Think you have to pay a fortune to enjoy world-class snorkelling, fishing and hammock-swinging in a pristine Bahamas hideaway? Think again!
The Bahamas... The mere mention of the name conjures up images of white sand beaches littered with conch shells, boutique hotels, exclusive retreats and celebrity hideaways. But there is another, more humble side to it all and when we landed in Mangrove Cay, we knew we’d found it.
Lying 170 miles southeast of Miami, Mangrove Cay (pronounced “key”) is the middle section of three land masses that combine to make up Andros Island – the Bahamas’ biggest yet least-developed island. With the entire area splintered by a maze of bights and creeks, the terrain in the interior is so inhospitable that it is often referred to as North America’s last unexplored wilderness.
A different world
Part of the fun of getting to this part of the world is the connection from Nassau. The flight (at 20 minutes, it’s more of a slingshot really) is a blink-and-you-miss-it low altitude dash across a deep channel of water called the Tongue of the Ocean. You just about have time to appreciate the full spectrum of blue stretching out beneath you before you touch down at Clarence A Bain Airport, Mangrove Cay.
We might have been in the air for little longer than the time it takes to make a cup of coffee, but on arrival, there was a tangible sense of having stepped into a different world. Aside from our taxi, there were no other cars on the road. In fact there seemed to be more traffic in the air, as huge turkey buzzards swept overhead, disappearing between towering coconut palms and out across the sea.
A few minutes later, and it was journey’s end. Halfway down this 10-mile long island, we turned off the road, through a barely discernible clearing in the trees, and arrived at the Seascape Inn. The resort comprises five simple but elegantly decorated cabanas, all with sea views, a selection of hammocks, bikes and kayaks (all free to use for guests), and an exquisite beach that fronts on to a vast beautiful flat, the barrier reef flickering in the distance.
One-time New Yorkers Mickey and Joan McGowan opened this little corner of paradise in 1997 and they bring a no-nonsense charm to the whole operation – in Bahamian terms, this is as close to “budget” as it gets. Breakfasts, including Joan’s legendary freshly-baked pastries, are complimentary, and the raised bar area is a great place to hang out over an ice-cold Kalik (the local brew) in the evenings.
So what is there to do? Well, not a whole lot. But as you’ll soon discover, that’s the point. There’s the Dusk Till Dawn Club down the road, but we passed it at dusk, dawn and pretty much every other time in between and never found it open. Even the bank doesn’t bother opening that often. Twice a week to be precise, on Monday and Friday, and even then only between 10 and 2 (bank staff still take an hour for lunch though, obviously). But then you won’t be needing much cash here. You’ll quickly find you’re much happier if you just give in to the “out island” rhythm.
Take a bike ride along the road that runs the length of Mangrove Cay, stopping for a spot of beachcombing at one of the pristine local beaches; head inland on a nature walk; or retreat to a hammock, safe in the knowledge that you’ll still be able to spot ospreys, hummingbirds and woodpeckers from your near-horizontal position. And if all this indolence leaves you feeling peckish, hang out with the locals over a long lunch at Sidney’s conch stand. They might even challenge you to a game of dominoes.
If you’re feeling a little more intrepid, you could try exploring one of the other things this island is famous for – blue holes. This unique network of underground caves runs the length of the island and the caves reveal themselves as dark pockets of water that pop up either in the shallows just off the coast or inland as unexpected aquatic oases. A perfect example of one is to be found in the shallow waters about 200 metres offshore from the Seascape – at low tide, you can simply walk out to it. One second you’re wading through ankle-deep, bath-temperature water, and the next you find yourself peering over the edge of a cavernous blue abyss.
The blue holes of Andros have become a mecca for cave-divers and it’s easy to see why. Plunging into one is breathtaking – both metaphorically and literally, thanks to the change in water temperature. In the upper water layers, schools of snapper swirl lazily in the current, while deeper down, huge groupers lie in wait for passing prey.
There are other ghostly residents that have also helped put this part of the world on the map. Bonefish, aka the “grey ghosts of the flats”, are among the world’s most sought-after sportfish and anglers descend on the islands from all over the world to pursue these turbo-charged critters. In fact, Andros proudly claims to be the “bonefish capital of the world”. Just ask at the hotel and they’ll point you in the direction of a local guide. It’s pricey, though; you can expect to pay around $400 for a single day. Alternatively, if you reckon you know what you’re doing, you can go it alone on one of Mangrove Cay’s innumerable flats. But be warned – it’s not easy if you don’t know what you’re doing.
And if that all feels like hard work, remember: it’s only a small island - your hammock is probably no more than a bike-ride or snorkel away.
If you’re staying in Mangrove Cay, there really is only one option. Rustic, friendly and beautiful.
Orange Hill Beach Inn
Overnighting in Nassau ahead of a connecting flight is a necessary evil when travelling to the Bahamas Out Islands. The Orange Hill is basic but near the airport.
Sheraton Nassau Beach Resort
The best and most reasonably priced of the more upscale Cable Beach options.