Everybody knows about Nassau and Paradise Island. Nearly everyone knows about the glitz and opportunity of Freeport and Lucaya on Grand Bahama. But few people know about the beauties of the country's other major Out Islands and island groups. Let's take a peek at Abaco, Andros, Cat Island, Eleuthera, the Exumas and Long Island.
The Abacos were first settled in the 18th century by pro-British colonists fleeing the US after the War of Independence ended in 1776. The first settlement was at Carleton, near what is now the major centre of Treasure Cay.
Based on slavery and cotton, the economy boomed and the population grew from about 600 to more than 2,000. But soon the fields dried up and the cotton blossoms faded because of soil depletion and pests. By the end of the century only about 200 whites and 200 blacks remained. The ratio is the same today with Abaco having considerably more white residents per capita than The Bahamas in general.
Through the 1800s, fishing, boatbuilding and wrecking - salvaging damaged ships while they were sinking - became the backbone of the economy. A century of boatbuilding has nearly denuded the island of hardwoods and only two builders carry on the tradition.
The loyalist heritage remains and many Abaconians opposed Bahamian independence in the early 1970s. They wanted to break from The Bahamas and remain a British colony. Descendants of the original settlers went to England to petition Queen Elizabeth II, to no avail.
Today the Abacos are vibrant. With excellent boating, fishing and scuba diving, The Abacos rank high among the tourist destinations in the Out Islands.
The Abaco Club at Winding Bay is emerging as a private club and residential development with a golf course and large beachfront and waterfront lots for sale, set in a pristine island setting.
The historic Loyalist settlements that survive offer a time-travel experience and are a striking contrast to all the other islands.
Andros is the largest island in the Bahama chain, spanning 2,300 sq miles. It consists of a jigsaw of inlets, creeks, bays and bights, mangroves and a farming heartland. Much of the island is covered with softwood and hardwood forest, including large stands of lignum vitae, mahogany and horseflesh trees.
The three major bights separating the island are North, Middle and South Bight, all barely navigable at a few feet deep. Andros is a bone fisherman's playground and a diving haven. Vast flats and shallows, third largest barrier reef in the world and Tongue of the Ocean just off shore entice serious fishermen and divers. Fresh Creek is especially known for tarpon and bonefish.
The waters surrounding Andros are littered with blue holes that link the ocean to the fresh water creeks inland. Breathtaking stalactites and stalagmites adorn the underwater caves.
The island is spooked by two legendary mischievous creatures. The Lusca supposedly drowns the unwary who carelessly explore blue holes. The Chickcharnie is a three-toed, red-eyed, bird-bodied creature that brings woe to anyone disturbing its pine tree nest.
An Androsian legend says that before he became British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain chopped down trees said to house a nest of Chickcharnies. His sisal plantation subsequently failed at great financial loss. Chamberlain went on to become the UK prime minister, met with Adolph Hitler in the interests of peace and got a world war instead.
The first recorded "discovery" of Andros - or "La Isla del Espiritu Santo" (The Island of the Holy Spirit) as the Spanish named it - was in 1550 while they were searching for slave labour.
However, by 1782 the island was called San Andreas, possibly named after inhabitants of St Andreas Island off the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua, who came to inhabit the island in 1787. Seventy men of British origin were given huge tracts of land after being evacuated from St Andreas. The modern name Andros is believed to be in honour of Sir Edmond Andros, Commander of His Majesty's Forces in Barbados in 1672, or possibly it was named for the Greek island of Andros.
Several plantation systems were tried but the island did not really prosper until Greek spongers arrived in the early 1900s. An area on the west coast of Andros, known as The Mud, produced 25 per cent of the world's sponges until 1939, when a microscopic fungus destroyed the industry.
Andros is the largest supplier of fresh water in The Bahamas, and contributes some three million gallons to Nassau daily. It is also a major producer of vegetables. The Fresh Creek area is famed for its Androsia batik factory where hand-dyed fabrics have been produced since 1973. The village of Red Bays, first settled by refugee Seminole Indians fleeing slavery in Florida, still engages in the age-old art of basket weaving.
Rolling hills, dense natural forest and pristine beaches make up the luscious topography of Cat Island, which has the highest elevation in The Bahamas. Mount Alvernia, at 206 ft above sea level, offers 360-degree views.
Father Jerome, an Anglican missionary turned Catholic priest, settled there in 1939 to live out his final days as a recluse. The priest built a miniature monastery, The Hermitage, and hand-carved a series of steps out of solid rock, representing the stations of the cross.
American loyalists tried to implement the plantation society of the southern US in Cat Island in the 1700s. Ruins are scattered over much of the island to this day.
Following in the footsteps of their plantation forefathers, most Cat Islanders derive a living from the traditional farming method of slash-and-burn.
Cat Island is noted for its superstitious culture, and is often referred to by Bahamians as the land of obeah, similar to voodoo. You may notice bottles hung in trees to "fix" those who dare steal their fruits.
The remains of slave huts dating back to the 1700s can be explored at the community of Knowles. Arawak Indian caves remain near Port Howe. The ruins of the first Bahamian railway are still visible on the island, as is the mansion built by Colonel Andrew Deveaux, who recaptured Nassau from the Spaniards in 1783.
Tartar Bank, an underwater pinnacle two and a half miles off Devil's Point at the south of the island, and Columbus Point at the southeast tip, offer outstanding deep-sea fishing. It is said that 14 different species of gamefish were caught off the Tartar Bank during one two-day outing.
The island also prides itself in producing the finest rake 'n' scrape music in the country and holds an annual festival dedicated to this form of indigenous music.
At 100 miles long and only two miles wide, Eleuthera effortlessly keeps travellers near its pink- and white-sand beaches. Together with Harbour Island, Eleuthera welcomes visitors with colonial villages and pineapple plantations.
In 1648, a group of dissident English Puritans known as the Eleutherian Adventurers, arrived in a quest for religious freedom. Although the adventurers gave the island its name, the island didn't give much back, and the settlers experienced food shortages, a lack of supplies and internal strife that split the group into separate communities along Governor's Harbour and Preacher's Cave. Seeking peace, the Eleutherian's leader, Captain William Sayles, set sail for the American colonies and succeeded in obtaining survival supplies from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and then returned to the struggling outpost.
To better guard against marauding Spanish troops, another settlement was then established on the nearby - and more easily defended - Harbour Island.
More than a century later, another major influx of newcomers arrived in Eleuthera when American colonists still loyal to the British flag left the newly independent nation, many bringing with them the slaves they held in America. These loyalists also brought their colonial building skills, as well as their agricultural and shipbuilding expertise, all of which became major influences in Eleutheran life.
To solidify their independence, in 1783 the former loyalists, assisted by the South Carolina militia, took up arms and forced the retreat of Spanish forces from the entire region - even as far away as Nassau and Bermuda - without a shot being fired.
Today the casual sophistication of Eleutheran life and dusty-yet-drenched colours of the island give it the feel of a giant illusion.
Situated in the middle of The Bahamas are the Exumas, a chain of more than 365 cays spanning 150 miles of coral reef, limestone and sand-bar plateau. They offer pristine reefs, stunning beaches and excellent anchorages in what was the Caribbean's first marine fishery reserve. It is now home to the 176-sq-mile Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park, the world's first land and sea area to be declared a national park. Most of the cays are uninhabited and each has a topography and character all its own.
Highbourne Cay, the northernmost populated island in the chain, was once used by the British to settle slaves from illegal slavers between 1807 and 1838. Further south is Norman's Cay, once the home of the infamous drug baron Carlos Lehder and his assorted hoods. Snorkel into the spectacular Thunderball Grotto at Staniel Cay, used in the movie Thunderball.
Towards the end of this string of cays are the two largest islands, Great Exuma and Little Exuma. George Town is the capital and major settlement on Great Exuma and hosts the annual Out Island Regatta in late April. The event lasts a week and features competitions between Bahamian-built sloops from throughout the country. Elizabeth Harbour comes alive during this time.
The Club Peace and Plenty in George Town was named after the ship that brought the slaves of Lord John Rolle to Exuma in 1783. The British Crown granted Lord Rolle a large tract of land as compensation for land he had lost in Florida in the American Revolution.
Most of these slaves took the last names of their masters after emancipation. There is still a legacy of Rolles in Exuma with communities named Rolleville and Rolle Town.
A short drive south of George Town is Little Exuma where you might meet the famous Shark Lady at The Ferry, or visit William's Town and the 200-year- old Cotton House. Salt farming was once lucrative here and you can visit the ancient salt ponds.
North of George Town at Ocean Bight and Farmer's Hill is the 346-acre, $70-million Four Seasons Emerald Bay Resort with its 18-hole Greg Norman-designed golf course. The resort's 200-room hotel will be complemented by 120 condos, 100 residential lots, a 150-slip marina and, eventually, a casino.
Smaller islands in the Exuma chain with high-end upscale developments include Musha Cay, owned by Waste Management and former Blockbuster Video partner John Melk of Chicago; Cave Cay in the central Exumas; Latitude Exuma on Rolle Cay in George Town's gentle Elizabeth Harbour; and Crab Cay, an exclusive retreat in Elizabeth Harbour just minutes from George Town.
Long Island is often called the "beauty" of The Bahamas, providing a contrast of dramatic, rocky shoreline on one side and sandy beaches on the other. In the 1790s, loyalists migrated here from the US and prospered with their plantation societies. Dunmore House, in Clarence Town, was erected by the Earl of Dunmore before the abolition of slavery led to the demise of the plantation system. Today, farmers engage in the pothole method of farming, where potholes in the rocks are used to grow crops.
Clarence Town is the largest settlement on Long Island and features two of the largest churches outside of Nassau, also built by Father Jerome. Six miles north of Clarence Town, at Deadman's Cay, is a network of caves featuring stalagmites, stalactites and archaeological evidence of Arawak Indians, supporting the idea that caves were incredibly important to the ceremonial society of Lucayan Indians.
A little further off the beaten path a host of new developments on smaller islands signal a new level of luxury real estate seldom seen before in The Bahamas.
On Eleuthera, Club Med has been sold and was to be transformed into French Leave, the former name of the property. With its postcard-perfect beach, French Leave will offer luxury villas with a five-star resort, located within walking distance of beautiful downtown Governor's Harbour.
Lobster Cay, near The Bluff and Spanish Wells, is a three-acre private island with three-bed, two-bath fully furnished main house, caretaker's cottage, dock, beach, generator, 30,000-gal rainwater tank and complete solar electric system. It's yours for only $800,000.
A little bigger and more upscale is Bird Cay in the Berry Islands . This 130-acre enclave offers stunning scenery, lush coconut groves, flowing lawns, white sandy beaches, private dock, five cottages, two-bed staff house, boat house, recreation hall, small shop and two-storey main residence with spectacular ocean views. This property is considered ideal as a private retreat or resort development, and is listed at about $4.5 million.
Bonds Cay, two miles northeast of Whale Cay in the Berry Islands is one of the largest (700 acres) undeveloped islands left in The Bahamas. Ideal for a development or private retreat, the island has white, red, and black soil with a large portion of the cay being virgin forest. There is sufficient shore depth for boats up to five ft draft. There is ample room for a 4,000 ft airstrip with elevations to 30 ft. It is priced at $7.5 million.
Frozen and Alder Cays in the central Berry Islands are about 35 miles northwest of Nassau and accessible by private boat or seaplane.
These two tropical islands are almost joined. Alder, to the south has lush vegetation. Frozen Cay is nearly barren. Fringed with white powder beaches and turquoise waters, the islands are a natural bird sanctuary.
Frozen Cay features a spacious six-bed, six-bath guest residence. All major rooms open to porches and there is a heated swimming pool. The island also includes a manager's cottage, staff residence, and a state-of-the-art marina, accommodating yachts up to 100 ft.
Alder Cay has a five-acre protected lagoon, two docks, a duplex staff house, two cottages and a seven-unit fishing camp with a common living/dining hall and a kitchen. Asking price is $12 million.
Little Ragged Island is a well-wooded 700 acre island with thousands of lignum vitae and coconut trees, elevations to 40 ft and over 30,000 ft of water frontage. A sheltered harbour, an abundant supply of fresh water, two fairly large ponds, excellent fishing and good soil make this an ideal investment at $10 million.
While New Providence and Grand Bahama offer a degree of maturity as tropical island playgrounds, the smaller Out Islands exude charm and tranquility, a world away from the world.