Heading back to Hope Town in the Abacos
By Jess Righthand,
It takes us approximately two minutes at the “baggage claim” — really just a baggage cart — at Marsh Harbour Airport to realize that my boyfriend’s bag is nowhere to be found. To file a claim, we have to wade through a crowd of passengers leaving on the next flight to Florida to reach the single desk where there appears to be a single woman performing all the airport’s duties, including boarding said flight.
While Alex files his claim, I check in on my parents and brother, who are waiting outside in the warm Bahamian air. My mother, who never forgets a face, is already catching up with a freakishly tan couple with whom we apparently went boating on our first trip to the Abacos, an island chain in the northern part of the Bahamas. Seeing that we might be a while, my brother pulls out his guitar.
A newcomer to the Abacos, Alex registers increasing dismay at our lack of concern about his bag. It’ll turn up, everyone promises. He looks even less convinced when he realizes that the only way to get to Elbow Cay, our final destination, is by boat. But sure enough, the very next morning, his suitcase shows up on our doorstep. See, Alex? Told you so!
Six years ago, a friend of my father’s tipped him off to the tiny settlement of Hope Town on Elbow Cay, a six-mile-long angled island in the Abacos. Marked by its signature red-and-white striped lighthouse, Hope Town is the kind of place that has one of just about everything: There’s one liquor store, one post office and one bank that’s only open for four hours on Tuesdays. The town is lined with tiny colonial-looking houses in a palette of tropical hues. Only pedestrians and the occasional golf cart pass by, and bougainvillea, hibiscus and the Bahamian yellow elder flower perfume the air.
For some reason, my family never seems able to get to Hope Town without any hiccups. On our last trip, the heavens opened just as we left the Marsh Harbour marina, smiting us with an epic electrical storm that left us — and our luggage — completely soaked. This time, the day is flawless as we set off aboard the boat we’ve rented for the week, mostly to get us to and from Marsh Harbour and out to the Sunday pig roast at Nipper’s on the island of Great Guana Cay. Small cotton-ball clouds gently punctuate the blue sky, and only the ripple of our wake interrupts the glassy turquoise sea.
Soon we pass the familiar lighthouse and my favorite sign, at the entrance to the marina: “Slow Down. You’re in Hope Town.” I’ve come to take this both literally and figuratively. For me, Hope Town is synonymous with decompressing, disconnecting and taking a hiatus from the mad dash of life. On the literal side, I know from experience that in these shallow waters, one wrong move and we’ll be in the water pushing our boat off the sand banks.
We don’t make any navigational mistakes until we head for Two Rock Reef, the four-bedroom house we’ll be calling home for the next 10 days. That’s when we walk to the wrong beachfront house and spend a good while lounging on someone else’s deck until we find it a bit too odd that the door is locked and there’s no key for us to let ourselves in.
Not to worry. When we do find the right house, it’s clear that we’ve chosen our digs well. Two Rock Reef has high ceilings, sliding glass doors that open to the beach and contemporary beach-chic furnishings. It’s also equipped with solar panels that kick in when (not if) the power goes out. By the time I look up, half my family has already donned their bathing suits.
Our crew quickly settles into the island’s relaxed tempo. We move in slow rotations of reading, swimming, sleeping, eating and pouring cocktails. (My brother, who has just turned 21, is particularly enthused about that last activity). Our ample deck, my favorite feature of the house, is where we spend most of our time, even at night when we arrange our beach chairs in a row to count the shooting stars.
We set out to do family yoga, but that quickly devolves into just mother-daughter yoga when the boys decide that they don’t feel like contorting themselves while on vacation. We also quickly run out of food, despite having initially stocked up at the giant supermarket in Marsh Harbour. Other than that, it’s not hard spending our days in a place where the only sound besides our voices is the soft lapping of what can barely pass as waves.
Alex is an active soul who can’t sit still for too long, so he soon convinces me to put aside Wallace Stegner’s “Angle of Repose” (the story has taken a somewhat depressing turn for the worse, anyway) in favor of strapping on snorkels and scoping out the reef after which our house is named. Almost immediately, we spot schools of brightly colored bluehead wrasse, parrotfish and butterflyfish darting in and out of large coral beds. I follow Alex to the second “rock” of the reef, but he suddenly turns around and swims in the opposite direction, not stopping until we’re both back on the beach. That’s when he tells me that he’d just been stared down by a giant barracuda. He stretches out his arms to demonstrate the fish’s length. It occurs to me that I’m wearing my mother’s sparkly ring, and barracudas have a notorious appetite for shiny things.
Time to do something on land.
The next morning, I ride into Hope Town in our rented golf cart, picking up some more mixers and a latte and fresh-baked muffin from the coffee shop. I pass the Wyannie Malone Historical Museum, but it’s closed, so I inquire with Jane Patterson at Elbow Cay Properties, the rental agency we used.
As it happens, Jane’s sister-in-law, who works two blocks away at one of the gift shops in town, is in charge of staffing the museum with volunteers. She hadn’t been able to find anyone to staff during our visit, but she makes a call and pencils me in for an appointment the next day. Volunteer Suzanne Bethel, a former schoolteacher, shows Alex and me around the two floors of photos, old china, furniture and fishing paraphernalia, none of which is spectacular in and of itself, but offers an interesting evocation of Hope Town’s history.
The town’s founders were a group of British loyalists who fled the American colonies after the Revolutionary War. The first settlers — who had names like Malone, Albury and Bethel, which are still quite common on the island today — survived on fishing and the spoils of ships that wrecked just off the island’s coast. Much to the chagrin of the inhabitants, who apparently fought tooth and nail to thwart its construction, shipwrecks sharply decreased after the lighthouse was built in 1864.
That fight was about as intense politically as things have ever been on the island, according to Bethel. “We might be a bit naive sometimes,” she says, “but we're peaceful people.”
Ironically, once it was actually feasible to navigate to Hope Town, tourism became the island’s main industry, and the lighthouse became its definitive landmark. Today it remains one of the last hand-cranked lighthouses in the world.
After leaving the museum, we take our boat across the harbor to climb the 101 steps to the top of the lighthouse and take in the breathtaking 360-degree views. Everything is quiet. No cars or buses. No sirens. No jackhammers outside the window at 7 on a Saturday morning (yes, it’s a sore subject). A few boats float gently in the harbor, and the town’s colorful cottages form a sort of impressionistic bouquet. Alex has a smile on his face, as if he’s just now grasping why I’d been yapping on about Elbow Cay to him for months.
Aug. 1 is, for all intents and purposes, a holiday in the Abacos because it’s the first day of crawfish season (what they call crawfish in the Abacos are as big as lobsters and taste just as good). The entire week before, we see boats trolling around in the water outside our house. The fishermen dive down and set traps they will collect when the day comes.
My brother and Alex decide that they want to get in on the crawfish action. Aug. 1 also happens to be my father’s birthday, so I take it upon myself to see if I can organize a crawfishing trip with the whole gang.
I call Froggies Out Island Adventures in town and explain my request.
“We don’t have anything like that here,” says the man on the other end of the line. Click. Who knew that crawfishing is the one thing in the Abacos that nobody wants to talk to you about?
Crawfishing, we learn, is a big source of revenue for the area’s fishermen, and they’re not about to have tourists mucking that up.
Determined, we pick up a spear from the marina store (I decide it’s a late birthday present to my brother). To catch a crawfish, you have to spear it underwater without using an oxygen tank, one stipulation among the many crawfishing regulations. But the boys seem up for the challenge, and soon they’re out in the water with our hot pink floatie, trying not to poke each other’s eyes out while they search for crawfish, or at least some kind of fish they can put a spear through. Watching the spectacle, I begin to understand where the real fishermen are coming from on this one.
The boys wash up on shore empty-handed. And so we end up at the Sea Spray Resort & Marina, an inn on the southern end of the island, eating crawfish caught by someone else at a price about four times higher than we would have paid had the boys been successful. There’s really nothing quite like fresh grilled crawfish, though. The chef also turns out to be our shuttle driver back to Hope Town, so we have due time to praise his culinary skills.
It’s one of our last nights on the island, so we head to Harbour’s Edge, a waterfront bar and restaurant where Local Vibe, the town’s homegrown band, plays the same set we heard a week ago (only two spots provide most of the night life in town). Sitting outside on our white plastic chairs and sipping Kalik Bahamian beers, we watch as boats come in out of the darkness and sidle up to the dock to unload party-seekers. In this recession year, things are slower than in the past, but that only makes Hope Town seem friendlier, more peaceful. The band starts playing “Wish You Were Here.”
And I think, I am here — and so glad of it.