Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas: sun, surf and solitude

You'll find beautiful beaches and lots of privacy at this not overly fancy spot


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ELEUTHERA ISLAND, Bahamas -- Eleuthera: Elusive, therapeutic, with a white powder sand beach in there somewhere.

To elaborate, Eleuthera, where I spent a week in February, is as off the grid as it gets in the Bahamas. Elusive, as in hard to reach -- involving three connecting flights from Pittsburgh, usually to Charlotte or Atlanta and then on to Nassau, with a last 15-minute flight on a puddle jumper to the island. Therapeutic, as in the vast selection of empty beaches, among the most beautiful anywhere, with white or blush talcum powder sand and waters in varying shades of aquamarine, turquoise, amethyst and crystal.

PG map: Eleuthera
(Click image for larger version)

If you're a cruise ship person who likes amenities and lots of other people, don't go to Eleuthera. If you want a high-end resort, your choices are fairly limited.

There's The Cove Resort, which opened last year, and the Sky Beach Resort. For big bucks, you can also rent a house at the ultra-posh Windermere Island Club, not a hotel but a private beach colony where a pregnant Princess Diana was photographed splashing in the waves in 1982.

Perhaps the best way to enjoy this skinny, 110-mile-long island may be to just rent a cottage or a condominium near one of them. It's no harder than finding a place on Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina -- in fact, Eleuthera reminded me of Hatteras -- undeveloped, isolated, beachy, with fruit stands and small businesses dotting the one long road snaking its way from end to end.

Like Hatteras, there are McMansions to be had here, the ones with 10 rooms for $10,000 a week, but they're usually out of sight, down a long sandy road. My little cottage, sheltered by fig trees and palms, with its own private dock, cost $1,500 a week. It was clean and comfortable, with reliable Wi-Fi and air-conditioning. My cell phone service wasn't great (my Verizon global service plan didn't work; a friend's AT&T BlackBerry got perfect reception), but who cares? I had a wraparound porch perched over a crystal cay on the "Caribbean" side of the island (technically untrue, because the Bahamas are officially not in the Caribbean, but close enough). Most days at my cottage a handful of snorkelers paddled around looking at turtles and coral. I could throw an ice cube at them, but I didn't.

There's nothing much to do but visit the beach -- that's the point, really -- but there are some places to explore, and for that you'll want to rent a car or a Jeep. Actually, it's a jalopy, sometimes with broken air-conditioning and sagging seats, but don't whine, because this island is a true democracy: everyone drives them. From my cottage, it was a bit of a haul to Governor's Harbour, the island's central community, and the neon blue water at my doorstep made it hard to leave. But I had places to go and people to see.

Seven years ago, Eleuthera was named one of the top five emerging destinations by Travel & Leisure Magazine. Seven years later, there are no signs that it has "emerged" -- thank God -- although there's always talk that something big is coming. Eleuthera is littered with the discarded dreams of developers who somehow just didn't make it happen. For a time in the 1950s and 1960s, it was a destination for the jet set, thanks to Pan American Airways founder Juan Trippe, who opened the now defunct Cotton Bay Club for his rich friends and was able to bring big planes directly to the island every day from New York and Miami.

If you go

Getting there

During the busiest month of March, round-trip tickets from Pittsburgh to Governor's Harbour airport average about $1,600. When I bought mine in August, however, one round-trip airfare was $800. So it's perhaps best to start planning soon for next winter -- and if it's anything like this winter, you'll want to head south.

Travel involves stops in Charlotte, N.C., or Atlanta and then on to Nassau, where there is air service to either North Eleuthera airport, closer to Harbour Island, or Governor's Harbour airport. There is also a two-hour ferry to Spanish Wells, but you will need to arrange for a taxi to take you to a rental car office or arrange for the car to be at the airport.

If you are a risk-taker and like to save money, you could fly round-trip from Pittsburgh to Nassau for $360, on average, and book separate passage for $81 on a one-way flight to Eleuthera on one of the three local airlines: Pineapple Air, Southern Air Charters or Bahamas Air, all of which have excellent safety records. Warning: If your flight from the U.S. is delayed, you could miss your connection to Eleuthera and would have to pay the fare anyway. During March, most flights are booked solid so there's a chance you won't be able to get there. Caveat Emptor.

Accommodations

Here is a list of sites with houses or condominiums for rent on Eleuthera:

www.homeaway.com/vacation-rentals/bahamas/

www.vrbo.com/vacation-rentals/caribbean/

www.discover-eleuthera-bahamas.com/

www.pineapplefields.com/

And as usual, there is a Pittsburgh connection: Trippe, who died in 1981, bought his property from Arthur Vining Davis -- a longtime leader of Alcoa and Pittsburgh resident -- who discovered the place in the 1930s and, along with the Royal Bank of Canada, pioneered that wonderful form of tax dodging known as the offshore tax shelter.

Governor's Harbor

Cotton Bay is in south Eleuthera, but I mostly planned my time around Governor's Harbour, in the central part of the island. It's a real place, with kids in uniforms walking home from school and a beautiful pastel pink library that is like walking into a tall ship -- all polished wood mahogany rafters. I didn't hear calypso music while I was there, alas, but every Friday night there's a festival in Governor's Harbour featuring loud disco music. I didn't attend, but my sailor friends Stan and Di, who were moored in the harbor, said the music kept up all night.

Di was looking a little bleary-eyed when I met her for breakfast at Da Perk in Governor's Harbour. It has good coffee and decent pastry, although if you want artisanal baked goods you'll have to go elsewhere. Ask around: It's easy to strike up a friendly conversation in Eleuthera. The natives seem happy to have you here, unlike so many places in the Caribbean where resentment of tourists and constant panhandling -- prompted no doubt by the desperate poverty on those islands -- can make you feel too guilty to enjoy your vacation. The Bahamas has plenty of problems, especially in Nassau (avoid it if you can), where violent crime remains high; its out islands, known as the "Family Islands" (for the families who are supported by those working in Nassau, Freeport and Paradise Island), have far fewer reports of incidents, which are limited to mostly break-ins or thefts of boats and other watercraft.

The special beauty of Eleuthera, however, is that you have a choice: If you want to change it up a bit, drive to Northern Eleuthera in your jalopy, park for free and hop on a water taxi (fee: $5) to Harbour Island -- actually a five-minute ride by speedboat to a different world.

If you read Vogue, you've seen its most famous resident wafting about in white linen on Harbour Island's famous, three-mile long pink beach. India Hicks -- granddaughter of Lord Louis Mountbatten, cousin to Prince Charles, bridesmaid to Princess Diana, Ralph Lauren model and, now, businesswoman, blogger and purveyor of the Harbour Island life -- has been the island's biggest booster.

She and her life partner, David Flint Wood (they have five children), have renovated some of the island's old houses and helped bring new restaurants and shops to the island's main village, Dunmore Town. But they have also vowed to keep stores like Gucci at bay.

When I was in Nassau airport's spanking new domestic terminal, I went over to a so-called Dunkin' Donuts for a cup of coffee, and there was Ms. Hicks, sitting at the counter frowning into her computer. A few days later, she jogged by us on the beach at Harbour Island, where a friend and I had gone for an overnight stay at the Coral Sands Resort.

There were no other celebrity sightings -- Mick Jagger and Uma Thurman go there to be left alone.

Harbour Island

With its charming old pastel-colored cottages and white picket fences, Harbour Island has been called the Nantucket of the Caribbean. At The Rock, a boutique hotel and restaurant perched on an ancient coral outcrop, it felt more like St. Tropez, with an uber-chic clientele (a lot of art directors with spiky hair and thick blue glasses), lighted swimming pool and slight whiff of dissolution. The Landing, a small hotel, has rooms decorated in a plantation style by Ms. Hicks, and its restaurant is the best on the island, with an extensive wine list and contemporary food, but the entrees start at $40. The Landing's dinner is worth a splurge for one night, but its ricotta pancakes for breakfast are just as satisfying.

Back on Eleuthera, you can always eat out at Tippy's, a somewhat dive-y restaurant with decent but not great food and the only surly waitstaff we encountered, but other choices for dinner on the island are limited. The Beach House is a good place for lunch (its Greek salad is excellent), but if you have a kitchen you may want to go to one of several grocery stores and cook dinner yourself.

French Leave Beach

I actually ate out almost every night, and I even got to go on a sailboat with my old friends who had moored their boat in Governor's Harbour. Stan and Di live in Maine, where Stan runs a boatyard, and he's an old salt in the best sense of the word -- alert to any change in wind direction -- and he and his wife have probably explored all 700 islands in the Bahamas archipelago twice over. They were the ones who took me to French Leave Beach, probably the best beach on the island.

Just as Pittsburghers give directions based on what used to be on a property, French Leave Beach is also known as the old Club Med beach, because that's what it once was. In 1999 the resort was demolished by Hurricane Floyd and never rebuilt. Today, there are houses for rent along it, discreetly tucked into the Casuarina trees, and new ones are reportedly under construction, but during this week in mid-February French Leave Beach was almost empty.

If thirst or hunger intervenes, there is always the nearby Beach House, with teak decks, excellent rum punches and a friendly waitstaff. Sip your drink at the bar, chat up the regulars, then walk a few steps over a little hillock and onto the beach for a swim. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The first day I was in Eleuthera, the tail end of the big weather system dumping snow and ice up north was whipping up a stiff breeze on the western side of the island. Eleuthera is far enough north to be a bit cool in winter -- meaning, perhaps, 72 degrees with a wind chill of 65. On my first day, I wore a sweater. No matter: It was warm for me. In Pittsburgh there was an ice storm.

The third day I was there, I went to pick up a friend at the tiny Governor's Harbour airport. She had just flown in from Pittsburgh, and she had the same look on her face I did when I arrived -- a giddy grin -- and we spent the rest of our vacation smugly noting the weather temperatures from our hometown posted on our cell phones.

Mackenzie Carpenter, mcarpenter@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1949. On Twitter @MackenziePG.


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