Eleuthera offers a rugged, off-island experience that lasts

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Twin Coves, on the Atlantic Ocean side of the narrow, finger-shaped Bahamian island of Eleuthera, is a beautiful place: two crescent-shaped pink sand beaches, free of crowds, with calm waters protected from strong waves along sandbanks on the high seas.

But the real magic comes when you enter the crystal clear sea.

Just below the surface, a large coral reef outcrop is home to an incredible variety of tropical fish: tens of thousands of them, coming and going, some alone, others in giant schools swimming in unison, all wary but accepting of the newcomers. to snorkel.

Floating above this aquatic wonder, with two daughters splashing excitedly nearby, I was reminded again of the extraordinaryness of Eleuthera, an island unknown to most travelers heading to the region, even though it is only 70 miles east of Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas.

Eleuthera boasts miles of mostly empty beaches, winding walking trails, turquoise ocean waters, and other natural wonders, but no major resorts or luxury shopping. It is 110 miles long, but for the most part, Eleuthera is not even a mile wide. With barely 10,000 inhabitants, it does not have a single traffic light.

My family and I have visited different Caribbean islands for over two decades, avoiding large crowds by focusing on places (like Vieques in Puerto Rico, St. John in the US Virgin Islands, or Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands). that cannot be visited. reach by direct commercial flight from most of North America.

Wild and unspoilt, Eleuthera is perhaps the most off-the-grid of all these places, which is why we like it so much.

The island has a fascinating history, as its first European settlers, seeking religious independence, arrived in the 1640s. They called the place Eleuthera, a Greek derivative of the word “freedom,” and settled on the western shores of the island. island the port settlement of Governor's Harbor, which is still marked by hillside colonial houses and white picket fences.

In the 19th century, the island became one of the world's leading pineapple producers and a small number of pineapple farms still remain, while the annual Pineapple Festival is held each June in North Eleuthera.

American tourists began arriving in the 1950s, when Juan Tripp, the founder of Pan American World Airways, built a resort he called the Cotton Bay Club, which soon went bankrupt.

A number of similar resorts were built and failed, which explains why the island to this day has never become an attraction for mass tourism. Yes, foreigners like my family still descend on Eleuthera, but not in numbers that turn us into merely economic transactions and the island into an overtourist cliché.

There are a number of other settlements on the island, such as Gregory Town, Alice Town, Rock Sound, but Governor's Harbour, in the center of the island, is by far the best place to stay, with a rural village atmosphere and enough restaurants and other shops to meet your needs.

Change is coming to the island: Starting in 2024, Disney Cruise Line will open its own self-contained manufactured city on the southern tip of the island, at a location known as Lighthouse Point, for Disney cruise customers. The move will create new jobs for island residents, but is not expected to have much impact on Governor's Harbor or anywhere else on the island. Plans in South Eleuthera for a Four Seasons resort have also been talked about for more than a decade. But nothing has materialized yet.

Our mornings began with a walk from our rental house over the dunes, through tall, thick expanses of grasses and ink bushes until we emerged onto an empty beach and the waves crashed.

In our rental car, we would take the Queens Highway, Eleuthera's main road that runs north to south, with a packed picnic lunch and explore other parts of the island. More country road than highway, this quiet road serves as a backbone connecting communities and dozens of different beaches.

French Leave Beach is probably the most famous. With deep, pink sand and strong winds from the Atlantic Ocean, the beach has a wild feel. Here the ocean rules.

Other favorites included Receiver's Beach, just north of Governor's Harbor, which our kids nicknamed shell beach because of the large, intact shells scattered across the pristine sand. Here the water is almost permanently calm and shallow; This is the side of the Eleuthera Inlet with sandbars along the shoreline creating waters so clear they almost look like glass.

Surfer's Beach, near Gregory Town in the north, is a popular spot for visitors and residents who want to ride a board, as it has some of the roughest waters, but again, on the day we stopped by, it was just gentle and very few people.

One veteran visitor has written a book describing each of the island's 135 beaches, rating their accessibility, snorkeling, shelling, swimming and other features.

One afternoon, we climbed into the strange but wonderful Cathedral Cave, where the porous limestone has been eroded by water and formed a vast underground expanse. The basketball court-sized cave is illuminated with sunlight filtering through large holes in the ceiling. Banyan trees grow from the base of the cave towards the sky. Tourism is so low-key on this island that there is no entrance fee or even a proper sign on Queens Highway indicating where to find the cave.

Further north in Gregory Town is Jacqueline Russell's pineapple and tropical fruit farm, where we took a 45-minute tour. ($25 for adults) Later that week, we visited the Leon Levy Native Plant Reserve, a botanical garden that features 410 native species, organized around a series of trails and ponds, as well as a wooden hilltop tower with expansive views of the downtown Eleuthera. ($11 for adults and $8 for children). The island is also home to Sweetings Pond, a national park, surrounded by mangroves and farmland, which has one of the most concentrated seahorse populations in the world.

Unemployment and poverty are problems on the islands. The nonprofit One Eleuthera Foundation runs a farm in the Rock Sound section of the island that grows various types of vegetables as part of an effort to train local residents in agricultural practices to rebuild what once was a large agricultural economy on the island. Visitors can volunteer to work on the farm or participate in other foundation efforts.

This combination of sleepy towns, natural areas and windswept beaches was perfect for my family, but if you're looking for day-to-night pampering, this may not be the place for you. In fact, “Eleuthera. “It's not for everyone” is the island's informal motto.

In Governor's Harbor, walk to the main store, which is also the gas station and a combination hardware and general store, and its shelves may be empty of certain fruits, vegetables and ice cream until the Nassau ferry arrives on Tuesdays and Fridays. to repopulate the city. (As large quantities are shipped, food prices may be high.)

But there are other options, including Island Farm, which grows many of its own vegetables, and Bacchus, a gourmet market and small restaurant on a hillside farm. The tiny Governor's Harbor Bakery sells Johnnycake cornbread and piping hot coconut raisin breads fresh from the oven every day (you need to reserve your Johnnycake in advance) and there's also a well-stocked supermarket further south in the settlement known as Rock Sound .

As for eating out, Governor's Harbor's Friday night fish fry is where visitors and residents mingle over Kalik beer, rum babbas, snapper fish, grilled chicken and conch fritters, sold by individual vendors. Stay to enjoy the scene when the music starts later in the evening or head to an island beach bar, like Tippy's, with conch fritters, soup and classic island drinks and live music, right on the edge of the ocean .

But our favorite meals were at Buccaneer Club, which serves classic seafood and island fare (split shells for $30 or mahi-mahi dinners with peas and rice for $40, and a bowl of conch soup for $15 are some favorites) at the hillside above Governor's Harbor and has its own ice cream parlor next door.

Most visitors to the island rent houses and there are many to choose from, especially around Governor's Harbour. Hotel options include French Leave Resort, which features a collection of luxury cabins and a restaurant offering one of the best sunset spots, and Cove in Gregory Town. Rental cars are expensive and generally very worn out. But you'll need one, as exploring the island is a vital part of the trip.

The highlight of our evenings was nothing that was for sale. We simply looked up and gazed at the stars: when the sky was clear, the expanse above us opened up into an unreal spectacle, with the seemingly endless reach of the Milky Way, at an unimaginable distance, clearly visible to the naked eye.

It was a reminder of why we seek out places like this. The natural world is much bigger than us and an island like Eleuthera puts it all into perspective. The hardest part was simply admitting that at the end of the week, we had to pack up and go home.

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