CAT ISLAND: NOVEMBER, 2003
We've been traveling the islands for over 14 years now, constantly refining our definition of the perfect land-based destination (the standards for sailing trips are necessarily different). Over the years, I've found three main requirements for a satisfying island vacation: a relatively secluded destination, great beaches, and unique accommodations. Beyond that, it's all in the details.
We've long been fans of the "Out Islands" of the Bahamas, ever since our first true experience of Island Time on Eleuthera. Subsequent repeated visits to the Abacos have cemented our appreciation. While physical proximity to the United States made getting to some of these islands not so difficult, there was still a big psychic distance between the islands and home, which was evident in the lack of crime, the laid-back atmosphere, the slow pace, and the quaint beauty of the islands. Unspoiled by large-scale tourism, the islands are a perfect escape. Our last trip to Abaco showed that the psychic gap was ever-so-subtly being closed: more crowded flights, lots more fishing boats coming over from Florida for the weekend, once-empty anchorages filled with boats. While we're still in love with the Abacos -- they remain my favorite sailing destination -- I felt the need to go further out in the Out Islands. Cat Island fit the bill.
Cat Island is located south of Eleuthera and east of the Exuma chain, with the Atlantic Ocean crashing onto its eastern shore, and Exuma Sound lapping ashore on the west. At 46 miles long, it narrows to as little as a mile across in spots, and counts a couple thousand souls as its permanent inhabitants. Until the early part of the 20th century, Cat Island had been called "San Salvador," laying claim to being Columbus' first landfall in the New World. The Bahamian government later awarded the name "San Salvador" to Watling's Island, which bore a closer resemblance to the island Columbus discovered, and renamed the former San Salvador "Cat Island." In the 1700s, the Bahamas saw Loyalists, fleeing the American Revolutionary War, settle in the islands and attempt build an agricultural-plantation economy. While Cat Island has more topsoil and ground water than other Bahamian islands, large-scale agriculture never really took root; the abolition of slavery in the early 1800s was even more decisive. Some descendants of those early Loyalist families remain on the island, though they are outnumbered by the descendants of former slaves (many of whom also bear their names), some of whom eke out a living with small-scale farming. Regular electrical service was only extended to Cat Island 9 years ago.
Getting There and Back
Getting to Cat Island is certainly easier today than it was a dozen years ago, when small air charters or the mailboat were the way to go. Today, there is regularly scheduled air service from Ft. Lauderdale and from Nassau. Given our past experience with the Ft. Lauderdale-based carrier which serves Cat Island Lynx Air International we opted to fly to Nassau and use Cat Island Air (which offered daily service, while Bahamasair does not). Rumour has it that Continental/Gulfstream will soon be adding service to Cat Island, which will make arriving somewhat simpler for U.S. travelers.
Wanting to use frequent flier miles, we flew free from Washington Reagan to Nassau on American Airlines on the evening of Halloween Friday. DCA turned out to be a good jumping-off point compared to our usual departure airport, BWI, taking only a few minutes more of time on the road and a few bucks more for the limo service we use. The trade-off is a less-crowded airport, shorter lines, and less harried airline and security staff. Our flights were on time (even early) and uneventful, though the layover at MIA tested my patience the way it always does, with its usual complement of crowds, illogical design (we had to leave the secure area of Concourse E, and enter through security again at Concourse D), and non-existent food choices.
We spent Friday night at the Orange Hill Inn west of Nassau on New Providence Island, a 5 minute ride from the airport. The room was dated but clean and reasonably comfortable. The staff is very friendly, they serve a terrific breakfast for about $7 per person. The location across the street from a nice walking beach was pleasant and filled the time before our 10 a.m. flight on Cat Island Air.
The Cat Island Air flight departed out of the domestic terminal at Nassau's airport. Departure was right on time, and the low-flying flight took us over the gorgeous Exumas to Cat Island, with our final descent right over Fernandez Bay, which would be our home. We were greeted at the airport by the manager of Fernandez Bay Village, Donna, who picked us out of the small milling group of people at New Bight International Airport's single room with no problem whatsoever: we were the only people she didn't know!
Our return trip was similar. The incoming Cat Island Air flight the following Saturday turned around in about 5 minutes, and got us back to Nassau right on time. We spent the entire day in Nassau (more on that later), spent the night at Orange Hill again, and returned to DCA via MIA on time and without event. With U.S. customs and immigration located in the Nassau airport (this is new to us, since we usually travel to more obscure destinations), the return trip was made that much easier. The seamless travel alone made this trip noteworthy for us, prey as we are to weather and airline snafus!!