One Cool Cat
Sunday, February 27, 2005
Somewhere along the perfect mile-long arc of Fernandez Bay, a desiccated sea grape leaf cartwheeled silently past me down to the pale green water. It was a beautiful thing, a sudden pleasure typical of the experience at this small, privately owned resort -- cottages set among palms, hibiscus and bougainvillea, wind singing in the palms -- in the untrammeled middle Bahamas, 130 miles southeast of Nassau. On the whole of Cat Island, there isn't a shop or a bank or cinema, just a ribbon of road linking lovely churches, ruined plantations and spectacular beaches.
Seagrape House, my two-bedroom duplex at Fernandez Bay Village, was a mere 50 yards from the beach. Here, simple pleasures meant everything. Up at 7:15, brew coffee, chuckle with Wodehouse for half an hour, then walk north along the beach under a brightening tropical sky to where the bay ended at a pocked limestone ridge covered with bonsai, wind-stunted palmettos and yellow hibiscus blossoms. Hanging my towel on a ghostly driftwood tree, I swam along the base of the ridge to the mouth of the bay. A nesting tern threatened to dive-bomb me on several mornings.
Back at Seagrape, I showered in the indoor/outdoor bath I shared with two truculent hermit crabs and a curly-tailed lizard with voyeuristic tendencies. Breakfast at the lodge -- mango, papaya, watermelon, cereal, toast and eggs with sausages -- made for the perfect morning.
Fernandez Bay Village has a cool nostalgic feel about it. I would have settled for doing as little as I could get by with here -- little other than gaze out at the pale green water from a beach chair -- but it didn't turn out that way. Private pilots love these small Out Island resorts, most of them close to long runways. The day before, I had met Mike and Sharon and their children from Huntsville, Ala., who had flown in on a rented Piper Lance.
Mike loved to fly. I hadn't known him two hours when he invited me on an aerial tour of the island. After breakfast the next morning, clutching a place mat inscribed with a map of the island, I was strapped in the co-pilot's seat, roaring down the runway at New Bight up into the wild blue yonder.
The island, covered with thick scrubby vegetation, was heating up and spawning thermals. The Lance pitched and yawed, bounced and swayed, making it difficult to follow the map. We flew north along the western, lee coast of 48-mile long Cat, past Arthur's Town (Sidney Poitier's home town), around the northern cape and back south along the eastern coast, flying 500 feet above miles of spectacular beaches to which there were only sporadic dirt tracks.
What a beautiful run it was -- white sloping beaches fronting emerald green water beneath our wings. If the west side was placid, eastern Cat was dynamic. Twenty yards out from the beach, wild gardens of coral heads appeared, hundreds of them stretching out to a reef line marked by white flashes of surf and dark blue water in winds fetching from Africa, winds that drove Columbus to this island in the Americas.
In October 1492, Columbus made landfall either along this stretch of Cat Island or somewhere on San Salvador to the southeast. At Columbus Point, Greenwood Beach Resort and Dive Center came into view. Years before, I'd made my first dive here. Like Fernandez Bay, Greenwood is small and even more remote, fronting eight miles of empty beach.
We landed back at New Bight and took a cab the couple of miles back to Fernandez Bay Village. After lunch, I took to the water. The little cays in the mouth of Fernandez Bay provide excellent snorkeling. The usual unusual suspects worked the rocks: frantic tangs, fairy basslets, wrasses, snappers, a stoplight parrotfish. I paused before some amazing sights: a juvenile French angelfish -- silky black with bright yellow stripes, perfect as a child's drawing -- feeding near a big rock; a starfish a foot broad, arrayed in rust-red and white lines, rested on the dusty bottom. Then the tail wing of an airplane reposing conspicuously on the white sand.
I loved these trips to the rocks in the mouth of Fernandez Bay, but I hadn't come back to Cat to spend my time entirely in the water. I wanted to explore the island's religious tradition, which is both Christian and native African.
Most Bahamians are Protestants, but Cat Island has a strong Catholic tradition. It was home to one of the most remarkable priests of modern times, Father Jerome Hawes (1876-1956), the Hermit of Cat Island. An architect, he built five churches on this island in addition to his personal masterpiece, the Hermitage, which sits atop 206-foot Mount Alvernia in New Bight, the highest point in the Bahamas. Father Jerome lived here as a hermit for the last 17 years of his life.
On my last day on Cat, I started out early, drove south to the base of Alvernia, parked and climbed the steep path past 13 Stations of the Cross to the Hermitage. Prefaced by a 15-foot tall Celtic cross and a cave with a stone rolled away, the Hermitage is a melange of small buildings linked by a covered walkway -- a sleeping room, cooking room, guest room and small chapel near a medieval tower.