East End adventures on Grand Bahama Island

05/17/2014 12:00 AM

05/13/2014 8:26 PM

The golf cart driver had to swerve to miss an empty conch shell in the middle of the “road” — really little more than a sand and limestone path through the woods on Deep Water Cay. No one bothered picking it up or moving it out of the way. It simply belonged there.

One hour away in the Freeport-Lucaya resort area of Grand Bahama Island, drivers were swerving to avoid tourists who forgot to drive on the left side of the rode.

I had arrived at the East End of Grand Bahama by miraculously avoiding the latter scene entirely, driving the hour’s distance on back roads to the part of the 96-mile island rarely explored but by bonefish anglers and other adventurers.

Along the drive, old-island fishing settlements replace casinos and beach resorts. They pop up sporadically along a pine tree-lined road where it’s rare to encounter another vehicle even during high season. Short drives off the main road lead to unspoiled white-sand beaches where it’s just as rare to find other people.

The road ends at McLean’s Town, where a Morse code of islands punctuate in quick succession. They make you feel like you’ve arrived at the ends of the earth.

Discovering Grand Bahama Island’s East End settlements and islands may not appeal to everyone looking for a Bahama vacation of sun and punch. Those looking for a more Out Island, less metro-resort experience, however, can go about it several ways. Options range from easing into it from Freeport to skipping Freeport altogether, bonefishing obsessively or experiencing complete, over-the-top immersion.

•  Easing into it. Dip your toe into East End waters with a trip out of Freeport-Lucaya to Lucayan National Park. The easiest way to get there is on a guided excursion. Grand Bahama Nature Tours’ six-hour excursion takes you to the park for kayaking, hiking, cave-exploring and beach lunching. Ask your tour guide to point out the site where Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed.

An operation named Experience Grand Bahama Island with Hida takes the adventure farther east. The Bahamian-owned company customizes its trips, generally taking in Lucayan National Park followed by exploring the town and beach at High Rock and shelling at Pelican Point. Those who wish to extend the six- to eight- hour tour can request a journey that ends in McLean’s Town.

•  Skip Freeport; go straight to adventure. For this experience, you can hire a tour guide, but I recommend renting a car at the airport. This route is so little traveled that you won’t have to deal with traffic, only with remembering to drive on the left. The roads are straight and easy to drive for the most part. In some places at the very East End they narrow to where it gets tight for two vehicles, but you’re unlikely to come upon another.

If you are low on gas, be sure to stop in Bevans Town, which claims the only gas station east of Lucaya. The pumps may look rusted and ancient, but they work, and you can grab a true Bahamian snack of “chicken in da bag” at Smitty’s One Stop inside.

Plan on staying in some of the small Bahamian-owned cottages and fishing lodges that are totally the antithesis of Freeport-Lucaya resorts. Starting in High Rock, Bishop’s Resort demonstrates clean, barebones cottages where you can talk fishing and politics with owner Ruben “Bishop” Roberts, eat true Bahamian cooking, and hang out on a beach usually uninhabited. (Sometimes cruise ship shore excursions come here.)

There’s another place to eat and stay right next to Bishop’s, and the small settlement has a replicated lighthouse at the other end of the beach and a true feel of the Out Islands.

Other tiny settlements dot a mostly straight road through yellow Caribbean pine woodland, like a whimsical forest of feather dusters.

The next major settlement has built its reputation on coconuts. Pretty Pelican Point holds an Easter Monday Coconut Festival on the beach that draws tour buses from Freeport as well as expats returning home to visit family. The town also offers a couple of low-key places for lodgers to stay including the sweet little cottages at Pelican Point Beach Lodge and homes and cottages you can rent from the locals.

The vehicular East End road dead-ends at McLean’s Town, which stays quiet except for Columbus Day (known as National Heroes Day in the Bahamas) weekend, when the Conch Cracking Festival too draws native expats home and visitors from Freeport, the U.S., and beyond. From there you can catch a short ferry to Sweeting’s Cay, a small fishing settlement on its own island.

•  Bonefishing-bound. Most people who live in McLean’s Town or Sweeting’s Cay work across the channel at Deep Water Cay or makes their living as bonefishing charter guides to the die-hard anglers who come to fly-fish and cast.

The town’s one form of accommodations is a new fishing lodge that opened in February 2013. The East End Lodge caters to bonefishing clientele only, with the usual packaged charters, dining, and transportation included in rates.

Fishermen in these parts claim to have the best fishing and biggest bonefish of anywhere in the Bahamas. After a few Kaliks (the local beer), make that the best in the world.

You can also find a bonefishing lodge in Pelican Point — Firefly Bonefishing, featuring beachfront villas and close proximity to EJ’s Bayside Café, serving true Bahamian cuisine.

East End Lodge, with its roomy accommodations and meals of Bahamian fare, ranks at the upper scale of the lodging you’ll find in these parts, where the emphasis is being on the water and not in your room. The important amenities to the typical guest — usually male fishing buddies — have to do with the quality of the guides, boats, and fishing gear.

•  Over the top at Deep Water Cay. At the easternmost point of McLean’s Town, the Deep Water Cay experience begins. The resort occupies its own 2.5-mile-long island with a marina on the main island, from which a five-minute shuttle promptly removes you.

Originally a bonefishing resort dating to 1958, it reopened in 2011 with a new look and determination to attract families, couples, scuba divers and snorkelers, kayakers and paddleboarders as well as the fish-frenzied.

Attention to detail, topnotch everything, and anything-you-want service push this experience over the top no matter how you arrive, but to do it with the utmost ease, the resort will make charter flight arrangements for you from South Florida. The cay has its own landing strip and customs office, and chartering makes sense monetarily for groups of four or more, says Dana Dribben, director of sales.

This, too, is an all-inclusive experience that sells packages for both flats and deep-water fishing, incredible diving excursions, ground transportation, meals, and nonalcoholic beverages. But unlike most of said lodges, it is plush and conscious of comforts beyond the skiff.

The dining room achieves the true pinnacle of fine lodging with five-star-worthy Executive Chef Owen, who has worked his way from Nassau and Italy to back home. He uses local catches — often provided by the guests — in inventive ways that meld Bahamian to new American styles. In my experience, mahi mahi never tasted so good.

Basically, anything you desire here is yours, except for televisions in the accommodations and other such bothersome conveniences.

Massage? Sure, in your room or seaside. Conch salad for lunch? Absolutely, fresh from the resort’s conch pen. A Bahama Mamas break from the boat at Sweeting’s Cay? No problem. A shuttle to McLean’s Town for native dinner? What time would you like to leave? Snorkeling the blue holes at Lightbourne Cay? You don’t want to miss it.

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