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Spanish Wells A Bahamas outpost that dwells in another time is a choice for sunshine and serenity

May 12, 1985|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

SPANISH WELLS, Bahamas — What, no Pizza Hut, no crazy shopping-mad tourists, no condominium developers, no scrimshaw on sale?

What sort of island is this, anyway? Hasn't anyone heard about the crowds those fancy high-rise hotels attract, with their glass elevators and golf courses and fleets of sightseeing buses that foul up the air?

And get this: There's not a single rental car on Spanish Wells. Imagine, no Hertz or Avis. And this is really weird: no Hilton or Sheraton, either. Not even a Holiday Inn.

This island is out of touch with the times. I mean, who needs all this peacefulness and sunshine when they could sink the entire island with high-rises and fast-food joints, sully the air and litter the beaches?

Confidentially, the folks on Spanish Wells simply aren't with it. Instead of big-time tourism, they're satisfied with clean air, nice peaceful roads and near-deserted beaches. If the truth be known, these people are impotent when it comes to exploiting their island. They're unimpressed with an industry that attracts developers, souvenir peddlers and jet-loads of visitors who could endanger the ecology and corrupt forever sacred personal values.

All this had been on my mind since an earlier visit, and so I decided to learn if this indeed is utopia. It's a hazard, this business of chasing dreams. It can be disappointing. Sometimes it's best not to tamper with memories. Was it really all so perfect?

I traveled precisely the same circuitous route I had before, Nassau to Eleuthera, then took the water taxi to Spanish Wells, a 10-minute trip beyond the twilight zone.

It was high noon as Harrison Pinder eased his boat alongside the dock, tossing a line to a grizzled old man in faded denims. At first glance, nothing appeared to have changed. The scene was exactly as I had remembered. Except for a lad pedaling by on a bicycle, the narrow street running parallel to the waterfront was deserted. Alongside the dock a familiar freighter, the Spanish Rose, was taking on provisions. She'd be sailing at dawn the following day, delivering cargo and passengers to Nassau. If you're in no hurry, it's a bargain--only $18 for the five-hour ride, which includes a soft drink and a sandwich and a world of untroubled waters.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't the Queen Elizabeth 2. Sometimes an errant chicken will run squawking along the deck in a flurry of feathers, a dog hot on its spurs. But there are compensations. If the seas are smooth, it's a pleasant journey, and occasionally someone will break out a guitar and strum calypso melodies.

While the old freighter took on cargo, we hitched a ride to Spanish Wells Beach Resort, which is laid back, folksy and comfortably shopworn. With 22 rooms and eight cottages on a talcum-sand beach, it ranks as Spanish Wells' spiffiest resort. This, however, isn't to say that it's elegant. Not on an island featuring only one other resort, the Harbour Club, with its noisy bar (but we'll get to that later).

Lill Campbell, a transplanted Canadian, is the leading lady at Spanish Wells Beach Club. A few years back Lill grew weary of Montreal's winters and popped for a $100,000 bungalow smack on the beach near the hotel. The former owner gave her the key, which she misplaced almost immediately, with the result that she hasn't locked a door since. Besides, it isn't necessary on this ocean speck that's yet to report a serious crime.

Says the buxom blonde, "There's never been a murder, a rape or a scrape on the island."

No one bothers to lock their doors or remove keys from their car ignitions. Sometimes the fuzz goes weeks without issuing so much as a traffic citation.

"It's the least-worked police force in the world," said Philip Pinder, the 45-year-old headmaster at the island's only school.

Only three cops and no crime. They'd probably go loony except for issuing speeding citations to motorists who exceed the 15 m.p.h. limit.

The fact is, so few disturbances occur on Spanish Wells that a magistrate isn't even needed. (The few traffic violators travel to Eleuthera to pay their fines.)

Schoolmaster Pinder, who still practices corporal punishment, figures this may be why there's such an absence of serious crime on Spanish Wells. It may also be the reason that no one sticks around to graduate. Pinder canes obstreperous students, and this year only one 12th grader is graduating. That's it, a class of one.

Still, there are more practical reasons why youngsters leave school. With the highest per-capita income of any community on earth, students drop out to become fishermen. By the time they're in their late teens or early 20s they've built expensive homes and big bank accounts. It doesn't take a knowledge of geometry or Greek history to set nets, and the waters around Spanish Wells are among the richest in the world.

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