GREEN TURTLE CAY, Bahamas — There's a jail house on this island, and it is right next door to Miss Emily's bustling Blue Bee Bar. It's about the same size as your average bottom-of-the-garden outhouse, its walls are covered with mold, its floor overgrown with weeds, and its door sags listlessly on the hinges.
The jail was last used, Miss Emily reckons, about 25 years ago. No, of course she doesn't remember who the miscreant was or what he did, just as she can't remember exactly how old she is, this last statement issued with the haughtiness required of her Loyalist heritage.
Most so-called getaway islands boast an individual central character, their cherished lodestar. If you return from your vacation without having met that person, you are likely to be greeted with some doubt that you've been there by acquaintances who have preceded you. Giddy tourists tend to perpetuate the image.
On tiny Green Turtle Cay, one of a string of the Abaco islands that form the northernmost chain of the Bahamas, such a card is Miss Emily Cooper.
Greatest Goombay Smash
Miss Emily boasts of making the greatest Goombay Smash in the islands, and everyone who walks through the doors of her garishly blue-painted establishment is expected to have one.
Obstinately, she refuses to give away the recipe, though elsewhere in the Bahamas it is no secret that the smash is made of a concoction of normal rum and coconut rum, lime juice, egg white and pineapple juice topped with a maraschino cherry.
But the popularity of Miss Emily's Blue Bee Bar is attested to by the fact that the walls and ceiling are covered with mementos of her callers--business cards, photographs, dollar bills, expired credit cards and drivers' licenses. The visitors can take away their mementos of the place in the shape of one of Miss Emily's Blue Bee Bar T-shirts for $8.
Miss Lillian, ex-President Jimmy Carter's mother, left her picture on the wall. So did country singer John Conlee, who recorded "Miss Emily's Picture," written by Hank Cochran and Red Lang.
And there are inscriptions like, "I'm glad I didn't bring my husband," which sums up the feeling of abandon that envelops visitors to such spots that seem just remotely connected to our so-called civilization.
The instant charm of Green Turtle Cay (which is about five miles long and an hour's plane ride from Miami, Fort Lauderdale or West Palm Beach) is that there really isn't very much to it. Which, naturally, means that there is little to do except slip as quickly as possible into a state of euphoria.
Fled the Colonies
The main settlement, New Plymouth, was founded in 1783 by Loyalists who fled the American colonies after the War of Independence. They also provided a port of safety for Confederate blockade runners during the Civil War.
A Union ship, the Adirondack, which was pursuing one such gunrunner, was wrecked on a reef at nearby Man of War Cay. One of its cannons was resurrected, and sits at New Plymouth Harbor in front of the welcoming row of white-painted houses with their pink, brown and green-trimmed shutters.
From a population of 1,600 people in the 19th Century, Green Turtle Cay has shrunk to about 450, most of whom eke out a living sponging, and exporting lobsters, fish and pineapples.
It's a Sunday-going community, so there are five churches, including the Glad Tidings Tabernacle, squeezed onto the island, as well as the ubiquitous Barclays Bank, a restaurant called Plymouth Rock, Curry's Food Store, a post office and library that share one roof, and a museum.
The Albert Lowe Museum, surrounded, like so many of the island's buildings, by wild-growing flora such as amaryllia, poinciana, hibiscus and crotin, is on the island's main street, which has no name. ("No one ever thought to give it one," a resident told me.)
The museum is dedicated to one of Green Turtle Cay's settlers and is the repository of beautifully sculpted schooners and photographic memorabilia of the early days, including that of the great hurricane of 1932 that almost flattened New Plymouth.
The mail boat may come only once a week from Nassau, the Bahamas' capital, but the people of Green Turtle Cay are not entirely out of touch with reality. Satellite antennas sprout from the roofs of most of the tiny houses.
Green Turtle Cay has three hotels: the 160-year-old, 12-room New Plymouth Club & Inn, once the headquarters of shipwreckers, in what might be described as downtown; and, on more remote parts of the island, the 33-unit Bluff House Club & Marina and the 31-room Green Turtle Club (where people literally throw their money away; paper currencies from all over the world are stuck to the walls).
Both Bluff House and Green Turtle are usually awash with yachting types who have sailed over from the States; the action is particularly frenetic during the annual regatta in early July. To neither does one take jacket or tie.