Written & photographed by Lavanya Sunkara
Swisshhhh, swissshhhh…the silver line from the fishing rod shone in the morning sun as it made its way across the aqua green waters of Fresh Creek in Andros, the largest island in the Bahamas 30 miles west of Nassau. At the back of the flat boat, Ricardo navigated slowly from the poling platform. In a hushed tone, he told Glaister who was up front to cast the line 20 feet as we floated quietly above tranquil shallow water. “There are hundreds of bonefish here!” Glaister said handing me his sunglasses, which apparently help with seeing the dusky finned fish in the clear waters. I stood up, trying to catch a glimpse of the much sought after fish, which bring many around the world hoping to try their hand at this delicate art of pursuit. I didn’t see any, which explains why they are called “gray ghosts”. A few moments later, a catch! A grinning Glaister pulled up a slithering bonefish out of the water. Cheer erupted. A sooty tern seabird soared above the mangroves near us. A few Facebook worthy pictures later, the fish was let go and the anglers were already casting for another.
I smiled as the fish got its bearings and took off. Then, I spotted a stingray gliding a few feet from the boat. Within minutes, a baby shark made its appearance. While both were a delight to see, I was in awe when the shark devoured the fish we just released. The myriad of tidal creeks, interconnected lakes, mud flats and mangroves of Andros support some of the most diverse populations of underwater life. Least developed of all the islands of the Bahamas, Andros is a place where nature is untouched, people treat others like family and time flies by with smiles.
That afternoon, a wholesome lunch awaited me at the Small Hope Bay Lodge in Central Andros where I was staying. Right before entering the premises of the beachside eco-friendly lodge, I caught sight of a majestic yellow crowned night heron, quietly perched on a branch above a flowing brook. I admired the grayish white feathers and the crowned head of the bird. I was happy to be in a place that’s home to such exotic creatures. It is no wonder Small Hope Bay Lodge is listed in the 1000 Places to See Before You Die book.
During lunch, which was arranged in an al fresco patio next to the bar ten feet away from the water’s edge, I caught up with the owner Jeff whose father Dick Birch opened Small Hope Bay Lodge in 1960. With diving instructions, guided nature tours, and rustic beach cabins decorated in Androsia batik fabrics and local art, the resort is perfect for both adventure seekers and families hoping to truly experience all that Andros has to offer. Trees bearing edible fruit line the pathways. Hammocks hang between palm trees. The main lodge is homey, with a dining room, lounge, game room and reading area. Emphasis is placed on low impact lifestyle and a friendly atmosphere. Beer and wine bottles are recycled and made into drinking glasses onsite. Staff members mingle with guests during meals. Traveling alone, I made instant friends who taught me the history of Andros.
When pirate Captain Morgan visited the island, he said there was small hope of finding the area, which is why it is now called Small Hope. Away from a big natural harbor and separated by canals, the island of Andros is hard to reach. Its shallow waters led many a ship to wreck. The porous limestone found everywhere made it harder for developers to build. The population of approximately 10,000 relies on fishing, crab hunting, tourism and the active US Naval base for employment. Divers from all over come to explore the third largest barrier reef (extending a distance of 142 miles) located a mile off the coast. The west side of the island is teeming with many species including green and loggerhead sea turtles to rarely seen bull sharks and endangered saw fish, making it a wildlife heaven for nature enthusiasts.
Having had my fill of history, I ventured out on kayak to explore the inland waters I was told about. A guide from Small Hope was sent along. In our bright yellow and green kayaks, we rowed for a few hours, above shallow waters at first and then limestone blue holes (underwater caves) that were a few hundred feet deep. Green clouds of mangroves with their foamy banks passed us as we leisurely paddled the crystal waters in search of coral and colorful fish.
Although the lodge was a few minutes away, we decided to take a drive down Queen’s Highway to explore the town. Given the sparse population of the island, the roads were empty, with only a passing car every now and then. We passed pastel colored houses and playing children. We stopped at the park that was named after Queen Elizabeth after her first visit. I learned that the annual crab festival takes place there every June. There were brightly colored buildings and stages, with conch and crab drawings and sculptures celebrating the sea life that’s integral to the lives of Androsians. The festival, with local bands and visiting dignitaries, attracts more than 5000 people. We stopped at a roadside conch stand named Big 6 for some raw conch salad. Owner Joy proudly told us how her family has been the in the business for more than 20 years. She was glad to show us the making of the cool yet tangy salad made with diced conch, peppers, onions, tomatoes and lime, which sure hit the spot on a hot day.
Later that evening, back at the lodge, after yet another scrumptious meal, this time boiled crab being the main dish and key lime pie for dessert, I sipped some black monkey (banana liqueur, baileys and kahlua based) drinks and made new friends at the bar. Before retreating to my cabin, I snuck in some time alone on the hammock hanging from the posts at the dive center located above the cool Caribbean waters and under a starry sky.
A reverend named Newton Wesley Hamilton was my guide and driver the next day. In addition to educating the youth and advising the adults, he helps out at the lodge. I was happy to have someone knowledgeable guiding me as I further explored the beautiful island. Our first stop was Dick’s Crossing for a hiking venture through the woods near the lodge, where for the first time in my life I had to avoid potholes that were big enough to fit a car. Trees and vegetation grew from the sides of the limestone holes, making them hard to see, but also making one more aware of the natural wonders around. The only guiding markers on the winding path were pieces of bright colored Androsia batik (official fabric of the Bahamas made in Andros) tied to trees.
There were also signs indicating names of some of the trees. One “Tourist Tree” caught my eye. I wondered what was so touristy about this red colored tree with a peeling outer layer. Reverend said that it got its nickname because tourists visiting the island peel from the hot sun. I chuckled, but made sure to put on another coating of sunblock. And forgetting the heat was made easy by a cool sweet fruit I plucked from the tree towards the end of the trail. It was a sapodilla, a delicious tropical fruit found in abundance in Andros. Its honey and caramel taste lingered in my mouth for a few moments, and made the hike all the more worth it.
We drove north towards our next destination, Captain Bill’s Blue Hole, the largest accessible blue hole in Andros. We passed small sparsely populated towns with big signs along the road at the beginning of each, stating the town’s name along with a cute saying. Small Hope sign says, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”. Further out, we saw abandoned rusting cars on the side of the road (which oddly add to the mystic allure of the island). Some of the trees and shrubs were covered in copper colored love vine plants. Locals believe that drinking the juice made from the love vine will bring love into one’s life. I was already in love with the island.
Miles and miles of baby pines lined the sides of the road ahead. Reverend informed me that 50 years ago, all the pine forests were cut down for paper products. My heart sank a bit, but the views of endless pine trees and happy bird chirpings made me relax. The pinelands are now part of the Central Andros National Park and protected. At the entrance to the blue hole, we took a wooden path to get to the platform where visitors could either plunge from 15 feet or take the steps to slip into the blue green waters. The fresh water abyss, which is perfectly round and surrounded by pine trees, was at least a quarter of a mile across and a few hundred feet deep. On that clear quiet day, worries were far away, but I did keep a lookout for the legendary Lusca, a mythical half-octopus half-shark monster that lives in the blue holes.
After a morning of exercise and exploration, I was ready for some relaxation. A short drive and a ride on a gazebo shaped boat took me to Kamalame Cay resort, a sprawling 96-acre luxury escape on a barrier island. The over-the-water spa at the end of the 200-foot-long pier lies in the picturesque grounds of the resort. The crescent shaped beach leading to the spa is empty and inviting. I looked around the powdery white sand and found no other footprints. The treatment rooms had floor to ceiling windows that open to ocean vistas, and bottom glass floor panels so one can view the sea life underneath while getting pampered. At first I was curious to see what I’d find swimming below as the masseuse expertly gave a Swedish massage.
But, the rhythmic sound of the crashing waves and the scent of lavender essential oil lulled me to tranquility. The spa also offers detox body therapies, facials, and reflexology among other treatments. A savory meal in the plantation style circular dining hall of the Great House followed, and I relished the fresh spinach goat cheese salad and drank coconut water while taking in the ocean views.
“Salt water cures everything,” said one of the dozens of witty painted wooden signs at Hank’s Place, a local restaurant lining the waterfront on the north side of Fresh Creek. The restaurant turns into a happening dance venue on weekend nights. I was in Andros for only a few days, but was already feeling the healing benefits of island life. I’d seen everything from exotic birds to baby sharks, and experienced the magic of kayaking above blue holes and the thrill of bonefishing.
I will never forget the sweet taste of fresh sapodilla, or the spicy conch fritter appetizers at Small Hope Bay lodge. That night, after drinking some Hanky Panky (cleverly named rum punch named after the owner) and grooving to Rake ‘n’ Scrape Bahamian music, I slipped to the deck at the back of the restaurant and quietly watched the shadowy bodies of the fish swimming under the moonlit sky. I am returning for sure.
How to get there:
15min flight from Nassau.
Chartering flights is an option.