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STRANDED : The boat chugged away, leaving them alone on a desert island. With only basic shelter and provisions, and wild goats, snakes and bugs for company, they were free to shed their clothes and their urban stresses. It was a fantasy come true.

September 05, 1993|CHARLES V. ZEHREN | NEWSDAY

BOWE CAY, Bahamas — There we were, alone on a deserted island in the Bahamas, just the two of us, surrounded by a steamy jungle and a silky sand beach.

The ultimate escape fantasy had become our reality. For one week, we had Bowe Cay all to ourselves, a little piece of paradise for rent off the coast of Great Exuma.

Loneliness or boredom never proved a problem. An urge to form a government or establish a foreign policy never arose. Clothing soon proved optional.

Save for a few moments when Kendrick Halibut, our logistics man, came ashore bearing fresh water and ice, we saw not another soul on this 165-acre Caribbean island. Civilization lay an hour north by small boat--and we didn't have one.

Hot days fused together, passing rhythmically with the sun rising in the morning, the tide ebbing in the afternoon, and the low stars shining brilliantly during the cool windy nights.

"Why didn't you ever check in on the radio?" asked Luther Rolle, the cabdriver who met us at the dock at the end of our stay.

Why bother?

We had arrived in George-Town during the third week of April, after a quick flight on a small plane from Miami to Great Exuma, which skirts the Tropic of Cancer, along the southeast end of the Bahamas' Exuma Archipelago.

Although we didn't know it at the time, what was billed a "five-star jungle camping experience" would prove to be a piece of cake after our sleepless night at Great Exuma's Two Turtles Inn. For $95, we got a room above a popular tiki bar; boozy laughter kept us awake till the wee hours, when the roosters took over.

The next morning, we showed up at Moss Town Dock, a concrete slab adjacent to mammoth piles of fossilized conch shells. The owner of the arid and sultry spit of land known as Bowe Cay (pronounced BOW KEY), Tom de la Rionda, stowed our packs in his barely seaworthy 16-foot fiberglass boat and took off, piloting us slowly through a series of narrow channels and the legendary Bahamian bonefishing flats, until we finally entered the crystalline open waters.

After nearly an hour, we rounded a rocky peninsula, cut through a gap in a jagged lavender-colored coral reef, and came upon a placid lagoon framed by a ribbon of sandand dark green hills--Bowe Cay.

Tossing anchor and jumping the gunwale, we waded into soothing, warm water. The three of us unloaded the gear and carried it about 20 yards from the water's edge through a thatched hut into the campsite. It was surprisingly comfortable: a large platform tent connected by duckboards to a screened wooden cabana holding a picnic table and gas grill. A hammock swayed invitingly.

The privy and attached freshwater shower were discreetly located around the back, down a twisted path of rocks and gnarled roots. To me, an experienced camper, it was deluxe, the Laura Ashley of latrines. My wife, who calls herself "the designated Zsa-Zsa," didn't agree.

De la Rionda told us how to work the radio. Then, waving at an ominous-looking gnarled tree, he warned, "You might not want to touch that." It seems that the peeling bark is poisonous--making human skin fade and blister on contact, something like lawn furniture sprayed with cheap paint. The snakes, on the other hand, aren't poisonous, but they bite. The drug dealers waiting for airdrops don't park their cigarette boats nearby--at least not anymore. As for the sharks, well, they're small and supposedly friendly. At least that's what de la Rionda said.

We had also signed on for De la Rionda's treasure hunt. Thrusting the first clue into my hand, our host bade us farewell and sped back out into the Atlantic, waving and grinning.

*

Like so many other dreams, it had all started at the movies.

Out of high school and fed up with a dead-end job at a box factory in Hauppauge, De la Rionda couldn't stop thinking about the movie "Swept Away," Lina Wertmuller's troubling tale of a wealthy yacht owner and her embittered deckhand being stranded on a deserted island.

"I saw the movie and everyday at work I kept obsessing," De la Rionda said. "I made up my mind to go to a deserted island and get my life together. I caught on fire. I went crazy."

By 1990, he and his wife, Christine, were ready to be swept away themselves. It had taken about 10 years of exploring the Caribbean and the Bahamas, but De la Rionda, a 30-year-old free spirit from Huntington Harbor, on New York's Long Island, finally chased his dreams to Bowe Cay.

He and Christine got out of the computer business they were in at the time, hocked everything, and with the help of several Bahamians purchased a 15-year lease on the cay.

Now, when De la Rionda isn't on his island, he rents it to folks who want to get lost--figuratively and literally--while experiencing what's dubbed a "five-star jungle camping" experience.

Paradise did take some getting used to.

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