Old Friends and the Sea

A beach villa in the Bahamas gives two couples a taste of island life.

The four of us—two couples who spend every Fourth of July at the Jersey Shore and Thanksgiving on the east end of Long Island—get along beautifully. Bill and I arrive each summer to find Lynn slicing famous New Jersey tomatoes and fiddling with basil from her garden. Sue is already outside at the grill. Come November, I make famous Long Island duck with an orange-chipotle glaze at our house, and Bill gives thanks for not having to eat “pilgrim food.”

We often take the show on the road, renting an apartment in Paris or a cottage in Key West, always with a kitchen, always as nice as home. We get along beautifully.

Last winter, we hopped onto a silver plane with propellers and walk-up steps to fly from Ft. Lauderdale to Eleuthera. We were en route to an oceanfront villa on skinny, three-mile-long Harbour Island, just a water taxi ride away after touchdown in the Bahamas. A colleague from Europe, who meets his California friends on Harbour each year, tipped us off to the place. He described it as a British colonial version of New York’s Fire Island: no traffic; no cars (or at least very few); hard to find. Harbour is a lost island off a bigger island in a famous chain of islands. No casinos. No day-trippers.

Food is important to all of us, but before we left home I begged everybody not to get crazy. I was sure we would find everything we needed on Harbour Island. Except cheese. Maybe Jarlsberg or Alpine Lace, but I know the rule: Palm Trees + Gorgeous Beach = Bad Cheese. I dropped by Murray’s Cheese emporium in New York, where the guy behind the counter raved about something from an alpine hamlet near Milan—I can’t remember its name—before slicing a sample from a giant wheel. He said the cheese ripened at different times, ensuring varying degrees of firmness. And you could eat the rind. I bought four pounds.

Surrounded by palms, it was our own oasis, with no other guests, no check-in, no piña coladas by the pool.

Lynn thought that was crazy. But if it was, she upped the ante with Chicken of the Sea all-white-meat tuna packed in water. “I can only eat Chicken of the Sea,” she said. “All white meat, and it has to be packed in water.” We always have tuna sandwiches for lunch at their house in New Jersey—and, yes, they are good—but I had never thought about the tuna’s provenance before. In Ft. Lauderdale, she bought a dozen king-size cans at the grocery store and stowed them in a small bag to carry onto the tiny plane. I told her that was crazy.

The mile-plus ride from the ferry dock in Dunmore Town to our rental began with a quick stop for provisions. We were told to look for a wart of a building set among the pastels of the village’s more tasteful cottages, many with white picket fences. When we saw the lime-green and orange store, we knew we’d arrived at the Pigly Wigly—which has nothing to do with the well-known Piggly Wiggly grocery chain in the U.S. South and Midwest.

After grabbing some basics for dinner, we continued past the only bank on the island, a liquor store stacked with cases of Kalik beer, and a couple of historic guesthouses, one done up in high style by the British designer India Hicks.

The journey ended at our rental house. It was named On the Edge, but it could have been called Out of Our Dreams. We oohed and aahed like a well-tuned choir at the bold eyeful of ocean and wide swath of white sand lying just beyond the hillock of sea grapes that hugged our veranda. Our veranda. On our beach. At our house. It was bigger than a cottage, too small to be a full-time home. Surrounded by palms, it was our own oasis, with no other guests, no check-in, no piña coladas by the pool. There was no pool at all, actually, but the house did have two bedrooms behind plantation shutters and a living room with a sky-high ceiling and hanging fans. A hammock strung between coconut palms swung in the breeze.

Nothing about the house was more seductive than the long veranda, littered with well-padded if well worn deck chairs, an arrangement favoring comfort over design. It wrapped around to a huge, gazebo-like patio arrayed with candle sconces. At dinner that first night, a full moon, the shimmering sea, and flickering lights made tropical magic on the deck. All was serene until Lynn spotted a bat with a foot-long wingspan resting silently at the base of the ceiling fan, frozen in the orange glow of the overhead lamp.

“It’s not a bat,” I explained, as Lynn searched Google for “big bat bahamas.” I’d seen one fluttering around the deck that morning. “It’s a moth,” I explained. “Bats don’t come out in the daytime.”

“It’s a bat,” she said.

The next day, Zoe, the woman who cleaned our house each morning, confirmed that the black-winged creature was indeed a moth. “But we call ’em bats,” she said, “ ’cause that’s what they look like.”

Bill and Sue don’t care much about bats, butterflies, tuna brands, or cheeses with edible rinds. For them, sunshine and sea views are the secrets to a relaxing vacation. Each day, the four of us went back to Dunmore Town early for groceries so we could hit the beach around 10. By some miracle, I got to drive the overgrown golf cart all week. Captains love to command their own ships. Lynn is no exception, but she couldn’t master the subtle pump-the-gas-pop-the-brake ratio, which at first sent our dune buggy streaking down the driveway like a comet across Siberia, but in reverse. After that, Bill wanted no part of the driver’s seat; Sue recused herself, too, leaving me at the helm.

Under the sign of a merry fiddling pig, the entrance to the Pigly Wigly leads to an old-time grocery of wood-plank floors and all the warmth of a church picnic. The Pigly Wigly has cornflakes, mayo, orange juice, bacon, tinfoil, and Saran Wrap—the usual supermarket basics. And, I noticed on our second visit, Chicken of the Sea all- white-meat tuna packed in water. “I told you we’d find it,” I said to Lynn, adding, “You never listen,” just to let her know I considered the entire tuna incident a serious matter.

On board, there was nothing in the way of communications except a rusty ship-to-shore radio, and it was busted.

At the upscale deli next door, Lynn was quick to point out the large variety of exotic cheeses, which didn’t matter much since we still had a couple pounds left of the stuff I had brought from New York. So far, nobody had touched the edible rind.

Harbour is a ritzy island. On a stroll down the beach midway through our weeklong trip, I struck up a conversation with a woman who told me that someone who looked vaguely familiar just threw his towel down on the beach near her before jumping into the water to play with her kids. “It was Colin Firth,” she said. “Ohhhh,” I cooed, “I liked him long before The King’s Speech.” I also learned that Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg keep a house on Harbour Island.

I kept walking and ended up at Pink Sands, a legendary resort that opened in the 1950s and still has serious WASPs-at-play cred. I couldn’t see the cottages but was told they were set way back on expansive grounds behind the dunes. On the walk I did spot an aerie of a bar nesting high above the dunes with one tiki torch−trimmed edge jutting way over the beach.

Finding that bar from the road on a return visit that evening was trickier. As I started to turn right into what I believed must be the parking lot, Lynn, Sue, and Bill, having already seen a sign pointing the other way, began a chorus of “left, left, left” with the urgency of three Valkyries preparing for battle. “You never listen,” Lynn shouted as I pulled into someone’s yard in front of a terrified chicken. When we did reach the Blue Bar, we were slightly disappointed that our adventure had ended at a spot more country club than castaway.

Our housekeeper, Zoe, tipped us off that making friends with the fishermen on the ramshackle old dock in town was the way to find good things to toss on our grill—snapper and lobster caught by people who sail out each morning, far from the blue-green waters off the shallow coast of Harbour Island. “You’ve got to chat them up,” she said. “Got to get to know them.”

With a sense of mission, Lynn and I joined forces to find fresh fish on the pier, which doesn’t exactly sport a neon welcome sign. Most of the catch is reserved for the restaurants—loyal customers—not visitors. The working dock looked off-limits enough to frighten ordinary tourists, but we boldly marched out onto it to meet a handful of young men who asked what we were looking for, which was pretty much anything that would earn us our Merit Badge for marching out onto a no tourists fishing pier.

“Hey, Maxwell, get over here,” a weathered rail of a man called across the shallow water to someone on shore. Ten minutes later, Maxwell walked up with a bag full of fluke. “Want us to clean it for you?” he asked. Sure we did.

The older man said he could take us out in his boat for a custom-made fishing trip if we’d like. “Would we!” Lynn said. “You bet,” I confirmed. But we had to leave in the morning, early. “Next time,” we said, and requested his telephone number.

“Oh, just ask for Herman Higgs,” the old man said. “I’m Maxwell’s dad. I’ve been fishing here a long time. A long time. Since Pink Sands.”

If Mustique is the gated community of the Caribbean, as welcoming as a Russian oligarch’s London condo, and St. Barths is its Côte d’Azur, tiny Harbour—Caribbean in spirit although not strictly in geography—is more like a yacht lost at sea carrying a pleasant mix of passengers: Old Money scions; people who shop at Williams-Sonoma and might have a friend who’s actually been to Ibiza; and some really nice fisherfolk. While the boat was floating aimlessly, something called Twitter came on the scene, but nobody on the yacht had heard about it. On board, there was nothing in the way of communications except a rusty ship-to-shore radio, and it was busted.

We plan to go back to Harbour Island. But Lynn and I no longer need to bring tuna or cheese or anything else. We have bigger fish to fry, as it were, and a great idea for an all-day “cruise” that we just know Bill and Sue are going to love.

The fluke was delicious.

>>Next: Why Travel Is the Ultimate Relationship Test

Born in St. Louis. Lived in Colombia. Ended up in New York. Got job at Travel & Leisure, moved on to Saveur, landed at Gourmet. As travel editor, I dispatched writers to Tibet, Telluride, across the Continent, and down the Amazon. I went lots of nice places, too. Love big cities, train travel, architecture, politics even. Ready to share wisdom. Happy to explain what’s going on. Willing to tell all about London from cheap eats to best flats. But why stop there?
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