John Steinbeck in his classic Travels with Charley waxed poetic on his great love for Montana. I, too, cherish Big Sky Montana, but its the seductive blue waters and pink soft sands of the Bahamas Islands that call me back, again and again.
Ive lived on many islands Minorca in Spain, Arran in my native Scotland but its Nassau on New Providence Island we now call home.
My love affair with Bahamian island life took root the first time I jetted there to escape bone-chilling wintry Octobers in New York. As the aircraft swept in over sun-drenched Nassau, all pink and white and exotic, I caught sight of her incredibly blue tropical seas: gin-clear waters that are so transparent one cannot tell if the sandy bottom lies 3 feet or 30 fathoms below.
I was hooked.
Then theres the heady aroma from cascades of red and yellow royal poinciana blossoms, balmy trade winds clicking among coconut palms, whispering through casuarinas boughs. Many an evening we spent relaxed in a hammock hooked between spindly coconut trees, the moonlight bathing endless seas, far-off reality suddenly of no importance. Add a people blessed with refreshing civility, superb manners and robust humor. What more could one ask?
So what if things here run on island time? Who cares if the jitney driver stops to shout, Hey, mon! to a friend along the way? Or we drive on the wrong (left) side of the road? The whole idea of getting away from where you come from is to relish the differences where you go to.
Weather-wise, now is a great time to head for the islands. Hurricane season is over, temperatures are pleasant mid 80s and the sun is almost sure to shine. (We like island life best from October through June.)
Here is how you will get the biggest bang for your buck in da islands.
• Unless your hotel provides transport, airport taxis are the only way to get to hotels, or into town.
Fares are prominently displayed on the wall outside Customs Hall. To Cable Beach, $18; Nassau hotels, $25; Paradise Island, $35; bridge toll to Paradise Island: $1. Taxi transport to Nassau from the airport is price-controlled as long as you see the dispatch official before hiring a taxi, which will set the price.
• Improved island roads make the drive to Cable Beach, Arawak Cay, Nassau and Paradise Island a breeze, except through busy Bay Street.
• Local buses (jitneys) provide transport to all parts of the island except to and from the airport.
Fare: $1.25 each way; exact change, please. Jitney terminals are adjacent to Bay Street and the buses stop anywhere; just flag them down.
• Coral Harbour, on the islands south side, is less touristy, as is Sand Bar, a pretty beachfront hideaway popular with Europeans seeking rope hammocks, deserted beaches and modest lodgings. The sea is shallow sea: You can walk a mile and still be knee-deep.
• Parking is sparse downtown, car rentals are expensive and gas costs $5.23 per gallon. Alternative: Two- or three-seat scooter rentals, average $70 a day, including gas, insurance and helmets.
• A cold beer on pricey Paradise Island will set you back $7, plus tip. We buy three Sands beers for $5 at most liquor stores. (That said, Paradise Island does boast spectacular casinos, a stunning aquarium, dolphin shows and water sports. Fab beaches, too.)
• Chicken souse, a zesty local culinary treat, is stew-like chicken, potatoes, goat pepper and chock full of flavor. The best I found is served from a black food van parked daily at The Caves ($10 per generous portion). Locals take it home, or dine al fresco on the adjacent beach.
• Goodfellows Farms and Restaurant at Mount Pleasant, near Lyford Cay, is our top eatery. Our most popular selection is fresh local mahi grilled on cast iron, served over home-grown micro greens and quinoa with basil farm dressing. It makes life worth living, says Ian Goodfellow. (He also caters luxury yacht requests, so you know food here is superb.) Try the grouper or tuna, too.
• A 10-minute seafront walk from Nassau, lively Arawak Cay Fish Fry sports dozens of native restaurants and bars. Curlys serves tasty grouper fingers, french fries seasoned with limes ($8). Their Ultimate Mixed Seafood combo? Whole lobster tail, skewered shrimp (shell-on) with garlic scampi sauce and choice of red snapper or grouper filet ($38).
• Nassaus fine dining favorites include British Colonial Hotels all-you-can-eat seafood buffet on Saturday nights: $45. Songstress Naomi Taylor adds to your relaxation over a drink. Try its Cafe Matisse for elegant Italian delights. Compass Point Resort backdrop for several James Bond movies lies a few miles west. Their seaside patio overlooks blue seas, hissing of spent waves on the sands... heaven. Traditional massage in pavilions is $100.
• Water taxis they run daytime only cost $3 each way from Prince George Wharf to Paradise Island; board near-full boats to avoid long waits: Captains cram the last body aboard before casting off.
• Best native grub: Try The Cricket Club, below Fort Charlotte, run by Englishman Chris Robertson, for the best fish n chips, tasty grouper fingers, chicken feet soup, sheep tongue or roast goat. All-day full English breakfast: $10. Canned Guinness: $6.50, less for draft beers.
• The new Straw Market fronting Bay Street is crammed with tourist souvenirs. Sisal grass bags, fans and straw mats are made locally, as are batik print shirts, dresses and table linens. Wood carvings are hand-made. Ask for insect-free wood! Beware: Knock-off designer goods abound. Expect haggling, mostly good-natured.
• Bahamian dollars are on par with U.S. dollars and are interchangeable.
Since 2006, photojournalist Jim Leggett and his wife, Eileen, have divided their time between homes in Matthews and Cable Beach, Nassau, in the Bahamas.