Eleuthera Offers a Rugged, Out-Island Experience That Lingers

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Twin Coves, on the Atlantic Ocean side of the narrow, finger-shaped Bahamian island of Eleuthera, is a gorgeous spot: Two crescent-shaped, pink-sand beaches free of crowds, with calm waters protected from heavy waves by offshore sandbars.

But the real magic emerges when you walk into the crystal-clear sea.

Just beneath the surface, a large outcropping of coral reef hosts an insane array of tropical fish — tens of thousands of them, darting back and forth, some going solo, others in giant schools swimming in unison, all wary but accepting of snorkeling newcomers.

Floating over this aquatic wonder, with two daughters sloshing excitedly nearby, I was reminded again of the extraordinariness of Eleuthera — an island unknown to most travelers who head to the region, even though it is only 70 miles east of Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas.

Eleuthera boasts miles of mostly empty beaches, meandering walking trails, turquoise ocean waters and other natural wonders, but no major resorts or high-end shopping. It is 110 miles long, but in most parts, Eleuthera is not even a mile wide. With just 10,000 residents, it does not have a single traffic light.

My family and I have visited different islands in the Caribbean over two decades now, avoiding major crowds by targeting spots — like Vieques in Puerto Rico, St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, or Virgin Gorda of the British Virgin Islands — that you cannot reach from a direct commercial flight from most of North America.

Rugged and unspoiled, Eleuthera is perhaps the most disconnected of all these places, which is why we like it so much.

The island has a fascinating history, with its first European settlers, seeking religious independence, arriving in the 1640s. They named the spot Eleuthera, a Greek derivative of the word “freedom,” and established on the island’s western shores the port settlement of Governor’s Harbour, which is still marked by hillside colonial homes and white picket fences.

In the 1800s, the island became one of the world’s top producers of pineapple and a small number of pineapple farms remain, while the annual Pineapple festival in North Eleuthera is held each June.

American tourists began arriving in the 1950s, when Juan Trippe, the founder of Pan American World Airways, built a resort he called the Cotton Bay Club, which soon went belly up.

A series of similar resorts were built and failed, explaining why the island still to this day has never turned into a mass-tourism draw. Yes, off-islanders like my family still descend on Eleuthera, but not in a quantity that turns us simply into economic transactions and the island into an overtouristed cliché.

There are a collection of other settlements on the island — such as Gregory Town, Alice Town, Rock Sound — but Governor’s Harbour, in the center of the island, is by far the nicest place to stay, with a rural-village feel and just enough restaurants and other stores to meet your needs.

One change is coming to the island: Starting in 2024, Disney Cruise Line will open its own manufactured, self-contained town at the southern tip of the island, at a spot known as Lighthouse Point, for Disney cruise customers. The move will create new jobs for residents on the island, but it is not expected to have much impact in Governor’s Harbour, or elsewhere on the island. There also has been talk for over a decade of plans in south Eleuthera for a Four Seasons resort. But nothing has materialized yet.

Our mornings started with a walk from our rental house over the dunes, through tall, thick stretches of grasses and inkberry bushes until we emerged onto an empty beach, and the waves crashed in.

In our rental car, we would then take Queens Highway — Eleuthera’s main road, running north to south — with a packed picnic lunch to explore other parts of the island. More country road than highway, the quiet road serves as a spine that connects communities and dozens of different beaches.

French Leave Beach is probably the most famous. With deep, pink sand and strong winds from the Atlantic Ocean, the beach has a wild feeling to it. Here, the ocean is in charge.

Other favorites included Receiver’s Beach, just north of Governor’s Harbour, which our children nicknamed shell beach because of the large, intact shells spread across the pristine sand. The water is almost permanently calm and shallow here — this is the Bight of Eleuthera side with sandbars along the coast that create such clear waters they look almost like glass.

Surfer’s Beach, near Gregory Town in the north, is a hangout for visitors and residents who want to get out on a board, as it has some of the roughest waters, but again, on the day we stopped by, there was only a mellow and very small crowd.

One longtime visitor has written a book describing every one of the 135 beaches on the island, rating their accessibility, snorkeling, shells, swimming and other features.

One afternoon, we climbed into the strange but wonderful Cathedral Cave, where porous limestone has been eroded by water and formed into a large underground expanse. The basketball-court-sized cave is lit with sunlight that filters through large holes in the ceiling. Banyan trees grow from the base of the cave toward the sky. Tourism is so low-key on this island there is no entrance fee or even a proper sign on Queens Highway marking where to find the cave.

Up north, in Gregory Town, is Jacqueline Russell’s pineapple and tropical fruit farm where we took a 45-minute tour ($25 for adults). Later that week, we visited the Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve, a botanical garden that has 410 native species, organized around a series of trails and ponds, as well as a wooden hilltop tower with expansive views of central Eleuthera ($11 for adults and $8 for children). The island is also home to Sweetings Pond, a national park, surrounded by mangroves and farmland, that has one of the most concentrated populations of sea horses in the world.

Unemployment and poverty are issues on the islands. The nonprofit One Eleuthera Foundation runs a farm in the Rock Sound section of the island that grows various kinds of vegetables as part of an effort to train local residents on farming practices to rebuild what had once been a large farming economy on the island. Visitors can volunteer to work at the farm or participate in other foundation efforts.

This blend of sleepy towns, natural areas and wind-swept beaches was perfect for my family, but if you are looking for day-to-night pampering, this might not be your spot. In fact, “Eleuthera. It’s Not for Everyone” is the informal slogan of the island.

In Governor’s Harbour, walk into the main store — which is also the gas station and a combination hardware-and-general store — and its shelves might be empty of certain fruits, vegetables and ice cream until the ferry from Nassau arrives on Tuesdays and Fridays to restock the town. (As much is shipped in, food prices can be high.)

But there are other options, including the Island Farm, which grows many of its own vegetables, and Bacchus, a gourmet market and small restaurant on a hillside estate. The tiny Governor’s Harbour Bakery sells Johnnycake cornbread and raisin and coconut breads piping hot out of the oven every day (you need to reserve your Johnnycake in advance) and there’s also a well-stocked supermarket farther south in the settlement known as Rock Sound.

As for eating out, the Friday night fish fry in Governor’s Harbour is where visitors and residents mingle over Kalik beer, rum babbas, Snapper fish, barbecue chicken and conch fritters, sold by individual vendors. Stay to enjoy the scene when the music starts later in the night or head to an island beach bar, like Tippy’s, with conch fritters, chowder and classic island drinks and live music, right at the edge of the ocean.

But our favorite meals were at Buccaneer Club, which serves classic seafood and island fare (cracked conch for $30 or mahi-mahi dinners with peas and rice for $40, and a bowl of conch chowder for $15 are some favorites) on the hillside above Governor’s Harbour, and has its own ice-cream shop next door.

Most visitors to the island rent houses, and there is a good number to choose from, particularly around Governor’s Harbour. Hotel options include French Leave Resort, which has a collection of luxury cottages and a restaurant that offers one of the best spots to watch the sunset, and the Cove, in Gregory Town. Rental cars are pricey, and generally well-worn. But you will need one as exploring the island is a vital part of the trip.

The highlight of our evenings involved nothing that was for sale. We simply looked up and took in the stars: When the skies were clear, the expanse above us opened into an unreal show, with the seemingly endless reach of the Milky Way Galaxy, an unimaginable distance away, plainly visible to the bare eyes.

It was a reminder of why we search out places like this. The natural world is so much bigger than us — and an island like Eleuthera puts it all in perspective. The hardest part was just admitting that, at week’s end, we had to pack up and go back home.

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