ABACO IN A (COCO) NUTSHELL
By Jim Kerr
Abaco Life Editor
Abaco, an island archipelago in the Northeast Bahamas 180 miles from South Florida, retains strong maritime connections. The area was founded by American Loyalists in 1783, folks who supported King George II and fled the fledging United States after it successfully parted ways with mother England. They were basically planters, but they soon discovered their future, and ultimate survival, depended on a partnership with the sea. After initially establishing settlements on mainland Abaco, a boomerang-shaped island about 120 miles long and only several miles wide, they discovered the protection of snug little harbors on a string of outer cays protected offshore by the world’s third largest barrier reef.
Here they built villages and ships, and while they continued farming the mainland, they grew ever dependent on the sea for a livelihood. They became wreckers, or ship salvagers, fishermen and expert carpenters whose clapboard homes resembled those in New England. Today, the partnership with the sea is as strong as ever, with small, friendly resorts and numerous marinas; a place where there are more boat slips than hotel rooms, and almost as many rental boats as rental cars. Abaco’s thriving tourism and real estate economy is based on sustainable reefs, broad empty beaches, fishing grounds and myriad other gifts from Mother Nature. Here, in basic profile, is Abaco in a nutshell as it is today:
MARSH HARBOUR - There’s only one stop light, but traffic backs up in all directions at lunch hour and at quitting time in what is today the Bahamas’ third largest city. About half of the entire Abaco population of 15,000 lives here. It’s a commercial hub, with five banks, two ever-expanding hardware stores, gas stations, law and real estate offices, supermarkets, numerous restaurants, insurance companies, and every other store or business one would expect in a town five times this size.
As such, downtown is not particularly picturesque. That aspect is left to the so-called “marina district” on the east side, where the harbour is lined with sparkling marinas, waterfront restaurants, boutiques, and high-end shops like John Bull, Wrackers, Abaco Gold, and the Conch Pearl Gallery, to name a few. Here you can sip a cappuccino in the morning, have lunch overlooking a flotilla of boats and dance the night away in an outdoor bistro.
New subdivisions are popping up in town with upscale properties located at places like the Great Abaco Club, a marina community attached to the Abaco Beach Resort. Somewhat removed from the hectic downtown area are quiet waterfront neighborhoods like Eastern Shores and Pelican Shores. And while Marsh Harbour gives a sense urban hustle, the surrounding water, with its marinas, boatyards and docks reminds us daily that this is a town forever tied to the sea.
The Outer Cays
HOPE TOWN - Wyannie Malone and her three strapping sons, formerly of South Carolina, founded this settlement in 1785. It slept through the industrial revolution and for about 150 years remained a quiet fishing village and ship-building center until the 1950s, when all of Abaco began to awaken. But while many of Hope Town’s island neighbors enjoyed similar protection with harbours, Hope Town had a couple of distinct advantages. Its harbour was large and totally protected, and later it was distinguished by a magical lighthouse built by the British in the 1860s. Ironically, the famous candy-striped lighthouse, which stands today as Hope Town’s iconic symbol, was vigorously opposed by the ship salvaging residents at the time of its construction.
The beautiful harbour and stunning beaches soon attracted tourism to the entire island, known as Elbow Cay, and today the narrow harbour entrance welcomes hundreds of boats every day. The Hope Town Harbour Lodge, founded in the 1950s but totally renovated, is the only “hotel” in town, but there are hundreds of rental houses spread across the cay, most of them owned by part time foreign residents. Construction is the second largest “industry” here after tourism as new houses sprout up all over the island. World War II style landing craft serve as shallow-draft freight boats from Marsh Harbour, hauling everything from refrigerators and Christmas trees to golf carts and lawn fertilizer.
LUBBERS QUARTERS - Lying just west of Elbow Cay is the enigmatically-named island of Lubber’s Quarters. The 350-acre, boot-shaped island is totally within the confines of the Sea of Abaco, the four-to-five-mile wide sound which separates most of the outer cays from mainland Abaco. Lubber’s is lush, with a rugged terrain, lots of vegetation, verdant mangroves and a rich profusion of indigenous trees and plants.
It is also rapidly growing as a residential haven, even though it has no settlement and virtually no commercial business save one waterfront restaurant, Cracker P’s, famous for its fresh grilled fish and full moon parties. The advent of electricity and even telephones has spurred new home building in recent years, and today there are more than 60 houses on Lubbers, mainly on the south end of the island in and around the development known as the Abaco Ocean Club, which occupies about 20 percent of the island with 161 residential lots. The rest of the approximately three-mile-long and one-half-mile-wide atoll is divided into large, privately-owned sea-to-sea lots.
MAN-O-WAR CAY - More than any other island in the Abacos, Man-O-War has retained the strongest ties with boat building, boat transportation and boat maintenance and repair. The Albury family, which founded this cay as loyalists, once built remarkably large sailing schooners here. After the airport opened in Marsh Harbour in the 1950s, the family founded Albury’s Ferry Service, which still provides numerous daily trips between Marsh Harbour, Hope Town, Man-O-War, Great Guana Cay and the private island of Scotland Cay.
Workmanship here, whether it’s in the building of fiberglass runabouts or the maintenance of large yachts, is recognized as superior by every cognizant boater in the Bahamas and South Florida. The island is quiet, with little commercial development. The beaches are long and deserted. And Miss Lola’s cinnamon buns are to die for.
Homes are spread across the narrow island, as well as a thin spit of land guarding the harbour known as Dickies Cay, but Man-O-War has escaped major development. A few shops, a couple of grocery stores, a hardware store and a smattering of marinas and boatyards constitute Man-O-War’s business - along with a couple of bakeries run by locals like Miss Lola.
GREAT GUANA CAY - For a long time, because of its size and potential, they called this seven-mile-long island “the sleeping giant.” Today the giant has awakened as new businesses in the settlement of Guana Harbour, along with the sale of many residential lots and home construction, have spurred the local economy. Strangely, it was not hotels and tourism that created interest and subsequently awakened the giant, but a beach bar. Hordes began arriving for Sunday pig roasts at Nippers Beach Bar and Grill soon after it opened overlooking Guana’s spectacular beach, and there’s been no discernible let-up. Responding to new demand and some threatened competition, Albury’s Ferry inaugurated service several times daily from Marsh Harbour, as opposed to once a week on Fridays. The service and island ambiance has brought new popularity to small hotels and vacation rentals.
Orchid Bay, a marina and beachfront community south of the settlement, features many subdivided hillside lots, but home construction is still in its infancy. Most new homes have been built just north of the settlement on individual lots, and all of Guana’s contractors are backed up with business waiting. Still, the biggest news on the once-sleeping giant is the sudden awakening of the big island’s northern end at Baker’s Bay. Here, on 550 acres of remote and wild sea-to-sea property, Discovery Land Company plans hundreds of new homes, a golf course and large marina over the next decade.
GREEN TURTLE CAY - The village of New Plymouth, established by early loyalists, sits on a spit of land which partially surrounds a somewhat shallow harbour. It’s a storybook place where hard-working generations have tried their hand at everything from shipping pineapples and turtles to shark fishing and lobstering. The latter remains as a viable enterprise, but most of the island’s 600 or so permanent residents are today involved in tourism and construction. The cay has two resorts, the Green Turtle Club and Bluff House, both on White Sound opposite the village, and there are probably 150 houses and cottages for rent. Green Turtle has some of the best beaches and liveliest annual events, such as Junkanoo on New Year’s Day, and the Island Roots Festival each May, which celebrates Green Turtle’s historical connection with Key West, Florida.
Schooner captains once dismantled their houses in New Plymouth and reassembled them in that once isolated but wealthy city in Florida, and there are many similarities between homes in both places today. One developer here is planning a waterfront community called Leeward Yacht Club, which will feature homes fashioned after early Key West designs. But other foreign investors are also busy buying up property and building new homes with their own individual touch.
North of Marsh Harbour
TREASURE CAY - As a commercial and charter pilot almost half a century ago, Capt. Leonard Thompson of Marsh Harbour often looked wistfully down on a beautiful beach at a place known on the maps as Sand Banks Cay. It formed a pristine crescent that arched southeast from the Abaco mainland on a wide peninsula. Capt. Thompson dreamed of building a resort there someday, and by the late 1950s, in partnership with U.S. investors, the dream became a reality with a 40-room hotel on 460 acres, which Capt. Thompson renamed Treasure Cay.
Forty years after the first hotel was built here, the resort has become Abaco’s largest compound of private homes and resort facilities, covering more than 1,500 acres. The marina has 150 slips and there are accommodations for more than 200 guests, including 95 marina units, a number of villas, condominiums, time shares, and apartments. The resort’s 18-hole championship golf course is considered a top course in the Bahamas by leading golf publications, and major sport fishing tournaments draw more than 100 boats and hundreds of participants annually.
Today, there are more than 600 homes at Treasure Cay with a resident population that swells to 1,000 people or more in winter months, although only a small percentage live here year-round. Land sales, home building and population have grown at a steady but moderate pace, while real estate prices have soared.
LEISURE LEE - Five miles south of Treasure Cay, down the paved highway to Marsh Harbour, is Leisure Lee, a strictly residential community of homes built primarily on ocean access canals or along the shore of the Sea of Abaco.
Since the highway (which was unpaved along here until the 1980s) makes commuting easy, whether you are heading north to Treasure Cay or south to Marsh Harbour, Leisure Lee has become kind of a suburb or bedroom community. Construction on new homes has picked up here in recent years because of its quiet location, reasonably-priced real estate and accessibility to both north and south Abaco.
South of Marsh Harbour
CASUARINA POINT & BAHAMA PALM SHORES - If Leisure Lee is Marsh Harbour’s suburban bedroom community to the north, then these two can be considered as such to the south of that city. Dozens of home-owners commute daily to jobs in “the big city,” and come home to tranquillity on the Sea of Abaco. The arrival of electricity in recent times sparked new construction here, although buyers, primarily foreign, started speculating with lots here more than 40 years ago. Just 14 and 17 miles down the highway from Marsh Harbour respectively, these are two of the most reasonably-priced communities on mainland Abaco, where hundreds of acres are for sale as well as home resales. Residents love the long, arching beach with its miles of empty sand, the air of serenity and the tropical touches lent to the community by hundreds of coconut palms.
CHEROKEE SOUND & THE ABACO CLUB - Across the sound from Casuarina is the settlement of Cherokee Sound, yet another loyalist enclave which somehow endured for more than 150 years as an isolated fishing and boat-building community. Property in and around Cherokee, which is only 20 miles from Marsh Harbour, has caught on with folks wanting to relocate to a traditional town which retains neighborly standards while embracing modern conveniences. Little Harbour, a nearby community with 50 homes, an art gallery and Pete’s Pub, a popular watering hole, is a short drive away. Cherokee’s simplicity and Little Harbour’s rustic atmosphere contrast dramatically with the plush and exclusive environment of The Abaco Club, a gated $160 million golf and beach community on exquisite Winding Bay which lies between the two. Here oceanfront lots go for millions of dollars and a required $75,000 club membership buys all privileges, including golf on a spectacular Scottish links style course with mind-boggling views of the Atlantic.
South of here, an empty and undeveloped Atlantic coastline beckons beachcombers - and new developers. Some have subdivided lots at Old Kerrs, Schooner Bay and Long Beach near the settlement of Crossing Rock.. Sandy Point, a village 60 miles south of Marsh Harbour at Abaco’s southern tip, has long been a haven for fishing enthusiasts. The town’s friendly residents are known as some of Abaco’s best farmers, fishermen and seafarers. There are some small hotels and guest houses as well as a few rental homes and property is much less expensive than many other areas.