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 heating 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 the Pink Sands Resort 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 colorful, 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 chili 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.
I don’t even have to step into my golf cart to trip next door to Rock House, as brash, bright and Versace as The Landing is cool, crisp and mono. Now in its second year, this is mini-Miami (very mini, with only nine rooms) for well-heeled Statesiders. I don’t feel Ocean’s Eleven enough for the hilarious pool-side cabanas but my American pal squeals at all the glitz, the marble bathrooms and the jewel of a pool — and both of us like the monster martini menu, so popular with guests that Rock House is to make the bar bigger, air-conditioned and open after hours.
When I was last here, Valentine’s Marina was a pier, a dive-shack and a few rooms. Now it’s fancied up its waterfront and unveiled new plans for 50 suites in two years, modeled shamelessly on The Landing/Hicks style.
"We’ve got the Beautiful People here on the island now but at Valentine’s we’re going to give ‘em a Yankee lick of colour and glitz," admits the boss, Harper Sibley. It’s an ambitious project that will swell Harbour Island’s hotel room total by a third.
But can Harbour Island support this influx, or will its charm, history and God-given advantages of nature be suffocated? Around the island are rubbish bins, marked with the stern legend, “Keep Harbour Island Beautiful”. Uncle Ralph’s Aura Corner, which used to be a street corner peppered with scraps of wood painted with pithy adages such as “Never argue with a woman. People will think you are drunk“, is now filling up with charm-less American licence plates.
Down on the waterfront, there is now a John Bull Duty Free jewelry shop, housed in an old colonial-era house but glaringly inappropriate compared with the relaxed feel of the island.
Robert Arthur, Jehovah’s Witness and popular young owner of Arthur’s Bakery, allays my fears. "No one can do to us what we don’t do to ourselves," he smiles. "There’s no 'us and them' issue between native locals and developers, that’s the thing about Harbour Island — we’re all thrown in together. We threw out a development planned for the north end of the island last year because we didn’t think it was going to be right for the island and it can only get so busy here: we don’t have the deep water for the cruise ships, we don’t have the space for the all-inclusive and we don’t have the water supply for a whole ton more tourists to actually stay and shower here."
He holds up his finger and thumb about two inches apart. "That’s the size of the water pipe serving this island, and you know how much Americans shower. There’s no way our supply can stand that. So don’t worry, we’re not going to change that much." And with that, he goes back to his other job, writing a screenplay.
In a place as small as Harbour Island, schoolchildren still hitch lifts on the back of golf carts, no matter how rich or famous the driver. The rickety Queen Conch food-shack at the north end of the island is still the best place I’ve been throughout the Caribbean for conch salad. But nevertheless, I would come to Harbour Island now, while it’s still firmly pitched at The Landing, Pink Sands and Rock House intimacy.
As it says in a handwritten scrawl up at Uncle Ralph’s Aura Corner: "The last step before you get to Heaven is Harbour Island." I rather agree.