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Destination: Bahamas : Angling for the Abacos : An island chain just minutes by air from Miami has all the homey comforts--and one stoplight

October 22, 1995|JIM HOLLANDER | Hollander is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer. and

HOPE TOWN, Bahamas — One reason people go to the Abaco islands is to roam the miles of smooth, empty beaches. Another reason people go is because the calm, blue-green waters of the Sea of Abaco are perfect for boating.

Still others are drawn to the signature Bahamian reefs, where even the most inexperienced snorkler is treated to a succession of breathtaking vistas.

And, of course, there are the deep-sea fishermen who come to have a go at the area's prized blue marlin. The water-leaping billfish are not always very cooperative, but grouper and yellowtail are abundant and far easier to catch.

Then there are people like me, the all-of-the-above sort who like options. And heaven knows, this 130-mile elbow-shaped chain of islands and islets in the northern Commonwealth of the Bahamas has options.

For the uninitiated, the Bahamas is a 750-mile archipelago beginning about 100 miles northeast of Palm Beach, Fla., and stretching southeast to within 50 miles of Cuba and Haiti. Although as warm and tropical as the other island nations in the region, the Bahamas, which were spared in the recent rash of hurricanes, are in the Atlantic Ocean, not the Caribbean Sea. While this has little bearing on the experience, it does mean that most guidebooks on the Caribbean will be useless to you.

But don't fret, mon, you'll still get to use the patois you learned on your travels to Jamaica and the other former British islands.

During a recent trip to Miami, I was invited to accompany some friends on a trip to Elbow Cay (pronounced "key," like the islands off the coast of Florida), one of the many tiny islets that parallel Great Abaco island on the eastern side, forming the Sea of Abaco in between. Most of the group was flying over from either Fort Lauderdale or Miami, but I decided to join a friend who was taking his boat. Several waterfront homes had been rented to accommodate us.

We left at 7 a.m. to begin the 210-mile trip in a 30-foot Intrepid, an open, center-console sport fisherman powered by twin 225-horsepower Johnson outboard Ocean Runners. Within two hours we were off the coast of North Bimini island, the larger and more popular of the Biminis. Located just 50 miles east of Miami, at the convergence of the Great Bahama Bank and the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, these tiny islands are world famous for big-game fishing. And big-name writers too. Ernest Hemingway prowled Bimini's seaside bars in the 1930s. Our ambitions were admittedly much smaller. We drifted offshore for half an hour, having a snack and covering ourselves in sun block. Charter fishing boats were pulling out of the harbor at Alice Town and heading toward patches of seaweed being dive-bombed by sea gulls, a likely indication that fish lurked beneath.

Our next stop was Great Harbour Cay, about 80 miles east, across the Great Bahama Bank, on an ocean that was as still as a mountain lake. Great Harbour is the largest of the 30 islands and cays known as the Berry Islands. We docked there and cleared customs. U.S. citizens do not need a visa to enter the Bahamas, but they do need proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate, passport or voter registration card. Cheryl Lloyd, Great Harbour's lone immigration agent, drove over from her post at the airport after being summoned by the dock master. The processing was friendly and efficient, and quite unlike clearing customs in, say, Paris or London.


Before leaving on our final leg, we were joined by Joe Darville, a Berry Islander who has fished against my friend, the boat's captain, in several Bahamian fishing competitions, of which there are many. Only 500 people live in the Berry Islands, so Darville is one of the few people on the planet who can make that claim. He also is one of a rare breed who can gaze out over the ocean and read what is happening at the bottom as assuredly as Native Americans followed an animal track. The ride to the Abacos took us out of the calm, shallow waters of the Great Bahama Bank into the wide expanse of the Atlantic. Here the water was deeper and bluer, and the sun hotter and more penetrating. The staccato humming of the outboard engines, the pitch rising up and down as we slammed through the four-foot swells, numbed my sense of time, which I realized only in retrospect after we rounded the limestone cliffs of Hole in the Wall, indentations in the hillside at the southern end of Great Abaco island.

Soon we were in the tranquil waters of the Sea of Abaco. We cut the engines and drifted for a spell. Joe Darville had brought along a couple of dozen conchs. With the grace and dexterity that come with years of experience, Joe wedged his knife into the spiral-shaped shells and pulled out the meaty mollusks. We dipped them in the ocean, doused them in lemon juice and devoured them raw. I now think cooking a conch is akin to cooking an orange: Just don't.

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