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Destination: Bahamas

Becoming an insider in Eleuthera

Renting a 'villa' gives visitors a place to call home and helps them get immersed in the island's culture.

January 12, 2003|Robin Kleven Dishon | Special to The Times

Eleuthera, Bahamas — A sprawling black stingray glided toward me as I lazed on my inflatable raft, moving as gracefully as a magic carpet through the clear, waist-deep water. It resembled Caribbean scenes I'd seen a hundred times on TV commercials.

But this wasn't a cruise or even a resort. These were the open, uncrowded waters of Eleuthera, a rugged Bahamian island where swimmers are more likely to see bonefish and barracuda than other tourists.

Just a mile or so wide and 110 miles long, Eleuthera is a lanky squiggle of land between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. It's part of the 700-plus-island chain that constitutes the Bahamas, a British commonwealth better known for the touristy resorts and casinos of Nassau and mega-entertainment hotels like the Atlantis on Paradise Island.

Eleuthera is different. Just an hour's flight east of Miami, the island feels as if it is 10 time zones removed. Most tourists who venture here stick to north Eleuthera, where a short cab and ferry ride from the local airport takes them to Dunmore Town on tiny Harbour Island. Here, plush hotels and resorts, upscale shops, restaurants and nightclubs cater to jet-setters from around the world.

But my husband, John, and I had come for a different island experience, one of isolated beaches rather than yachts, and more of bird songs than big money. We had come for the quiet that a fellow writer had recommended, away from city sounds and traffic. We were looking for the chance to meet the people who lived here, for the opportunity to do nothing for hours -- maybe days -- at a time.

We'd heard that Eleuthera has an enigmatic charm and a rhythm all its own. And we learned that, for getting to know this elusive isle, there's nothing better than a beach house to call your own for a week or two.

Rent a house on the island -- they're commonly called villas, no matter what their square footage -- and you'll be privy to a far different lifestyle than you would find at the big Bahamas resorts. On Eleuthera, accommodations range from elegant beachfront estates to colorful cottages a short walk from the water. Come at the end of high season, say in May, June or July, and prices can be less than $100 a day for two.

Villas, easily found on the Internet, generally can be rented by the night or week. Towels, linens and cookware are usually included; for an extra charge, you can arrange housekeeping services, a rental car or a guide.

We chose to search the area near Governor's Harbour, the island's capital. The laid-back town is home to a small airport on the outskirts, a handful of grocery and liquor stores, a few gas stations, the regional medical center and several local attractions, such as a small orchid farm, a library and some lovely pastel-painted old homes. It's a good place to stock up on ice, water, groceries and information before driving south along the two-lane Queen's Highway to even smaller communities such as Savannah Sound, Tarpum Bay and Palmetto Point.

Finding a villa

As in any part of the world, choosing a villa from the dozens advertised on the Internet is two parts research, one part intuition, plus a big splash of luck. For our first trip to Eleuthera, John and I checked travel books and visitor-oriented Web sites. We eliminated the north end as too commercial, the south end as too remote to make a good base for exploring. Armed with Web tips for two restaurants in Palmetto Point, we narrowed our field, using Google as our search engine and typing in key words such as "villa," "rental" and "Palmetto Point." We found several appealing-looking cottages.

We also checked out some villas on nearby Windermere Island, a favorite of the British royal family and other well-heeled folk. It was here that a pregnant Princess Diana was photographed in a bikini by some enterprising paparazzi, to the reputed displeasure of the queen. Alas, the stunning beachfront houses on this private enclave command fees of $5,000 to $10,000 a week.

After narrowing our choices to three villas in our price range and calling the owners for specifics, we made our decision. For two years in a row, we have rented a compact two-bedroom villa perched on a cliff above quiet Ten Bay, about four miles south of Palmetto Point. Like many of the rental homes in the area, the house takes advantage of the sea with a wraparound deck furnished with hammock, chaise longues and chairs -- perfect for taking in the sunset with a cold Kalik, the local beer.

Inside, the master bedroom, living room and small but well-stocked kitchen also overlook the water. A tiny second bedroom and full bath offer views of tropical vegetation. Throughout there is the steady chirping of cicadas and the constant rustle of coconut palms punctuated by the splash of waves against the reef.

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