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Abaco Homes

10 18th, 2006

By Jim Kerr
Abaco Life Editor

Abaco’s early settlers lacked interest in appearances. A house was a place where you survived the wind and the rain and the summer heat. You stored water beneath it and salt in boxes, and the kitchen was a separate building outside so the house wouldn’t burn down in case of fire.

The house was usually turned away from the sea, its back to the sound of surf and blowing sand. And when you built your “home, sweet home,” you had to take into account materials and skills at hand.

But the loyalist settlers who started arriving here in 1783 also came with ideas, brought from New England and colonial cities in the U.S., such as Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston itself had been heavily influenced by the French, and by English islanders sailing up from the Caribbean.

Once the fundamentals of survival were mastered in Abaco living, loyalist descendants began to adapt some of the old styles and designs they had brought to this unique island environment, using shipbuilding skills and techniques they had developed in this world of the sea.

Steep staircases, built like those on a wrecking schooner, led upstairs to attic-like spaces used for additional sleeping quarters. The steeply peaked roof funneled precious rainwater to underground cisterns, but the space under the roof was cramped and hot, so dormers and gable windows were cut for light and ventilation. Outside, white picket fences began to sprout in the yard; then porches with draping gingerbread were added.

Today in Abaco there are many modern designs, but generally the loyalist look has survived and been preserved in communities such as Hope Town on Elbow Cay, Guana Harbour on Great Guana Cay, New Plymouth on Green Turtle Cay and Cherokee Sound in South Abaco. Many of the houses dating back 100 years or more have been restored or renovated. And newly built houses, while reflecting a wide range of architectural ideas, have a distinct island flair.

“The pitch of the roof is the most important feature,” says Michael Myers, a landscape architect who lives in Hope Town. “It sets the mood. You can get away with a lot of other things, but the angle of the roof sets the loyalist ambiance. It’s like a woman’s hat. It draws your attention.”

His own house features a widow’s walk, a little porch atop the house that commands a panoramic view of the harbour and sea beyond. He and his wife, Patte, restored the hilltop home at the harbour’s entrance several years ago, opening up the house’s small, interior rooms into a great room with a kitchen and dining area that looks out onto a lush, tropical garden. The house is refered to as “The Wedding Cake House” because of its gingerbread trim, pure white colour and unusual, rounded shape.

Bougainvillea, banana plants, hibiscus and other flowering scrubs combine into a delighful and comforting scene just outside the door. Hope Town has become much more tropical in recent years as home owners plant a combination of Caribbean and Florida plants, all of which thrive on little rainfall. Evidence of this man-induced tropical abundance can be seen in landscaping all over Abaco, from beachfront and waterfront homes at Treasure Cay and Green Turtle Cay to the backyards of Marsh Harbour and Man-O-War Cay. Several nurseries on Abaco provide the plants, while amateur horticulturists and professional landscapers do the rest.

Abaco’s construction industry is also booming. Architects, designers and builders are backed up with pending projects, many of them involving foreign owners seeking both full and part-time residence. Renovation of older houses is still popular, but with plenty of building materials now available from local hardware stores and lumberyards, as well as efficient freight operations from Florida and Marsh Harbour, many builders would rather start from scratch.

“Renovation is expensive,” says Kevin Albury, a popular builder on Elbow Cay. “It’s hard, dirty work, but it looks good when it’s finished. Abaco pine used in the original construction is usually good for another 100 years, but exterior siding, shutters and all the interior usually has to be redone.”

Nails were unavailable in Abaco during early construction, so wooden pegs were used. Mortise and tenor were used for joints. Today, a new woodframe house built in the old style is likely to have a concrete foundation and standard asphalt shingles with cement-based siding that looks like wood.

Many residents have also added artistic trimming and extensions to older houses. Woodcarver and sculptor Russ Ervin built a large front porch on his harbourfront home in Hope Town with pineapple pattern designs and gingerbread. The original design of the house, built here in the 1800s by loyalist descendants, was first introduced into Charleston by French immigrants. Early builders feared hurricanes would rip frills such as porches off the house and blow them away.

Russ’ house, like many others on the cays, was built with the front door along the side, another precaution against rising water. Few property owners today would forego a waterfront - and especially oceanfront - view because of the exposure. At “Villa Pasha” on Green Turtle Cay, owner Paul Thompson built his beachfront home with a series of French doors around the house to enhance the feeling of openness and the view. The design is based on a Caribbean style home built in Guadeloupe around 1874.

Great Abaco Club in Marsh Harbour offers a wide variety of designs to new home builders in this gated, waterfront community, but all designs have an open, island style, and you can have any colour you want as long as it’s pastel. Both the club’s architectural committee and a town architectural committee have to approve the plan. Construction costs run from $100 to $170 a square foot, and every upgrade is available. from Bermuda roofs to Italian tiles.

Unlike the bare-bones, utilitarian furniture used by early islanders, many of the new or restored homes in Abaco today are furnished in colonial antiques, wicker or rattan. Local craftsmen, like Bill Fuller on Elbow Cay, also make Caribbean and plantation-style furniture that adds to a relaxed, casual but upscale island look. Paintings, shell art, driftwood sculpture and other decorations adorn walls and shelves. Perhaps the most impressively decorated of all is the home of Abaco artist Alton Lowe on Green Turtle Cay where the walls are covered with his original oils, both inside the house and in the adjoining Lowe Gallery.

Some of the outdoor scenery and salt air may remain essentially the same as it was in 1783, but life in Abaco has reached a level of comfort and aesthetics never envisioned by those early settlers. Hardwood floors and modern indoor kitchens prevail - not to mention tiled bathrooms and cozy bedrooms with a beach view. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Abaco Bread

10 18th, 2006

By Cathy Kerr

From the biblical “manna from heaven” to the reference in the Lord’s Prayer to “our daily bread,” it’s always been the “staff of life.” It was a key element in historical and literary Vernon Malone baking in Abacoevents, too. The theft of a loaf of bread in “Les Miserables” started the chain of events that are the basis of that novel and play, and ignoring its importance to the citizens of France contributed to the downfall of Marie Antoinette. It’s the first thing off grocery shelves when a storm is predicted, and an essential prelude to dinner at restaurants around the world. But in few places does it conjure the dreamy-eyed wistfulness that it does in Abaco.

Fresh-baked island bread goes with Abaco like sea water and sunshine. Patrons of many Abaco eateries return time and again for conch salad or grouper atop full-bodied island sourdough. And breakfast at most cottages or boats wouldn’t be complete without a thick toasted slice topped with a dollop of melting New Zealand creamery butter and a spoonful of mango jam.

Every Abaco community has a baker, if not a bakery. On Man-O-War Cay, locals and visitors alike harken to the sound of Lola Sawyer’s golf cart, which is laden with fresh bread and her legendary cinnamon rolls, ready for direct sale to local businesses and the waiting public. Lola, a lifetime resident of Man-O-War, has been baking bread in her kitchen for many years, and her secrets are closely guarded.

At McIntosh Restaurant and Bakery in Green Turtle Cay, Denise McIntosh arranges an assortment of daily-baked goods, including bread, pies and cakes on a counter for customer selection, and fresh bread and rolls are a foundation of the menu. Marsh Harbour residents collect their bread from a number of local sources, and appreciate the fact that Abaco is one of the few places where fresh-baked bread can be found in grocery stores. In Abaco, “sliced bread” isn’t considered all that great!

As you walk through the Hope Town settlement, the wafting aroma of fresh-baked bread is likely to tempt you to slip through the screen door of Vernon’s Grocery. The crusty brown loaves have been a key ingredient in his business for 40 years. Today he bakes white, whole wheat, multi-grain, onion, sourdough and sometimes raisin breads. Specialties include banana, date-nut, cranberry and guava-raisin, and on special request he’ll even make dietetic salt-free bread. His tiny bakery, an annex to his grocery store, turns out an average of 100 loaves a day, which sell for $2.50 a loaf.

Like many Abaco bakers, Vernon learned the art of baking from his parents. His mom baked six to ten loaves at a time, three times a week, in a rock oven outside their Hope Town house. It was all sourdough, the unanimous choice of his eight-member family. “Baking bread was a social event where people shared one oven,” Vernon remembers. “It was your afternoon work, and it was eaten with every meal - a major part of everyone’s diet.”

In those days, flour called “Cream of the West” came in 100 lb sacks on the mailboat. Before that, when flour was altogether unavailable or unaffordable, folks made “potato bread.” No one in Abaco grew wheat. In settlements such as Sandy Point, people dug up roots to make a kind of bread called “pap.” Johnnycake, made like a flattened and soft muffin, was once a “poor man’s bread,” but is today a fashionable addition to the dinner table.

Somewhat ironically, the secret to the consistency, taste and popularity of Abaco bread is Canadian flour. “U.S. flour does not make good bread,” asserts Vernon. “It does not walk (knead) well.” The Canadian flour of modern times carries brand names like Purity, Robinhood or Five Roses. One starts with sugar, salt and yeast, adding a liquid shortening or oil with warm water and flour. The dough is kneaded, allowed to rise twice, then shaped into loaves, put in pans and baked. The yeast makes it rise. In Vernon’s gas convection ovens, 48 loaves can be produced in about 30 minutes. About half his working day is spent baking bread.

Of course, there are other delicacies emanating from Abaco ovens: fresh coconut or key lime pie, cakes, tarts, rolls and a steamed and boiled jelly roll treat called guava duff. But bread is king. In fact, dozens of loaves leave Abaco each week as gifts, as visitors balance them with carry-on luggage, hoping customs agents won’t prod them into inedible lumps. But even when the transport is successful, many later realize that one key ingredient is missing: a morning sunrise over an Abaco beach.


10 18th, 2006

By Jim Kerr
Abaco Life Editor

In a small café and liquor store in New Plymouth on Green Turtle Cay, someone said: “daytime is beer time, but rum owns the sunset.”

Abaco Bahamas RumIt might have been David Bethell, who owns the Plymouth Rock Café and Liquor Store, and who carries on his shelves no fewer than 72 kinds of rum. There are light rums and dark rums, sweet flavored rums and fruity rums, rum liqueurs for sipping and smooth rums for drinking on the rocks. There are rums for cooking, marinating, flaming, and flavoring everything from cakes to coffee.

Rum is the preferred drink of the islands, and, by association, the boaters who frequent them. It was called “grog” back in the heyday of pirates in the Bahamas, and “booze” during the heady bootlegging days, when Abaconian ship captains sailed their schooners to New Jersey loaded with this much-sought contraband. And let us not forget that the second island landfall Columbus encountered in the Bahamas on his first journey to the New World is today known as “Rum Cay.”

The stuff altered the Caribbean forever with Columbus’ introduction of sugar cane from the Canaries on his third voyage. And after slaves from West Africa were imported to work the big sugar cane plantations of the English, Dutch and French, a “vicious triangle” was formed as grog went to Europe via the Americas, where it was traded for textiles, guns and, ultimately, more slaves. Today, however, what was once referred to by prohibitionists as “demon rum” has taken on a benevolent role. It is so strongly intertwined with vacation pleasure that, on arrival, many visitors gravitate to the nearest watering hole faster than you can say “pina colada.”

Among spirits, rum is the number one best-seller in the world, with several million locals and visitors in the Bahamas and Caribbean helping it retain that status. The most popular rums in Abaco are Mount Gay, Bacardi and Anejo. The venerable Cuba Libre, made from white rum and Coca Cola, is still simple and popular, but for fruity, and potent, drinks, Meyers mixes the best, according to our sources. Virtually every bar, restaurant and resort in Abaco has a specialty drink made with some kind of rum, and the Goombay Smash served up at Miss Emily’s Blue Bee Bar in New Plymouth is still legendary. While the exact recipe remains a house secret, the main ingredients are believed to be pineapple juice and 60 proof coconut rum, with perhaps something else to “kick it up a bit.” They go down deliciously smooth, luring the thirsty patron to try another, which often brings dizzying results. Another theory is that, because Goombay smashes are premixed and refrigerated overnight in plastic gallon jugs, the sweet fruit juice and sugar-based alcohol get an extra evening to interact, increasing the strength of the brew.

The basics of rum-making are standard, although the process can have many variations. Molasses is fermented from crushed sugar cane and fruit juice. The mix is combined with oxygen, distilled, heated and separated. Timing and temperature is everything. Ingredients, flavoring, labor costs, length of process, shipping and even the artistic value of the bottle can determine the price of rum. In Abaco, it comes from distilleries in Nassau and Freeport, West Palm Beach and several Caribbean islands. A bottle of Cruzan, a rum originating in St. Croix but bottled in West Palm Beach, costs $12.95, while a bottle of Ron Matusalem, a rum originating in Cuba but now distilled in the Domincan Republic, costs $12.95. Most rums run between $8 and $15 a bottle regardless of origin.

Jan Samuelson, a wine and rum connoisseur and writer who recently visited Green Turtle Cay, tested out a variety of locally-available rums. “The qualities I look for in a good rum are a well-balanced taste between the alcohol and the flavors from the barrel, mostly oak and vanilla,” he says. “Other flavors often found in better rums include chocolate, licorice, molasses and citrus.”

He tasted five different rums selected from the best at the Green Turtle Club and ranked them on a point system from one to 20. The results were: Barbancourt from Haiti - 18.5; Mount Cay Extra from St. Croix - 18.5; Cruzan Single Barrel from St. Croix - 19; Appleton Estate from Jamaica - 18 and Ron Barcelo Imperial from Santo Domingo - 17.

Many boaters and other vacationers in Abaco might take this as confirmation of a long-held premise: rum is one of the cheapest forms of quality entertainment. To witness followers of this tenet, stop in at any Abaco bar or resort at Happy Hour. Or drop by the Plymouth Rock Café and Liquor Store around 5 pm., where you are likely to find proprietor David Bethell busy bagging bottles of grog.

“I can’t say that I’ve tried all 72 kinds myself,” says David. “But I’d like to.”

Blue Holes

07 12th, 2004

I was guiding a kayaking trip with a family from Canada, and their little boy kept politely asking me when we would arrive at our destination. His impatience was more wild curiousity than the result of being tired of paddling. Our destination was a blue hole, nestled in the cluster of islands that form the Snake Cay estuary south of Marsh Harbour.
“Just what is a blue hole?” the boy probed.

“You’ll know it when you see it,” I answered, letting the suspense build. We were kayaking in less than three feet of water over vast beds of turtle grass. Soon he pointed to a brilliant circle of turquoise and azure water up ahead. As we paddled across the 20-foot breadth of it, water welled up from below with the incoming tide. This was the blue hole that “Cave Diver” Fred Davis had named the “Fire Hydrant” because, when he tried to swim through one of its tunnels against the tide, he had to claw the walls: the sea current blasted through like a hydrant. Blue Holes of Abaco

With a fresh-water lens on the surface, and heavier, salt water beneath, these blue holes are connected underground to the sea and its tidal changes. They are lit near their openings, but mostly dark inside. Created as a result of the Bahamas’ special geologic history, the holes provide a home for some of our most mysterious creatures, and hide some of Abaco’s most interesting natural history.

When it comes to politics and economics, the Bahamas is often lumped together with the Caribbean. Geologically, though, these “isles of perpetual June,” as colonists referred to this archipelago, as well as the neighboring Turks and Caicos, differ from the Caribbean because sedimentation created them, rather than the volcanic upheavals that shaped other islands in the Greater and Lesser Antilles. This explains why our islands are so low lying, with the highest point being just 206 feet on Cat Island, while others in the Caribbean are hilly, if not mountainous.

When the continents separated on tectonic plates millions of years ago, the young Atlantic Ocean forming between the Americas and Africa was initially a shallow sea in which algae, mollusks, and coral grew and died, accumulating masses of calcium carbonate. As the ocean deepened, this sedimentary accretion kept pace, at a rate of one inch every millennium, and today the calcium carbonate buildup averages 3.5 miles deep, according to geologists. Thus, The Bahamas emerged. Whenever the sea level dropped during ice ages, the calcium carbonate was exposed to air and fresh water from rain, causing a chemical reaction that hardened it into limestone rock.

Limestone is soluble, susceptible to fresh water, as is evident by the potholes that deepen on our roads every time it rains. Fresh water percolating through the rock, over the ages, created features like caves, banana holes, and blue holes, both submerged and inland. As marine ecologist Dr. Stephen Thompson explained last January at the first Abaco Science Alliance Conference, a blue hole is “an old drowned cave system with a deep vertical entrance, terraced by earlier sea levels…a natural aquarium.” Bahamians sometimes refer to them as ocean holes or boiling holes; Floridians call them sinkholes; in Mexico they are known as cenotes or “big wells.” It is commonly said that if we were to cut the Bahama Islands in half, they would look like Swiss cheese because of all these holes.

No one knows exactly how many blue holes there are in Abaco. Ron Pagliaro, owner and guide of the ecotourism business Abaco Outback, guesses there are 50 blue holes in the Abaco chain. “They’re finding more all the time in the pine forest,” Pagliaro says. The Bight of Old Robinson, a unique tidal creek and proposed Marine Protected Area near Little Harbour, has more than a dozen blue holes within its shallow waters and mangroves. Abaconian Tim Higgs, who has been exploring Abaco’s blue holes for the past year, says there are eight “unknown” blue holes at Crossing Rocks alone.

A dive instructor and co-owner of Abaco Dive Adventures, Higgs has lately been “laying line” in the Dark River Boiling Hole, located in the middle of an inland lake that locals sometimes call “Cherokee River,” near Casuarina Point and Bahama Palm Shores. Just weeks ago, he and Fred Davis, (a.k.a. “Kalik” or “Caveman” Fred), a Marsh Harbour fixture and retired NASA employee, found what may be a new sponge species about 1,000 feet back in the darkness of this hole. Higgs described it as white, about the size of a beach ball, and shaped like cauliflower. An Exuma diver has discovered what he thinks is the same sponge in a blue hole there and is sending samples and photographs to experts for identification. The adventure of cave exploration, curiosity and an appreciation of unique finds like this unusual invertebrate are what appeal to Higgs about blue hole dives. “It’s also nice to be able to show people what it looks like through photographs and video,” he says.

In “Dan’s Cave” so called after spelunker Dan Wiltfang,who first explored this inland hole just south of Bahama Palm Shores – the remains of a crocodile have been found. These salt-water reptiles populated the Bahamas until the 19th century. when they were presumably hunted into extinction. Other than vague written accounts, little proof is available of the Bahamian crocodile and what species it might have been, so the blue hole find is a significant scientific event.

Similarly and in the same blue hole, divers have discovered an unidentified turtle. It is tantalizing to conjecture that this could be the remains of a long-extinct West Indian tortoise, a Pleistocene, three-legged, forest-dwelling creature, that has not been recorded on Abaco, but whose remains have been found on New Providence and Andros. Higgs says there is a pine tree upside-down in the Treasure Cay blue hole that he guesses is 70 feet tall, with a trunk he can’t get his arms around. He expects this well-preserved giant may be helpful in ongoing research of Abaco’s environmental history, as told from tree rings.

For Higgs, perhaps the most compelling aspect of exploring blue holes is entering their “Karst terrain,” a rarefied world of geological formations. During above-water periods, rainwater ran through the calcium carbonate ceilings and walls of these caves, forming stalagmites and stalactites. Higgs says Dan’s Cave is “highly decorated” and especially beautiful. “When you shine a light on it, the ceiling of the second room looks like icicles.” Speleo-thems, or “ribbon stalactites,” have formed smooth, white carbon flows down the sides of walls. In this room, dubbed by divers as the “Crystal Palace,” the speleothems have crystalized to look like glass. Some stalactites connecting the ceiling to the floor are 40 feet tall and just one inch thick. “They were created when the cave was dry and are extremely fragile,” Higgs says. In the bottom of some caves, he sees the cracked clay from its above-water days. “In the Saw Mill Sink, past Crossing Rocks, the clay is red and formations are white, so it’s very attractive.” The Lost Reel hole has gray clay in its caves, which pass under the road between Snake Cay and the Big Bird chicken farm.

Some blue holes are habitats for a myriad of bizarre creatures, such as blind cave fish (Lucifuga spelacotes), otherwise known as brotulids. Naturalist David Campbell calls brotulids “interglacial relics,” because they stem from a deep ocean species that scientists guess became trapped inland during the sea’s ice age recession. In order to survive, brotulids had to adapt to fresh water, and given the dim lighting in their new home, their eyes became expendable. Higgs describes those he has seen as six-to-eight inches long, ranging in color from whitish-pink to dark purple. They have eye sockets lacking eyeballs, but “with black specks inside.” Other novelties are remipedes, which look much like centipedes, having lots of legs, except these insects are white, eat shrimp, and can swim.

Over the years, Cave Diver Fred has been mapping these holes and getting a picture of where they lead underground. He has put in 16,000 feet of line so far at the Dark River Boiling Hole and still has three leads going. Higgs says they hope one of these will connect to a neighboring blue hole half a mile away. Some tunnels crisscross, above or under each other. Blue hole cave diving is a growing sport, particularly in Mexico, where in one cave, divers have laid 600,000 feet of line, connecting 70 different openings, some to the ocean. “Cave diving is different; you’re in an overhead environment,” Higgs says, describing as example the Abaco cave feature “Sidemount Passage,” where divers have to wear their tanks on their sides to be able to fit through a low ceiling. “People either really like cave diving or don’t want to have anything to do with it. It takes a lot of training. I’ve got 10,000 open water dives, but I was extremely humbled when I took the cave certification course.”

The risk factor in cave diving increases because of darkness, having to find one’s way back out, and sometimes poor visibility due to stirred up silt. Some holes have a red hydrogen sulfide layer, where the fresh and salt waters meet, that only offers about six inches of visibility and completely blocks all light below it. Add to that the fact that most blue holes in the Bahamas are around 100 to 150 feet deep. A diver from Mexico descended 296 feet in the hour-glass shaped hole near Big Bird farm and said he could still see the opening at the top.

The closer the hole to the sea, the more dangerous it generally is, because the water siphons with an outgoing tide. Higgs points out that their flows do not necessarily concur with Marsh Harbour tide charts. “You really have to know what you’re doing.” He notes that one must always have an extra full tank, an extra light, and a rope. He does not take anyone cave diving who is not cave certified.

Dr. Thompson, who researches marine ecology at Oregon State University, has been surveying fish species found in 24 blue holes of Robinson and Spencer’s bights since 1986. These estuary blue holes have been home to at least 48 coral reef fish, some not common on open reefs. Unfortunately, upon returning to these sites, he has found them to be heavily impacted from various human-related activities like chlorine bleaching, spear- fishing, SCUBA diving, and careless anchoring. He said two blue holes had been “irreversibly changed.” Divers’ fins break coral and lift silt off the bottom, which then settles in the pores of coral species and smothers them. When the corals die, the reef fish dependent on them disappear. “Biodiversity is decreasing,” Thompson said. He recommends installing moorings at blue holes with boat access and limiting boat speeds in these bights. He suggests policymakers should encourage low-impact activities, such as kayaking and snorkeling (without fins), around blue holes, and discourage fishing and SCUBA diving.

Given their fragile nature, Higgs is contemplating proposals to preserve certain blue holes, such as Dan’s Cave, so that they don’t get accidentally damaged by inexperienced divers or used as garbage dumps, as is already the case at blue holes on Fire Road and at Blackwood.

For most of us, blue holes are one of those beautiful but dangerous wonders of nature – similar to, say, moray eels – that are best observed from the surface. Higgs summed it up: “It’s nice to know they’re there.”


©  Jim Kerr, Abaco Life Magazine
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