Overview of Abaco
Abaco is a group of islands in the northern Bahamas. It extends from Walker’s Cay (a scant 125 miles east of Stuart/Ft. Pierce in southeast Florida), to Hole in the Wall, a lonely, rocky outpost 50 miles north of Nassau. As a tourist destination, Abaco has never been as popular or as well-known, at least in terms of numbers of visitors, as Nassau and Freeport, or many of the islands farther down into the Caribbean, such as the Virgin Islands. But its proximity to the US, its stunning beaches, gorgeous surrounding waters, fascinating communities, and friendly people make it an exceptional “island paradise.”
Abaco may be better known to cruising boaters and yachtsman. Marsh Harbour, Abaco’s “capital”, lies only about 200 nautical miles east of Florida. Perhaps a third of the people who visit Abaco come by boat; my wife Bunny and I have made the trip twelve times. (For an account, check out Attitude Adjustment in Abaco 2001, for more information see Traveling to Abaco in Your Boat.) Geographically, Abaco consists of a large central island (Great Abaco), and a myriad of smaller islands, or cays. (Despite what you have heard on TV, this term is pronounced KEY, just like that thing that starts your car.). Marsh Harbour lies near the center of Great Abaco Island, and has a population of about 5000. There are perhaps another 3-4000 or so folks scattered about the islands, giving Abaco a resident population of less than 10,000. Other significant communities include Hope Town (Elbow Cay), Man-O-War settlement, Guana settlement, New Plymouth on Green Turtle Cay, and Treasure Cay. Farther to the northwest are Cooperstown and Foxtown, neither of which are typical tourist destinations. (Click here for map of Central Abaco.)
Abaco was settled by refugees from Bermuda, settlers from England, and by colonial Loyalists during and after the American Revolution. The Bahamas was a British Crown Colony until 1973, when it became an independent nation. Before you visit, you might want to read about Abaco’s history. Here are several suggestions:
A potential (or repeat) visitor looking for a “travel guide” to Abaco should pick up Steve Dodge’s Cruising Guide to Abaco 200X; it’s the best twenty-five bucks you’ll spend on your vacation. While principally intended for boaters, the Guide is unquestionably Abaco’s most comprehensive print reference; it will be of great use to any visitor to Abaco, even if they never set foot on a boat. The body of water that lies between Great Abaco and the offshore cays is called the Sea of Abaco; the relative shelter provided by the surrounding landmasses makes it an ideal place to run a small boat. There are a number of companies that rent motorboats in the 17-26 foot range; a rental boat is one of the best ways to explore and play in Abaco (see Advice to Novice and Rental Boaters).
The majority of Abaco’s non-boating visitors fly into Marsh Harbour; Treasure Cay has a small airport, which also serves New Plymouth/Green Turtle Cay. Do not confuse MHH (symbol for Marsh Harbour airport) with Atlanta Hartsfield or Chicago O’Hare. This is a single-strip facility with a tiny terminal building, and many of the airlines that fly in use planes that have ten seats or less. There are no night flights into or out of MHH. Most flights to Abaco depart from Florida locations, such as Jacksonville, Daytona Beach, Orlando, West Palm, Ft. Lauderdale, and Miami. Thus, travelers departing from points north and west of Florida will have to make connecting reservations, which is always an interesting proposition.
Transportation from Marsh Harbour to the offshore cays is facilitated by a fleet of sturdy ferry boats run by Albury’s Ferry Service (the link has the schedule). Other ferries run from Treasure Cay to Green Turtle Cay, and Guana Cay on a limited basis. When travelers arrive at their destination community, representatives of the resort where they’re staying typically meet them and provide transportation to the resort. Make sure you confirm this with your resort manager before you arrive.
All of this can make for a long travel day; consider the plight of a family traveling from Chicago to Seaspray Resort, on Elbow Cay. They leave Chicago, fly to Atlanta, change planes, then fly to Ft. Lauderdale. They collect their bags, then catch a quick cab ride to a smaller, nearby airport, where they catch a commuter flight to Marsh Harbour. After clearing customs, they take a cab to the Hope Town ferry dock. The ferry then takes them to the government dock on Elbow Cay, where a driver from Seaspray picks them up in a mini-van and takes them to the resort. Talk about a long day! Yet, sitting at Seaspray's bar, looking out over the harbour, eating cracked conch and sipping on a rum drink, catching a whiff of bougainvillea on a warm summer breeze, they have found paradise, and will have a great vacation.
What can you do in Abaco? Here is a sample:
- Play on any number of some of the most beautiful beaches in the entire world (no exaggeration),
- Swim and snorkel in warm clear water, over beautiful and easily accessible reefs,
- Go on a guided adventure, enjoy fishing, diving, swimming, and a great picnic,
- Eat great island food, not to mention drinking some interesting rum concoctions,
- Shop for clothes, jewelry, and souvenirs,
- Meet and talk to some of the friendliest and most interesting people you will ever encounter,
- Rent a boat and sightsee, swim, beach, and picnic about the Sea of Abaco,
- Or sit on a beach chair and do absolutely nothing!
Abaco is not for everyone; it’s not Miami Beach, by a long shot! There are no high-rise deluxe resorts or condos, no malls, no formal dining rooms, no casinos, no limousines, no discos, no freeways, no cities, and no crowds. Cable TV can be tricky to find, your cell phone probably won’t work, you’ll have to look for a “hot spot” for your wireless modem, the power will probably fail a few times during your visit, gas is $5/gallon, everything else is likewise pricey, and at dusk it can get a little buggy.
These issues can make traveling with children a bit of a challenge: they can’t go to the mall or plug into MTV or video games (unless they bring their own and you happen to stay in a place that has a TV in the room, not all that common), and they won’t be able to (telephone) talk for hours to their friends. They can explore the resort, play on the beach, swim, snorkel, learn about a new culture, read (yes, I said read), and have some quality time with the family. We’ve taken our kids to Abaco (as well as the Florida Keys) many times, and they loved it. It’s just important that you understand what you are getting into before you actually jump in.
Here are a few "tips" for new visitors:
- The young people at the airport who transport your baggage as well as those who bag your groceries work for tips only; please tip them appropriately.
- The utility infrastructure in Abaco is not as reliable as what you are used to at home. The power fails frequently; some resorts and marinas have generators, some don't. Be patient, BEC (Bahamas Electric) can usually restore power for you in a few hours. The water that comes out of your tap is rainwater or is produced by reverse osmosis, please conserve fresh water! There is no sewer system in Abaco, each building has its own septic system. Please don't flush anything except your "bodily waste" and toilet paper.
- The small planes that typically fly to Abaco are more vulnerable to bad weather than the big jets we are all used to flying. Delays and detours are more common; please be patient and work with the airline people, they will do their best for you.
- Most restaurants are small and have a correspondingly small staff. Many require reservations for dinner; you can usually do this by telephone or VHF radio. Try to call by 5 PM; if you walk in without a reservation, you might not get fed.
At this point, let’s take a look at Abaco’s Island communities. As stated, Marsh Harbour is Abaco’s “capital city.” The area’s biggest resort, Abaco Beach Resort, lies on the eastern aspect of Marsh Harbour, fronting the Sea of Abaco. Adjacent is Boat Harbour Marina, the biggest in Abaco and one of the largest marinas in the Bahamas. Abaco Beach Resort has Marsh Harbour’s only real beach; it’s also the closest thing you’ll find to a “South Florida-style resort" in Abaco. Closer to town, along Bay Street (the cabby will know), also known as “restaurant row," you’ll find shops, resorts, marinas, restaurants, and night spots. My wife loves to shop for jewelry at Abaco Gold, John Bull, and Little Switzerland. For clothes and souvenirs, try Iggy Biggys. We love to eat at Wally’s, Snappa's as well as Mangiare. Three major marinas include Conch Inn/Moorings, Mangoe’s, and Harbour View. Across the harbour is Marsh Harbour Marina, and its Jib Room restaurant.
Marsh Harbour has broader resources than you’ll find on the offshore cays. There are several grocery stores, hardware stores, liquor stores, banks, boat and marine supply shops, even car rental agencies. (You can rent a car and explore the length of Great Abaco Island, quite the adventure!) As stated, your best source of detailed information is Dodge’s Cruising Guide; check the ads and the yellow pages section.
Many boaters like to make one of the marinas in Marsh Harbour their headquarters. Food and supplies are readily available, and it’s easy and convenient to travel toward the other cays. There are several agents who will rent you a boat. And transportation to the US mainland is convenient. However, with the exception of Abaco Beach Resort, there are no real beaches or waterfront resorts. For this reason, I usually recommend visitors stay on one of the offshore cays. That having been said, many Abaco visitors prefer the Marsh Harbour area; it’s an individual preference. One more note: you can’t rent a car on the offshore cays, but you can rent a golf cart. It’s a great way to get around on land; we usually rent one for the entire time we stay at a resort.
To the east lies Elbow Cay, a long narrow island a little over 3 miles in length. Its principle community is Hopetown; there are smaller communities to the south around White Sound and Tahiti Beach/Tilloo Cut. My wife and I have a sentimental attachment to Elbow Cay; our first port of call (many years ago) in Abaco was Seaspray marina, and it’s still one of our favorite places to visit. Seaspray, as well as Abaco Inn, offer gorgeous oceanfront accommodations, great restaurants, pools, bars, as well as access to White Sound and the Sea of Abaco. In addition, there are many homes and cottages available for rent in the area. Between White Sound and Hopetown, you'll find the delightful Turtle Hill Villas and its "On Da Beach" open-air cabana grill/bar. In Hopetown proper, there's Hopetown Harbour Lodge, two of our favorite restaurants: Captain Jack’s and Harbour’s Edge, great shopping at Iggy Biggys and the Fantasy Shop, two grocery stores: Harbourview and Vernon’s, and many other services.
Lubber’s Quarters is a small island just west of Elbow Cay. There are several cottages available for rent (our favorites are Watercolours, Sea level, Lubber's Landing, and Summerview), as well Cracker Ps, a great island restaurant and bar. Lubbers is a wonderful location for those who want a really quiet, laid back, island experience.
To the south you’ll find the beautiful Pelican Cays Land and Sea Park. Whatever you do in Abaco, find a way to get down into the Pelicans, either as part of a tour, or in a rental boat. And while you’re heading south, check out Pete’s’ Pub and gallery in Little Harbour.
To the northwest of Elbow Cay we find Man-O-War Cay, or MOW. MOW is quiet: there are no bars, nowhere to buy liquor. You’ll find a nice marina, quaint shops, cottages for rent, a small grocery, and a beautiful beach. Again, if you want a quiet, subdued vacation, check out MOW.
Farther to the northwest is Great Guana Cay. Guana has perhaps the best known island bar in all of Abaco (Nippers, super food also), the revitalized Grabber's Bar and Grill (including six motel rooms), Dolphin Beach Resort,Flip Flops Resort and one of the most beautiful ocean beaches in all the Bahamas. On Front Street you’ll find our pal Milo Pinder, who’ll sell you produce, fish, souvenirs, and just about anything else you need. There’s a great gift shop nearby, as well Great Guana Cay Villas. You’ll also find several cottages you can rent. And Troy and Maria at Dive Guana will take you on an adventure.
Treasure Cay is a resort community that lies on Great Abaco, about 20 miles NW of Marsh Harbour. Some airlines fly into TC, or you can drive or take a cab from Marsh Harbour (about $75). Treasure Cay Resort offers condos, motel-style rooms, as well as a restaurant and bar. There is also a large, modern marina, and a golf course. The three-mile crescent beach at TC is lauded as one of the “ten best in the world;” words don’t do it justice.
Green Turtle Cay (GTC) lies farther to the northwest. Most visitors fly into Treasure Cay airport, take a taxi to the GTC ferry dock, then the ferry to one of several possible destinations on the island. GTC is about 3 miles in length; its principle community is New Plymouth, and there is another “community” around White Sound, at its NW aspect. Green Turtle has some of the most gorgeous ocean beaches and reefs in all of Abaco, as does nearby Manjack Cay.
New Plymouth is a pleasant little town, fronting Settlement Creek Harbour. You can see most of the town if you’ll walk toward your right from the ferry dock along the waterfront, then loop around the point and back along the next street. You’ll find a couple of grocery stores, a liquor store, hardware stores, gift shops, the Loyalist Garden, and several restaurants, including Laura’s Kitchen, McIntosh, Wreckin’ Tree, and Rooster’s Rest. Island style liquid nourishment can be found at Miss Emily’s Blue Bee Bar (home of the goombay smash), Sundowner’s, and at Pineapples, across the harbour on the grounds of the Other Shore Club. We always tie up at Black Sound Marina, and the adjacent Bird Pepper Inn has great little cottages. Just to the west lies Other Shore Club, another marina/cottage/resort.
We always suggest visitors rent a golf cart and drive up to White Sound, where you can visit the Bluff House and the Jolly Roger Restaurant and Bar, as well as the Green Turtle Club. Along the way there are stunning beaches; you can just pull off, jump in the water, and swim and snorkel over gorgeous reefs. If you are staying on GTC and you rent a boat, make sure you run up to Manjack Cay; you can also cross the Sea of Abaco and spend the day at Treasure Cay Beach. For high adventure contact Lincoln Jones or Brendal.
About 15 miles to the NW we find Spanish Cay, and its resort and marina. Most Abaco visitors never get to see Spanish Cay, which is very regrettable, because it is absolutely beautiful. Gorgeous beaches, great reefs, stunning tropical hardwood forests, and a great marina make it a wonderful island spot. Most visitors to Spanish either arrive by boat (we tie up there for 2-3 days every year), or fly in, either in private aircraft or by charter. There is a ferry that runs between Spanish Cay and Cooperstown, across the Sea of Abaco, but it is used primarily by the work force. The resort has condos and hotel rooms, as well as a restaurant, pool, and bar. Contact them for details.
In this section I have tried to cram fifteen years of experience and the personality of a truly wonderful and unique island chain into a few paragraphs. Obviously, there is much more; spend some time on this site, as well as the Abaco Forum, and make sure you get a copy of Dodge’s Cruising Guide. If you have questions, you can either ask the Board, or feel free to email me.
Have a great trip, and let me know how it turned out.