Ask Dr. Tracy

Room Without A Key

by Tracy Cabot, Ph.D.

The old outboard motor rattled and shook when we turned it off, then a peaceful silence descended. Wavelets slapped softly against the bottom of our little boat as it coasted toward the deserted white sand beach. "It's ours, all ours," we shouted giddily, grinning at each other as we splashed ashore. Like Robinson Crusoes with an outboard, we'd "discovered" a perfect cove on a perfect desert island.

We'd come ashore on Nun Jack Cay, one of hundreds of uninhabited islands in the Bahamas. As a hot tropical breeze sighed in the scrub pines behind us, we gazed out at a sparkling cobalt sea beyond an opal lagoon. Our boat seemed suspended in transparent water. Brightly-colored fish played in its shadow, beckoning us to snorkel.

Later, after our Robinson Crusoe urges and our ice chest emptied at about the same time, came the challenge of re-starting our ancient outboard motor. We had warned Lewis ("Louie-Louie") Dames, who runs the boat rentals, that the only seaman on our crew hadn't driven a boat since his teens. "No problem, Mon! It's easy."

And sure enough, the trusty old motor springs to life on the first pull. Ahead, hot showers, a gourmet dinner and our soft bed await us at Bluff House on Green Turtle Cay -- all the comforts of civilization, at the end of the earth.

As small whitecaps drum hypnotically against the bottom of the boat and the clamorous motor stills conversation, our dreamy smiles say it all: we'd always promised ourselves we'd find the "Real Caribbean," and we found it -- only 200 miles from Miami.

Like most people, we had first visited the Bahamas on cruise ships, which are restricted to a few deepwater ports like Nassau and Freeport. These ports of call are big business. Tens of thousands of cruisers teem ashore daily, drawn into a spending frenzy by Las Vegas-style gambling casinos, glitzy resorts, and tax- and duty-free shopping malls.

We enjoyed Nassau, but what we remember most vividly was sailing on through the Bahamas, past a seemingly endless procession of almost-uninhabited green islands. For over seven hundred miles, the promise of sweet solitude and peaceful, languorous sunsets called out to us. Gazing wistfully from the ship's railing, we resolved to come back to one of these small islands. Green Turtle Cay fulfilled the promise.

If, like us, you hate tourist traps and don't believe that 747s or ocean liners bring you to the "real" anywhere, you'll love going to Green Turtle Cay. Your escape is made convincingly, in three stages. First, at Miami airport, you board a prop plane which drones out beyond Grand Bahama to Abaco, where it lands you at the world's tiniest customs shack. There, a Bahamian taxi with no air conditioning but a smiling driver takes you to a small dock. You're on the "Sea of Abaco." The water's clear, you've seen no crowds since Miami, and things are looking up.

Then, with proper British punctuality, the last link in your journey shows up. Green Turtle Cay can only be reached by boat. A water ferry is its lifeline, and tourists are just part of its cargo.

The ferry's owner, Nigel Lowe, is also its skipper and its only longshoreman. No union rules here. Unfazed by the heat, Nigel swiftly loads your bags plus a small mountain of commercial goods -- cases of catsup, tomato paste, hamburger rolls, soda, and cabbages. You're happy to be in the shade of the boat, but you do begin to wonder if Green Turtle Cay's cuisine consists of cabbage burgers with lots of catsup.

On the 15-minute ride across to Green Turtle Cay, Nigel explains its history: During the revolutionary war, many English colonists in America remained loyal to King George, yet didn't want to go back to England. Some sought refuge in the Bahamas, a neighboring Crown colony, to wait out the war.

They encountered drought, pirates, and hurricanes. Doggedly they endured, surviving from the bountiful sea, and slowly they came to love these austere but enchanting islands. Out of nostalgia or habit, they built New Plymouth, Green turtle Cay's only town, to resemble a New England fishing village. Its sturdy stucco and wood-framed English-style houses contrast with the corrogated-roof shacks found elsewhere in the Caribbean.

The British refugees and their slaves, who fled with them, are Green Turtle Cay's old families, whose descendents you meet everywhere. Nigel, a seventh-generation descendent of the original settlers, is one of many Lowes on Green Turtle Cay. The freed slaves took their names from their former masters, so both blacks and whites in New Plymouth have English names today.

As the ferry stops at a few Green Turtle Cay docks, Nigel gives you a quick overview of his little part of paradise. On one- by three-mile Green Turtle Cay, you talk by radio instead of phone and travel by boat instead of car, since the island lacks paved roads. With only two quiet resorts, one inn and a few cottages, the island remains unmarred by mega-development and has never seen a tour bus. Crawfish processing is a bigger business than tourism. Yacht owners, who prowl the Caribbean's best getaway spots, outnumber tourists brought over on the Lowe's ferry.

Perhaps most amazing for an island which fronts on the Atlantic Ocean, there are no arrogant surfers crowding Green Turtle Cay's beaches. It's as if, during your three-part journey from downtown Miami, the clock had rolled back to a simpler time.

Upon reaching Bluff House, you arrive not at a grand porte cochere but a tiny dock. Smiling faces greet you, and strong hands whisk your luggage ashore. Spread out across the low hillside in front of you are the cottages that make up Bluff House's accomodations. Casuarinas Pines provide shade and a carpet of soft pine needles on the sandy beach.

"You don't need a key," Reuben chuckles as he carries your luggage into your cottage. "You might lock yourself out." Feeling more relaxed by the minute, you unpack just enough to grab your swim suits. As you plunge into the deliciously warm water in front of your cottage, all travel stress slips away.

About 50 feet from shore and still only about 5 feet deep, the white sand bottom changes to sea grass, home to dozens of varieties of tropical fish. This side of Green Turtle Cay faces away from the Atlantic Ocean, toward greater Abaco, and barely a ripple stirs the surface of the water.

Floating lazily, you have a good view of Bluff Houses's 80-foot hill -- mountainous by Bahamian standards -- topped by the resort's main house with its dining room, bar, office and swimming pool. Ranging down the hill, Bluff Houses's pastel green, pink and plum cottages vary in size from just a bedroom to rather spacious units with living rooms and kitchens. All have big decks and window air conditioners, but you won't find in-room TV's or phones or marble bathrooms here.

Instead, the rustic charm of the accomodations somehow adds to the getaway satisfaction found at Bluff House. Showering after your swim, you notice that the hot water is intermittant. But then, you find the cold water lukewarm, so it really doesn't matter. You're beginning to slip into a Caribbean attitude.

"This is the way our guests like the place. We don't pretend to be plush." Martin Havill, co-owner and manager of Bluff House, explains his philosophy to you at cocktail hour. "We're more homey and friendly." Martin is pouring you a "Tranquil Turtle," a devilish combination of juices and liquors which tastes like an innocent fruit punch and soon has you feeling like a Jimmy Buffet song.

Dinner definitely didn't come off the ferry. Is it the Tranquil Turtle ambiance, or is it true that chef Walter McIntosh's Blackened Grouper, broccolli souffle, and Coconut Cream Pie rival the mainland's finest cuisine? Leaving the main house after dinner, you step into a velvety tropical night, under a sky all but forgotten by city and suburb-dwellers. As your eyes adjust to the dark, constellations of stars take shape, and finally the Milky Way fills the dome of the sky, speaking silently to you of the true scale of things.

Days at Bluff House are languid and unstructured. At first, you may simply treat yourself to uninterrupted hours with that book you've always wanted to read, while lounging on your deck or the beach. But in spite of the low-key atmosphere, everything you'd want except golf is at your disposal, starting with swimming and tennis only steps away. As you catch up on rest and relaxation, Green Turtle Cay's other attractions will eventually tempt you away from the resort.

Shopping in New Plymouth leans more toward practical, use-it-up-now stuff like insect repellent and flashlight batteries rather than fancy jewelry or take-home souvenirs. Nevertheless, every visitor to Green Turtle Cay seems to find something of interest in New Plymouth, just a 5-minute boat ride away from the resorts. For some, it's a delightful lunch at New Plymouth Inn and a stroll along the docks.

Others are fascinated with the island's early history. In New Plymouth's sculpture garden and Museum, many U.S. citizens discover for the first time that revolutionary sentiments weren't unanimous in 1776. The thirteen colonies had many "conscientious objectors" who were killed or driven into exile, some to Green Turtle Cay. Without agreeing with the island's forefathers politically, you'll thrill to their epic adventures in clawing out a life for themselves here.

Or, if you're not a history buff, New Plymouth contains an entirely different attraction. Tourists, locals, and visiting boaters all meet and mingle at Miss Emily's Blue Bee Bar, famous throughout the Caribbean for the owner's original "Goombay Smash."

Unlike Martin Havill's Tranquil Turtle, there is nothing subtle about Miss Emily's concoction, but it's one of Green Turtle Cay's unique experiences. By the second Goombay Smash, you may even begin to appreciate the Blue Bee Bar's wall and ceiling decor, which consists primarily of business cards, T-shirts and bras and panties left behind by previous partyers. It looks tacky and rowdy, yet everyone from the local cop on the beat to wealthy yacht owners meet and talk happily inside the famous shack.

Beyond Green Turtle Cay, nearby attractions are limited. You might want to take a trip to Marsh Harbour (third-largest town in the Bahamas) for sunset cocktails at Wally's Bar and dining at the Flamingo Room. Or you might want to see local Bahamians building fishing boats by hand on Man O' War Cay. Both of these are within a one hour boat ride from Green Turtle Cay; your hotel can arrange a ferry pickup or boat driver.

Of course, Green Turtle Cay's premier attraction is the tropical ocean which surrounds it. Whether your interest is sportfishing, scuba diving, or just beginner snorkeling, a boat trip to the right spot is quickly arranged through your resort.

Novice to advanced snorkelers are met at the dock by Lincoln Jones, a big friendly bear of a man, and whisked away in his smooth-riding 25-foot Mako boat to a deserted island with crystalline waters easily accessible from shore. Lincoln usually stays on the boat, but if he decides to bring home dinner that day, you'll be treated to the sight of a master diver. Watch through your snorkel as he swims underwater for suspenseful minutes with no scuba tank, looking under reefs and almost always emerging with one or more wiggling lobsters.

Green Turtle Cay also offers offers a full service dive shop run by Brendal Stevens, a C.M.A.S.- and N.A.U.I.- certified scuba instructor. Brendal's been teaching scuba for 16 years, so Green Turtle Cay is a perfect place to try scuba diving, or to take a full course and pick up your dive certificate. Beginners report that Brendal has a way of making scuba seem easy, and veterans rave about his wreck dives and "wall dives" (down vertical underwater cliffs).

Whether you go out with Brendal for a two-tank dive or peer through a snorkel mask for the very first time, you'll find Green Turtle Cay's ocean friendly and inviting.

Protected by strict Bahamian conservation laws, fish are plentiful in the island's waters. Thanks to Green Turtle Cay's isolation and low tourist traffic, its coral reefs have escaped the underwater damage suffered elsewhere in the Caribbean. Turtles, Groupers, and wildly-colored Angelfish and Parrotfish swim amid magnificent staghorn coral, still undamaged by careless anchors. Twenty feet down, the coral reef shimmers blue and yellow and pink, seeming close enough to reach out and touch in the clear water.

On Friday night you may want to join a few of Bluff House's other guests for yacht-watching and dinner at your neighbor resort, Green Turtle Club. Located on White Sound, an almost-enclosed bay, Green Turtle Club offers roaming powerboaters a snug, congenial harbor. The resort has much more of a yacht club ambiance than Bluff House.

Green Turtle Club's dining room here is fancy by island standards, but the real attraction on Friday nights is entertainment by the multi-talented Brendal Stevens. Taking off his divemaster hat, Brendal slips convincingly into the role of professional musician, beguiling visitors and locals alike with his lovely singing voice. Soon the dance floor is full and the party is in full swing. Brendal weaves in a few Calypso songs, and it becomes a magical Caribbean night.

On your way to snorkeling or diving, you'll keep passing Crab Cay, Fiddle Cay, and No Name Cay. These tiny, jewel-like uninhabited islands will call out to you, and eventually you'll find them irresistable. With outboard rentals only 200 yards away, it's easy to go on your own Robinson Crusoe adventure, to find exactly the right deserted beach for sunbathing, snorkeling, or perhaps a little skinny-dipping.

After a few days spent slipping into warm Bahamian waters and evenings drinking Martin's Tranquil Turtles, Green Turtle Cay will cast its spell. Martin is right. The place just seems to work.

You feel almost lost out here amid 700 islands, yet comfy in Bluff House's self-contained little world. Surrounding you are thick woods, deserted beaches, turquise water, gorgeous underwater reefs and uninhabited cays. Somehow, from here, the world looks different. You're reminded that it's not all mean streets and money stress. Like any great getaway, Green Turtle Cay rewards you with the gift of perspective.






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