"On the ocean side of Harbour Island is the finest beach I have seen, of very fine, delicate pinkish sand, hard as a floor, a glorious galloping ground for the half dozen ponies in the place."
Nice stuff. Wish I had written it. Actually, I copied it from a page of Harper's New Monthly Magazine that was framed on the wall of Sip-Sip, a popular restaurant painted in snow-cone-green island colors.
The author's name was missing. But the date was there. November 1874.
"Isn't that great - 'the rush and giddy world of the 19th Century'," said Julie Lightbourn, the restaurant's owner. "But the thing is - and this is what I try to tell people - Harbour Island hasn't changed."
Indeed, the article listed the island's population as 2,500, and it has grown by maybe a couple of hundred people since then. But the three-mile-long, pink-sand beach - often rated the top beach in the world - still spread unspoiled below as I ate a lobster quesadilla on Sip-Sip's back porch.
And an islander galloped through the surf on a black horse that just might be a descendant of those half-dozen ponies of yesteryear.
Harbour Island, also known as “Briland”, is one of the Out Islands of the Bahamas, situated off the Florida coast on the western edge of the Atlantic Ocean. More than 700 islands make up the archipelago, about 30 of them populated and several home to Bahamas boutique hotels perfect for visitors who want something quieter than Nassau and Freeport. Exuma, the Abacos, Eleuthera, Andros, San Salvador and Bimini, where Hemingway hung out, are among the best known and most visited.
There also are lesser-known outposts such as Crooked Island and Great Inagua, where the ratio of flamingos to people is said to be 61-1.
Harbour Island is just three miles long and a half-mile wide. If you walked into the water off the island's beach and swam east, the first land you'd reach would be Africa.
Christopher Columbus and Ponce de Leon landed in the islands, but many were settled by British loyalists who fled America, bringing along their slaves. Thus, after landing at the North Eleuthera airport and taking a $4 water-taxi ride a mile northeast to Harbour Island, I was surprised to find - New England.
A walk down the dock led to Dunmore Town, the only town on the island, and Bay Street, which was lined with colonial homes fronted by white picket fences draped in bougainvillea and hibiscus blooms. The gingerbread homes and tropical flowers came in an array of colors, some not found on any decorator's chart. As I roamed narrow streets meant for carriages, every islander I passed offered a greeting in English better than my neighbors' back home.
Dunmore Town, founded in the late 1600s, was the original capital of the Bahamas, before Nassau took over that designation.
The “rush and giddy world of the 19th Century” passed on by, leaving behind a charming enclave where the major industries are fishing and tending to the lucky tourists who have kept Harbour Island their secret for more than a century.
The crow of a rooster and the whir of golf carts filtered through the louvered window of my room at the Landing, a 200-year-old plantation house-turned-hotel on Bay Street. Harbour Island has no golf courses, but seemingly every one of its residents gets about on a golf cart.
“Over by the Piggly Wiggly, they jam up really good,” said the sommelier at the high-end Rock House resort next door.
Harbour Island has avoided the motorized deluge that has spoiled so many vacation destinations by adopting golf carts as prime movers. No horns, no smog, no road rage. There are cars and trucks on the island, but legislation has been drafted that would put a moratorium on these intrusions.
Raymond Harrison, senior tourism manager for Harbour Island and Eleuthera, is leading the push. “We don't need any more big vehicles,” he said. “The island is too small, too congested. If we don't start now, in a few years it will be too late.”
Harrison arrived to give a tour of the island - in a golf cart, of course, a purple, gas-powered Yamaha six-seater with chrome wheels and a white top. We purred through the streets of Dunmore Town at a leisurely pace and headed to the Narrows, a strip of land with mansions with names such as Sans Souci and Hidden Mango on both sides of a thin sand road. All we could see were the gates and gardens and glimpses of the beach beckoning beyond. When the owners are absent, some of the homes are available for rent at $5,000 to $8,000 a week.
“This island has become the place for the rich and famous,” Harrison said. “On any given day, you can walk the streets and see major stars, top corporate executives.”
Indeed, in the weeks before I came, Julia Roberts and Elle Macpherson were sighted. Over cold Kalik beers at tiny JJ's bar one night, the locals told of the surprise appearance of model Tyra Banks on a bar stool. Colin Powell has dropped by, too.
The island is a nice mix of high-end resorts that have the feel of old-money country clubs, and bars such as Gusty's, where the floor is sand and Kalik-fueled karaoke the entertainment. The Vic-Hum Club, home of the “world's largest coconut,” has an outdoor patio that serves as the kids' basketball court by day and a dance floor at night, with D.J. Daddy "D" spinning the tunes.
“Even though we have a lot of upscale, we want to maintain this down-home feel so people don't feel it's too stuffy,” Harrison said.
Dinner for two at The Landing or Rock House, which have the premier restaurants on the island, will run about $150. But you also can eat at the Harbour Bayside Cafe, where Dorothy, the owner, laid out a luncheon of steamed lobster, lobster and rice, sauteed pork chops and salad, followed by mango pie.
The tab was $7 a person, plus tip. A word of caution: Go easy on the goat pepper sauce.
After lunch, I abandoned Harrison and rented a golf cart of my own. The woman behind the counter took $30 for the afternoon and did not ask for my name or driver's license, sending me on my way with four words: "Drive on the left."
The mission was to get lost on the island, but with so few streets, and so many helpful islanders, that proved impossible.
I stopped to do a little souvenir shopping at one of the island's treasures, Patricia's Fruits and Vegetables. Patricia Fisher was sitting inside the store, behind a neat mound of tomatoes. The room was fragrant with spices, and Fisher's homemade jams, hot sauces, candies and cakes waited on the shelves.
"We have the sour orange marmalade right now; usually there's guava and sometimes pineapple - tomato jam, too," she said. "We have the goat pepper and ladyfinger hot sauces. I'm making up some mild tomorrow. I have thyme in the bottle for cooking."
I grabbed a hot sauce ($5), a sour orange marmalade ($3), a slice of sweet-potato bread ($1.25) and a scoop of peanut brittle ($1). Down the street, a bottle of mango rum completed my shopping list.
Harbour Island has a half-dozen upscale resorts to choose from, the most of the Out Islands, although Great Exuma is coming on strong with the November opening of a Four Seasons.
My first two nights were spent at the Landing, in a single room that cost $180. The price drops to $150 in the off-season, which runs from the end of April to mid-December. The room, one of seven in the hotel, had a king-size four-poster bed and a big bathroom. Rooms on the front of the building have private balconies overlooking the bay and go for $25 more.
The Landing has dark wooden floors, white walls, and simple furnishings, with the stately air of its two-century-old heritage. The nine-room Rock House next door has a pool surrounded by cabanas and an elegant interior with an open dining area overlooking the water.
A 15-minute walk across Dunmore Town led to the pink-sand beach, where I relocated for the third night. A trio of fine resorts sit side by side on the dunes overlooking the beach - Pink Sands, Coral Sands, and the Dunmore Beach Club. Runaway Hill Club and Romora Bay Club, where you're greeted by a pair of colorful macaws, are two other prestigious properties on the island.
I had a reservation at the Dunmore Beach Club, which was created to cater to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and their friends, and still has a private-club atmosphere. The cocktail hour began at 6 each evening, and an hour later the bartender signaled that dinner was ready with a blast of an antique Santa Fe railroad whistle.
At dawn one morning, I sat on the Dunmore's terrace and watched the early strollers on the beach below, which turned from red to orange to its normal pink as the sun rose over the placid ocean. Behemoth cruise ships lined up on the horizon like toy boats. A waitress brought out a pot of coffee, decorated with a red hibiscus bloom, and I drank the most beautiful cup I've ever had.
Dunmore has 14 cottages spread over eight acres. Mine had a king-size bed, a sofa sleeper in the sitting room, wicker furniture, and a vast bathroom with a whirlpool tub and walk-in shower. Out front, two lounges sat on a stone patio with a palm-framed view of the beach beyond the gazebo.
As I walked Dunmore's winding drive that afternoon, Baron Bates of New York City was heading to town on a golf cart with his wife, Dorry, trudging behind. "I like to walk," she said.
"We come at this time every year - there's a two-week lull after New Year's when there's no one here," Dorry Bates said. "By Jan. 20, they're full again."
"We like this place because it's so relaxing; the beach is paradise," she said. "There's nothing to do. No phones, no radio, no TV. Although now there's a computer in the lobby, which distressed us."
"But then, it's 18 degrees back home."
Editor's Note: Prices have changed since this article was written.