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The Pink Sands of Time: St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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Posted by:Aug 2nd 2004, 11:56:38 am
Fig Tree News TeamPink Sands Of Time

Harbour Island, Bahama out island with often top-ranked beach, has changed little in 130 years.

HARBOUR ISLAND, BAHAMAS - ``A very pleasing little place it is, encircled by beautiful coconut groves, and dreaming by the green water in an air of solitude and peace, which is very bewitching to one who is weary of the rush and giddy world of the 19th Century.

``On the ocean side of Harbour Island is the finest beach I have seen, of very fine, delicate pinkish sand, hard as a floor, a glorious galloping ground for the half dozen ponies in the place.''

Nice stuff. Wish I had written it. Actually, I copied it from a page of Harper's New Monthly Magazine that was framed on the wall of Sip-Sip, a popular restaurant painted in snow-cone-green island colors.

The author's name was missing. But the date was there. November 1874.

``Isn't that great -- `the rush and giddy world of the 19th Century,' '' said Julie Lightbourn, the restaurant's owner. ``But the thing is -- and this is what I try to tell people -- Harbour Island hasn't changed.''

Indeed, the article listed the island's population as 2,500, and it's grown by maybe a couple of hundred people since then. But the three-mile-long, pink-sand beach -- often named the top beach in the world by folks who rate such things -- still spread unspoiled below as I ate a lobster quesadilla on Sip-Sip's back porch.

An islander galloped through the surf on a black horse that just might be a descendent of those half-dozen ponies of yesteryear.

Harbour Island is one of the Out Islands of the Bahamas, situated off the Florida coast on the western edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Some 700 islands make up the archipelago, about 30 of them are populated and several home to boutique hotels perfect for visitors who want something quieter than Nassau and Freeport. Exhuma, the Abacos, Eleuthera, Andros, San Salvador and Bimini, where Hemingway hung out, are among the best known and most visited.

There also are lesser-known outposts such as Crooked Island and Great Inagua, where the ratio of flamingos to people is said to be 61 to one.

Harbour Island is just three miles long and a half-mile wide. If you walked into the water off the island's beach and swam east, the first land you'd reach would be Africa. And you'd be dog tired.

Christopher Columbus and Ponce de Leon landed on the islands, but many were settled by British loyalists who had fled America, bringing along their slaves. Thus, after landing at the sleepy international airport in North Eleuthera and taking a $4 water-taxi ride a mile northeast to Harbour Island, I was surprised to find -- New England.

A walk down the dock led to Dunmore Town, the only town on the island, and Bay Street, which was lined with colonial homes fronted by white picket fences draped in bougainvillea and hibiscus blooms. The gingerbread homes and tropical flowers came in an array of colors, some not found on any decorator's chart. As I roamed skinny streets meant for carriages, every islander I passed offered a greeting in English better than my neighbors' back home.

Dunmore Town, founded in the late 1600s before the United States was even a nation, was the original capital of the Bahamas, before Nassau took over that designation.

The ``rush and giddy world of the 19th Century'' passed on by, leaving behind a charming enclave where the major industries are fishing and tending to the lucky tourists who have kept Harbour Island their secret for more than a century.

The wakening crow of a rooster and the whir of golf carts filtered through the louvered window of my room at The Landing, a 200-year-old plantation house-turned-hotel on Bay Street. Harbour Island has no golf courses, but seemingly every one of its residents gets about on a golf cart.

Golf carts

Harbour Island has avoided the motorized deluge that has spoiled so many vacation destinations by adopting golf carts as its prime mover. No horns, no smog, no road rage. There are cars and trucks on the island, but legislation has been drafted that would put a moratorium on these intrusions.

Raymond Harrison, senior tourism manager for Harbour Island and Eleuthera, is leading the push. ``We don't need any more big vehicles,'' he said. ``The island is too small, too congested. If we don't start now, in a few years it will be too late.''

Harrison arrived for a tour of the island in a golf cart, of course -- a purple, six-seater, gas-powered Yamaha with chrome wheels and white top. These are not toys; a top-end model costs $18,000. Harrison explained how the moratorium would work.

``As your vehicle gets old, you don't get another one,'' he said. ``We get it off the island, and that's it. I call Nassau a mini-Manhattan now. It's unfortunate what's happened there, and I want to see it doesn't happen here.''

We purred through the streets of Dunmore Town at a leisurely pace and headed to the Narrows, a strip of land with mansions with names such as Sans Souci and Hidden Mango on both sides of a thin sand road. All we could see were the gates and gardens and glimpses of the beach beckoning beyond. When the owners are absent, some of the homes are available for rent at $5,000 to $8,000 a week.

``This island has become the place for the rich and famous,'' Harrison said. ``On any given day, you can walk the streets and see major stars, top corporate executives.''

We didn't see any stars, but a contingent of photographers and swimsuit models was shooting a spread for Target with the picture-perfect beaches as a backdrop.

Mix

The island is a nice mix of high-end resorts that have the feel of old-money country clubs and bars such as Gusty's, where the floor is sand and Kalik-fueled karaoke the entertainment. The Vic-Hum Club, home of the world's largest coconut, has an outdoor patio that serves as the kids' basketball court by day and a dance floor at night, with D.J. Daddy ``D'' spinning the tunes.

``Even though we have a lot of upscale, we want to maintain this down-home feel so people don't feel it's too stuffy,'' Harrison said.

Dinner for two at The Landing or Rock House, which have the premier restaurants on the island, will run around $150. But you also can eat at the Harbour Bayside Cafe, where Dorothy, the owner, laid out a luncheon of steamed lobster, lobster and rice, sauteed pork chops and salad, followed by mango pie.

The tab was $7 a person, plus tip. A word of caution: Go easy on the goat pepper sauce.

After lunch, I abandoned Harrison and rented a golf cart of my own. The woman behind the counter took $30 for the afternoon and did not ask for my name or driver's license, sending me on my way with four words: ``Drive on the left.''

The mission was to get lost on the island, but with so few streets, and so many helpful islanders, that was an impossible task as I roared around at a top speed of 15 mph.

Dive

With all that water just waiting to be explored, I headed the next morning to Valentines, one of two dive shops on the island.

Our first stop on a two-tank dive was the Arch, a curved coral formation on the ocean floor a short distance out from land. We swam between the arch's legs, but, at 120 feet deep, didn't dawdle. Next was the Sea Gardens, a reef so rich in underwater life that fish sometimes blotted out the sun above. A spotted moray eel darted from its hiding place to nab a passing morsel, and darted back in just as quickly when it saw us.

I wandered down to the public fishing dock in the afternoon to check out the day's catch. One man peddled lobster from the back of his boat. Another butchered a green sea turtle, an illegal practice on islands with more enlightened fishing regulations.

When two fishermen began tossing 3-foot-long tuna onto the dock from their small boat, I corrected the gathering children who said, ``Sharks.'' They looked at me with disdain, and then I saw what they meant. Two of the tuna were whole, and two others were merely heads, with the rest of their bodies sheared off.

One of the fishermen said with a shrug: ``I catch them first; the shark catch them second.''

Herman Higgs, the senior statesman among the bone-fishing guides, said it was a common theft.

``You can fish out there all day long and never see a shark,'' said Higgs, 73. ``Soon as you hook a fish, he be there.''

The island recently passed new rules curtailing the grouper season, and some officials believe similar restrictions are needed to ensure that staples such as conch and lobster are not wiped out.

``I'm along with them on the grouper season,'' Higgs said. ``If they go out and get them when they got the roe -- the baby fish -- that will empty out the saltwater, you know.''

Pink sands

Harbour Island has a half-dozen upscale resorts to choose from, the most of the Out Islands, although Great Exuma is coming on strong with the November opening of a Four Seasons.

My first two nights were spent at the Landing, in a room that cost $180 for a single. The price drops to $150 in the off-season, which runs from the end of April to mid-December. The room, one of seven in the hotel, had a king-size poster bed and a big bathroom. Rooms on the front of the building have private balconies overlooking the bay and go for $25 more.

The Landing has dark wooden floors, white walls and simple furnishings, with the stately air of its two-century-old heritage. The nine-room Rock House next door has a pool surrounded by cabanas and an elegant interior with an open dining area overlooking the water. Rooms there start at $275 and go up to $595.

A 15-minute walk across Dunmore Town led to the pink-sand beach, where I relocated for the third night. A trio of fine resorts sit side by side on the dunes overlooking the beach -- Pink Sands, Coral Sands and the Dunmore Beach Club. Runaway Hill Club and Romora Bay Club, where you're greeted by a pair of colorful macaws, are two other prestigious properties on the island.

I had reservations at the Dunmore, which originally was created to cater to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and their friends, and still has a private-club atmosphere. The cocktail hour began at 6 each evening, and the bartender signaled dinner was ready an hour later with a blast of an antique Santa Fe railroad whistle.

At dawn one morning, I sat on the Dunmore's terrace and watched the early strollers on the beach below, which turned from red to orange to its normal pink as the sun rose over the placid ocean. Behemoth cruise ships lined up on the horizon like toy boats. A waitress brought out a pot of coffee, decorated with a red hibiscus bloom, and I drank the most beautiful cup I've ever had.

Dunmore has 14 cottages spread over eight acres. Mine had a king-size bed, a sofa sleeper in the sitting room, wicker furniture and a vast bathroom with a whirlpool tub and walk-in shower. Out front, two lounges sat on a stone patio with a palm-framed view of the beach beyond the gazebo. Bananaquits sang from the lush garden, and hermit crabs crawled through the grass.

Rates at the Dunmore range from $439 to $749 a night for a suite at peak season, and that includes three meals a day. Or you can go whole hog and rent ``Sitting Pretty,'' the owner's home, for $1,000 a night, or $1,500 in high season. The sprawling home has four bedrooms, each with a bath and three with decks overlooking the ocean.

Note: By Tom Uhlenbrock
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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