Feels Like A Little Private Island
by Alex Roslin
No Sea-Doos or parasailing, no hair braiders or bracelet sellers. It's all ours.
No, this is not our own private island, although it sure feels that way. This is Spanish Wells, in the Bahamas.
It's not that this little island has nothing to attract visitors. This fine morning, we bake under a cloudless cobalt-blue sky, mesmerized by the ocean's brilliant swirl of aquamarine and spring green. We can't imagine a beach more perfect for our two young daughters to play on. The water is so shallow I can walk 15 minutes straight out before it even reaches my knees.
The sandbar stretches two kilometres from Spanish Wells to a distant line of breakers, where the Sargasso Sea crashes into the Devil's Backbone coral reef. Apart from its clouds of groupers, parrotfish, angelfish, and sharks, the reef is also a graveyard of diveable shipwrecks. Its victims include the first European settlers in the Bahamas—the Puritan pilgrims who fled the English Civil War in the 1640s and, after crash-landing here, never left.
So where is everybody? We ponder this question daily as we splash around in the water and decorate sandcastles with beautiful conch shells, while the occasional ray glides past.
Lobster Fishing Village
The locals of this lobster-fishing village (population 1,500) laugh at us as we head off to the beach. “How kin you go in that watah?” they ask in that odd Old South-meets-Jamaica accent of the “Conchy Joes”, white Bahamians who trace their ancestry back to the Puritans or the Loyalists who came in the 1780s. “It's freezin'!”
When we tell them the water is warmer than our pools back home, we get astonished looks. They call us “the crazy Canadians”. The islanders venture to the beach only when it reaches sauna-like temperatures in the summer.
The irony of this is that almost all of Spanish Well's “mens” are lobster fishermen. Not the kind who haul traps out of the water and empty them into a boat. These lobster fishermen wear wet suits, thick ones of course, and dive for their catch all day. Some of the older men still free-dive down to 30 metres without a breathing apparatus. The younger guys breathe through a hookah connected to a hose that hangs from a skiff above.
Except for short visits home to offload lobster tails and stock up on supplies, “the mens is out at sea” from August to March each year.
Spanish Wells is the lobster capital of the Bahamas, with one of the biggest fishing fleets in the Caribbean. This four-kilometre-long island supplies the Red Lobster restaurant chain, as well as high-end European eateries.
Lobstering started here just 15 or 20 years ago, but it quickly transformed Spanish Wells from a hard-luck fishing village into one of the wealthiest settlements in the Caribbean.
Tourists on Spanish Wells?
So what about tourists? Why isn't Spanish Wells beach swarming with visitors gorging themselves on tasty crustaceans? Our family of four makes up the majority of tourists on the beach for much of our three-month vacation. An occasional cruise ship or yacht sails beyond the reef, moving between the Bahamian capital of Nassau and other Caribbean locales, including the nearby tourist trap of Harbour Island, home of supermodel Elle Macpherson and the legendary Pink Sands resort.
The pink sands beach is said to be one of the world's most beautiful. One day, we took the fast ferry to see it for ourselves. It truly is stunning. But we weren't sorry to return to our out-of-the-way little island, with its laid-back little village.
The lack of tourists doesn't come as a complete surprise. Spanish Wells has long had a reputation as an inward-looking, conservative, religious place where outsiders aren't welcome. Our Lonely Planet guidebook called the island “slightly unnerving”. “Do be prepared for some frosty stares and passive displays of hostility,”it said.
We arrived wondering what kind of reception we'd get. In fact, we couldn't have found a more hospitable spot for sojourn. The close-knit islanders have an Old World kindness and generosity. Everyone we pass on the roads waves and says hello. Our social calendar is full of invitations to dinner parties, kids' birthday parties, spear-fishing trips, and, of course, church. (Bahamians are considered some of the most religious people in the world, with more churches per capita than any other country.)
Our new friends drop off lobster thermidor, guava duff (a cross between bread and cake), and homegrown bananas, and the gifts don't stop when we don't go to church.
There's very little crime on Spanish Wells. We never lock our doors. The delivery man comes in and leaves our groceries on the kitchen table when we're not home. We leave money on the front stoop under an empty water bottle when we need a refill.