When I decided on spending my birthday on an Out Island in the Bahamas, I was at a complete loss as to which island to go. I based my choice partly on the reviews on Tripadvisor.com, partly on the limited info I could find on the internet, and partly on my instincts. Bingo! The island of Great Harbour Cay turned out to be the perfect choice!
ABOUT THE ISLAND:
Great Harbour Cay is a secluded out-island 7 miles long by 1.5 miles wide, being part of the Berry Islands chain. Info on the island is scarce, which makes it not a popular destination, but that’s what makes it very attractive to me and my husband…you can walk miles on the sugar white sand beach and not see a soul.
There were private beach coves that we had all to ourselves during the week long trip. They have beaches with surf, calm shallow flats, secluded coves, dramatic beach caves…anything you ask for. The white sand was talcum soft and the water came in different hues of turquoise, green and blue. I would rate it as one of my top beach vacations, alongside Huahine in Tahiti and Provo in the Turks and Caicos.
Great Harbour Cay was developed in the late 1960s as an exclusive haven for the rich and famous. The roads, airport and 18 hole Joe Lee golf course were built then. Celebrities like Cary Grant, Brigitte Bardot , Margot Fonteyn , Ingrid Bergman, Earl Blackwell and Jack Nicklaus were regular visitors. Ten Years later, development stopped, and the original resort, Sugar Beach Hotel is now deserted. The island is now a simple and quiet paradise…the way I like it. Here is a useful link on the history of Great Harbour Cay
This beautiful little hotel is just the right size for us. What also appealed to us is that no kids and no pets are allowed for the hotel stay. Presently there are 3 rooms that are rented out and all have ensuite baths and newly renovated.
This used to be the vacation home of Earl Blackwell, author of the celebrity best dressed list, and he used it to entertain stars here during the heydays of development. But the house became neglected when development stopped. A retired British couple, Angie and Marty, bought this property and spent years renovating and improving it. This boutique hotel is only 18 months new. Marty used to be an engineer so he did most of the renovation by himself. Angie was a stewardess at British Airways and has decorated the place with all the lovely souvenirs she collected all over the world.
We stayed in the Palm Room and loved it! The hotel was kept spotlessly clean. The owners set very strict rules so the 50 ft. fresh water pool was also kept sparkling clean!
We were the only guests at the hotel for the whole week except one night when another guest flew his private plane from Fort Lauderdale to check out the island and to test his plane’s system. Only hotel guests and members of their little private Brits Ritz Club could use the pool. So we essentially had the pool all to ourselves most of the time.
The great thing about staying at this hotel is that you can get all the privacy you want, but when you are sick and tired of talking only to your other half, you get to meet interesting people as well – we had very interesting and informative chats with the owners and other patrons of the onsite restaurant.
OK, now you must be wondering, where on earth is this paradise? It is about 50 miles NNW of Nassau, Bahamas. ( Coordinates: 25°45’50″N 77°51’35″W). Here is the >Wikimapia location link
The Berry Islands are a cluster of 30 cays, many of which are uninhabited. Great Harbour Cay is the largest one with about 700 inhabitants. To the north are Coco Cay (Little Stirrup Cay) which is Royal Carribean’s private island for its cruise passengers, and Great Stirrup Cay which is used by Norwegian cruises. These cays are separated by the ocean (thank God! ). To me, it is like heaven (Great Harbour Cay) and hell (the Stirrup Cays used by the cruises). Imagine over 3000 cruise passengers being dumped on Coco Cay, sunbathing side by side, fighting for beach chairs and towels while my husband and I have a five mile beach all to ourselves.
Now the tricky part – getting there. I couldn’t find any ferry service to this island. If you are a sailor that would be easy. Great Harbour Cay has one of the most protected harbours and a marina on the west side of the island.
For the American visitors, there are direct flights from Florida to Great Harbour Cay. Many people also fly their private plane from Fort Lauderdale or Miami.
For us, we flew direct from Toronto, Canada to Nassau and then flew to Great Harbour Cay from Nassau via Leair.
The ride on this old little plane was quite an experience. It felt more like riding on a packed bus with no air con. The cabin was unpressurized and I felt a bit of decompression sickness. There was no safety announcement on my flight to the island and I completely forgot to buckle my safety belt! On the return flight, they did play the recording and only then did I realize that there was a functioning seat belt.
We arrived after 17 minutes safe and sound. I guess I shouldn’t complain since the flight was free : ) We took advantage of the Two Fly For Free offer from the Out Islands Promotion Board. As long as you stay 4 nights or more at one of the participating hotels during the promotion period, the hotel will refund you the entire amount of the two air tickets including tax. You can check it out at this link: http://www.myoutislands.com/two-fly-free-promotion.cfm
One of the reasons why I decided against renting a villa and opted for a boutique hotel is partly because we got to fly free if we stayed at Carriearl Hotel. Another reason why I stayed at a hotel is because it is hard to get groceries to cook at a rental house on this remote island. The mail boat comes only every two weeks with the supplies and it didn’t arrive as scheduled the week we were there.
This sleepy island is very safe…the safest one I have been to in all of the Caribbean. We didn’t even lock our hotel room. The hotel provided us with two hours of free use of the golf cart which we drove everyday to explore the island. We felt completely safe cruising around. All the locals were very friendly and helpful.
Carriearl had a sea kayak which we could have rented to cruise along the east coast but we’re not strong kayakers/swimmers and the waves were too strong the first couple of days, so we decided to play it safe. We simply used the golf cart for beach hopping.
To the north are the Sugar Caves, great photo op but not really for safe swimming. You can go further north of the caves to the deserted Sugar Beach Hotel for an adventure but the road was too bumpy for us from there onward and we didn’t go further.
Right in front of Carriearl is the crescent shaped Great Harbour Cay Beach which goes on for miles. It was windy the first two days and the sea was a bit too rough for us. When the wind died down the next few days, it was such a joy swimming in the calm water right in front of our hotel.
The north part of the cresecent is a sand spit, and behind it is a secluded paradise called Love Beach. It’s very private with secluded limestone caves that offer shade. The sand is super soft while the water is the loveliest turquoise blue and very calm.
The Shelling Beach on the southern tip of the island was just as calm and the water sparkling clear. We went during high tide to swim in the shallow bay which is great if you have small kids. My husband who once drowned and is just learning how to swim loved that beach. The water was only knee to thigh deep. It was more like floating than swimming.
During low tide, you can walk across the water to the opposite small island. People come here during low tide to collect shells and sand dollars. I didn’t see any sand dollars but did pick up a couple nice shells.
Right around the bend was Shark Creek. I brought my fly fishing rod and waded in the flats. Didn’t catch any bonefish but did see some small fish , a couple baby nurse sharks and a stingray swim by.
Most of the beaches are on the east coast of the island . To the west is Bullock Harbour where the locals’ village and the marina are.
We did find a very calm and secluded beach cove on the southwest side of the island called Shipyard Beach. The locals call it Bardot Beach since Brigette Bardot used to go swimming there.
I brought along my snorkel and fins but since the beaches on GHC were all sandy bottom, there was literally nothing to see with the absence of rocks and coral. But how can I complain when you walk miles on the beach without seeing anybody, and swim in the ocean with a silky smooth sandy bottom where there’s not even a tiny piece of rock?
Snorkels and fins were not the only toys I brought. The owners of the boutique hotel were surprised everyday by what I pulled out from my suitcase.
I brought my salt water fly fishing rod, spincast rod and tackle box..
When Marty said we could bring the hotel’s portable beach chairs to the beach, I told him no need and showed him the portable beach tent I brought…yes a beach tent and a small cooler bag too!
We even brought our own life jackets but didn’t get to use them. My husband, the drowning victim, wouldn’t go on any beach vacation without his heavy duty life jacket. I normally bring an inflatable snorkeling vest but since there’s not much to see I didn’t use it.
One windy day, the owners asked us what our plans were, and I told them “fly a kite”. I brought a lightweight kite from home. With the wide open beach and nobody around, flying a kite would be a lot of fun.
Then they said they had two bigger ones which they got long time ago and forgot about them. They loaned me the big dragon kite which was brand new. Setting up took a while but boy did it look good!
What else did we bring? Golf tees and 9 golf balls. The homeowners on the island have maintained 9 holes of the original Joe Lee golf course and is open for free play. No, we didn’t bring our golf clubs since we could rent them from the hotel. We also had use of the golf cart, so we just brought 9 balls for the 9 holes. Guess what? We still had 3 balls left after the 9 holes !
The most amazing experience was that the sixth hole was right by the beach. I went down to the beach, jumped into the ocean for a swim before I continued onto the seventh hole. Now where else in the world can you do that?
Since the course is maintained just by homeowners, there are no signs for the holes. I went on Google map to find out where the tees were, and prepared the following map for myself. It might be useful for you too.
MAPS AND LINKS:
Info on the island was scarce while I was researching for my trip. I am uploading the map that Carriearl provided me with. We used it on the second day to discover the island with our golf cart.
The following are helpful links which I have found:
1. Wind, waves and weather forecast for Great Harbour Cay – the best site I have found on specific weather forecast for this island. It includes wind speed & direction, wave height & direction, cloud cover, precipitation, amount of sunshine and temperature. Very accurate !
2. Tide Watch for the Berry Islands – this is very useful. I printed it out before I left for my vacation, and used it for my beach combing. I would go to Shelling Beach during low tide to look for sand dollars and shells, and during high tide to take a swim in the calm shallow bay. It is also useful to check the tide table when venturing out to the Sugar Caves.
3. Guide to Great Harbour Cay – Ernie Martin’s page on GHC is the most informative on the net that I have found.
4. Getting Around – Info on car, golf carts rentals and getting around
5. Great Harbour Cay News and Events – updated photos of activities and events
Being foodies ourselves, how can this post not have any pics on the food we had.
There were very few restaurants on the island, and Carriearl was the only one on the east side, so we ate there the whole trip except for one night when we went to Coolie Mae to try local Bahamian cooking.
At Coolie Mae, we had cracked conch, fresh fish cooked in tomato sauce and deep fried lobster, all very good.
Carriearl has an onsite bar and restaurant which is open to hotel guests during their entire stay, and to the public Thursday to Sunday.
Having their signature rum punch while chilling on the outdoor patio is a must.
Marty, one of the owners, is the chef. What can I say about his food? Wondrous! He is such a creative chef and cooks with his heart. We were so surprised that we would be treated to such gourmet food on this remote Caribbean island. He makes use of the fresh seafood and comes up with creative recipes and beautiful presentation. Totally deeeeelicious! Make sure you try his Eggs Benedict during Sunday brunch…the best I have ever had. Another must try is his Lobster in Thai Coconut Curry Sauce.
The highlight of my trip was the steamed fish Marty cooked for me. I told him my favourite way of cooking fish was to steam it Chinese style which could best bring out the delicate sweetness and freshness of the fish. I briefly mentioned how to do it. His curious mind drove him to the marina to buy two live yellowtail snappers and steamed them for us that night. How was it? Heavenly!!! Angie even dug out the Chinese serving set she got during her British Airways days to match the theme!
My husband requested for a small birthday cake for me, and Angie got up 6:30 in the morning to make a whole cup cake tree of butterfly cakes…what a birthday treat! Angie must have read my mind…I LOVE cupcakes! Hers were the best!
The island is certainly a private paradise and Carriearl is truly a hidden gem. We were so surprised that we could have this six star vacation at a very affordable cost. Now that the secret is out, we hope we can still return to paradise in the future and find it the way we enjoyed it.