The Abacos



The Abacos, Bahamas, is a cluster of islands, islets and rocky outcroppings forming an archipelago that stretches for more than 100 mi/160 km, from tiny Walker's Cay in the north to the Hole in the Wall lighthouse on the southern tip of Great Abaco.

The Abacos, to the north of New Providence, form the second-largest grouping of islands in the Bahamas and sit at the north of the chain, just east of Grand Bahama Island. Great Abaco itself, aside from being the most affluent and most visited of the Out Islands, is also the most developed.

But with many islands that are virtually deserted, the Abacos are hardly crowded, and the pace is very slow. The archipelago is a mixture of isolated, dusty settlements and neat little towns and villages that could have been lifted straight out of New England. Many of the early settlers were Tories (British Loyalists) from the U.S. who wanted to remain under British rule after the Revolutionary War.

After 1776, the Loyalists established the first settlement in Abaco called Carleton and set up small cotton plantations near what is now Treasure Cay. Their pastel-colored clapboard houses and white picket fences found on the offshore "Loyalist" cays that they settled contrast sharply with the islands' dusty, bumpy, deserted roads that seem to go on forever. It can also contrast the rather dour modern concrete architecture throughout the rest of the chain.

More than 50 species of wild and tropical birds inhabit the islands, along with wild boar and several species of lizards. Abaco National Park—20,500 acres/8,296 hectares near Hole in the Wall in southern Great Abaco Island—provides nesting grounds for more than 1,000 endangered Bahama parrots.

In the surrounding waters on the west shore, the elusive bonefish draws many an angler. The region is known for shipbuilding and fishing, and most of the residents earn their living from the sea. Visitors can enjoy diving, fishing and notably great sailing in the calm waters of the Sea of Abaco, a reef-protected watery wonderland between Great Abaco and the cays.

In addition to the major cays listed below, divers will want to explore Pelican Cays Land and Sea Park, an underwater preserve offering day and night dives. Phone 242-393-1317 or 242-367-6310.

Almost anyone will enjoy three or four nights in the Abacos, at a minimum, since the group offers as great a diversity as anywhere in the Bahamas.

By far the largest of the Abacos, Great Abaco's east coast is where many of the settlements in the archipelago are located. The main city is Marsh Harbour, Abaco's largest town and the third-largest city in the Bahamas, with a wide choice of hotels, restaurants, bars and shopping. With ferry service to and from Nassau, it serves as a transportation hub for the area, and yachting is big there, too. Boat charters are big business, but just soaking up the charm of the island is a delightful exercise in serenity, too. Walking along the shore, you may just find your own private inlet to spend a few hours exploring.

If you take Albury's water taxi from Marsh Harbour (phone 242-367-0290), you can see two nearby cays. Man-o-War Cay is perhaps the most traditional and devoutly religious of the Tory communities (you can't buy alcohol there, but you can take your own). The island is a center for traditional shipbuilding and has beautiful beaches and some nice shops that sell handcrafted model boats and sail bags. You can also scuba dive and snorkel there, but accommodations are limited, and it is best seen on a day trip.

Just to the south is Hope Town on Elbow Cay. The lovely, compact village has plenty of gingerbread wooden housing, and quaint hotels and restaurants lining a flask-shaped bay. There are no roads in town, just narrow lanes. It has a much-photographed candy-striped lighthouse (it's on the Bahamian $10 bill) and the Wyannie Malone Historical Museum (phone 242-366-0293; Gorgeous beaches line the shore south of Hope Town, and the waters there are perfect for swimming. Great Guana Cay, north of Man-o-War, is known for spectacular Seven Mile Beach and its yachtie bars.

Treasure Cay, north of Marsh Harbour, is not an island but a peninsula that's part of Great Abaco. It has a huge resort complex and a 3.5-mi/5.5-km white-sand beach. Offshore from Treasure Cay, Green Turtle Cay offers peace, relaxation, deep-sea fishing and great diving in offshore coral gardens. The main draw is the village of New Plymouth, for its gingerbread architecture and its cemetery, old jail and historic museum.

The town's Loyalist Memorial Sculpture Garden has busts of Bahamian historical figures, and the Albert Lowe Museum—housed in a 150-year-old residence—displays artifacts and paintings pertaining to the Loyalists who settled the area. You can rent a boat or take a water taxi to Great Guana Cay to enjoy its deserted beaches and shops and galleries.

Plans are in the works to redevelop remote and tiny Walker's Cay—once a posh resort, but demolished by hurricanes in recent years.

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