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Trip Report Trip Report: Cat Island, Bahamas (Fernandez Bay Village)

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CAT ISLAND, BAHAMAS
March 2-9, 2013

What Happens When You Don’t Follow Your Own Advice

Aside from Nevis, the Out Islands of the Bahamas are my favorite island destination. However, unless there is a good reason to go in the winter (like, say, joining your friends on their boat in the Exumas), I usually warn against going between late November and early April. While the weather can be perfectly lovely during that time period, the islands can also be hit by one or more cold fronts, if not just plain chillier weather than one would expect from a “tropical” destination (and, technically, most of the Bahamian archipelago is north of the Tropic of Cancer, so the islands are not, strictly speaking, tropical).

This year, we were planning to stay with our friends aboard Moondance in the Exumas in March, as we had in past years – any later than March, and they start making plans to head back to the US. But they didn’t get past Vero Beach, Florida (aka “Velcro Beach”) this year (see their blog here: http://moondance38.wordpress.com/ ), and may not make it to the Bahamas until much later if at all, so we made alternate plans. With the first week of March blocked out, and the Out Islands in mind, we decided to return to Cat Island and Fernandez Bay Village, taking advantage of free flights from NAS to TBI on Sky Bahamas.

Unfortunately, the weather lived up (or, rather, down) to all of my warnings. On Saturday, when we arrived in Nassau after punishingly early flights from BWI-CLT-NAS – we had to wake up at 2:45 a.m. to make our 5:15 a.m. flight! – we found we couldn’t even enjoy our planned long lunch at Compass Point because the surf and winds were so high that the restaurant was closed. During our on-time flight on Sky Bahamas to the Bight, we were deprived of the beautiful views of the islands because the plane flew over thick clouds and then had to land over the ocean instead of Fernandez Bay due to the winds having clocked around to the west. And once we got there, it was blustery. The seas on the Exuma Sound side of Cat Island – the normally placid leeward side – were good and kicked up, and the temperature was in the 60s, and felt colder due to wind chill. Brrrr.

It took until late Monday for that front to pass and the wind to clock back around to the prevailing easterlies. Another cold front pushed through later in the week. Even when we weren’t cursing the cold fronts, after the sun set, evenings were chilly enough to require a wrap. And until the sun was well up in the sky in the morning, I had to throw on what ended up being the most valuable item in my luggage: a long-sleeved men’s oxford shirt (it didn’t really match anything, but it didn’t NOT match either). The weather eliminated any need for air-conditioning, and nights were cozy in the comfy FBV bedding. But, given that we had a garden bath, lingering in the shower wasn’t happening. And I thought long and hard before getting out of my warm nest in the middle of the night to use the toilet.

As for beach time, the water in Fernandez Bay never seemed warm enough to swim in any comfort. On Monday, a stroll on a windward beach required me to wear a t-shirt, fleece and windbreaker (admittedly, I am a weather wuss). Between fronts, we did swim in the ocean, which was curiously warmer than the Exuma Sound beaches. And we didn’t go kayaking until our last full day because the seas were so kicked up on the leeward side; even on Friday, we got doused by waves when paddling against the wind.

In The Out Islands, You’re Family

I’ve written before that the Out Islands really begin in the domestic terminal of NAS. But after this trip, I’ll amend that to say that the Out Islands start when you decide you’re going to the Out Islands. You can clear immigration at NAS by using the “In Transit” line; this is not only a quicker process (because there are few people in line), but the agents are decidedly friendly and genuinely interested in where you are heading. If, by some miracle, your bag is the first out of the chute (this actually happened to me!), you get through customs without a line and the agents are equally cheerful. We walked ourselves and our bags over to the domestic terminal, in the vain hope that Sky Bahamas would take our bags early – they wouldn’t. But catching a taxi at that terminal is easier (again, no lines, no crowds). Our taxi driver was, coincidentally, from Bennett’s Harbour on Cat Island. When he learned that this was our fourth visit to Cat, he called us family. When it turned out we couldn’t have lunch at Compass Point, he took us to a local restaurant (Nesbitt’s) at no extra charge and made sure we’d be well-taken care of (we were) and then picked us up to take us back to the airport. On our return, also with a long layover, we had a discussion with our taxi driver about where we all should buy property in the Out Islands. Bahamians like the Out Islands just as much as we do! (We did have lunch at Compass Point on the way home – that place is so cute and the staff are super-friendly!)

It’s Still Magical

This was our fourth visit to Fernandez Bay Village, but the first in over 6 years. Any trip to the Out Islands is about managing expectations, and Rick was wise to counsel me not to expect things to be the same. But any concerns that something essential about the vibe of FBV had changed over that period of time disappeared in no time – the welcome was just as warm, happy hour and meals were just as friendly, and the location just as magical. Amazingly, owner Pam remembered us from our previous visits.

While the early March weather was blustery, that served as a mixed blessing. On arrival, we found ourselves seeking shelter from the cool rain in the clubhouse for our first happy hour (instead of hanging around the honor tiki bar), which enabled us to make friends with the guests with whom we’d share drinks and dinners even faster. There is something about the more remote Out Islands that attracts like-minded travelers that makes them good company. Of course, cold weather isn’t the only catalyst for conversations; sometimes it’s the “been-there, done-that” t-shirts guests are wearing, or the inevitable recognition of fellow sailors, or an offhand remark about an obscure musician or experience. I unintentionally had everyone in the dining room turned to my attention one morning at breakfast when I was reading the weather forecast for Georgetown, Exuma, to Rick from my iPhone – this was clearly an incredibly interesting topic!

Because we’d booked our trip un-characteristically late for us, we didn’t get our choice of cottage (I love Shane’s Shack, a free-standing thatch-roofed cottage closest to the water). No matter, as Traveler’s Palm was just as comfortable, if a few steps further from the beach. Like all other cottages, we had a private patio overlooking the sea; a tile-floored, stone-walled, high-ceilinged bedroom with a comfortable bed; a walk-in dressing room/closet; and a garden bath. I missed the occasional visits from frogs and lizards in the bath, but maybe they were hiding from the weather.

We had all of our breakfasts and dinners at FBV (dinner is one seating, buffet-style, which includes one meat and one seafood main course). Dinners included Caribbean lobster 3 times. The food is good, considering the cost and difficulty of obtaining ingredients on an island where little grows; local specialties are always a good bet. Lunch, when we had it at FBV, was a la carte – I like nothing more than a bowl of conch chowder and a local Sands beer. One wonderful quality of FBV is that you NEVER have to wear shoes or carry a wallet; it’s all barefoot casual and charged to your cottage (or written by you on your bar or gift shop tab). And no one looks askance at your bedhead at breakfast, since many guests don’t really get cleaned up until evening – though even then, “dressing up” need only be a fresh shirt and, as one sage person noted, putting on earrings.

Island Exploration

Through FBV, we arranged for 3 days of rental car beginning on Monday, which allowed us to explore. I never tire of re-visiting The Hermitage, a small-scale replica of an Italian monastery perched atop the highest “peak” (206 feet) in the Bahamas, accessed by stone steps carved into the hillside along which are the Stations of the Cross. This was our first stop after picking up our well-used Ford Escape. Up on the hill, you get a great view of the Atlantic and of Exuma Sound, as well as the island. The mangrove creek south of FBV doesn’t appear as wild from this height as it does when you’re kayaking in it. The silence inspires reverence.

Given Monday’s chill, we weren’t looking for a swimming beach. Instead, we went to Sammy T’s resort in Bennett’s Harbour for lunch. There wasn’t much activity there – only one other table was occupied – but we had a leisurely lunch that included grouper fingers and a conch burger that tasted just as good as we remembered from previous visits. Our ultimate destination was a windward beach that was billed as a good spot for finding sea glass. We initially overshot the dirt road we were to follow, but that allowed us to get a good look at gorgeous Orange Creek, which I’d never seen in sunlight before. After bumping and bucking along the road to the beach (along which there is also a blue hole and a cave), we found the beach. It wasn’t much for swimming, as it was both too chilly and the beach had lots of rocks and coral just offshore, but we found plenty of sea glass. Not mounds of it, but enough so that we collected only the pieces that met my exacting criteria. And we found a few sea beans as well. Naturally, the water was the stunning gemlike blue characteristic of the Bahamas.

Tuesday’s agenda involved more beach seeking. This time we followed Pam’s directions to a windward beach she called “Conch Cove.” (As it turns out, we’d been there before, but by a different route.) Reached by passing through a non-smelly dump and a 20+ minute tooth-rattling drive through the brush, the pink sand stretches forever. Tiny islets a few hundred yards offshore create a swimming-pool-like cove that gets some calmed surf. We had it to ourselves, and spent a few hours reveling in the privacy and water warm enough to swim in. The only drawback was hiking back to our car, as the tide had risen and the slog through wet-cement-like sand was tiring.

At the intersection of the Queen’s Highway and the road to Conch Cove sits Yardie’s, a gas station/convenience store/conch shack/restaurant. We took seats outdoors, finding ourselves in the company of the same people who were at Sammy T’s the day before, as well as Clyde, who challenged us to dominoes. After a Kalik or two and many games of dominoes, Yardie brought our lunches out – curried mutton (goat) and jerk chicken, as well as justly-lauded conch salad. A quintessential Out Islands experience.

After all the driving around on Monday and Tuesday, Rick didn’t want to go far, so we headed to nearby and well-loved Fine Bay, just a few miles north of FBV. We parked near – gasp! – another vehicle. If we’d followed the path down to the beach, we would have been crashing a party of two, so we decided to walk along the ridge until we found another way down to the sand. It took some scrambling through brush and then a 4-foot drop down to the beach, but we gave the other visitors privacy and found ourselves at a perfect swimming spot. The wind and tide had carved a small dune on the beach, so we had a place to sit comfortably while enjoying the sun’s warmth in between body-surfing forays into the ocean. For lunch, we went to the Bluebird; the only thing on the menu was stewed chicken (yum!) with a side of The Young and the Restless on satellite TV. After that, we retreated to the Exuma Sound-side beach in Old Bight near the graveyard, but the water was a bit too cold for swimming.

We spent Friday afternoon kayaking in the mangrove creek. The conditions were not optimal, as the second cold front was just finishing its stay and it was mid-tide, but we wouldn’t have another chance to do it before leaving and forged ahead. It was quiet in the creek, with the wind and waves blocked. The water is crystal clear and glowing blue, offering a great view of the sea creatures calling the creek home, including a pair of 3-foot (nurse? sand?) sharks that zoomed past us. We spent some time on the sandbar at the southern exit of the creek (and would have lost our kayak to the tide if the other kayakers hadn’t called our attention to it). We’d always been able to find sand dollars and sea biscuits here, but without snorkeling gear, we only found the starfish and coral that were tossed up on the shore. Further on the outside of the creek, we had a small beach to ourselves and delicious swimming conditions. But the trip back to FBV against the wind and seas was a rough one, and would have soaked us if we weren’t already wet from swimming.

All Good Things Must End

Outside of our explorations, we watched the sea and sun and relaxed from our perches on our patio or beach loungers. There is no better place that I can think of for it.

The Out Islands are not for everyone. They are quirky and rustic, difficult to reach, and require proper management of expectations. Fresh water is a precious commodity, so water pressure may not be optimal. Food is shipped in at great cost, so “fine” dining here is not the same is in a big U.S. city. Lodgings are comfortable, but not polished. But the beaches are spectacular and largely private; the sunsets are stunning; and the welcome is warm and genuine.

Pam mock-scolded us for taking so long to come back to Fernandez Bay. The warm embrace of this place, and the island – despite some chilly weather – forces me to agree heartily with her. Six years to stay away was far too long.

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