By Andrew McCarthy
“I’m just not sure I get it.” From up here on the bluff, the turquoise water laps silently at the pink hued sand. The sun is high, the sky blue. I’ve just finished a sweet mango smoothie and a moist and flavorful plate of fresh mahi-mahi. I’ve no reason to be so agitated, yet I am.
“If you can’t find what’s so special on Harbour Island, then you’re looking too hard.” Amanda McGowan replies. Amanda, down from Manhattan, has been a regular visitor to the island for a dozen years. We’re at the hip luncheon hotspot, Sip Sip, and we have gotten to chatting, the way people do on this casually chic atoll. Her insight jolts my New Yorker’s aggressive mindset, and after I pay my bill and climb into my golf cart—the primary mode of transport on the island—I roll on back toward Dunmore town, Amanda’s words ringing in my head
Located in the center of the Bahamas chain, Harbour Island’s obvious calling card is a nearly three-mile long beach running the length of the east coast. It’s on almost everyone’s list of the most beautiful beaches in the world—but there are plenty of beautiful beaches in the Bahamas. I’ve come down to Harbour Island to try and discover just what it is about this tiny islet that elicits such devotion among those who have discovered it. There’s a mystique about this place, and I’m out to uncover it.
The most immediate appeal of Harbour Island is what it lacks. “At three miles long and half mile wide, we’re small enough to keep out the casino’s and the big ships,” Toby Tyler tells me as we look out over the placid bay on the western edge of the island, where overblown yachts bob beside small working skiffs. We standing out in front of The Landing, a small and stylish inn that Toby runs wife this wife Tracy, along Bay Street in Dunmore, the lone settlement on the island. It’s here in Dunmore where most of the 2,500 residents live, many in colorful 19th Century clapboard houses that have helped earn the island the nickname, the Nantucket of the Bahamas. “We have no high-rises, no golf courses, no large resorts,” Toby goes on.
“You’re a temporary member of the community,” Tracy adds. “People are living their lives here. It still maintains its identity as a working island.”
Nearby are the well-tended homes painted yellow, or fuchsia, or pale green, many with plackets nailed out front— names like “Afterthought” and “Still Point” and “Auntie’s house.” Bougainvillea tumbles over white picket fences. A rooster calls out and scampers past me across the road. A dog sleeps in the shade outside Johnson’s grocery. I have a long conversation by the side of the road with a small man sitting on a white cooler under a green umbrella selling orange peppers (“Hot, baby, oh, these are HOT,”), and another with an older lady named Irene Davis, reading her bible in the shade outside her home.
Everywhere I go folks are eager for a chat. “Oh, yes” Jessie-lee Mackey confirms from a bench under a tamarind tree. “It’s a small place, and everybody knows everybody,” she laughs. “If you’re looking for Jessilee you ask anyone and they’ll bring you right to me. See that shop there?” she points across the street to a small yellow boutique, “that’s my daughter’s shop, the house next door is my mother’s. I come down here even when I don’t need to, I’m just used to coming down I guess.”
Further on, when I pick up the aroma of baking bread, I slip inside a one room pink hut with three plastic tables, and find Shenique Roberts, apron on, bent over the Formica counter, kneading dough—the sign out front her shop says “Sugar Shack.”
“This island just attracts a certain kind of people,” Shenique tells me. “There’s no place like here. You don’t need transport, you can go where you want at any time, there’s no crime—maybe someone climbs a tree and takes a coconut, but we grew up doing that, so…” she shrugs. “This was a fun place to be a kid. My cousin and I used to catch blowfish, rub their tummies and watch them puff up.” As we talk both locals and visitors come in, many to buy Shenique’s famous lemon glazed donuts. “My mother and my aunts taught me all this,” she gestures around the small kitchen, “I guess it’s in the blood.”
Just around the corner there’s a very different vibe at the upscale Dunmore Deli. Imorted artisanal cheeses and plump vegetables are on display under the ceiling fans and tastefully exposed beams. But on the wraparound porch above King Street, I find the same mixed crowd of locals and visitors lounging in well-padded cast iron chairs, sipping latte’s and nibbling on Briland Bread Toast. “There’s a real sense of community here,” says Patrick Tully, Dunmore Deli’s owner and a Nassau native who moved to the island six years ago. “Everyone looks out for each other. It’s a very stress free life. Maybe we get a few golf carts backed up on King Street once in a while, but that’s about it for traffic jams.”
Each evening at sunset, under a mango tree by the waterside, a group of local men convene around a white table and slap down dominos. On this night, two older couples in colorful shorts are parked close by in golf carts, sipping lime green drinks as the sky grows purple. And suddenly, on these narrow lanes of Dunmore I begin to sense what’s so special about Harbour Island. I munch a serving of conch fritters from a paper plate at a waterfront shack and then wander back up to The Landing and under candlelight savor grilled lobster with coconut palm sugar. Everywhere the posh and the local seem to not only coexist, but enhance each other.
Tracy confirms my experience, “It’s a real easy mix of barefoot casual and sophistication. For a small island it’s very cosmopolitan.” From across the room, Amanda, my friend from Sip Sip, waves. And she makes me aware of another of Harbour Island’s charms—over the days I run into people again and again.
When darkness falls, we all revolve around the same three nightspots—one more down-market chic than the last. The sign outside Gusty’s proudly proclaims, “Where the Party starts.” And it does.
Around ten the door opens and I slip in as the rake ‘n’ scrape pours out. There’s a terrace looking out over the bay, the dim lights of Eluthera visible across the water. By eleven, the sand covered dance floor is packed, but when I look up at midnight, the joint is nearly empty. The crowd has moved around the corner and up a flight of stairs, to Daddy D’s. The music here is more techno, the beat driving hard, the dance floor throbbing. Like at Gusty’s, the crowd is an easy mix of locals and visitors.
A tall, thin man with a slew of medals hanging from colored ribbons around his neck makes his way through the crowd and approaches me. “I am the tall black man who plays the music,” he smiles, pumping my hand hard—Daddy D himself. The party goes on. Later, the die-hards ease over to Vic-Hum, a blue and yellow painted cinderblock. There are pictures of local politicians and album covers tacked up on the graffiti covered walls.
“Want to see the world’s biggest coconut?” the bartender shouts over the reggae.
“Of course,” is the only possible answer, and he reaches down and produces a large gray lump.
“Thirty-two inches,” he slaps it down in front of me. And to confirm his claim, there’s a tape measure tacked around the husk measuring nearly three feet in circumference. Following the crowd I gravitate out to Vic-Hum’s interior courtyard. There are black painted booths and hard chairs forming an amphitheater of sorts around a basketball court. I find myself in the middle of a shoot-around with a group of locals, headed up by gent who calls himself MJ. Suddenly MJ grabs the ball and insists I meet his friend, whom he claims plays the best music on the island. Then we’re walking down the middle of the street, laughing, and we see a group walking toward us. When we’re close I notice Amanda, my friend who had urged me to stop looking so hard for Harbour Island’s hidden magic. MJ’s gang and I are still laughing when we pass, and Amanda calls out to me in the night, “I see you found it.”