In the Bahamas, the Other Long Island

By Marvin Hunt
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 4, 2004

Reaching the sandy bottom of the Great Bahama Bank at 60 feet down, I was surrounded by soaring, sunlit limestone towers festooned with enormous pods of brain coral and tentacles of fire coral, bright sponges and purple sea fans. Three barracuda materialized above me in water so clear I might have been viewing them in an aquarium. Rising from a white-sand street, the coral heads seemed like arabesque apartment buildings whose inhabitants could fly. And for the duration of a tank of air, I, too, had no fear of falling. I could glide effortlessly around, above and through these brilliant structures.

Their tenants were about their usual business. Schools of manic blue tang darted away as I approached, while around the corner a stack of yellow snappers rested motionless beneath an overhang. Among the small fish working the coral heads were deep blue and yellow fairy basslets, striped sergeant majors and yellowtail damselfish; among larger species were bar jacks and tiger groupers. There were uncommon crossings, too. I saw my sixth rainbow parrotfish, the most spectacular reef fish of the Caribbean, in 10 years; my first-ever yellowtail parrotfish; a contingency of blue striped grunts; and several large, absurdly ugly hogfish. At the end of the last dive, three large ocean triggerfish cruised by 30 feet above me, backlit by the sun.

That evening, on the veranda at the Stella Maris Resort Club, I was reconstructing the dive in my notebook when one of the divers from my group sat down beside me.

"You know there was a famous writer here last week," he said.

"No," I replied. "Who was that?"

"James Michener, I think."

I imagined a spectral Michener gliding through the rustling, wind-whipped fronds of the coconut grove at the quietly elegant resort, haunting the rooms and cottages of this sprawling compound near the north end of the Bahamas' Long Island like a ghost out of a du Maurier novel. My next thought was that some well-connected travel writer had gotten to Long Island before me.

Big Blue Hole

Spurred by the fear of being scooped, I passed up the next day's dives and after breakfast turned the rental car south on Queen's Highway toward Gordon's, the last settlement on the island, 70 miles away. Peter Kuska, one of the owners of Stella Maris, had annotated a map with special stops and excursions along the way.

At Simms, a hardscrabble village 10 miles down the road, I stopped at Her Majesty's Prison, two dark concrete rooms with benches and small, high, barred windows that held prisoners as recently as the last decade. Rich graffiti adorned the walls: "Farquharson, you bitch, watch your back."

Twenty miles farther, I rounded a turn that opened on a spectacular bay at the settlement of Salt Pond, site of the Long Island Regatta. The racers, single-masted Bahama boats, swung at anchor, and the milky green water was crisscrossed by white wake trails left by power boats. With the three-day regatta in full swing, Salt Pond was crowded with revelers. Though it wasn't yet noon, many were hammered drunk; two or three had passed out under trees, while others staggered around booths that sold conch fritters, crab patties and curried mutton. The place seemed menacing, on the edge of violence. I braced myself with a gin and coconut water and pulled out of Salt Pond, having seen enough of the regatta.

Near the settlement of Cartwrights, I ate a lunch of curried goat, potato salad and rice at the Hillside Tavern and Bar, where soca music blaring from massive speakers out back made it impossible to concentrate on anything except chewing. Many of the locals coming and going had dark skin and kinky hair but sharp Caucasian features, even blue eyes.

Miscegenation is the legacy of Long Island's colonial past. Centuries after the indigenous Arawak Indians of the Bahamas were destroyed, Long Island was settled by American loyalists fleeing in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War. After Cornwallis's defeat at Yorktown in 1781, loyalists were hounded, vilified, had their lands confiscated, their houses torched and were beaten and killed by citizens of the fledgling United States. Their only recourse was to appeal to Great Britain for assistance. Coming to their rescue, the Crown granted American loyalists -- mostly well-to-do Scottish-Irish planter families -- vast tracts of land in the Bahamas. They fled to the islands with their slaves and carved out cotton and sisal plantations.

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