We did it. We took the plunge and planned a last minute escape from the cold and snow here in Ohio. Our first big trip in what feels like forever and we decided to head for the island of Eleuthera in The Bahamas. Most people have not heard of Eleuthera, which is a somewhat remote out island. This means it's on the outer edge of The Bahamas; if you sailed straight off the eastern coast of it, the next land you would run into would be Africa.
The island is 110 miles long with a population of only about 11,000. North Eleuthera, where we stayed, has even fewer people with only a little over 3,000 residents. The geography of it is long and skinny and at its widest point, it's only a mile from coast to coast. It is much narrower than that in most places, which often makes it possible to see both the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea at the same time. And the biggest selling point for me...it boasts 125 mostly secluded beaches.
We chose Eleuthera because of its seclusion and its vibe for adventure. It delivered heartily on both counts!
Just managing to get there was more of an adventure than we bargained for. After dealing with strenuous COVID protocols (both U.S. and Bahamian ) and obtaining approval for special health travel visas from the Bahamian government, we experienced some rough weather and flight delays. As a result, we nearly missed our connection in Miami and we were off to a rocky start. Finally, we arrived at what is the smallest airport I've ever seen. Ironically, the island has three different airports, with two of them serving commercial flights. We were staying almost right in the middle of the two, so we flew into North Eleuthera Airport (ELH).
ELH handles two flights on Sundays and it's exactly what you might expect - a giant parking lot for a plane and an old, rundown building. There are no places to sit and no terminal...everyone just stands outside and waits on the plane after they've cleared security. After passing through customs and filing a claim for our luggage, which was LOST, we were not off to the stress-free start I had envisioned when planning this trip. The only thing that had gone according to plan at this point was the fact that I was at least standing in warm sunshine. This was a welcome relief from the 11-degree weather we felt leaving the house that morning. As we made our way outside amongst the crowd of people, a friendly, older Bahamian man looked at me and asked if I had a rental. I had a little difficulty understanding what he was asking at first, but once I did and said "Yes - with Alenda..." which was the name of the lady I had arranged a rental through, he smiled and pointed to a short, stout lady sitting on a bench.
Alenda came as one of the recommendations from our AirBnB hosts. There are no major car rental companies like Enterprise or Hertz on the island. Most rentals are through locals who have a handful of cars at best. (Also note that if you ask for a Jeep, they call all SUV type vehicles "Jeeps" and you are not likely to end up with an actual Jeep.) We had a Honda CRV and, as I had requested, she gave us one that already had plenty of scratches down the sides. I had read that the roads to the island's many beaches were mostly random dirt paths through jungle growth and that the paths were so narrow, you were unlikely to escape without scratching the vehicles. Locals call this "earning your Eleuthera stripes". (This also turned out to be totally accurate and I'm so glad I asked for a vehicle with extra ground clearance and scratches!)
Our communication had primarily been via email and Alenda messaged me the day before we left, asking if I happened to be going to the store before heading to the airport. She explained that her son had a Valentine's Party at school and wanted to bring a small gift of Valentine's chocolate for his teacher but she wasn't able to find any more on the island. She offered to reimburse me if we could bring her some. (First clue of how remote when we say we're talking remote!) TC ran to Walgreens to grab some before we left, picking up a couple extra boxes as gifts for both Alenda and her little boy. We were happy to greet her with them and her smile when realizing we had bought extra presents for her made giving up the precious space in my backpack worth it. She later emailed me photos of her son presenting the chocolates to his teachers and his smile was priceless! A really grounding reminder of how there are so many things we take for granted here in the States that are downright special to people elsewhere.
Leaving the airport, we followed Alenda as we headed towards Gregory Town, which is about 25 minutes away. She knew exactly where we were staying and said she would point out of the car window so we wouldn't miss our turn into the driveway. I'm super glad she did because even though the hosts provided specific directions, we surely would've missed it.
The first thing you learn quickly on Eleuthera is that NOTHING is marked. It is rare to find a road sign with a name. This is not an exaggeration. Directions are along the lines of "look for the white fence, slow down...it's across from the sand pit" or "turn left at the abandoned school bus" - that kind of thing. There is one main road, Queens Highway, with barely noticeable dirt paths hidden in thick brush which may be a driveway, another road, or nothing at all. It is quite the adventure trying to get your bearings and learn landmarks - all while driving on the left side of the road. BUT, we did find our AirBnB, with Alenda's help, and we ventured down what looked to be an extremely rough, narrow dirt path with some pretty deep holes. We started to wonder if Alenda had pointed at the wrong path, but about halfway down, we saw an open gate and knew she had steered us correctly.
The AirBnB we stayed at is owned by a couple named Robert and Molly. There are two A-frame structures; one is Molly and Robert's house and beside it there is a smaller A-frame which is the AirBnB. The way they have it situated is wonderful because you have complete privacy but they are also close by in case you need anything. Molly greeted us when we arrived, then we let ourselves into our bungalow.
When I'm planning a trip, I will search relentlessly for the AirBnB listing that is exactly the vibe I am looking for. Walking into this one, I was not disappointed. It was quaint but modern and immaculately clean. There was a small kitchen with all the basics, a lovely outdoor shower, and the view was incredible. The villa sits atop cliffs that are about 80 feet above the Caribbean Sea and there is a small deck with a table and chairs overlooking the ocean. I had read many reviewers talking about being able to watch sea turtles from the deck and was hopeful they would still be there. To our delight, they were! (More on that later...)
The weather was quite windy; you could hear the waves crashing amongst the rocks and there was a warm ocean breeze blowing in through the sliding glass door. Heaven. Our initial thought was to check-in and then go find a beach before sunset, but without our luggage, we only had our carry-ons which were full of camera equipment. Still in our travel clothes, we were feeling a bit hot. We hung out until Customs called to tell us the luggage had finally arrived on the second plane (thankfully) then we headed back to the airport to pick it up before they closed.
On the way back, TC noticed a house that had a gazebo-type structure on the waterfront and it had a sign at the end of the driveway that said "FOOD - OPEN". We were starving and decided to give it a try even though it appeared to be empty. The gazebo structure was actually a bar and there were a few tables sitting on a deck overlooking the Caribbean. We later discovered the name was El Karaka Glass Window Bar & Grill.
There was a lively younger guy behind the bar who took our order and serenaded us while dancing to Janet Jackson cranked up to 11. He told us his friends called him Nero - "as in dinero". It suited him and was our first intro to some of the lively and friendly Bahamian culture. We settled on fish wraps and ordered some conch fritters as a starter. He promised us they were the best we would have on the island and this turned out to be true. I admit I was skeptical but the food there turned out to be shockingly good.
There was one other patron there, probably in her late 20's or early 30's. While we were waiting on our food, we talked about how she had been surfing at Surfer's Beach earlier that day (on the Atlantic side) and the conditions were ideal because the wind was blowing from the west, instead of the usual east. (This was already a spot on our list of things we really wanted to check out but, sadly, the weather did not cooperate for us.) She had been living there while working remotely for a bit and we tried to glean some insights as to the best beaches and restaurants from a local perspective. Most of them were the same things that kept popping up over and over as I had researched the island so I felt like we were on the right track with that.
As we were wrapping up our meal, Nero was joined by another guy named Chicago - although clearly not from Chicago based upon his very Bahamian accent. Chicago's personality was equally as big and friendly as Nero's. He asked where we were from and when I said Ohio, he immediately responded with "O-H!" I was floored and asked him how he knew that. He laughed and said he had a good friend from Akron. (This turned out to be one of several interactions with strangers on the island who were Buckeye friendly!) Just goes to show you're never far from home - even when you're on a remote island in The Bahamas!
Bellies full of delicious seafood, we said good bye to Nero and Chicago and headed back to our villa for the night. We were exhausted from traveling and had a big day planned on Monday. We made a quick stop at the 7-11 and spent entirely too much money on a handful of items like coffee, creamer, and English muffins for breakfast. As TC aptly noted, Whole Foods would've been less expensive. But, this was expected, being on an island.
What was not quite as expected was exactly how remote this island felt and how difficult it was to locate things...and I felt confident I had prepared for this. I was armed with maps and books and notes with all sorts of local intel, but being there in person was an experience difficult to anticipate. There's a saying there that is "Eleuthera - it's not for everyone." and it's immediately apparent on why that might be from the moment you arrive. If you're looking for all-inclusive type resorts or an island that is easily traversable, this is not the island for you. Remote is exactly what we were looking for and we were feeling up for the challenge. As we fell asleep that first night, we were filled with anticipation about the week lying ahead of us and the adventures that awaited. We drifted off with the sliding glass door open and the soothing sounds of ocean waves crashing just outside at the edge of the cliffs. There are few sounds I can think of that are more relaxing and the stress of the day's travel to get there all melted away. Island time had begun to settle in.