Originally published Sunday, November 6, 2005
GREAT EXUMA, Bahamas -- On Sunday afternoons they arrive by the boatload, locals and yachters and a handful of guests from the tony Four Seasons. Kahlik beers in hand, they nibble on conch salad - ``Bahamian Viagra,'' says Pedro the conch man - while waiting for the ribs and chicken to finish barbecuing on the massive grill. Guests cool their feet in a sea so blue you think somebody spilled the Tidy Bowl and indulge in the directive demanded by this breezy bar's name: Chat & Chill.
``I haven't been to the Exumas in years,'' says one Chicagoan with relatives on Great Exuma. ``Lord, I'd forgotten how glorious it is.''
If you've been to Nassau and think you've seen the Bahamas, you're in for a mind bend. Far from the glitz of Paradise Island lie the Out Islands - the less known, less visited, less stressed ``family isles'' where the pace is easy, the locals are friendly, shoes are optional and the Kahlik never stops.
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Endless sandy beaches, spectacular snorkeling and fishing, and a sense of ``being away from the crowds'' led Florida native Gary Herick to fall in love with the Out Islands on frequent visits during his youth. Now a Denver stockbroker, Herick and his partners in Black Pearl Ventures are among a growing number of developers lured by pristine beauty, proximity to the U.S. and a Bahamian government looking to spread tourism, it's No. 1 industry, to its less-visited quarters.
During the past half-dozen years, small hotels big on charm and cuisine have opened throughout the archipelago, including Tiamo Resort and Kamalame Cay in Andros, Rock House in Harbour Island, Pineapple Fields on Eleuthra, Sammy T's Beach Resort on Cat Cay, Dolphin Beach Resort on Great Guana Cay, Palm Bay Beach Club in the Exumas. But for many upscale travelers, the Out Islands hit the radar screen with the opening in November 2003 of the Four Seasons Exuma, a 219-unit resort with manicured grounds, golf, spa, gracious guest rooms and first-class service rarely seen in the Bahamas, where surliness was once a serious problem.
Earlier this year, Peter de Savary opened The Abaco Club at Winding Bay. Celeb watchers know de Savary as the British shipping magnate who created the Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle, where Madonna was married.
De Savary is drawing a similar well-heeled crowd to The Abaco Club, featuring a Scottish links course designed by Donald Steel, tennis courts, fishing boat, beach club, a small spa and horse-riding stables set on 520 lushly-landscaped acres. Memberships - 90 percent refundable - cost $75,000 plus $4,000 annual dues; airy turn-key cottages start at $1.75 million and home sites at $875,000. Thirty-nine of 60 lots have already sold.
Also underway: Cotton Bay Villas in Eleuthra, featuring a luxury Starwood resort and private homes; several second-home/condo-hotel developments in the Exumas, including the Four Seasons Residences, and February Point, where Black Pearl is selling fractional ownerships. Announced: A 250-room Conrad hotel on Bimini, due to open in late 2008, with a condo phase to follow.
Rumors about other resorts and second-home developments flit around like money bats, the giant black moths that visit here in late summer. A Ritz Carlton and an Aman resort are said to be on the way, though neither company would confirm. As in South Florida, some planned developments may never break ground, suspect insiders.
Much of the development comes at the urging of the government, which has beefed up promotion of the Out Islands with its ``Island Hopping'' ad campaign and actively recruited investment.
``It's important to us to encourage investment that would provide the greatest number of jobs possible. Employment is No. 1,'' says Vernice Walkine, minister of Tourism. ``It's about spreading the wealth around. When a lot of people think about the Bahamas, they assume we're talking about Nassau and Paradise Island.'' Other destinations were losing out.
The government's goal: At least one anchor property in each Out Island group. Gambling will likely be allowed; a casino is slated to open at the Four Seasons Exuma next year. At some point, an interisland ferry or inexpensive plane service may make it possible for visitors and locals alike to truly ``island hop''; many isles now are accessible only by yachts or small plane.
Economic benefits reach beyond jobs, say locals and tourism officials. Airlines have increased the number of flights from the U.S., primarily Miami and Fort Lauderdale, and some islands - such as Andros - have direct flights from the U.S. for the first time. Power supplies, phone service and airports have been upgraded.
``Before the Four Seasons opened, we'd have power outages three times a week,'' says Jim Greiner of Starfish Tours, an American ecotourism company who has lived in the Exumas for five years. ``Now we have them maybe once a month.''
In the Exumas, the ATM machine, a second bank branch and a dry cleaner are all recent additions. A medical center equipped with an X-ray machine is on the way; up to now, says local realtor Fina Johnson, ``If you broke something, you had to go to Howard the vet.''
But not all changes are positive, and not all development has been welcome. In the Abacos, a 585-acre luxury second-home development on Great Guana Cay, called Baker's Bay, has drawn controversy and a lawsuit from residents concerned about potential environmental impact on a nearby reef. ``Then where will the boaters go?'' says Glenn Laing, a local councilman.
Locals also express concern about whether the local roads, sewage systems and infrastructure can handle the influx of visitors and new home owners, and the negative effects - such as crime - that can occur when resorts recruit employees from other Bahamian islands.
The Ministry of Tourism is mindful of impact issues, says Earlston McPhee, the Bahamas' general manager for sustainable tourism development. The government has repaved roads, added police and classrooms, and required developers to install sewage systems. ``Sustainable tourism is critical to the future development of tourism in the Bahamas,'' he says.
Says Walkine, ``We try to strike a balance between development and maintaining the character and individual personality of these islands. The Family Islands are never going to be Paradise Island; our commitment is that won't happen. You have to have a certain size and scale so that [development] doesn't overwhelm the community. We can't have resorts sprawling so they encroach on the community; they have to support community.''
Still, increased development in the family islands ``has been good, bad and catastrophic,'' says Charles Carter, CEO of The Guardian newspaper in Nassau.
The good: Greater economic opportunity.
The bad: ``There's been a certain loss of community. The islands are losing their individuality and charm.''
Catastrophic: ``With tourism come changes inconsistent with the morals and mores of island communities.'' Family values slip away as communication becomes widespread, he says.
``That is where societies like ours are in conflict. We'd like to have the modern things of life that money bring but you, but you also rue the loss of soul and who and what you were.''
Says Fina Johnson, the Exuma realtor, ``We're keeping this as pristine as we can. We're glad to have development - but it has to be in steps.''
For now, at least, the Out Islands languish in a time bubble where crime is still rare and traffic lights rarer yet. Where church attendance is expected and children who misbehave know neighbors will pass on the word to their parents. Where islanders know 'most everyone else - even visitors who stay more than a few days.
For visitors, it means fish so fresh you can almost taste the sea, breezy little resorts where you never change out of shorts, starfish the size of Shaquille O'Neal's palm and miles of sand unmarked by other footsteps.
So if the local beach-shack eatery hasn't opened on time, or the gas pump isn't filled when you're due to drive up island, just kick off your shoes, grab a Kahlik and be prepared to chat and chill.