There’s a heat wave in the Bahamas, and it has nothing to do with the tropical climate. Until recently, despite its turquoise waters, impossibly soft sand beaches and hundreds of islands, the Bahamas — which were untouched by Hurricane Charley — were chronically under-served by good hotels. Now things are hotting up: boutique is the critique and Aveda goodies the norm, and nowhere is hotter than Harbour Island.
After just a hop and a skip from US-dominated Nassau, I disembark on to this pint-sized pocket paradise, just three miles by one (5 x 1.5km), and marvel at what has happened in the seven years since I was last here. Then it was one of many Bahamas islands with a history of English colonial eccentricity, an irresistible old town where even the policemen drove golf carts (though theirs came with a blue flashing light), one decent hotel and the best beach I had yet seen. It was not only pink but, because of the mashed coral that makes up its sand, always cool to walk on, even under the hottest sun.
Today, the sunshine, the town, Pink Sands beach and Pink Sands hotel remain much the same, but around them there has been a fashion whirlwind, and the likes of Elle Macpherson, Diane von Furstenberg, the Miller sisters (daughters of the billionaire duty free magnate Robert Miller) and India Hicks (Diana, Princess of Wales’s bridesmaid, and Ralph Lauren’s muse-turned-desert-island-girl) have bought property here. And this summer, Zara Phillips and her squeeze, the England rugby player Mike Tindall, were snapped frolicking in the Harbour Island waters.
A new two-hour fast ferry from Nassau disgorges crowds of day-trippers to ogle the celebrities, eat lunch, shop in the hip boutiques and depart, leaving the island to the people who can afford to stay here.
There are three utterly desirable hotels, with another on the way. And in an archipelago where the default cuisine is usually deep-fried conch served in dark, uninviting pre-fab bungalows, the newly opened Sip Sip (which means gossip in the local lingo) is a colourful, airy restaurant sharing Pink Sands beach with the lusciously lavender Blue Bar belonging to Pink Sands hotel.
Sip Sip doesn’t have a celebrity chef but what it does have is a fun atmosphere (decor is lime greens and acid yellows), a veranda to catch the sea breezes, and decent food. A bowl of spicy conch chilli is £9, the lobster quesadilla is £11.50; finish with the carrot cake with ginger caramel, a snip at £3.80. To have one good lunch place in the Bahamas is a treat. To have two within walking distance is a real treasure.
Pink Sands — Balinese-themed haven which set the standard for a host of Caribbean hotels — has been the focus of rumours that its owner, Chris Blackwell of Island Outpost, will sell it, to concentrate on his Jamaica properties. So are they feeling nervous about all this competition? Not at all, says the manager Clemens, firmly denying the rumours: "Our 'rivals' have too few hotel rooms to be competition but it’s all good publicity for the island," he said.
Most high profile of the new competitors is The Landing, a seven-room converted dairy transformed under the hand of India Hicks and her partner David Flint Wood.
Hicks has even published a book on her decorating style, called Island Life, based on The Landing and her own house on Harbour Island.
I love the cosy, clubby bar and the newly air-conditioned dining room (with large terrace overlooking the waterfront) serving Aussie fusion food. I want to lounge on a day-bed in the bright, expensively-simple rooms and marvel at the intimate scale, the starchy Ralph Lauren linens, wafting white muslin and stylish custom-made local furniture, but I bemoan the lack of a pool — although this will soon be put right.