Moments after I arrived at the airport in Nassau, a man standing behind a booth placed a complimentary Gombay Smash in my hand. After a long flight (OK, from Toronto it’s a tad over three hours), the drink went down smoothly, but I knew enough to pace myself: This would be the first rum-laden concoction of many.
My itinerary unfolded like a party animal’s dream, a five-day journey via land, air and sea from Nassau through the Exuma Islands with one objective in mind: to check out the watering holes.
It isn’t the cheapest of holidays: Bahamians have yet to create a transportation infrastructure designed for seamless, affordable island hopping. Visitors to the Out Islands must shell out for water taxis (relatively cheap, at around US$10 for a 20-minute ride), chartered boats (at $700 to $1,000 a day) and the occasional aircraft (a trip from Nassau to George Town was $110, from Staniel Cay to Nassau was $90) to move from one patch of paradise to the next, the sticker shock of which is probably what keeps most of us at a single resort.
But what price would you pay to escape the bubble? I spent every day skimming past deserted beaches and inlets, the wind in my hair, the sun in my face, some fruity beverage in hand. At night, I hung my hat at one of the small resorts scattered throughout the islands, be it an upscale private villa at Royal Plantation on Fowl Cay or a cheerful two-storey cottage at Staniel Cay Yacht Club.
And what is it worth to get away from fellow tourists? Who among us, on a package vacation, has not leapt into the closest elevator to avoid yet another encounter with the couple who sat across the aisle on the plane? On this holiday, I clinked glasses with local islanders, talked to proprietors about how they’d cashed in their chips to follow a dream and heard countless tales of over-indulgence and debauchery told by bartenders feeding me cocktails.
How too can you put a value on serendipity? Once I slipped into full vacation mode, it seemed silly to limit my barhopping adventure to drinking establishments. Thus, a sandbar a few miles off the coast of Staniel Cay qualified. When the tide goes out, a huge blank slate of white sand reveals itself and if you happen to be cruising by, you can pull up and be the first to lay down your footprints – and crack open a beer.
On another occasion, a small boatload of us made a midday sojourn to an uninhibited island on which a crude structure of weathered beams and fisherman’s debris had been gradually assembled by random seafarers passing by. With upturned milk crates serving as bar stools, we washed down a picnic lunch with icy refreshments from our cooler.
At Compass Cay marina, owner and long-time islander Tucker Rolle served me a pint from the stand-up cooler in his tiny shed. On a dare, I jumped into the nurse-shark infested waters surrounding the dock and took a swig – although not dangerous, these may be the creepiest species with which you’ll ever imbibe.
Net take-away? This is a vacation without boundaries. So yes, mobility, authenticity and serendipity have a price – but you are free.
MY FAVE FIVE WATERING HOLES:
1. Arawat Cay, Nassau
Arawat Cay (aka Fish Fry) is a strip of rustic eateries at which locals and tourists quaff all things conch (conch fritters, conch salad, conch stew). At Twin Brothers, I sidled up to the bar and asked the bartender to make me his best drink.
“What is it?” I asked taking a sip. Off the top, my taste buds recognized rum, coconut and pineapple.
“A C.N. Double,” I thought he said — the place was so noisy it was hard to hear him.
“Like the C.N. Tower?” I shouted, always on the lookout for a Canadian angle. He gave me a puzzled look and moved to the next customer. Behind the bar, I noticed the drinks menu. Seeing Double, one entry read. Aha.
Later in the evening, when I moseyed outside, I was shocked to see hundreds of locals, gyrating to Caribbean music, making their way along the street. A stranger told me they were practicing for Junkanoo, a Bahamian festival akin to Mardi Gras. You gotta love it when you go for a drink and a parade breaks out.
2. Club Peace & Plenty, George Town, Exumas
Nestled within the walls of a cozy inn over-looking Elizabeth Harbour is a 300-square-foot pub where, I am told, a hundred or so locals and tourists gather on Friday nights for live music and lively partying.
It’s hard to imagine how so many people can fit into such a tiny space but with its wooden booths hugging the walls and small L-shaped bar, the room can accommodate that many as long as patrons don’t mind sitting on one another’s laps or standing on one another’s toes. In fact, therein lies the appeal of the place: It has the jammed-packed feeling of a kitchen party.
The regatta mural brightening one wall can be viewed on You Tube. Look for the video featuring Johnny Depp accepting his 2006 People Choice Award on live TV – he’s sitting against the now famous backdrop.
3. Chat ‘N Chill, Stocking Island
From George Town, it’s a short water-taxi ride to Stocking Island where boaters who call Elizabeth Harbour their home port spend afternoons sipping beer and tropical drinks at a rustic bar that the owner, Kenneth Bowe built with his own hands.
“I dreamt it and built it 10 years ago,” he said handing me a Kalik, the so-called official beer of the Bahamas. An Exumian native, Bowe was in the banking business in Chicago before opening the doors to Chat ‘n Chill in 1998. The place is famous for its Sunday pig roasts, which draw hundreds.
To break up my sunbathing sessions on the beach, I made the occasional barefoot beer-run to the bar where, when not chatting and chilling with fellow vacationers, I read some of the messages scrawled on T-shirts hanging from the ceiling that previous patrons had left behind. The bar itself is also covered in graffiti – perhaps a few drinks in this easy-going spot brings out the writer in all of us.
4.Staniel Cay Yacht Club
I don’t know if it’s the laid-back decor of the clubhouse at the heart of this unpretentious resort, the down-to-earth staff or the mix of patrons (folks who stay in the brightly painted cottages, boaters who dock at the marina, and locals from the tiny village nearby), but there is something about it that makes you want to park yourself on a barstool and never leave. It might be that owner David Hocher, whose family bought the place when he was just a kid, knows that nothing grand or contrived – other than great food, service and drink – is required to ensure people fall in love with his little corner of the universe.
Jimmy Buffet named it one of the 10 best places to have a waterside drink in the world – and after Carl the bartender fixes you one of his specialty drinks you’ll agree. Because having a great time usually means wanting to stay in touch with all who are part of it, I exchanged business cards and promises to reunite with almost everyone I met.
5.The Travellers’ Rest, Nassau
Owner Joan Hanna moved from Waterdown, Ont., more than 40 years ago with the dream of opening a tavern in the Bahamas. For the first few years, she applied her McMaster University education to teaching at local schools but eventually bought this unassuming restaurant and watering hole overlooking the Caribbean. Since then, its claim to fame has been live-band bashes – attended over the years by the likes of Sean Connery Sidney Poitier, and Mick Jagger – and their signature drink, the banana daiquiri.
“We created a monster,” Duke, her husband, told me.
“Everybody wanted them,” Joan chimed in. “I used to have to send Duke out around 8 or 9 p.m. to search for more bananas.”
I tried one. Ah, liquid dessert.
“Do you miss anything about Canada?” I asked Joan who radiated such happiness I doubted she did.
“I miss the seasons, the fall colours especially,” she said. “Here, you don’t see a sea of orange and red.”
No, I thought staring out the window. But you see the sea