Interlopers call them the Out Islands but the Bahamians know how special their watery backyard is so they call them the Family Islands. My favourite character in this glittering collection is Harbour Island – the insouciant younger sister who gets on with her own thing in her own style. Harbour Island, known to locals as Briland, was created by the universe to my exact specifications of what a tropical island should be – relaxed, luxurious and free from pretence.
The flight from Miami barely registers until the grey swathe of the North Eleuthera landing strip comes into view. The scruffy shed-like terminal is exactly as it should be, conjuring thoughts of clammy gentlemen in linen suits with secrets to keep accompanied by icy tropical cocktails. My Bahamas is firmly set in a 1940s era film starring Cary Grant and Lauren Bacall.
This is the quintessential tropical island – soft sands, swaying palm trees and blessedly free of crowds.
Excitement builds to an exquisite ache during the 5-minute water taxi ride to Harbour Island and as my foot lands on the dock and I breathe in that steamy tropical air, I am finally at home. Before I know it a golf cart has putt-putted me away to The Ocean View Club where I plan to do a whole lot of practically nothing while managing to simultaneously feel like I’ve done everything and met all the people I will ever need to know.
Four dogs splayed out against the tiles of the entrance greet me in the only way hot dogs can, with an indolent wag of the tail and a bit of a stretch. Being welcomed at the Ocean View Club is like being enveloped in a big warm-hearted tropical hug. Ben Simmons, the current owner, grew up here. His mother, the indomitable Pip Simmons inherited the place from her family and ran it as a hotel until passing the baton to Ben and his partner Charlotte “Charlie” Phelan.
Bohemian is such an hackneyed word these days. Any meaning it may have once held has faded away like the weft of aged velvet. But honestly, it’s what comes closest to describing the sun laden and sea washed sophistication of the Ocean View Club. Ben and Charlie have stepped directly into Pip’s non-conformist, freethinking, stylish shoes turning this family-home cum lush guesthouse into a beacon of island chic. It is luxurious but also carefree and comfortable. You might be forgiven for believing you actually live here.
I’m in the Kitchen Cottage with its canopied four-poster bed and bright yellow claw foot bath, which I eye up for a late night soak before bed. Each of the nine rooms are decorated in accordance to its outlook and history. As expected my room used to be the kitchen and while there’s no whiff of frying bacon I can’t help but feel the residual warm glow of the many family moments this room once witnessed.
The absolutely first thing anyone should do on arrival on Harbour Island is commune with the sea. The island is famous for it’s pink sands and while I am partial to a peachy tint the real beauty is in the texture. They call it powder – like snow except without the discomfort of ski gear. One side of the island looks out to the Atlantic and the other kisses the Caribbean, the common thread between them is the vast spectrum of blue – from glassy green to piercing turquoise it is picture postcard perfect.
Even though the island is only 3 miles long and half a mile wide the beach appears to go on forever. The few people that pass my way offer friendly waves or stop for a chat. That even the most hard-headed city folk are able to shed their big smoke armour and talk to a stranger is testament to the liberation the island provides. Everyone is friendly and genuinely happy to see you. It’s contagious and not long before I myself start to wave at complete strangers.
Dunmore Town is the name given to the tiny collection of streets that make up the commercial centre. The whole place fits in perfectly with my 1940s tropical film noir fantasy. Rows of pastel cottages in the New England colonial style sit cute-as-a-button along the streets. Pinks, greens, blues and yellows all with white picket fences and eaved windows. It would be no surprise to find a sultry Rita Hayworth sitting on a porch sipping freshly made lemonade.
Harbour Island has long been the domain of a certain niche within the jet set crew. It’s relative isolation means that only true believers make it across from the glitzier resorts. Aristocrats, fashionistas and a rabble of global drifters dominate the local scene. These are not the ostentatious types though – there’s more substance than flash and the smattering of gorgeous, exclusive and hip boutiques are evidence of the kind of spending they’re accustomed to.
Linda Griffin and India Hicks – former Ralph Lauren model, author and Prince Charles’ goddaughter – own the Sugar Mill Trading Co. on Bay Street. This little shop is packed with all sorts of delicious goodies. Hicks’ own label rubs shoulders with Melissa Odabash bikinis, caftans by Royal Jelly Harlem and any number of gorgeous trinkets picked up on the owner’s world travels. I accidentally purchase one of Hicks’ classic no-hassle-tassel necklaces and just can’t resist the signature skull and crossbones towel.
Dakes Shoppe stocks homewares, art, clothing, accessories and everything in between. I take advantage and pocket a couple of tins of my favourite Fat and Moon lip tint as well as a few John Derrian postcards which I know I will probably never send. Miss Mae’s is Pip Simmon’s shop and reflects her eccentric and enchanting personality. A slew of other beautiful high-end boutiques satisfy the shopping urge but for something really different I settle on Eva’s Straw for a handmade traditional basket bag.
While the world famous Briland Conch Salad can be had at other venues, The Conch Queen is the spiritual home of this island delicacy. Located on the pier this brightly painted collection of wooden bar stools and tables boasts the best snacks with a view. Freshly caught conch are chopped up and tossed in a citrusy salsa and doused with chilli. It’s Bahamian ceviche with a twist made all the more delicious by the super friendly staff and ambience.
With friends arriving just in time for cocktail hour a refresh is required. Back at the Ocean View Club I get chatting to owners Ben and Charlie who suggest a jaunt over to their other project on North Eleuthera Island. Fittingly called The Other Side we agree to pop over for a night or two at some point. After a quick dip and a mini siesta under a parasol I head over to The Dunmore to meet the recent arrivals and take in the sunset.
The Dunmore is another perfect location for my Golden Years of Hollywood fantasy but despite the glamorous setting with its island chic decor and uninterrupted views the star of this boutique hotel is the food and cocktails. We order a bunch of dishes including stone crab claws, lobster tail, Cajun spiced chicken and Caribbean Bouillabaisse. While we wait another round of Goombay Smash magically appears. It is the definition of a classic tropical cocktail – rum, pineapple, rum, coconut and more rum – and frighteningly easy to drink.
Where there is music and Bahamians there will be dancing. The island’s nightlife is charmingly down home. While a top international DJ might be staying on island the bars and clubs are local hang outs with zero pretentiousness. We hop over to Daddy D’s for a boogie and at some point make our way back to bed. The morning waits with its promise of indulgent island living.
Breakfast at The Landing is essential to any stay on Harbour Island. Their famous ricotta hotcakes with honeycomb butter and banana set us up perfectly for a morning out on paddleboards. Underneath us masses of colourful fish dart about and then suddenly we are surrounded by sea turtles. Gorgeous, elegant, slow and wise we watch in silence as they glide under and around until finally they swim away and we all break out in whoops of incredulous laughter. This is real!
A short speedboat ride takes us to The Other Side – Ben and Charlie’s second hotel situated on North Eleuthera. Sustainably built and operated and simply divine the resort is a mix of what they call shacks and tents and what I call the epitome of design chic. A magical night starts with watching the sunset followed by dinner and a moonlit walk along the beach. It’s almost too hard to leave the next morning until we remember we are going back to Harbour Island, so everything is just fine.
On the last day we stop in at Sip Sips for spicy conch chilli, buttered grits with fish and an irresistible slice of chocolate banana pudding. There’s just enough energy left to lie around on the soft pink sand and lazily start planning the next trip to Harbour Island. While I watch an hummingbird harvest nectar from tropical blossoms I muse on the pure beauty of this place and it’s inhabitants. Here there is always time for a wave, a smile or a chat. The sunsets are continually redefining the concept of beauty. The stars are surprisingly brighter every night and the people – well, they just keep on smiling.
Photography by Ana Lui ◼
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© This article was first published in Feb-Mar 2018 edition of World Travel Magazine.