Eleuthera & Spanish Wells
17 March 2017 | Royal Island
March 6 - March 17: The time at Davis Harbour Marina went by pretty fast. A couple of other sailboats were in here as well, "Fancy Free" whom we had met on the beach at Little San Salvador, and "Cerulean" Chris & Robin with whom we all had a get together to share stories. Monday (6th) was still very windy and projected to be so for several more days. We rented a car and toured southern Eleuthera Island as far north as Governor's harbor. One area that I was interested to investigate was the once famous "Cotton Bay Club" resort on the ocean side of the island nearby to our marina. I remember that my father made several trips here in about 1970 to oversee the construction of an island home/retreat for the industrialist Edgar Kaiser. At the time, my father was employed by Kaiser Engineers in Oakland CA and was asked by the chairman to design a home to be his island estate overlooking the ocean and the Cotton Bay Club golf course, an unusual assignment compared to his normal industrial and civil engineering projects, but he also studied and enjoyed architecture and designing homes and had a real flair for the design aspects. I spoke with some locals about the place and was unable to actually see the home but verified its location and history. It turns out that the grounds of the former Cotton Bay Club are now owned by Columbian billionaire Luis Carlos Sarmiento who also currently occupies the former Kaiser estate. It was interesting to learn that at least the estate house was still in use (and driveway roped off & guarded). The club's golf course and clubhouse are now basically ruins being overtaken by plant life.
One real highlight of the driving tour was the Leon Levy Natural Plant Preserve which was a superb botanical garden in a completely natural setting. It had a modern entrance building with very informative staff, excellent trails, and plenty of signs and information plaques. The rock-lined and mulched trails wound their way through dense vegetation that in one area featured a high concentration of native epiphytic bromeliads, and led to a three story walk-up tower for a view over the jungle below. It also featured a well maintained display of tropical food and medicinal plants, the place is a real treasure. We had lunch and a walk-about in Governor's harbor which had been first settled by the Eleutherean Adventurers from Bermuda in 1648. Afterwards we found the caves known as "Spider Caves" south of Rock Sound and explored within. This was a series of caverns with openings on the ceilings that let in light and roots of trees extending from ceiling to floor sometimes as much as 20ft or more. It gave a very dramatic and eerie feeling to the place, described aptly by another like a scene out of Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings". I've never seen anything like it. Next we visited a pond of sorts in the town of Rock Sound known as "Ocean Hole". This is one of the many blues holes to be found in the islands that is fringed by steep limestone walls and is hundreds of feet deep. This pond had a nice park at one edge and steps leading to the water where schools of colorful reef fish congregated hoping for food from tourists it seemed. The types of fish that we saw there seems to support the theory that the hole is connected to the ocean via a passage hundreds of feet below the surface. Lastly we drove out to the southwestern tip of Eleuthera to check out the Cape Eleuthera marina there. It seemed nice enough but the restaurant was closed on Mondays and we were happy to be in our cozier Davis Harbour spot.
After that really full Monday of touring we were not unhappy to stay aboard and chill out a bit. We noticed that the ferry that leaves Davis Harbour every morning at about 6 AM full of employees bound for the Little San Salvador cruise ship resort island had returned by 8 AM with everyone still aboard...the fourth day in a row that this happened. The weather and large waves were too much for the vessel to safely cross the strait known as "The Bridge" between SE Eleuthera and Little San Salvador that connects the Atlantic Ocean with Exuma Sound. As a result, the cruise ship passengers had to forgo their day on a 'private island' for four days in a row. We were happy to be in port as well.
By Wednesday (8th) we were on our way early to round up the west coast of Eleuthera then sort of spiral our way into the large protected bay of Rock Sound. We stayed there for a couple of days, visiting the settlement of Rock Sound again, this time via dinghy landings. We had heard of the famous "Northside Inn and restaurant" on the ocean side of this narrow island so first tried to arrange for that via a phone call with no luck. Then once in town we (us two and friends from Fancy Free) inquired at the gas station/mini-market about the place and they called the owner "Rosy" on her cell phone. It turns out that the power had been out, so land line telephones were out as well. Once in contact, Rosy herself picked us up in her car and drove us out to her place on the bluff overlooking the long beach, but not before stopping at a small store to pick up some plantains to prepare for us--for which we lent her the funds. What a Bahamian experience...felt like we were part of the family! Once there, Rosy cooked for us and served us, then drove us back to town...a truly one woman operation. The food was great too. She collected some sour oranges for us to have from a neighbor's yard on the way back. Sort of like a crossed lemon and orange and makes a great beverage additive. Just before getting back in the dinghy we met a fisherman on the dock who had brought in a huge heap of conch a few large fish and dozens of lobsters (known as crawfish here). We couldn't resist buying a batch of lobster tails off of him, but did resist the conch since getting the critters out of the shell and prepping it for cooking was well above our skill level.
Friday (10th) we were off to Alabaster Bay further up the west coast of Eleuthera. We sailed a bit but eventually the wind died to a flat-glassy calm which has been an unusual experience for us here. After anchoring off the long beach here, we headed ashore to explore another 'ghost town' of sorts, this time a former US Naval facility known as a MISTRAM site. (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MISTRAM) This site was involved in testing and measurement of guided missiles such as the Minuteman in the 1960's and later by NASA. There were many buildings and facilities now mostly disintegrated and overgrown that once housed some hundred or more personnel employed by Pan Am and RCA (and of course paid by the US taxpayer) with some naval personnel. Unlike such a site you might find in the US, this place was entirely open with no keep out signs, fences or anything of the like. Apparently it was all abandoned in about 1982 when the US could not get favorable leasing terms with the Bahamas on its continued operation. In one area along the coast, there were two huge paved conical sloped formations, now slowly being broken up by plants and trees, each the size of several football fields which were quite mysterious to us. Later we learned that they were catchments for rainfall to provide water for the facility...what was done before the days of reverse osmosis and considering that wells weren't feasible. I came across a scene in one open and decaying building that brought to mind the proverbial thousand dollar toilet seats discovered on close inspection of military spending budgets decades ago. It was a couple of dozen brand new toilets, some still in their original boxes left abandoned there amidst the ruins for these last 35 years. Such a lot of waste, and an infinitesimal part of it all I'm sure. But in its time, it got the job done of perfecting our missile systems.
Saturday (11th) we headed north again along the now rugged cliff lined west coast of central Eleuthera. We anchored near a place known as "Glass Window" which is a narrow isthmus that once had a natural bridge crossing between rocky cliffs to the north and south. Now there exists a man-made bridge that connects the island together on its main road. Erosion from violent storms long ago destroyed the natural bridge. It is still a beautiful place where you can see the dark blue of the deep ocean to the east at the same time the brilliant turquoise waters of the shallow banks to the west. Later we moved a bit south to a more secure spot for the night, off another palm lined beautiful beach. The water here was as crystal clear as any we've seen so far, with no trouble seeing bottom details in 25 to 30 ft depths.
Sunday (12th) we headed 8 nm back to the south along the cliffs to a super tight entrance through a man-made cut in the wall into Hatchet Bay. When we first saw the entrance we mistakenly thought that it was just a small crack in the rocks and that it would surely be a mistake to try to get a boat through there, but then quickly realized it was the only entrance! So we went on through and it sure seemed as though one could touch the rock wall sides...but it really wasn't that bad. The harbor inside touts itself as being "the most protected harbor in the Bahamas", and it seems like that could be true. I really wanted to go here because I learned of another cave adventure to be had nearby. A few miles north of the harbor was a sign on the main road marking a side road to the cave entrance. We learned that the friendly people of the island will pick up hitchhikers and sure enough we were picked up by the first car going by. Once at the cave entrance and equipped with headlamps and hand lights we descended into a well marked stone lined hole in the ground that opened into a cavern then descended further down a ladder to a tunnel that led for nearly a mile. There was a string that marked the trail so as not to be lost on one of the many side tunnels and caverns, which we found comforting! We found many of the typical limestone formations, stalactites, stalagmites, columns, etc. Well into the cave there were graffiti of former visitors from as long ago as the 1800's. There were quite a number of large high ceiling caverns joined by long tunnels and absolutely pitch black without lights on. As we continued on we got to a point where the string ended in a little pile which was perplexing, but then we noticed a faint light in the distance, the exit shaft of the cave trail. With a little bit of knee crawling we found ourselves at the bottom of a rope ladder leading up a 20ft shaft to the outside. Once back above ground we found our way through a thickly overgrown trail that eventually led back to the entrance and the access road. I found this to be about the best cave I've experienced and Donna was a good sport to stick with it to the end! I can't help but think that back in the US, a cave such as this would have been developed into a commercial venture with lights, railings and guided tours! Very neat to be there by ourselves. Once back at the harbor we walked around the small village of Alice Town with its very colorful modest houses and abundance of flowering plants, but really no commercial establishments such as stores or restaurants.
Monday (13th) we headed out early to time the transit of Current Cut to be just after slack tide on the ebb so as to have the current with us and plenty of depth through the shallow bits. From there we sailed north to the old settlement of Spanish Wells. This is a vibrant harbor with a very active fishing fleet where the primary catch is the Caribbean lobster (locally know as crawfish). We tied up at a marina on the narrow waterway there, which had been recently rebuilt and nicely landscaped with a nice pool and good restaurant/bar on the premises. We spent the next few days exploring the town and nearby attached Russel Island, one day by golf cart and other days on foot. Many of the inhabitants can trace their ancestry to the Eleutherian Adventurers that came from Bermuda in 1648. We learned a lot at the museum there with a personal guided tour by a local volunteer. On Thursday (16th) we took the ferry over to Harbor Island on the opposite (east) side of northern Eleuthera via the Devil's Backbone. This route proceeds along and inside the reefs just off of the beach on the north end of the island and it's typical that private yachts hire a pilot to guide them through this if they want to try this in their own boat. The route takes you so close to the beach with breakers on both sides of you, I can't imagine doing the route without a super powerful motor yacht underneath me. Harbor Island and Dunmore Town is sort of a super-yacht destination but relatively low key. The highlight is the famous pink sand beach on the ocean (eastern) side of the island with many small exclusive looking resort hotels. We had a nice lunch on the harbor side at "Queen Conch" restaurant over the water and returned by ferry later that afternoon.
On Friday (17th) we left Spanish Wells for a short trip westward to the small undeveloped "Royal Island" with a great all around protected anchorage. The weather forecast is looking good for a sail north on Saturday from here to the Abacos across some more open ocean waters for about 50 nm. About nine other boats are here with us, probably with the same idea in mind for the weekend.