Discovering Eleuthera, Bahamas
By Matthew Simon
“Surfer’s Beach is for wave riders, but there are also beaches for snorkelers, swimmers and shell collectors. Best of all, you can have one all to yourself. Around midafternoon on New Year’s Eve, when nearly all the island’s rooms were booked, not a single soul could be spotted on Ten Bay Beach, six miles south of Governor’s Harbour, despite a brilliant sunshine and near perfect temperatures.” New York Times, February 19, 2006.
It’s obvious that the reporter who penned these lines was seeing Eleuthera for the first time. Regular visitors are surprised to find anyone on their favorite beach. With seventy miles of beaches and a few dozen hotel rooms, Eleuthera is a paradise for beach lovers who enjoy privacy and unspoiled natural beauty. 110 miles long with a population of just 8000, Eleuthera is an island of rolling green hills and sleepy villages. There are no shopping centers on Eleuthera, no crowds, and no traffic. The guidebooks are fond of noting that Eleuthera has not a single traffic light, but that isn’t surprising when you consider that most of it has only one paved road. The Queen’s Highway, as it’s called, is a two-lane country road on which you can drive for miles without seeing another car. Needless to say, there is little need for a map, and on an island less than a mile wide for long stretches, you’re never far from the beach.
In the 1960’s, Eleuthera was a jet-set destination with resorts such as the exclusive Cotton Bay Club, Windermere Club, Rock Sound Club, and French Leave. In subsequent decades the resorts closed—due in large part to short-sighted government policies in the years after independence, which were anti-foreign-investment—and Eleuthera was forgotten. All that is changing now. Several new resorts have opened on the island in recent years, including the luxurious Sky Beach Club, and considerable new home construction is underway.
Eleuthera is blessed with excellent infrastructure, in part because it hosted a U.S. Navy base for many years. The island has three airports, one in the south of the island at Rock Sound (RSD), one in Central Eleuthera at Governors Harbour (GHB), and one in the north (ELH). Cell phone service and high-speed internet are available throughout the island, as is municipal water and reliable electricity.
The two sides of Eleuthera look out on very different seas. The Atlantic side is famous for its world-class, pink-sand beaches, miles long and usually deserted. A long off-shore reef system keeps the surf mild on the Atlantic beaches in the central section of the island. The Caribbean, on the west side, is shallow for a great distance out and usually as calm as a lake, although the beaches are not as wide or dramatic as those on the Atlantic side.
Eleuthera’s coral reefs offer exceptional diving and snorkeling. The Devil’s Backbone, the most famous Eleuthera dive, is a large coral formation off North Eleuthera, notorious for wrecking ships. The Current Cut, a narrow channel with currents that regularly reach 10 knots, has been rated one of the ten best dives in the world. Buttonwood Beach has a shipwreck, and there is even a sunken train wreck off the north coast of the island.
Eleuthera is famous for bonefishing and deep-sea fishing. Reef fishing and spear-fishing are also popular. The Caribbean side of the island is usually free from surf, providing excellent conditions for sailing, windsurfing, and kayaking. Trails through the fields and woods are perfect for jogging, hiking, and mountain-biking. You won’t find them on a map or in a guidebook, so ask a local resident or watch for trails on the side of the road.
The Atlantic side of the island north of James Cistern offers several excellent beaches for surfing, with Surfer’s Beach and Holiday Beach being the most famous. For golfers, Eleuthera has the only Robert Trent Jones-designed golf course in the Bahamas, once ranked among the best in the world, although maintenance is now haphazard.
Eleuthera offers varied and unique sightseeing. The Hatchet Bay Cave extends for a mile underground. At the Cliffs, giant ocean swells crash into a coral precipice. The Rock Sound Ocean Hole, said to be bottomless, is an inland salt lake connected by subterranean passages to the sea. Feed the tame saltwater fish miles from the ocean. The Glass Window Bridge, painted by Winslow Homer, is the narrowest point on the island, where the calm turquoise waters of the Caribbean almost touch the turbulent deep blue of the Atlantic. The cavernous Preacher’s Cave provided shelter for the first European settlers of Eleuthera, and served as their first church. The Queen’s Baths are a collection of small pools carved out of the soft rock by wave action. At low tide, the Queen—or anyone fortunate enough to be on Eleuthera—can bathe amongst the little fishes. These sites are all in their pristine state. Don’t expect to find a guide booth–or even a paved road.
Each of Eleuthera’s score of picturesque villages deserves a visit. Gregory Town, home of the annual Pineapple Festival, is also home to Pam’s Island Made Gift Shop, featuring local handicrafts, and Thompson’s bakery, creator of Eleuthera’s famous pineapple and coconut tarts. Spanish Wells is an island fishing village off the north coast of Eleuthera with lovely nineteenth century cottages in pastel colors. Governor’s Harbour features an historic waterfront, colonial homes, and the recently restored Haynes Library. Governors Harbour also hosts the Friday night fish fry, a weekly waterfront street party that brings out locals and visitors alike, and is not to be missed. Harbour Island, a five-minute water-taxi ride from Eleuthera, offers five-star hotels, shopping, and celebrity sightings. No private cars are permitted on the streets of Harbour Island, so plan on renting a golf cart.
Live music is popular on Eleuthera, part-time home to Lenny Kravitz and his band, who are a regular presence on the island and frequently appear at local night spots to jam. Patti Labelle and Mariah Carey also have homes on the island. Eleuthera has numerous annual events, from the Pineapple Festival and the Ride for Hope, to the International Food Fair and the North Eleuthera Regatta.
Six or eight years ago, you would have been hard pressed to enjoy fine dining on Eleuthera. All that has changed. The Bistro at Sky Beach Club offers beachside/poolside dining with international cuisine and local specialties. Cocodimama’s excellent chef hails from Palermo and serves up the best of Italian and fusion cuisine. Tippys famous beach bar and restaurant offers a wide range of dishes from pizza to seafood. The Beach House specializes in tapas and ocean breezes from its beachside deck. The Rainbow Inn is famous for its steaks and salads picked fresh from its organic garden. The Laughing Lizard offers gourmet sandwiches and wraps.
Transportation to the island is easy. There are direct flights every day from Fort Lauderdale on Continental Airlines, and from Miami on American Airlines. There are also multiple daily flights from Nassau on BahamasAir, Pineapple Air, and Southern Air. Travelers from the eastern U.S., including New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore/Washington, Charlotte, and Atlanta, will find multiple daily direct flights to Nassau with easy connections to Eleuthera.
Eleuthera has a number of beautiful beach resorts and a good selection of vacation rentals, including beach cottages, villas, and estates. If you’re planning a visit to the island, contact me for details about accommodations.
Eleuthera has no shopping centers, no casinos, and no large resorts. You can’t play mini-golf or dine at Olive Garden and Burger King. But for those of us who can live without these diversions, Eleuthera is paradise. Come visit, and discover Eleuthera for yourself.
Matthew Simon is the author of How to Buy and Sell Real Estate in the Bahamas.