On a Bahamas trip, Andrew Doherty explores Nassau’s newest mega resort, Baha Mar, and goes off the beaten track to the Abaco Islands.
My muscles strain as I clamber up the wooden pole at the end of the jetty. Reaching the top, I catch a glimpse of the cheering swimmers below. With the rum punch-induced courage quickly fading and the wind picking up, it feels as if this impromptu dive wasn’t such a great idea after all.
I’m on an uninhabited cay in the Abaco Islands with local skippers and experienced divers Brendal and his son, Kyle.
“We’ll go on the count of three,” Kyle grins as he scales the other pole. “One, two, three!”
Before I have time to muster up a feeble excuse, he’s gone, slicing through the water like a Samurai sword. Miraculously I avoid belly flopping, which as a desk-bound Londoner, astonishes me. And despite what feels like half the ocean rushing up my nostrils, I’m buzzing.
“Just like a local,” Kyle laughs, fist-pumping me. “Shall we try another?”
Situated in the northern Bahamas, the Abacos comprise a 120-mile-long chain of secluded islands, sandy coves and protected harbours.
Instead of the high-rise resorts and cruise ports of the Bahamian capital, Nassau, there are boutique hotels and settlements accessible only by ferry and private boat charter.
My base is Bluff House Beach Resort & Marina, a charming colonial-style hotel on Green Turtle Cay – a small island located 10 minutes by boat from Great Abaco.
General manager Molly McIntosh tells me how best to explore the island. “What you need is a golf cart,” she beams, handing me a set of keys. “Just to warn you, if you crash, it’ll cost you $8,000!”
With Molly’s warning ringing in my ears, I make the short drive to New Plymouth village for dinner at Miss Emily’s Blue Bee Bar. Recommend clients sample the cracked conch – a deep-fried sea snail that tastes similar to cod – and the Goombay Smash cocktail, which is said to have been invented here.
The next few days are spent island-hopping. I head to Elbow Cay to see one of the world’s few remaining manually operated lighthouses, meet with the Albury family of boat builders on Man-Of-War cay and spend an afternoon snorkelling with Brendal and Kyle. Brendal and his wife, Mary, have been operating boat charters, diving courses and deepsea fishing adventures from Green Turtle Cay since 1985, with famous clients including George Clooney and Marlon Brando.
I can see why celebrities are drawn to the Abacos – it’s just so quiet here. I lie down on the powder-white sand after a beach barbecue of fresh grouper, thankful to be indulging in an experience shared with a lucky few.
The Bahamas is no stranger to luxury; the island of New Providence is home to a plethora of high-end properties, including the British Colonial Hilton Nassau, Atlantis Bahamas and, since its completion in 2018, Baha Mar, which I’ve come to experience first-hand.
Situated on Cable Beach, Baha Mar comprises three hotels: the five-star Rosewood, four-star Grand Hyatt, where I’m staying, and three-star SLS hotel.
The resort never feels crowded, despite housing more than 2,000 rooms. There are plenty of areas to escape to on the 1,000-acre site – the Grand Hyatt has six swimming pools alone, the largest casino in the Caribbean and so many bars I lose count.
Sports fans have plenty of options to consider too. Baha Mar is home to The Royal Blue Golf Club and its Jack Nicklaus Signature course, the Racquet Club tennis facility and a number of croquet and basketball courts.
The resort also offers several activities and areas exclusively for children. The Baha Mar Ecological Aquatic Conservation Habitat Sanctuary and Explorers Club provides fun and educational afternoons where kids can play while learning about tropical marine and bird life, while a $200 million waterpark is slated for a 2020 opening.
There are plenty of opportunities to get out of the resorts and rub shoulders with the New Providence locals, too. The tourism board’s People-To-People Experience, which pairs visitors with Bahamians who teach them about their culture and way of life, is free, requiring clients to fill out a simple registration form to take part.
I join Henry Lightbourne and his wife for dinner at their home. “I find it amazing that when I meet people from all over the world, everyone has similar life goals,” Henry tells me during a stroll through his garden, where he grows everything from pumpkins and papaya to watermelon and pineapple.
“Food brings people together. I love sharing our authentic Bahamian cuisine with my guests. It’s such an interesting combination of African, Asian and Deep South flavours.”
Henry’s passion for cooking equals his talent in the kitchen. The three-course menu of fresh garden salad, lobster with pan-seared grouper and homemade guava cake is up there with some of the best dinners I’ve ever had – second only to my dad’s Sunday pork roasts.
Definitely not on the menu are the swimming pigs of Rose Island. Not to be confused with the Exumas pigs, which are wild, these creatures have been bred in captivity and are handled with a high level of care.
The Sandy Toes team runs full-day excursions from Nassau – located 25 minutes from Rose Island – on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, which are limited to 100 people to avoid overcrowding.
“We have a vet who regularly comes to visit our pigs, and tourists are strictly not allowed to feed them anything other than our meal,” says Sandy Toes bar manager SJ. “Before they come to the beach, we rub them with sun cream, and then with coconut oil afterwards. We have nine pigs, which are rotated throughout the day, so they all get a chance to rest.”
My concerns addressed, I head down to the water’s edge where I meet Ginger, a red-haired sow who’s more interested in guzzling down treats than letting me give her a hug. Eventually, I manage to feed her myself, laughing every time her wet snout touches my hand.
“You’ll have to come back again for another go,” laughs her minder.
I don't have to think long before I reply: "Oh, absolutely!"
BOOK IT: Funway Holidays has seven nights at the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar with flights from £1,390pp. Travel based on two sharing, departing on 17 October 2019.
Smarter: A twin-centre trip incorporating Nassau and the Abacos allows clients to experience the best of both worlds – the bustle of the capital and the more relaxed pace of the Out Islands life.
Better: Hiring a golf cart is the best way to get around Green Turtle Cay in the Abacos. There are plenty of rental companies to choose from, which can be booked by the hotel on your clients’ behalf.
Fairer: By 2020, single-use plastics will be banned on the island. Recommend clients take reusable water bottles to cut down on waste.