Abaco Life Magazine

Abaco Life, An Island Magazine


Getting a life–Abaco Style!

By Jim Kerr

Most mornings, Jack and Betsy Helm join a diverse group of friends for early coffee on the terrace at the Abaco Inn on Elbow Cay. The sun is rising from the sea, and rays of orange light cast a glow over the sand dunes. A coastline of low hills covered with thick green brush, sea oats and coconut palms arcs to the south. Surf swirls ashore on a curving Atlantic beach, and beyond they can see waves breaking over a barrier reef that is said to be the world’s third largest.
Conversation over coffee covers many subjects. Last night’s power outage at dinner was mildly annoying, albeit a bit romantic. But the storm than caused it also led to some rare shell discoveries by Betsy during her sunrise walk this morning. And did anyone else see that Getting a life Abaco Bahamas style!pod of Bottlenose Dolphin just offshore the other day? Civic affairs and volunteer work are discussed, as are upcoming art shows and other island events. And, of course, there’s the ever-changing, all-important topic of weather.
Life is both simple and complex, problematic and adventurous for Jack and Betsy and the several thousand other transplants who, over the past several decades, have come to live in Abaco. For them, the inconveniences inherent in island life, along with the need for constant attention to maintenance, are more than offset by friendly neighbors and activities in an environment where you can work eight hours a day on your house or boat - or just go fishing.
Where once there was only a smattering of ex-patriots and second-home owners on Elbow Cay, there is now a steadily growing wave of both full and part-time foreign residents. Today, the green rolling hills of south Elbow Cay are dotted with new homes; some lavish sentinels overlooking the sea, others perched inland on stilts. Vacant land is also disappearing from North Elbow Cay, as more new homes sprout up, as well as in the picturesque settlement of Hope Town.
The story is the same in many Abaco locales. Lured by sun, sand and sea, as well as proximity to the U.S., political stability, helpful people and good values, Abaco has become one of the hottest real estate markets in the hemisphere. Developers are planning to invest well over a billion dollars in real estate projects in Abaco over the next five years, and many more millions will be spent by individuals on homesites and houses. Nothing tells the tale of this phenomenal growth market more than the proliferation of real estate agents and offices throughout Abaco. More than a dozen offices, some with as many as six agents, are scurrying to help new buyers find a piece of personal paradise, and to sell a shrinking inventory of available property.
And while the number of realtors in Abaco seems miniscule compared to other fast-growing semitropical real estate markets such as Florida, or even some other island escapes, the action in Abaco represents a much wider recognition than in the past. Even though this island archipelago is only 180 miles east of Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, finding it has not always been that easy. It can take a few turns in the road — not to mention the sea and sky — before you discover that what you want in life often lies closer to home than you might imagine.
Take the case of Gregg and Meredith Bakke. Searching for a winter island retreat and second home away from their Wisconsin roots, they took eight to 10 Caribbean cruises. Nothing rang their bell. Then they saw a small ad in AOPA Pilot Magazine for Treasure Cay Resort and flew down to Abaco in Gregg’s small plane to have a look. They rented motor scooters and scooted down to Marsh Harbour, 30 miles south. They had lunch at Angler’s overlooking Boat Harbour, and voila! This was the place for them.
“We wanted a tropical climate, and we had covered a lot of islands,” said Gregg. “It might not be as warm as the Southern Caribbean, but we saw it was perfect for boating. There is no language barrier, it’s close to the U.S., the political climate is stable, and the people are friendly and helpful.”
They used a credit card to put a deposit on a lot at The Great Abaco Club, then built a two-story, four-bedroom house on a canal. Half Mediterranean and half Caribbean style, it offers access to the Sea of Abaco, which glimmers just yards from their back veranda. And while the Bakkes still work together in a chiropractor practice back in Madison, Wisconsin, and enjoy summers boating on Lake Michigan, they savor every winter moment spent here in their new second home.
It was eight years ago, in 1996, that the Bakkes built their house here, and while this relocation trend has been progressing steadily since the 1960s, there has been nothing like this in Abaco’s 200-plus year history, since loyalists from the former colonies in America suddenly appeared on the scene in 1783. There were virtually no comforts or conveniences for newcomers in those days, and early settlers, who did manage to make it, fended for themselves in a harsh and wild environment, adopting many new skills and ultimately embracing the sea to make a living. It more or less stayed that way until tourism arrived, and with it a yearning from visitors to own a piece of this sunny, uncrowded world.
Peter Sutherland, a British citizen who worked with a shipping and freight forwarding company with an office in Nassau, found Abaco 20 years ago when he and his wife, Helen, were looking for a weekend retreat. They watched a house being built on Pelican Shores in Marsh Harbour in 1997, and three years ago, when it came up for sale, they bought it. “The Out Islands were quieter in the days when we first started coming,” remembers Peter, now 59. “It may not be as quiet now, but the people are still friendly and charming. The sea and the weather are the same, but life is not without pressures. There are hurricanes to contend with, and while shortages of goods and services are no longer the problem they once were, you need to be laid back, and that takes time. It isn’t a simple life, if that’s what you’re looking for. Abaco, as they say, is not for sissies, and it helps if you’re practical.”
Peter and Helen’s well-constructed wood-framed house is testimony to the high quality of construction found today in Abaco. A four-bedroom, 2,800 square-foot house built on concrete stilts, it has survived three direct hurricane hits since 1999 with minimal structural damage, despite being on the northeast waterfront facing the Sea of Abaco. Hurricanes aside, the Sutherlands’ backyard waterway offers easy access to the sound in their 26-foot boat. Helen, 57, loves to scuba dive and swim, and the couple enjoy boating off to lunch at Nipper’s on Guana Cay, Cap’n Jack’s in Hope Town, or Cracker P’s on Lubber’s Quarters.
Like the majority of property in Abaco owned by non-Bahamians, the Pelican Shores house is a second home for the Sutherlands. While they live here most of the year, they still maintain a home in Devon, England, where they have family and friends. And like many home owners, foreign as well as Bahamian, they occasionally rent their home to visitors. Today the hundreds of rental homes on Abaco far outnumber the inventory of hotel rooms, even though the latter are on the increase. And while some hoteliers might see rental homes as competitive with resorts, others have learned there is a mutually-beneficial relationship between themselves and potential property owners, who usually come here first to vacation. “In the past year I’ve had more people staying with me who were looking for property than in the past 10 years combined,” says Sid Dawes, owner of the Lofty Fig Villas in Marsh Harbour. Furthermore, because of the expenditures of foreign home owners on goods and services, Abaco’s current economy would plummet without it.
When vacationers visit Abaco, or buy homes here, friends are sure to follow. Tom and Ann Maxfield of Annapolis, Maryland first came to Abaco on vacation at the suggestion of friends. They stayed at the Hope Town Harbour Lodge, then rented houses on subsequent trips. “We got on the ferry in Marsh Harbour on a rainy day,” remembers Tom. “We came into Hope Town Harbour, and even in the rain it was quite a sight. I took one look around and said to Ann, ‘we’re going to live here.’”
In 1993, they bought a piece of property north of the settlement. The process began with local real estate agent Chris Thompson. An architect in Marsh Harbour approved the Maxfields’ house design, and six months after they hired an Elbow Cay contractor, the house was finished. Along the way, they engaged several other locals who provided landscaping, legal assistance, consolidation and expediting of building materials, shipping and customs brokerage details. By the time everything was added up, including hefty customs duties, the couple estimate the cost of building their Elbow Cay home was about double what they would have paid in the U.S.. Nevertheless, the expense includes a spectacular Atlantic Beach and a dock on the protected Sea of Abaco, both a short stroll from their front door. Picturesque Hope Town, where it was love at first sight, is a pleasant five-minute ride in their golf cart.
Their many friends and neighbors include Linda and Doug Behrendt, who live in an 1,800-square-foot house they call “Sea Breeze.” They first came here as bareboaters in the 1980s as something special to do with the kids. Many vacations and rental houses later, they bought a quarter-acre, pie-shaped “jungle” lot on the north tip of Elbow Cay and hacked their new home site out of the bush. That was in 1999, before Hurricane Floyd, and they didn’t start building until July, 2001. Like everyone else, they learned a lot from Floyd in terms of contruction and protection, such as the need for storm shutters and hurricane-proof glass. But they also knew to take advantage of available technology to maximize comfort and efficiency in an island environment, installating reverse osmosis equipment to augment rain-catching cisterns, and contouring the property and house design to maximize the view and ensure the placement of underground units like the cistern and septic tank. “It took a year to build,” says Doug, 67, a retired cardiac surgeon from Iowa City, Iowa. “And I came down during critical decision-making points, like staking out the plot, laying out rooms, and deciding where the electrical outlets should go.”
Frank Wilson of Saugatuck, Michigan followed a similar procedure when he and his wife, Kathy, bought a lot on Gillam Bay on Green Turtle Cay. He was an electrical contractor himself, and after the couple hired a Green Turtle contractor, Frank supervised much of the house construction from the vantage point of a lawn chair. “Floyd hit in September, 1999, right in our building time slot,” he recalls. “It cost us a year delay, and I could see this wasn’t going to work without me being there. They would start one job and go to another. We rented an apartment across the road in September, 2000, and things started moving. I was right here in my chair every day. I got to know all the workers and their families, and we all got together on weekends. They’re good, hard-working, religious people.”
The Wilsons moved into a small cottage they built behind the main, two-story building they called “Bay House,” which they rent out. They still own businesses back in Michigan, including a bed and breakfast inn and a small seasonal resort, but they manage to spend four to five months at a stretch on Green Turtle Cay. Like many, they first came here on the recommendation of friends. But unlike the Maxfields, who stepped off the ferry in the rain at Hope Town, the Wilsons arrived under a classically clear blue sky. “It was one of those perfect days,” Frank remembers. “The water and beach were glistening. We used to go camping in the Florida Keys years ago, and it reminded us of those days. We had to come back to Green Turtle every winter after that.”
The Wilsons hired Reggie Sawyer, a Green Turtle Cay contractor. He oversaw all construction, contributed invaluable advice and ideas, and consolidated all the building materials at Home Depot in West Palm Beach. The Wilsons used the beachfront lot on Gillam Bay, which they bought in 1996, as collateral to secure a building loan for the house from the First Caribbean International Bank in Abaco. “We had a viable, money-making business in the U.S., but it was heavily mortgaged,” says Frank. The earnings from rentals on the large house, which are handled through Island Property Management on Green Turtle Cay, offsets expenses.
Today the Wilsons keep busy painting, gardening and walking along Gillam Bay’s magnificent beach, which curves east toward a shallow bank on Abaco Sound, and provides one of the best spots in Abaco for shelling. But their escapades are not limited to their island. They occasionally play golf at Treasure Cay, and are still getting to know the rest of the area. Like most part and full-time transplants, they have discovered there is much to do.
“Life is good,” says Don Himes, who moved to Treasure Cay in 1996 with his wife, Pam, from West Bend, Wisconsin. “We fish, go island-hopping, snorkel on the reefs, have lunch on another island or on a beach. The roads and beaches are empty, and there are no lines at restaurants or tee times at the golf course.” They started with a two-bedroom condo, but are now building a larger townhouse on an oceanfront lot they bought in 2000. They like the slow pace of Treasure Cay, but appreciate the fact they can easily drive to Marsh Harbour, where a broader range of goods and services includes supermarkets, hardware stores, restaurants, banks and shopping.
The same is true of Bill and Judy Marx, but with an interesting twist. A retired attorney from Virginia Beach, Bill says he and Judy graduated to different levels of island life, each one more independent than the last. When Bill’s secretary brought back photos from her Abaco vacation in the 1970s, the couple decided to visit. Over the next decade, they rented a series of houses for two-week intervals on Eastern Shores in Marsh Harbour. They knew it would take a heavy dose of self-reliance to live happily in Abaco, and many times over the years they asked themselves: “Could we really enjoy living here over an extended period of time?”
But by 1991, they were so enamored with island life they sought to immerse themselves even further in it by buying property on isolated Lubbers Quarters, where they have neither car nor television. A local architect designed their 1,800-foot house on the water, with 2,000-square feet of outside decking with a sunrise view. The master bedroom and bath face the water in one section, while another has three more bedrooms and two baths for guests, who often include their grandchildren, ages four to seven. Entertainment here includes watching the curly-tailed lizards and hermit crabs, snorkeling and shelling along the beaches. And while there are always weekly boat trips to Hope Town and Marsh Harbour for supplies and diversion, the Marxs’, like hundreds of others, have discovered that the rewards of living here are found mainly through daily contact with the environment and people.

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©  Jim Kerr, Abaco Life Magazine
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