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Trip Report Trip Report: Cape Santa Maria, Long Island, Bahamas

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More Out Island Adventures

Once you get hooked on the Bahamas Out Islands, you just keep coming back for more and more. Sometimes you go back to places you’ve visited – we’ve had multiple trips to the Abacos, the Exumas and Cat Island; other times, you try out something new. For our latest trip, we decided to try out Long Island, since many visitors who are “in the know” declare it to be lovelier than Cat Island. We unsuccessfully attempted to get to Long Island in 2008, and finally made it this November, 2011.

The Out Islands Start in the Domestic Terminal of NAS

It’s a chicken-and-egg quandary: Are the Out Islands difficult to reach because hardly anyone goes there? Or does hardly anyone go there because they are so difficult to reach? The fact remains that it takes some fancy dancing to get to the more remote Out Islands unless you are going by your own boat or airplane (more on that later). There are some means of connecting through South Florida, but since we had a generous voucher from American Airlines earned on our Exumas trip earlier in the year, we booked American all the way to Nassau via Miami, and from Nassau we’d fly a local carrier, Southern Air, to Stella Maris airport on Long Island. I built in a 3 hour time allowance to switch to the domestic terminal in Nassau, and for that, had to get up at 3:30 a.m. to make the early flight from BWI to MIA.

Really, the early travel was just going too well. Local weather was mild, we were easily able to upgrade to first class, and we arrived in Miami early. The Eagle to Nassau boarded right on time, the engines fired up … and … enter Murphy and his Law. An indicator light on the Eagle was malfunctioning, even though the thing it indicated was not. Nevertheless, we had to leave that plane, offload luggage, and find a new plane. We were delayed more than 2 hours before we were off the ground again, during which interval I was imagining Plans B through D (including researching an expensive on-demand charter – well, I had to make my iPhone and trip insurance earn their keep, right?). Once on the runway in Nassau, Rick called Southern’s desk at NAS and told them we were coming, especially since we were already late for the “required” 75 minute check-in and with immigration, baggage claim, customs, and the airport yet to traverse. Not to mention the airport being under construction, which meant navigating a long rat’s maze to get to immigration.

We finally made it to Southern’s counter 25 minutes before wheels-up. The agent knew our name, and said “What if I told you we left without you?” I told her I’d cry. She was joking, of course, and took our bags and sent us to security. If the worn, un-air-conditioned domestic terminal at NAS, and the friendly and solicitous airline agent didn’t scream “Out Islands,” my next gambit absolutely did. Since it was Sunday, I knew there would be no liquor stores open on Long Island. Yet, I wanted a bottle of Ron Ricardo pineapple rum for our room, since we like to do happy hour on our own. There was no liquor store past security at the domestic terminal either. So I asked the bartender in the terminal if she would sell me a bottle. She didn’t have one to sell, but picked up the phone and asked me to wait a moment. She left the bar unattended, exited the terminal, bought a bottle outside security, and brought it back to me. I tipped her extravagantly.

As it turned out, Southern’s flight was either overbooked or under booked, so we ended up getting a charter of our own with another couple. A smaller, slower plane, but after flying over Andros and the Exumas (there are not many more beautiful sights), we were soon on the ground at Stella Maris. Before the props even stopped spinning, we were taking our luggage off the plane and meeting taxi driver Smitty, who asked for us by name. 20 minutes later, we pulled into Cape Santa Maria Beach Resort, which would be our home for the week.

Escape to the Cape

Our cruiser friends (i.e. friends who cruise in the Bahamas on their own sailboat, and not cruise ship “cruisers,” because those wouldn’t exactly be reaching Long Island on the Monolith of the Seas), who’d spent some time in Long Island over the past 3 winters, told us the beach at Cape Santa Maria was the most beautiful in the Bahamas. That’s quite an endorsement, when you consider they’ve been spending much of their time in the Exumas (including the utterly jaw-dropping Warderick Wells). They were not wrong!

Cape Santa Maria is located on the Exuma Sound (leeward) side of Long Island, just shy of the northern tip of this 70-mile-long island. When Christopher Columbus made his second landfall in the New World on this shore, he must have snapped his fingers, asked for a Goombay Smash, and thought hard about never leaving. Of course, that assumes ol’ Chris liked beaches as much as I do. This one is a gently curving 3-4 mile stretch of shimmery, powdery white sand with the occasional patch of ironshore. The water is the gem-like clear blue that tests the limits of your thesaurus to come up with different names for “blue.” The west-facing shore guarantees spectacular sunsets, including a green flash from time to time (saw one).

As much as I love a gorgeous, perfect beach, I like to explore as well. CSM doesn’t fall down here, either. At the north end of the beach is a narrow, shallow inlet which opens out to a lake? cove? from which flow mangrove creeks. When the tide falls, parts of the cove dry to brilliant white sand flats (some spots of which are not so firm and suck you in past your ankles). We kayaked here at low tide and got a good look at the mangrove root systems and large birds. At the east end of the cove are several caves, with damp mossy overhangs, and on the northwest side is a crumbled lighthouse and small beach. We got caught in the rain towards the end of our excursion, but when you get rained on during vacation, you might just get a spectacular double rainbow like we did.

The rooms at CSM almost take second place to the natural environment, but that’s because the environment is so remarkable. Like most other Out Island resorts we’ve visited, there is a central clubhouse – this one in two levels of white gingerbread – with reception, a restaurant, bar, library and TV room (what???), and gym. There are 21 rooms distributed through a dozen beachfront bungalows lined up along a boardwalk. With a mere 144 hotel rooms on the entire island, this makes CSM one of the largest properties on Long Island. The rooms are half comfortably-furnished screened porch, and half bedroom and bath, equipped with small fridge, coffee maker, and safe. Though we had air-conditioning, we never needed it, and even turned off the ceiling fans at night, so perfect was the weather during our visit. The only caveat: there is no screen mesh fine enough to keep out the dastardly no-see-ums at dusk. Even with liberal dousing with Deep Woods Off (which is thoughtfully supplied on the porch), I was eaten by the voracious little pests. The little beasties are a fact of beachfront life.

How to Find a Private Beach

Aside from kayaking, Rick and I spent the first part of our visit on the beach, either walking or mostly soaking up the delicious atmosphere. There is a shady cabana in front of each bungalow, as well as beach loungers for each room. We were looking to chill out, so with fully-loaded Kindles and iPods, and each other, we didn’t need much entertainment. Since the wind was blowing from the west early in the week, there was some “surf” on the leeward side of the island, providing me the waterfront soundtrack I love.

Beginning midweek, I had rented a car, so we hit the road to look for – what else? – more beaches (I’m greedy that way). As is typical in the string-bean-shaped Out Islands, there is one main road and it is named the Queen’s Highway. To call it a “highway” is generous. It’s 2-lane blacktop with ragged edges (and no real shoulder to speak of), washed out in spots, with minimal traffic. The occasional goat, rooster or dog will cross the road, and drivers frequently stop in the middle of the road to talk to friends or pick up a passenger. No worries, because there’s nowhere you could possibly be hurrying to reach.

You know you’re in the Out Islands if you justifiably get indignant when you perceive that there might be someone (besides you) on your 5-mile stretch of beach. And, just to hammer that image home, you only think there is someone else on the beach, because you can’t really tell whether that red or green spot a mile away is a person or a fishing net that’s washed up on the shore. Most likely, it’s the fishing net. In the 4 days we had a rental car and drove to windward beaches, we encountered exactly 3 human beings on our beaches, and only at such a distance that we could wave to them before moving further away. That is paradise!

There is an art to finding and getting to that perfect private beach. A map is just a starting point, and merely a suggestion, since there are symbols – like a beach umbrella – placed on the tourist maps in vague and general spots. Better to have some local knowledge; the islanders genuinely want you to have a wonderful experience, and delight in sharing their favorite spots. Since roads are rarely named, much less marked, you’ll be given landmarks like “the sign for the Long Island Breeze” or “the light pole numbered 108,” or “the first paved road past the government center.” If it is a paved road you’re following, it isn’t paved for long. It’s only a matter of yards before it degenerates into a twin sand track with grass growing a foot high (or taller) between the tracks; we’ve even driven over palmettos. You may need to get out to clear tree limbs if no one’s gone down the same path since the last hurricane. The undercarriage of your car will get swept clean by the grass, and the sides will get whacked by overgrowing sea grapes and palmettos.

Once you see a 10-20 foot “wall” of brush (mostly seagrapes) in front of you, you can be fairly sure that the ocean is on the other side, so it’s time to start looking for a place to leave your car and access the shore. Most times, the path to the beach involves scrambling down the wall. If you choose a more popular spot, there might be some rickety steps. But more likely you’ll be sliding down sand and grabbing vines on your way down to slow your progress, or picking your way gingerly down an ironshore wall. (Shoes are essential; even if you’re not tiptoeing over ironshore, you’ll likely find yourself walking through sand burrs.) If the access point is at the same level as the beach, you might find yourself walking some distance over ironshore to get to the pinky-white sand that is characteristic of the windward shores of the Out Islands.

Unlike some of the other Out Islands we’ve explored, where the windward beaches can go on for miles without interruption, most of the spots we discovered on Long Island were a series of discrete scallops, each divided from the next with a headland or pile of rocks. Each beach had reef some distance off the beach, cutting the crashing surf down from 6-8 foot curls offshore to 2-footers as they hit the beach. The rocks and headlands created small, protected swimming areas and hiding places. The waves effervesced around us, and the water actually seemed warmer on the ocean side than on the Exuma Sound side of the island. I often stayed in the water ‘til my hands got pruny, dried out by taking a walk or hunting for sea glass or sea beans, then jumped back in.

For perhaps the first time ever, I didn’t spend any beach time looking for shells. The hunt this year was for sea beans, which I’d never even heard of until my friends went cruising and gave us some (and, according to lore, the point of collecting them is to give them away). Sea beans are seeds that end up in the ocean then drift with the ocean currents and wash ashore, many of them coming from Africa or the Amazon. The ones we sought were large, shiny brown ones commonly known as “heart beans” and “hamburger beans,” but we also found a “Mary bean” (which looks like it has a crucifix on it). We must have hit our beach before the cruisers got there, because once our eyes became accustomed to finding them, we found tons.

One of the few “attractions” on Long Island is Dean’s Blue Hole, the world’s deepest blue hole. It’s located at the edge of a windward beach, off a marked (!!) road north of the island’s capital, Clarence Town. I’d seen pictures of the blue hole, and though I was looking forward to seeing it, had no interest whatsoever to swimming in it. Alas, the fall’s storms had kicked up lots of seaweed, and the entire blue hole was covered with a mat of sargassum (curiously, it was only the blue hole that was covered with it). Since we wouldn’t see the blue hole, we walked past that half-moon cove to the next one, parked ourselves next to some rocks and went swimming.

Columbus and Father Jerome Were Here

Long Island’s most famous visitor was Christopher Columbus. While debate over Columbus’ first landfall continues (some say it’s San Salvador, Bahamas while others claim it’s Grand Turk), evidently no one seems to dispute that Columbus landed on Long Island on October 17, 1492. A monument stands on the northernmost point of the island commemorating the event. It reads:

THIS MONUMENT IS DEDICATED TO THE GENTLE PEACEFUL AND HAPPY ABORIGINAL PEOPLE OF LONG ISLAND THE LUCAYANS AND TO THE ARRIVAL OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS ON 17th OCTOBER 1492

(Ah, those gentle, peaceful and happy Lucayans … soon to be wiped out by the visitors and their diseases. At least they got a monument….)

Like most things on Long Island, it is not easy to get to the monument. The sign marking the unpaved road to reach the monument was missing, so we initially missed the turn. And, once on the road, we only dared go part of the distance to it, since the road was deeply rutted and we couldn’t risk the rental car getting there. We hiked the remaining 25 minutes to get there, and then climbed the steep slope on which the monument – a simple concrete obelisk with a cross on top – is located. The monument itself pales in comparison to the bold shore which it overlooks, with ocean waves crashing beneath it.

The famed hermit (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms…) of Cat Island, Father Jerome, also spent time on Long Island, building two churches in Clarence Town, perched atop high hills. The Catholic church, St. Peter and Paul, is still in use. Like the Hermitage on Cat Island, it looks large from a distance, but its diminutive scale becomes apparent as you come closer. The whitewashed structure with blue doors is humble and simple, but fits the location perfectly. Jerome’s Anglican church lost much of its roof during Hurricane Irene, and is presently closed. (We shared the Bahamas’ experience with Irene, having been without power for 6 days at home this summer.)

Eating Bahamian

The Out Islands of the Bahamas are not known to be culinary hot spots, but if you stick with the local cuisine – and manage your expectations appropriately -- you won’t be disappointed.

Knowing that there would be limited options for dining, we opted for a meal plan (breakfast and dinner) at CSM, and then going elsewhere for lunch. That was a wise decision, since many places outside of CSM weren’t even open for the season yet, and most involved quite a long drive (20 minutes to over an hour). After many visits to the islands, I knew that – even at a hotel with an international clientele – my best bet was to choose local food. There is, reliably, conch in all of the traditional variations (conch chowder, conch fritters, cracked conch), as well as grouper and local lobster (crawfish). If you want to go a little more down island, CSM has a delicious chicken souse (a citrusy chicken broth with potatoes, celery and boiled chicken legs and wings) on the lunch menu. If you want to be even more island-y, order boiled fish for breakfast – it’s a broth very similar to the chicken souse, but contains poached grouper. Not only was it yummy, but ordering it endeared me to my server. But the most appealing meal we had at CSM was stone crab claws; I had no idea they were local, though I shouldn’t have been surprised because we eat them in not-so-faraway Florida.

Off the resort, we ate at two places, both in Deadman’s Cay. The first was Max’s Conch Bar, a small roadside open-air bar where the proprietor is famous for conch salad (justly so). After an order of conch salad, we looked to the dry-erase board for lunch choices. I asked whether the steamed snapper was “steamed” in the Bahamian sense; i.e. with tomatoes, peppers and onions. Since it was, I scooped up the last order, while Rick had a conch burger. Well, not only was that snapper properly steamed, it was a whole fish – which I absolutely LOVE. A local guy sitting next to us said he’d never seen a tourist actually eat whole fish; their loss!

We also ate at The Forest, a roadside takeout place with a few picnic tables under a roof. Best conch burger ever. I’ve often raved about Bahamian bread, and The Forest served their sandwiches on it. Amazing.

Speaking of bread, this trip was the first time in the Out Islands that I ever ate Bahamian johnnycake. I’ve had “johnnycake” before, especially in Anguilla, where it is a round flatbread. The version we had here was a dense, rich loaf-style bread, which has a texture not unlike poundcake (but, of course, not as sweet). Toasted, it was a decadent side to breakfast or conch chowder.

Fly Away!

As communication devices become better and better, it seems like even the Out Islands are skipping merrily into the 21st century. Given that, my own expectations of keeping in touch with the office have grown from “not even possible” to “I’ll check email a couple of times a day.” I don’t like it, but it does mean I don’t come back to the office to find hundreds of emails polluting my inbox. The version of my iPhone doesn’t even permit international calling (fine with me), but I could access data via WiFi hot spot, which CSM offered in the clubhouse. My emails spoiled breakfast a few times ….

I liked Long Island for its quintessentially Out Island feeling. But while I found Cape Santa Maria to be a very comfortable and pleasant home base, it lacked the Out Island vibe. I hesitate to even say this, but perhaps CSM was a little too groomed for my taste. This, of course, is strictly a matter of personal preference – I prefer a more quirky, organic feeling, like the coral stone of Small Hope Bay Lodge (Andros), or the thatch roofs at Fernandez Bay Village (Cat).

And, if I return to CSM, I would ask whether a large group is booked at the property. During our week, a pilot’s group had a “fly-in,” taking over most of the resort. One of the things I love about the Out Islands is meeting like-minded travelers; I’m still friendly with a couple I met in Eleuthera over 20 years ago. But a large group tends to be insular, leaving outsiders feeling just like that: outsiders. Moreover, we were left with whatever dining times weren’t claimed by the group, table assignments that were an afterthought (e.g. near the kitchen door), and service that – while competent – was a bit strained and harried while the group was in residence. It’s great business for the resort to have a group like that visit, but it left me feeling slightly disappointed.

My complaints are mere quibbles, and when it came to be time to leave, I wasn’t ready. Our taxi driver wasn’t either – as he’d fallen asleep and arrived 15 minutes after the appointed time. But he made record time getting us to the airport, and the formalities at the Stella Maris landing strip are nothing at all. As soon as our plane arrived, we hopped on and took off; the turnaround was so quick that we arrived in Nassau early.

It’s been many years since we passed through the Nassau airport, and the US departure terminal is undergoing major renovation. The process of pre-clearing US immigration and customs at NAS is now amazingly efficient – in fact, you don’t even take your bags through customs yourself anymore. Instead, they are photographed when you check them with the airline, and when you go through passport control, they are shown on a screen and checked that way. Very cool, and very fast. I don’t know if this is a process that will be put into place elsewhere, but I heartily applaud it (and it beats the heck out of clearing at MIA). In my mind, the process makes NAS a far more attractive portal to the Out Islands than it has been in the past. And, to add a little sweetener, you can get that pineapple rum we like in the terminal in Nassau past security and C&I – which means you can carry it home.

So, now I’ve checked another Out Island off my bucket list. Which one next?

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