Our first mate Matt dismissed the idyllic Bahamian scene in a way only a 15-year-old could. "Let's go to another island, this one's got seaweed on the beach - it's totally ghetto here."
In fact, with so much to choose from, we had all become fastidious about our picnic spots, so, a half-minute later, we were once more screaming across the swimming pool blue waters of the Abacos. With a 225-horsepower outboard on our transom, Matt's left hand gripped the boat's steering wheel tightly while his right faintly nudged the throttle down again, hoping his dad or I wouldn't notice.
In between anchoring off white-sand islands, snorkelling over reefs and exploring little settlements, our two families spent a week in a boat exploring the Abacos. Here, we joined pods of dolphins, swam over sting rays and sorted keepsake sand dollars. As the sun began to sink late each afternoon, we would head back to the cottage porch to retell the day's adventures while the day's catch barbecued on the back deck. For Canadians familiar to cottage life back home, the similarities were striking. It's pretty easy to feel comfortable quickly in the Abacos.
With no holiday plans for the kids' March Break last winter, we started looking for a unique but affordable family getaway in February. After some searching, I found that four flights to Nassau from Buffalo were cheaper than one from Toronto. I knew we wanted to get beyond the hustle-bustle of the capital, Nassau, and after researching online for beach houses on a long list of out-islands, I liked the sounds of the Abacos, where we could have a beach holiday, but on a different beach each day.
So, along with our friends John and Debbie and my wife Ray - and our kids, five in all, ranging in age from 7 to 16 - we rented two cottages on the tiny island of Lubbers Quarters. With no regular ferry service between the Abacos hub of Marsh Harbour, we agreed to share a mid-cockpit 21-foot Dusky with its ample outboard, its corpulent gas bill - and its wonderful opportunities.
We landed in Marsh Harbour, Great Abaco Island, after an hour-long flight from Nassau. Arriving on an earlier flight, John had already picked up the boat, soaked and torn out the most important two pages from the cruising guide and began the week-long battle with his teenage boys over who was going to drive and at what speed.
Because Lubbers has never had ferry service from Marsh Harbour, unlike the more well-known out-islands of the Abacos (Elbow Cay, Man-O-War Cay and Great Guana Cay), it has seen little development. Hydro arrived so recently that our gingerbread cottage, Green Bananas, still had propane lights. In fact, the parallels all week to Canadian cottage life were almost eerie. Replace pink granite with white sand, pines with palms, keep the neighbour's visiting black lab - and welcome home.
The generally protected shallow waters of Abaco Sound stretch north-northwest more than 100 nautical miles between Great Abaco Island in the west and the chain of barrier out-islands to the east. The Bahamas are a boater's paradise and there's probably no easier or safer area playground than the Abacos. If you're comfortable handling a boat in a bigger Canadian lake, you shouldn't have a problem tooling around in a rental boat in the Abacos. Of course, if you prefer someone else to deliver you to your doorstep, there are plenty of ferry- and water-taxi-accessed islands with small resorts and hotels, restaurants and shopping.
Sadly, but just like at home, many simple cottages are being torn down and replaced with buildings more fitting to their new contents: granite counters, satellite TV, air conditioning, private swimming pools. But we were looking for an old-style retreat, and thankfully Green Bananas and John and Deb's Pink Palms next door delivered. As with a lot of Canadian cottage country, neither family locked doors or windows, day or night. While the kids played board games or sorted shells in the loft, nostalgic thoughts would go through my mind each evening as I held a cold Kalik beer in one hand, and with the other, pulled the rope for our outside hot shower located on the deck among the palm fronds.
The Bahamas aren't the West Indies, but given the setting and our perfect weather, we had to remind ourselves that we were actually farther north than West Palm Beach, Fla. Yes, the Bahamas are warmer than Florida thanks to the Gulf Stream, but Christmas and early winter can be akin to being at the cottage in late May or early June if the winds come from the north. And because much of the barrier reef, which protects the Abacos from big Atlantic swells, run north-south, trying to drive at full speed can get a little sporty. But with islands seemingly swimming distance apart, short adventures can be easily planned.
Our daily routine began with two or three well-kept dogs from the neighbourhood entertaining the kids with games like fetch the coconut. Around 10 or 11 a.m., lunch had been packed, drinks stored on ice, sunscreen applied and cameras placed in Ziploc bags. The boat, which spent its off-hours swinging freely on a sort of washing-line mooring off the jetty, was brought in for loading and after a few last-minute returns to the cottage, off we'd go.
Every day presented a different beach. Sometimes it was near one of several settlements that have been populated since United Empire Loyalists first came ashore. Other days, we'd just drop the anchor off one of many deserted islands. Local biota ranged from enormous star fish regularly found through the crystalline water to hermit crab reluctantly gathered and entered into races near the grassy dunes.
We also explored protected waters, tying up at the free permanent moorings provided at national parks that protect the coral reefs from dragging anchors. My daughter Heather wasn't sure about snorkelling at one such spot one day. The deeper water over the reef had lost its almost artificial aqua colour in the late afternoon sun and the breeze had picked up, making an uncomfortable chop. But with encouragement she went over the side.
"Ooooo! It's like a whole city down there!" came the squeals of delight after most of the mouthpiece was out of her mouth. "Cars and buses and taxis going everywhere!"
Enjoying the moment, while her siblings and friends duck-dove with similar shrieking and splashing, the scene seemed an apt comparison and wonderful introduction to the undersea world. Building corals resembled buildings, swaying branching corals and sea fans were like trees and shrubbery, countless fish of all shapes, sizes and bright colours were oblivious to us for the longest time as they scurried about the day's business. Perhaps the most incredible sight was simply the condition of the reef. I haven't seen a reef so alive and so pristine since I was Heather's age in the 1970s.
And, with no other humans in sight, it was a typical setting on our trip: We had it all to ourselves.
WestJet and Air Canada fly non-stop to Nassau from Ottawa, Toronto and Calgary. The cheapest border city flights to Nassau are twice daily with Jet Blue. Between Nassau and Marsh Harbour, Abaco Air ( www.abacoaviationcentre.com) and Bahamas Air ( www.bahamasair.com) fly round-trip for $200 (all prices in U.S. dollars) inclusive (children half-price). As well, there are direct flights from Florida to Marsh Harbour, Abacos, on several airlines, including Bahamas Air.
Once in Marsh Harbour (on Great Abaco Island), small, competing ferries will take you to the larger and more popular out-islands in 20 to 40 minutes. But house renters on smaller islands such as Lubbers Quarters must hire their own boat.
B&B Boat Rentals www.bb-boatrentals.com. B&B has one of the newest fleets in the Abacos. A 21-foot Dusky with a 225-horsepower outboard and loads of room for two families rents for $200 a day. Try bargaining.
Sunsail www.sunsail.com. Sailors can charter 35-to-45-foot yachts from companies such as Sunsail, with or without a skipper. Located in Marsh Harbour and offering an entirely new fleet.
Where to stay
There are countless rental homes and cottages on the out-islands of the Abacos easily found online. No one rental agency seems to dominate and many owners prefer to go it alone. Lubbers Quarters, about five kilometres south of Hope Town, has about 20 homes and cottages on it, many for rent.
Green Bananas ( www.greenbananas.com) rents for $1,450 a week.
A planning necessity is Steven Dodge's The Cruising Guide to Abaco Bahamas, updated yearly. Also by the same author, Abaco: The History of an Out Island and its Cays. Both available through www.wspress.com.
Bahamas Tourism 1-800-224-2627; www.bahamas.com.