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Posted by:Jul 1st 2005, 05:30:01 pm
Fig Tree News Teamtravel
June 2005
Pure paradise

Only 60 miles east of the Bahamas, Eleuthera remains a hidden gem

By Nancy Clark
Special to The Denver Post
DenverPost.com

We duck into the bush under heavy limbs, stepping cautiously over the vegetation. Although we're only 100 feet from the roadside, it's no longer in plain view.

Peering ahead we see the ruins of a once-impressive estate. In what used to be a driveway sits the hull of a more than 30-year-old Mercedes sedan - the headlights popped from their rusted sockets, the roof crushed by fallen palm fronds, the tires long gone.

When the owners left behind their vacation getaway, it wasn't even worth their while to take their luxe ride with them.

This car, more than any landmark, tells the story of Eleuthera. In the years that this vehicle did scoot along Eleuthera's single two-lane highway, there was only one stoplight along the entire route. Even that went dark a decade or so ago, and according to locals, it's really not needed. Fewer than 10,000 people occupy the island today, compared with 16,000 residents decades ago.

A former playground for the wealthy that fell onto hard economic times shaking off the colonists' cloak (it became a sovereign country in 1973), Eleuthera is ramping up as the last, best place in the Outer Islands of the Bahamas where travelers can find a solitary stretch of private beachfront to settle in for an afternoon of sun.

No native vendors trying to hawk jewelry, T-shirts, or trinkets. No man-made papalas to shade the sun. No waiters running umbrella drinks back and forth. No beach volleyball. Just sand. Perfect powdered sugar sand.

"How do you spell that?"

Eleuthera is little known by a lot of well-traveled types who frequent the Caribbean.

"You've been to where and how do you spell that?" is how most people respond to my telling them about my sojourn. As one of the 11 major Outer Islands of the Bahamas (there are more than 700 islands and cays in this 100,000 square-mile sweep of paradise), Eleuthera regained some of its celebrity factor when "The Aviator" premiered with Alex Baldwin in the role of Juan Tripp, the president of Pan Am Airlines in mid-century 1900s.

Tripp built a little landing strip on the southern tip of Eleuthera called Rock Sound, so he could access his private retreat. Two other airports - one, Governor's Harbour, midpoint on the 110-mile island and the appropriately named North Eleuthera - anticipate expanded airline service this year.

We arrive at Governor's Harbour, where the congenial Butch Johnson is the Bahamas-

air station manager, Eleuthera area manager and the only rental car option. Johnson wastes little time with paperwork, handing us a Xeroxed map of the island, the only tourist marketing material he has on hand. We check the fuel level because gas stations are few and far between. Most people tinker with their own car, if they happen to have one and it needs repair, because there are few automotive repair shops on the island.

I count just four cars a day that pass by our rental home, a 1740 clapboard guest house owned by Eliza Pyfrom only a block from the harbor. Pyfrom's ancestors, two penniless brothers from England, built the home that has remained in the family. Photos hanging in the foyer show the home's original modest footprint before the addition of sleeping rooms, paddle fans and indoor plumbing. We share our rooms with a tadpole in the toilet served by a rainwater cistern.

For more than 170 years, the extended Pyfrom family has operated a smattering of businesses, and the surname pops up regularly from the history annals to the liquor store marquee.

Pineapple Fields (pineapplefields.com) is a mile from Pyfrom's place. Once a prospering pineapple farm (Eleuthera was the largest exporter of pineapples to the United States and Europe at the turn of the century), the land was purchased in the 1960s by three New York socialites who dotted it with elaborate private homes plus a tony club they christened The Potlatch Club. They entertained intimate friends - European royalty and celebrities - until their interest waned and they sold to an antiques dealer who had plans to return the land to its original purpose: pineapple farming. He died suddenly, leaving no heirs, and the acreage fell into probate and ruin.

Stargazing

David Barlyn and Peter Birkwieser bought the 80 acres out of probate, intent upon becoming Eleuthera's next great resort. Their first project was Tippy's, a beachside bistro that immediately became the gathering place on the island for casual fine dining and star gawking. On a January afternoon, Albert Finney and his wife, Penny, relax undisturbed at tables crafted of old Potlatch Club shutters, screens open to the soothing ocean breeze. Patty LaBelle and Lenny Kravitz frequent Tippy's when they're at home on the island. Jacques Cousteau made his home here, and his widow still owns it. The list is endless and the paparazzi absent.

The nascent resort boasts 12 one-bedroom condos finished in February that go for $250 per night and feature flat-screen TVs, cable, telephone and Internet access. (Haynes Library, built in 1873, was recently remodeled and offers the only other paid Internet accessibility.) Resort guests can either eat at Tippy's or make their own meals in the condo and dine al fresco on the front and back verandas overlooking the staggeringly beautiful beach.

The thing about sightseeing on Eleuthera is that there are no castles or prehistoric ruins to tour. Instead, a stay is all about taking in the natural wonders like the Glass Window Bridge - a shabby, but dramatic and narrow passage dividing the Atlantic from Exuma Sound - or pausing at the unassuming roadside stop called Ocean Hole. It's 100 yards across and so deep the bottom never has been explored, even by scuba divers.

Then there's snorkeling all around the perimeter of the island and bone fishing in Ten Bay, in particular. For first-timers, finding any landmark on the island can be difficult because of the improbable signage.

Day trips to the outer reaches of the mile-wide island afford opportunity to observe residents of these small communities go about their daily business. In Spanish Wells, for example, the locals all have the same Nordic tow-headed look. For generations, these lobster fisherman have stuck close to home keeping to their highly prosperous business.

All across the island we learn that some native Eleutherans never have ventured outside their immediate community and others have gone only as far as Nassau, the nearest major island 60 miles to the west (a 2-hour and 15 minute Fast Ferry ride) on rare occasions.

Visit Harbour Island

Eleuthera's nearest neighbor, Harbour Island, is worthy of an all-day excursion. Music producer Chris Blackwell put $5 million into the redevelopment of Pink Sands (pinksandsresort.com), which had been devastated by a 1992 hurricane.

The Indonesian-inspired hotel is a tribute to luxury, where a two-bedroom ocean view cottage with Jacuzzi goes for $2,100 a night during high season (Dec. 20 through April 30. Since it was finished eight years ago, Pink Sands has been the reason most people pass through Eleuthera, staying only long enough to catch a $3 water taxi ride from the North Eleuthera pier.

Harbour Island has been compared to Nantucket, a nob of an island cobbled with colorfully painted inns, homes, and restaurants where tourists get around on rental golf carts. The view from the resort's Blue Bar, named for its monochromatic lapis-blue color scheme overlooking the ocean, is hypnotic. And the Indonesian-inspired hotel gift shop offers by far the best shopping on Harbour Island or Eleuthera.

The reward for most travelers who make their way to Eleuthera is not frenzied, high-powered shopping or the chance to score a dinner reservation at an exclusive spot. Instead it's the simple island life. In this no-pretense environment, the biggest night sounds are crickets and the whir of ceiling fans. Here the rumble of discothèques is non-existent. There are no casinos, no 100-plus room hotels. Even the Club Med that once lured travelers to Eleuthera's Governor's Harbour has been shuttered for years.

Clyde Bethel's Eleuthera Island Farm "started out as a hobby, and now it has gone wild," Bethel says. Tours have become a sort of social event for travelers who wander among the broccoli and Chinese cabbage, leaving with bottles of Bethel's proprietary salad dressings, pesto, and Italian and French breads.

This fourth-generation native raises the produce for five island restaurants, including his family-owned Mate and Jenny's Seafood & Pizzeria at Palmetto Point. Bethel's parents opened the restaurant in 1968, and for a long while it was the only restaurant around to serve the locals. To this day tourists make a point of stopping for conch pizza. (The popular conch is served every way possible throughout Eleuthera from center-of-the-plate to fritters.)

As much as I'd like to ask for the recipe, I know the only way to really savor the experience is at an oil-cloth-draped table with the juke box playing in the background and the empty expanse of beach right down the road.

...

The details

Lynx Air (lynxair.com), Continental (continental.com) and Bahamasair (bahamasair.com) service Eleuthera direct from Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Limited direct flights require some travelers to fly to

Nassau and take the Fast Ferry on

Bo Hengy (bahamasferries.com) to Governor's Harbour. The two-hour, 15-minute trip features plush seating and snack bar service, $65 one-way.

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