Lots of years ago (late 1990’s), I was traveling to Australia annually to help support the dealer of our dental practice management software there. He had a trainer – Claire – who was awesome, and at some point that neither of us can recall, we became fast friends. Since I stopped going over for business, she’s been to visit me (us) in Florida twice, and in 2016, Fran, Maddie, Bennett, and I visited her and her family in Australia. This year, it was their turn to cross the pond, and on May 28, Claire, her partner Anthony, and their adorable 5 year old Zoe came aboard Smartini as part of Anthony’s month-long 50th Birthday Celebration. Today, we sadly told them “bye!” This is the report of their visit. (Picture gallery at the very end.)
They flew into George Town, Exumas, and took a cab to us at the Emerald Bay Marina, a few miles north of the airport. The following day was going to be the only nice weather day for awhile, so we scooted up the Exuma Sound (the “big water” on the east side of the Exumas) 44 nautical miles, all the way to Big Majors Spot, home of the famous Bahamas Swimming Pigs. (Everyone thinks it’s Staniel Cay, but that’s the next island over, the one with the marina and the people.) Just before we made our turn into the cut, we hooked up two mahi mahi, which provided us with what would be the first of several fresh fish dinners of the week.
After the fish were landed, we motored into the cut and anchored just off Pig Beach, and of course, had to take Killer over to see them RIGHT NOW. After waiting her entire life for this moment, Zoe wasn’t going to wait one more minute!. Her squeals of delight (and a little fear) were louder than the squeals of the pigs for our veggies. One of the bigger ones wasn’t happy with the way Anthony was handing out the veggies, and he got chased and bit for his slowness! No good deed goes unpunished, even with pigs.
On Monday, we went into Staniel Cay to look for Bahamian bread and to see the nurse sharks in the marina. We were not disappointed on either count. We were going to snorkel the famous Thunderball Grotto, but low tide was rather late in the afternoon, and by then, we had already each had a couple of Kaliks at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club, so we missed that particular attraction. We did not, however, miss the shiver of sharks that gather in the marina whenever someone is cleaning fish there. I counted over 20 nurse sharks milling around the ankles of our Australian guests, patiently waiting for the next bit of fish skin, fin, tail, or head that would come flying from the cleaning table.
Staniel was the first chance we had to introduce the Aussie’s to conch salad. Kenson makes it on the beach there, between the Yacht Club and the grocery stores, so although it was at full tourist price ($15 for a single conch’s worth – ouch!), we ordered it up. He squeezes some orange juice into his, along with the normal lemon juice, which is a nice touch. Anthony absolutely loved it, but being allergic to some seafood (mostly crustaceans), he had to be careful. A few cautious bites… no tingling of the tongue and lips… and he was all in!
The forecast for the rest of their time with us was for high winds, mostly from the East, so our plan was to pick our way down the islands on the inside. If you’re familiar with the Exumas, you know that means a stop at Black Point for fresh bread! (After a quick stop at Bitter Guana Cay to feed the native iguanas, of course. They’re mostly gray, with pinkish edges, and they look like small dinosaurs – quite different from the green South Florida variety.)
Black Point is a small, mostly non-touristy settlement with a couple restaurants, a bar or two, and a bakery. Actually, the bakery is just the kitchen of the mother of Lorraine, who owns one of the restaurants (cleverly named “Lorraine’s). We took Killer into the dock and walked to the bakery. Inside, we found Lorraine’s mom standing on a stool in the kitchen, kneading a giant pan of bread dough with all of her strength and weight (the latter of which there is not much – she’s a tiny woman!). We bought a loaf each of cinammon raisin and coconut bread, and when we walked back to the road, ran into four other cruisers who said “You guys going to happy hour at Scorpio’s?”
We had not done our homework, or we would have known that Club Scorpio is a “must do” stop for cruisers in the area of Black Point. Three nights a week, happy hour means two-for-one of Scorpio’s infamous rum punch. Once we found this out, we, of course, joined the parade to Scorpio’s! The rum punch, being made mostly with cheap, sweet, fruit flavored Ricardo rum, wasn’t all that potent (despite the numerous warnings we received to not have more than two each!) – but the experience was well worth it. Just the sight of the one cruiser practically sprinting inside when it was announced that fresh popcorn had been made was worth the price of admission! (Some cruisers we have met are doing it as economically as possible, so free popcorn and two-for-one drinks were just too tempting to resist.)
Already being ashore, and having no dinner plans on Smartini, we decided to have dinner at Lorraine’s. Cracked conch, grilled grouper, peas and rice – all quite tasty, and at prices far more reasonable than most tourist-focused restaurants we had visited previously.
With no change in the forecast (wind gusting to 30 knots), we continued south on the inside the next morning, setting our sights on Little Farmer’s Cay and the Farmer’s Cay Yacht Club. Fran and I had decided that we’d get a mooring ball in the harbour where Great Guana Cay, Little Farmers Cay, and Big Farmers Cay all come together, because the west side of these islands is pretty shallow, and we’d had an uncomfortable rolly night there a few weeks ago. But with the high winds that were forecast (gusts over 30 mph), we decided to tie up at the dock instead. Probably not our best nautical decision making to date, as the wind (from the East) and the waves coming through the cut (from the East) battered Smartini the entire time we were there. If not for our awesome inflatable (and somewhat oversized) fenders, we wouldn’t have gotten any sleep at all that night. The west side, although probably rolly, wouldn’t have induced the kind of excitement we experienced in the harbour. Lesson learned – I hope.
We wanted to go to Little Harbour on Little Farmer’s, to experience the turtle feeding there, but it was just too rough. So we opted for Kaliks, Mr. Nixon’s rum punch, and dominoes inside the yacht club. It’s a yacht club in name only – probably the most egregious stretching of that term we’ve encountered yet! But Mr. Nixon, who built the club from nothing over the past 29 years, is an excellent host, and we decided to stay for dinner – cracked conch, fried whole snapper, and the ever-present peas and rice.
Claire and Anthony were quite keen to get a conch horn to take home to Australia, so the following morning we walked over to the settlement on Little Harbour and found JR. JR is the local wood carver who also knows how to craft an excellent conch horn. But he didn’t have the raw material – the conch itself. So he walked us all down to the harbour to see if any of the conch men there had what they call a “perfect” – a pretty conch shell that didn’t have a hole knocked in it. (The easiest way to remove a conch from its shell, to harvest the meat, is to knock a hole in the shell and then stick a knife into the hole to sever the muscle that the conch uses to hold itself in the shell. Consequently, most of the conch shells you find have a big hole in them, which makes them less than ideal for a conch horn.) Sure enough, one of the men had three beauties from which to choose. Zoe picked her favorite, Anthony ponied up the cash, and then we gave the shell to JR to make into a horn, while we walked around the harbour a bit, looking for the turtles that are almost always there.
JR is an interesting character. An enviable character, I suppose. He lives on a beautiful little island in the Bahamas, completely off the land. He’s planted fruit trees on his property, and a garden. He fishes and conchs, and carves pretty things to sell to the tourists from native tamarind wood, and seems to be completely content. And with just a bench grinder, a hammer, and an old screwdriver, he converted that “perfect” into the most easily blown conch horn I’ve ever picked up. And he charged only $8 to do it. He told me he’d been wood carving for 56 years, and that, when he was young, he was quite popular with the girls because he always had cash in his pocket from selling his carvings.
Conch horn in hand, it was back to Smartini for what was to be the final cruise of their visit. We were tired of getting beat up by the wind and waves, and just a few miles south of Little Farmers lies Cave Cay, and the Cave Cay Marina therein. We decided to take refuge there, and I think it was one of the best choices we’ve made in our two months in the Bahamas so far.
First of all, it’s as protected as it can be, from all four sides. There’s only one narrow entry into the manmade harbour inside the island, and it’s only about two boat-widths wide, so the waves can’t get in. The terrain rises up to at least 50 – 60′ high most of the way around, so the howling wind outside is tamed considerably. When I say it’s protected – well, I wouldn’t mind riding out a hurricane here! The marina is all floating docks – every boater’s favorite kind. The water is clear, and you see several turtles each day cruising around. There’s a beautiful white sand beach inside the harbour, and a pretty little lagoon with its own beach just a few minute’s walk away. There’s an airstrip. A shower house with hot (HOT!) showers. And everywhere, there are signs of a failed (or, at best, not fully realized) dream of creating a boater’s paradise in the Bahamas. The big, beautiful building overlooking the harbour that was supposed to be a bar and restaurant, but that has never served a single drink nor meal. The three villas that were supposed to be rentals, that sit empty except for the staff. The hangars by the airstrip that now house only rusting hulks of heavy equipment. The vehicles, trailers, boats, outboard motors, freezers, air conditioners, building material, etc., etc., etc. that are wasting away all over the island that hint at the potential of this place, which will, sadly, probably remain only potential forever. Millions of dollars have been pumped into this place that, as of now, at least, is just a nice little marina that almost no one uses.
But for our purposes – which were to get out of the weather, and show our guests a good time in the Bahamas – it’s been pretty wonderful! Our first afternoon here, we walked over to the lagoon to hang out on the beach and snorkel a bit. Just across from the beach, on the rocky point, we found a nice little patch of coral that was loaded with fish! Somehow, I’d not gotten the memo that one of Anthony’s biggest hopes for this trip was to do some fish spearing, but once we found this little bit of coral, the message was loud and clear! After Zoe’s first-ever snorkel (she’s only five), we walked back to Smartini and got the steel – a pole spear for Anthony, and my new Hawaiian sling for me. In fairly short order, we had three gray snappers, a schoolmaster, and a queen trigger, for our second fresh fish dinner. We also picked up a good sized conch, which would become conch salad.
The weather continued to be both windy and occasionally rainy, so we alternated between relaxing on Smartini, jumping off the dock in the marina (Anthony and Zoe – over, and over, and over, and over), and exploring the island. And spear fishing. Always spear fishing. Anthony is as consumed by it as any fishing or hunting friend I’ve ever had – I think he would have been happy to snorkel around that little bit of reef several hours every day! And he’s productive – on our second day, he bagged a nice (4 lb.) mutton snapper and two more gray snapper, while I managed to get a head shot on a small cubera snapper with the Hawaiian sling. (Boy, do I still need a lot of practice with that thing!)
No description of Cave Cay would be complete without mentioning Shark. Shark is the Bahamian who has been working at the marina for about 10 years, and who is, without question, the happiest human being I’ve met in a very long time. He is the smiling face and voice of Cave Cay. His attitude is positive about everything, all the time. If you need help with anything, he’s happy to give it. (He gave me a conch cleaning lesson and expected nothing in return.) And from the first time she met him when we arrived in the marina, he was Zoe’s new best friend. (Supplanting Fran, who had been her new best friend up to that moment.) When he took us to see the cave, she held his hand on the walk there and back, and asked him a hundred questions while we were in the cave. Another boater told us that Shark really likes fish, so we gave him three of the ones we got on our second day – you would have thought we bought him a new house, he was so grateful! I think I’d stop in Cave Cay Marina for a night or two just to spend a few minutes with Shark – no kidding.
Speaking of the cave – wow! I would have never thought of visting a cave in the Bahamas, and yet, on Cave Cay, there’s a cave that surprised all of us. Stalagmites – stalactites – bats – cave geckos – evidence of long-ago culture. It was so unexpected, and so cool. If you ever find yourself at Cave Cay, you really need to get Shark to take you to the cave!
Yesterday afternoon, we walked over to the lagoon again, this time to see if Claire might be able to see her first-ever sunset over the water. That’s right, folks – she lives within a few miles of the coast of Australia, but had never seen the sun set over the water! (To be fair – they’re on the East Coast – so lots of sunrises, but no sunsets.) We took our beverages and conch horns to that side of the island, and although it wasn’t the most spectacular sunset on record, it was good enough for Claire to put another check on her To Do List. And we had a chorus of conch horns! (To be fair, the locals might substitute “cacophony” for “chorus” in that sentence.) Zoe is the best conch horn blower in her family by a wide margin. She can’t wait to take it to Show and Tell back home!
Today was their last onboard. Anthony got up with the sun, walked over to the lagoon, and returned a few hours later with four more snappers. (Guess what we had for their last lunch with us?) We walked over to the aptly named Rough Beach on the ocean side and found some beautiful shells. We met Steve (the man who has owned the island for the last 20 years), swam a little more in the marina, and finally, about 4:00, put our Aussie friends on a fast boat to Great Exuma Island, where they’ll spend tonight and get on a plane for Florida in the morning. Captain Hiram’s (for Anthony’s 50th birthday!), Disney World, and Cocoa Beach are in their immediate future, followed by 10 days on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, before finally heading back to New South Wales, Australia. (These people know how to go on vacation!)
Eight days went by in a blur, and in spite of the less-than-perfect weather, I think they had a decent time. I know we did!