, a parade of dinghies motors the mile-plus distance across the harbor to shop or dine in town, bringing with them empty containers to fill with fresh water to take back to their boats. Thalia’s tanks hold some 160 gallons of water, but we took our two five-gallon containers over daily and lugged them back. This kept our water supplies from getting depleted, as we go through about ten gallons a day for our Navy showers, cooking and cleaning.
Dining options in George Town are typically Bahamian: lots of fresh fish, conch, peas and rice, mac and cheese, and cole slaw. The food at Chat ‘n’ Chill is quite good, all cooked over an open wood fire. We shared grouper one night and a half chicken another, served with surprisingly crispy fries and probably the best cole slaw I’ve ever eaten. Both nights we drank Goombay Smashes, a potent mixture of dark rum, coconut rum, pineapple juice, and lemon juice.
We never made it over to the area known as the Fish Fry, a wildly colorful collection of food shacks that has sprung up on the site of an abandoned naval base. But we did enjoy a lovely tropical conch salad made at another shack in town by Sonia, whose son walked over to the water’s edge to dispatch a live conch while she chopped an improbably high mountain of sweet onions, tomatoes, peppers, and the fiery local goat chile. Then the conch was diced and mixed in, and Sonia squeezed lime and then orange juice over everything. Finally, she diced apple, mango, and pineapple, mixed those in, and handed us the towering bowl. It cost $15, and was enough for both of us. It was perfect: sweet, spicy, salty, and very, very fresh.
After a week in this spot, sharing meals with friends and enjoying the lovely - and lively - environment, we felt ready to move on. There had been virtually no wind the entire time we were in George Town, but that pattern is changing. Yesterday, we had just enough wind to sail out of the harbor and head about 50 miles over to Cat Island. We’ll spend a few days here, then move slowly up the other side of the Sound, along the west side of Eleuthera. We’re slowly making our way back up to New Providence Island, where two visitors - our dear friend Janis and, a week later, daughter Kelli - will be joining us onboard before we head up into the Abacos for the final weeks of our Bahamian adventure.