Twin Coves Beach in Eleuthera, Bahamas, Aug. 27, 2019. (Lacey Williams McGhee)

Discovering Eleuthera

ELEUTHERA, Bahamas — During my first wind-blown journey on the upper deck of  “The Bohengy III” — a passenger ferry that travels throughout the Bahamian islands — I was oblivious to the life-altering experience ahead. As I rolled my purple carry-on off the ramp and onto Harbour Island’s dusty “government dock,” it became apparent that life on this 3 1/2 mile island was far removed from the mega-resorts and taxi cabs of Nassau, and even further from my land-locked existence back home in Texas. 

At that moment, experiencing Harbour Island and its next-door neighbors in the Eleutheran island chain, Eleuthera proper and Spanish Wells, became my singular obsession. Between the soft white beaches and laid-back locals with lyrical Bahamian accents, it felt impossible to drink in enough of the region’s charm (or to accumulate enough vacation days).

Map from © OpenStreetMap contributors.

Harbour Island, the luxurious gem of the Central Bahamas, buzzes and caws. During the peak tourism seasons, golf carts putter about in all directions while roosters scurry around the tiny street-side eateries on Bay Street, haphazardly sounding their afternoon alarms.

At nearly every corner, there’s something to enjoy: a pastel-painted colonial home (the oldest of which dates back to 1797), a glimpse of the glittering harbor, a beach chair on the iconic Pink Sands Beach, or a snack bar serving up conch fritters and “goombay” punch — a quintessential Bahamian cocktail made of pineapple juice, orange liqueur, and a mingling of rums. 

Like many other tropical destinations, tourism is the heartbeat of Harbour Island’s economy. When seasonality, hurricanes and global crises like the COVID-19 pandemic grip the country, the financial strain reverberates through the Eleuthera island chain.  

Just across the way on the 110-mile-long island of Eleuthera, tourism is equally essential but golf carts don’t cut the mustard. Instead, it’s better for visitors to rent an SUV capable of crossing jagged roads peppered with rain-filled potholes. Many of Eleuthera’s 130 beaches, caves and cliffs are tucked away behind the shrubby pines and tangled mangroves that line Queen’s Highway, the island’s reliable and serpentine main road. 

The Glass Window Bridge, a location The Weather Channel calls the narrowest point on earth, sits near the northern end of Eleuthera. From here, onlookers marvel at the stark contrast between the churning, navy-blue Atlantic Ocean and the soothing, aquamarine Exuma Sound.

At the southernmost tip of the Island, where the Queen’s Highway runs out of asphalt, lies a Bahamian national treasure called Lighthouse Point. This is where the two seas bordering the Glass Window Bridge merge, creating an electrifying blue expanse. 

Forty-five minutes of arduous off-roading marred my first journey to Lighthouse point. However, experiencing the point’s turquoise water and rippling seaside cliffs made every white-knuckle moment worthwhile.  

Though Lighthouse Point remains untouched and open to the public today, Disney purchased the property in 2019 for the company’s next cruise port

Beyond Eleuthera’s staggering natural wonders, there are plenty of human-made curiosities to discover, too. 

Throughout the island, there are hole-in-the-wall restaurants serving peas and rice and Bahamian mac and cheese — a creamy, gooey casserole made with heaps of shredded cheddar, beaten eggs, and a smidgen of habanero pepper — and small businesses like the Eleuthera Island Farm, fabric and clothing retailer Bahama Hand Prints, and Lady Di’s Pineapple Farm

Moving westward, Spanish Wells, which was a source of freshwater for Spanish ships centuries ago, is the furthest major island in the Eleutheran chain. It’s a tried-and-true fishing village that feels like a coastal town in Maine. However, the turquoise waters surrounding the island are unmistakably Bahamian.

Unlike its neighboring economies, tourism is not Spanish Wells’ bread and butter. According to CNN, the island is a major player in the Bahamas’ $90 million lobster fishing industry. One local business, Ronald’s Seafood, has been supplying the U.S. Red Lobster restaurant chain Bahamian Rock Lobster for more than three decades.

Above sea level, golf carts and box-shaped Japanese vehicles rule Spanish Wells’ roads. The yards — which often contain a dazzling display of tropical flowers and a mango tree or two — are manicured and the local churches are well-attended on Sunday mornings. As the Spanish Wells Food Fair sign says, the island is “just two miles long and half a mile wide, but each square inch is filled with pride.” 

Spanish Wells, Bahamas, Aug. 26, 2019. (Lacey Williams McGhee)

With so many warm Bahamian smiles to encounter and wonders to explore, the Eleutheran islands’ magnetism comes from more than sunshine and beachside cocktails. Instead, a visit to the islands feels like humid and salty liberation— a soul-soothing refuge from the rat race. 

Eleuthera does, after all, mean “freedom.”

When Christopher Columbus dropped anchor in the Bahamas in 1492, the Eleutheran islands were void of western infrastructure, Judeo-Christian religion, and the majority Afro-Bahamian population that resides there today. Sadly, disease and slavery introduced by the Spaniards trampled the islands’ indigenous Lucayan-Taino people, eradicating their entire population in just 25 years.

In 1649, British Puritans known as “the Eleutheran Adventurers” — a group still widely revered by Eleutheran locals — departed their colony in Bermuda to find religious freedom. Their ship broke apart on Eleuthera’s bordering reef (now known as the Devil’s Backbone), forcing them to take shelter in Preacher’s Cave on the island’s northern tip. Despite being stranded, the adventurers named the island “Eleuthera” after the Greek word for “freedom.” 

After a century of lawlessness, piracy, and further colonization by the British Loyalists, the islands of Harbour Island, Eleuthera, and Spanish Wells slowly developed into three distinct destinations that welcomed roughly 400,000 foreign visitors each year before the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a survey conducted by the Bahamas Research and Statistics Department, nearly 70% of the area’s visitors are repeat guests. 

But, as the bumper stickers say, “Eleuthera, it’s not for everyone!” Even though the islands offer modern luxuries like hot-stone massages, high-speed internet and satellite TV, visiting and residing in these remote islands can be challenging.

When I spoke to Eleuthera native David Morely, he said residents and visitors alike have to be willing to embrace authentic island living. “A small island is like going to a small town, anywhere, but you’re even reduced more than that.” 

“You can’t go to a food store at 10 p.m. at night because food stores close at seven, and you can’t go out to eat at a restaurant at 10 p.m. because they’re not open,” he said, rattling off the differences between life in the Bahamas capital of Nassau and the country’s “out islands.”

Despite his warnings, Morley says he’s “much happier” in Eleuthera — and I completely relate.

To me, operating on “island time” is one of the area’s most charming features. Experiencing the Eleutheran islands in all their sluggish, sun-soaked glory feels like pressing the restart button on my daily anxieties. 

Like the Eleutheran Adventurers, island residents, and innumerable Eleuthera fanatics who came before me, Eleuthera is where I feel most free.

Eleuthera video produced for DGMD E-35, Dec. 13, 2020. (Lacey Williams McGhee)

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