Who knew that there were over 3.000 islands, cays and islets in the Bahamas? I'm on an archipelago of about 365 of them called the Exumas. (Amazing how often there are 365 of things isn’t it?). From my balcony I can see a sprinkling of them, peeking out of the water to form a picture perfect scene. Great Exuma is linked to Little Exuma, by a bridge, and there is one long highway, which runs north to south, along both of them.
The islands have their own currency, in theory, but they take U.S. dollars everywhere (have these ex British colonies no pride?) and change is a mixture of both U.S. and Bahamian dollars. The Bahama Islands were inhabited by the Lucayans, a branch of the Taíno peoples until Christopher Columbus was the first European to see the islands, in 1492. The Spanish subsequently shipped nearly all the the native Lucayans to Hispaniola, as slaves. The name “Bahamas” comes from the Spanish words “baja mar”, meaning shallow water or sea. The islands were almost deserted from 1513 until 1649, when English colonists from Bermuda, settled on the island of Eleuthera.
The Bahamas formally became a British crown colony in 1718. The population grew rapidly, after the American War of Independence , when the British Crown resettled thousands of American Loyalists and their slaves here. After the slave trade was abolished by the British in 1807, ( in 1834 in the Bahamas). the islands became a haven for freed African slaves. Today Black-Bahamians make up 90% of the population of about 400,000. The country gained independence in 1973, as a constitutional (British) monarchy.
A boat tour is mandatory in the Bahamas. It’s a hundred mile trip round all the outer cays, which form the north part of the Exumas. Most of them seem to be owned by the rich and famous and are rented out for ridiculous sums of money. There’s an underwater piano that - apparently - David Copperfield actually plays on and, on Staniel Cay, the grotto where they filmed Thunderball. We have to snorkel in, through some precarious narrow rocky channels to reach it. There are a few sergeant major fish and some eerie reflections through the holes in the roof.
The islands also seem to form a giant petting zoo, if a slightly bizarre one. We feed lettuce to land iguanas on Bitter Guana Cay, straddle nurse sharks and frolic with pigs, who swim out to greet us at Big Major Cay (yes honestly). It all began with one family of five piglets, who have expanded rapidly, no doubt nourished by all the food they beg from the visiting boats.
It’s all stunningly beautiful, but no need to feel envious - El Niño is perfidious and the weather has been awful for the last two days. I'm at the Augusta Bay Hotel, which has a great beach and amazing views across the cays. But, there’s not much to do on a small island, when it’s pelting with rain and blowing a gale. The power keeps going off and both the internet and the phone signal are intermittent, even when it’s not raining. And you can only eat so much lobster. The South African owner of the hotel offers to take me fishing one stormy afternoon. I decline.
Friday, and we’re back to perfect balmy weather. I’ve missed out on exploring and I only have one more day, so I commission a taxi to take me on a tour of the beaches. All are catch your breath gorgeous - for my money the best beaches in the Caribbean. The softest powdery white sand. Unbelievably clear water, the deepest turquoise you can imagine. Some are totally empty and stretch for miles, dipping round headlands The busiest holds about a dozen sunbathers. This is Tropic of Cancer Beach. No prizes for guessing where it is located. Fish lunch at Santana’s Beach Shack, along the road, is a must.
I'm beginning to think I'm jinxed. They won’t let me check in for Nassau, as the computer says I'm due to fly tomorrow, even though my e-ticket says today. And they say the plane is full. Eventually they let me on, but I notice that the last person to board gets shown to a seat in the cockpit. I wouldn’t have minded that one.
Nassau is as expected - a typical cruise port conglomeration of pastel designer and duty shops interspersed with the odd older colonial edifice. The paintwork is all colour coded, yellow for education, pink for government, green for morticians and the police academy. (I suppose there’s a connection.) Nassau is on New Providence Island, but the city has grown so big, it now covers the whole of the island and Paradise Island to boot. New Providence was declared a pirate republic, with the incumbents (such as Blackbeard) enjoying the sheltered harbour - not quite large enough for battleships - during the early eighteenth century, when British governorship was weak.
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