We left our friends behind in George Town to take advantage of a decent weather window to scoot over to Cat Island. The trade winds have been blowing very reliably and steadily from the east for a month now, making a transit from the islands on the west side of the Exuma Sound to those on the eastern side a challenge. But the wind was just right that day, and we ended up having one of those glorious sailing days that remind us of why we're here.
I'm afraid we didn't do Cat Island much justice, though, staying only two nights before moving on. It is a lovely spot, and we were the only boat in the anchorage. We went exploring our one full day there, climbing to the top of Como Hill, at 206 feet the highest point in the entire Bahamas. A 19th century priest and architect named Father Jerome built a hermitage at the top of the hill, and it is an extraordinary sight (see Cat Island/Eleuthera photo album
). Located at the top of a steep and somewhat treacherous pathway, the compound includes a tiny chapel for one, sleeping quarters and a kitchen of sorts, a store room, and a separate building that looked like a guest cottage, but with a bread oven built into the side of it.
To our eyes, Eleuthera is shaped like a seahorse with the sweeping tail of a mermaid. From the Greek word eleutheria
- freedom - it was named by a group of English pilgrims escaping religious persecution, who crash-landed on its shores in 1648.
Neither of us had much of a sense of this place until we saw it. Eleuthera is geographically more remote than the Exumas, with only one marina on the mermaid's tail on the south end, then nothing until Harbour Island and Spanish Wells on the very northern tip. There's nowhere to get water other than by filling jugs at the very rural town water taps. Running from southeast to northwest, the island offers great protection from the easterly trade winds, but little to no protection otherwise. And we just hadn't seen much written about it or heard much from other cruisers before we arrived. So the island has come as a lovely surprise to us: it is spectacular. It is hilly, dotted with farms, and has far more diverse flora than the other islands we've seen, plus dramatic cliffs along much of the shoreline on both sides.
Rock Sound Harbour
Tucked just inside the curve of the southwestern mermaid's tail, Rock Sound Harbour was our first stop in Eleuthera. It's a large and well protected harbor, with the nicest people we've met in the Bahamas - and that's saying a lot, as the Bahamians are warm, friendly and very welcoming in general. In Rock Sound, no one passes you without a wave and hello, or a friendly tap on the horn. Like many Bahamian towns, it's a little shabby, a little funky, and full of charm. We anchored right outside the lovely whitewashed Anglican Church in town.
Being low on provisions, our first order of business was to walk up to Wild Orchids, a cute beachside restaurant, to share some grouper fingers and a very welcome, really good cheeseburger (the first one we'd had in two months!). Then we walked up to the local grocery store, which turned out to be well stocked, and made our way back to the boat to unload our purchases.
The next day we brought our bikes ashore to explore the area, including the Ocean Hole, a round, 600 foot deep body of water right in the middle of town, where the local children learn to swim in the summers. (They all think it's way too cold to swim right now!). We then rode over to the Atlantic side of the island, stopping at a far-flung but charming restaurant called Rosie's for a Kalik and a fresh lemonade.
We also made multiple runs in our dinghy to the town water tap, filling both five gallon jugs and bringing them back aboard to replenish our supply. On our third run, we noticed an excited flock of seagulls at the town dock, so motored over there to check in with the local fishermen (We have learned that this is the best way to buy fish in the Bahamas.). I stayed in the dinghy and held onto the rickety ladder while Larry climbed up to negotiate with Sherman, who sold him two small grouper for $7, which he filleted as Larry waited. Dinner that night was pan-fried grouper, a big salad, and a bottle of Pinot Grigio.
We spent the next day sanding Thalia's exterior teak trim and applying another coat of varnish, an ongoing project as on all old boats. Then in the evening we headed into town for the Homecoming celebration - part of the Easter weekend festivities to welcome home prodigal sons and daughters now working on other islands or even farther-flung locations. This event involved numerous stands serving local food and beverages, a live band, a performance by the high school marching band (who'd been practicing in the Anglican church the entire time we were there), and speeches. We ran into Larry's fishing friend Sherman - now quite tipsy - who took us under his wing to help us find the best local food booth, and who regaled us with stories of his life. He warned us to be careful of folks up in Nassau, pointing out that no one misbehaves in Rock Sound, as everyone would immediately know about it and would let him hear about it.
The following morning, after a restless night trying to sleep with some deafening rake 'n scrape music playing until the wee hours, we sailed some 25 miles north to Governor's Harbour.
We spent just a few nights charming in this charming, hilly town, fronted by a seawall and with well-kept pastel Victorian houses lining the calm waters of the harbor. Our main goal there was to ride our bikes to the Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve, which our friend Jan had recommended. This turned out to be a pretty strenuous bike ride, but well worth it. The preserve is 20 acres, dedicated to native medicinal and edible plants, orchids, and wildlife. We were amazed at how beautifully designed and maintained it was, crisscrossed with miles of trails and boardwalks. We walked through edible gardens representing the native Lucayan culture as well as Spanish, British, and modern influences. We saw a wide variety of tropical trees: mango, papaya, orange and lime, plantain and banana, allspice, pomegranate, coconut, and more. There was an old concrete cistern that had been transformed into a stunning lily pond, a trail that meandered through orchid-draped trees, poisonous as well as medicinal plant gardens, and a tall lookout tower that gave a panoramic view of the entire property.
Riding back into town, we stopped for drinks and early dinner at the Buccaneer Cafe, a lovely little restaurant with a courtyard dominated by an enormous Australian tree that goes by many names, among them woman's tongues, flea tree, frywood, koko, or lebbeck. The owner Catherine, a native of Governor's Harbour who spent 29 years in Italy, fed us well and entertained us with a steady stream of witticisms.
Easter Sunday blasted us awake at 6:45 am with a hellfire and brimstone sermon shouted out by a streetside preacher with a PA system in the back of his car. Once that was over, it was a delightfully restful day, listening to the church bells and drifts of music from the Methodist choir in town.
Hatchett Bay/Gregory Town
Known as the best protected harbor in Eleuthera, Hatchett Bay's narrow entrance is bracketed by tall limestone cliffs. It's a little disconcerting to motor in through such a narrow cut, but once through, the harbor inside is indeed calm. We were a bit dismayed to be awakened early our first morning there by the same preacher we'd heard in Governor's Harbour. This guy gets around!
Jan had also recommended we visit Surfer's Beach on the Atlantic side, so we hauled our bikes ashore and rode across the island. The road was paved for a while. Abruptly, the pavement stopped and we bounced up and down steep hills on a road that alternated between insanely rutted rough coral and deep, uneven sand. The beach was wonderful, though, with several young surfers eyeing huge waves crashing in, just as advertised. We walked a long distance, picking up shells and admiring the incredibly clear aquamarine water.
We then headed five miles north into Gregory Town, up and down long hills through the first farmland we've seen in the Bahamas. This island used to be famous for its pineapple plantations, which have largely died out due to competition from Costa Rica and other areas, but you can still see fields of them in places. We also saw fields of now-wild cotton, and long-abandoned concrete silos dotting the sides of the roads.
Halfway to the town, at the crest of a hill, we came across a sign for Eleuthera Island Organics. We stopped and walked all around the property, but couldn't find a soul there. It was clearly being well tended. We finally found the owners in town at their fruit stand, and they told us the property is about 20 acres. We bought rainbow chard, kale, basil, chives, peppers and cucumbers from them.
Lunch was at a groovy little spot called the Laughing Lizard Cafe, where we enjoyed wraps made with local veggies. Next door, a farmer sold us two dozen organic eggs. Down the road a bit we found a grocery and picked up a frozen organic chicken from Abaco and some lamb steaks. Then we stopped at a very cute store to buy some souvenirs. Now heavily laden, we rode slowly back to Hatchett Bay with that east wind blowing against us the entire way. We slept very well that night indeed. If the preacher was there the next morning, we certainly didn't hear him.
Our final stop in Eleuthera was at Glass Window, the most beautiful anchorage we've ever stayed in. Toward the northern end of the island, the Glass Window is its narrowest part - not more than about 100 feet wide - with the calm, turquoise blue Exuma Sound on one side and the raging, churning, indigo Atlantic on the other. A natural archway once spanned an opening where you can look right through, but it was eventually replaced with a somewhat sketchy-looking bridge since the arch collapsed in a hurricane some years ago.
Even more spectacular than the Glass Window is the nearby Queen's Baths, a series of tide pools on the Atlantic side that are warmed by the sun. About an hour past low tide in the morning, we dinghied ashore and walked across the road, climbing down a short distance to the jewel-like pools. The rising tide caused water to crash up against the cliff walls and run into the various pools where we waded, closely watched by tiny, curious tropical fish. At high tide, the pools could theoretically be quite dangerous with the crashing surf, but they made for an incredible experience when we were there.
While in that calm anchorage, we managed to get a few projects done. We took apart one of our winches, cleaned and greased the parts, and put it back together. We're not sure anyone had ever cleaned the poor thing, and so were happy that it is still in good shape. It now turns incredibly smoothly, and we have since done two others.
We also donned our scuba gear and cleaned Thalia's hull, rudder and keel, scrubbing off any fuzzy patches and scraping off some barnacles that were starting to accumulate in this warm tropical water. The warm water felt great, but we were both quite exhausted from the exertion of swimming a couple of hours in the current and trying to get leverage in scrubbing the hull. Another good night's sleep followed.
Nassau... and beyond
We are now in Nassau for the first time, spending two nights at a marina to take on water, do laundry, provision, and pick up our dear friend Janis, who arrives Monday to spend nearly a week with us sailing over to Spanish Wells and Harbour Island. Daughter Kelli arrives soon after that to cruise the same area with us. It will be a busy two weeks!