I didn't travel 2,000 kilometres to see the world's largest coconut. In fact, I was sniffy about it. But sometimes, even when you're just looking to duck winter, the coconut finds you.
No, it wasn't a Big Lebowski moment. It was just an eccentric part of an island experience. All the best islands are deeply eccentric.
Lynden Pindling International Airport in Nassau separates the thrill-seekers from the Quiet Time people. The “thrillers” head off in drooling clumps to the excess of Atlantis Paradise Island. We slipped through to the quiet lounge where time stood still.
No, not a cliché; flying to the out islands is an ad hoc arrangement. But the puddle-jumper shows up, eventually, and flies you to Eleuthera, where you take a cab to the dock, then a water taxi to Dunmore Town on Harbour Island.
February is the perfect time to go, after the rains, while the sun is still bearable and before the sand fleas (also known as no-see-ums) rise up to torment your legs and fill them with red welts.
“It's hot,” Jennifer Messier said as we escaped our last transport through the white doors into the charm and languor of Runaway Hill Inn. Just to stop moving was a relief. And then we heard the delicious creeping sound of the waves rolling, rolling, rolling … and the high jinks of a Super Bowl Party in the library.
I fell in love with Jen, an outgoing, beautiful woman in her early 50s, who shares the pleasant task of running the resort with her brother Paul (two weeks on; two weeks off). Her other brother is former NHLer Mark Messier (he bought Runaway Hill for his wonderfully tight family). Jen is not only surrounded by relatives, she made us feel a part of their family.
Tradition runs deep – and so does superstition. No. 11 is totemic for the Messiers: Mark's hockey jersey number, the number of rooms/villas and the number of grandchildren. Indeed, Mark named the rooms after each one as a surprise for Marie Jean, his mom. “We better not have any more grandkids.”
As if the immediate family isn't large enough, Mark brings “9/11 kids” to Runaway for some ocean fun, as a giveback to the New York community he so passionately loves.
It was humid, in a really lovely you-can't-possibly-think-of-doing-anything-but-relax kind of way. You can hang out on the oceanside beach: That's where you get the famous pink sand. Not sugar-spun confection or Barbie pink, this pale beach is a crunch of both coral and the shells of microscopic invertebrates that live on the underside of coral. It is the beach of all beaches.
Or you can wander the harbour-side town, where the clock has wound back. Actually, it's broken. Briland, the local name for Harbour Island, is New England-y (Empire Loyalists escaped to here too) and tiny (three kilometres long by half a kilometre wide). Very few cars travel the very few roads. What Harbour Island does have is golf carts … and roosters. They have the run of the place, carts and roosters, except for the privately owned monster enclaves, implanted mostly on the north tip of the island.
Above the harbour strip, it's poorer, with half-built concrete-block houses and middling convenience shops. Dunmore Town itself is a place of Victorian lanes called Gaol and Pitt, cottages, white-picket fences and tiny little holes-in-the-wall. Queen Conch is a shack by the water, where Miss Annie chops up fresh conch salad (the emptied shells sit in a heap out back). Dilly's, among the lanes, is named after the sapodillas that bear a furry fruit similar to a kiwi.
At night, you work the circuit of bars and restaurants – Blue Bar or Rock House or Sip Sip's. We started with Happy Hour at Runaway, where the striking young bartender Ryan (vivacity personified) holds court. He's a Percentie (a big family name here), with siblings and cousins on the island. One family member, an official local character, runs the Vic-Hum Club, home of this alleged “world's largest coconut.” We had seen Vic-Hum's mentioned in brochures and travel sites as a museum. “You should go,” Ryan said. “Take a camera. I play basketball there.”
(Basketball? At a museum? Wait. What?)
During the day, we rented bicycles from Michael, who also doubles as security at Runaway (and probably has a couple of other jobs too). Steep roads crisscross the island, appointed with coconut palms, casuarina pine, seagrape, bougainvillea, tamarind and magnificent flame trees (being off-season, they were rattling and leafless). Like the Flying Dutchman, the roads kept leading us past a sign: “world's biggest coconut – museum.” Tourist shill, certainly. We dismissed it for other adventures.
Adventures such as fishing – one of the reasons we came. Patrick, our bonefishing guide, is the grandson of “Bonefish Joe,” a Bahamian smart enough to figure early on that he could make a living showing wealthy Americans where the fleet of “ghost” fish come in to feed in the harbour flats. That's good sport for $400 a morning, casting “pink puffs” or “gotchas” into the ocean, praying for a windless day, and watching the black-tip sharks slide by. Patrick's father was a guide, his brother guides, his son, 13, … well, maybe.
“He finds bonefishing slow. He'd rather throw a worm on the line and just pull up fish. And he wants to play basketball.”
Life on the island unfolded.
Jen told us a story: Madeleine Albright had come to Briland and wanted to see the Vic-Hum Club, which is legendary (a word thrown around a lot here) for hosting events for such pseudo-aristocrats of the partying regime as Naomi Campbell, Mick Jagger, George Hamilton and Scottie Pippen. The Secret Service attached to the U.S. secretary of state had their hands full preventing the Vic-Hum visit. “It's kind of a stoner place,” Jen said. Wouldn't have been good for her image.
It was our last night. We'd dined, but it was too early to turn in.
Oh for god's sake, let's just wander over and take a look …
Rooms at Runaway Hill Inn start at $325 a night. For more information, visit runawayhill.com.