Superb Style, Splendid Isolation, and Some Really Big Boulders
For decades, word of mouth celebrated the 500-acre resort of Little Dix Bay and the exquisite location it commanded on a perfect half-mile crescent of white-sand beach on Virgin Gorda, the “Fat Virgin.”
Together with its sister property, Caneel Bay, Little Dix was created by Laurance Rockefeller in the 1960s for his blue-blood circle of old-money friends and family. Despite a change in ownership, it remains a classic, still known for its laid-back luxury, relaxed pampering, and a low-key, unpretentious ambience.
The native stone and hardwood cottages nestle amid the lush but impeccably manicured grounds, a veritable Garden of Eden maintained by no less than twenty full-time gardeners. Even breakfast is romantic in the dining area—four interconnected, open-sided, thatch-roofed pavilions sitting right on the hotel’s marvelous beach. Dinners are both genial and exciting, the work of an ambitious and sophisticated kitchen the Rockefellers would have been proud of.
About a mile south is the island’s most noted natural site, The Baths, where huge, time-sculpted granite boulders—some as big as small houses—create spellbinding pools, shallow coves, and interconnected grottoes that are heaven for snorkelers, swimmers, and those who merely appreciate natural beauty.
Stacked along the beach in jumbled piles, these prehistoric rocks are most impressive when approached by sea. The site is on every visitor’s list, so to avoid the boatloads of in-and-out tourists and cruise ship passengers, come early or late, or wander along the less-visited coastline on either side, where the massive boulders continue.
Your Own Private Wildlife Preserve
For latent hermits or people who want nature all to themselves, Guana’s 850 virginal acres will never feel crowded, even with an occasional full house of thirty guests. It’s the Galapagos of the Caribbean, a wildlife sanctuary that’s said to have the richest variety of flora and fauna of any island its size in the region.
A hundred species of birds—roseate flamingos, black-necked stilts, herons, egrets, and the endangered masked booby—make Guana a paradise for bird-watchers. In the 18th century, Guana was dominated by a sugarcane and cotton plantation owned by two American Quaker families, and today that classic simplicity is still evident in the stylish but restrained accommodations at the island’s only lodge.
The panoramic sweep from the whitewashed ridge-top cottages is spectacular. Reached only by boat, the hilly island, with its twenty nature trails and seven beaches, is virtually private and for guests’ use alone (yacht “drop-ins” are discouraged); two of the beaches are accessible only by the hotel’s private launch. Why not invite twenty-nine friends and rent the whole island?
Famous Underwater Forests of Coral Reefs and 24-Hour Diving
An island almost completely surrounded by teeming coral reefs, Bonaire is one big dive site. More than eighty diving spots are scattered off the 24-mile shoreline, and no other island boasts so many first-rate sites so close to shore (just walk in!) nor such a conservation-sensitive dive industry and enlightened, forward-thinking government.
The latter’s unprecedented creation of the island-encircling Bonaire Marine Park in 1979 has resulted in some of the world’s finest, and healthiest, hard-and soft-coral reef diving, with 80-plus kinds of colorful coral and more than 355 species of fish at last count.
Since spear guns were replaced by underwater cameras in the 1970s, the fish here have become among the most numerous and friendly in the Caribbean. Bonaire is an exceptionally dry island, with minimal freshwater runoff, so that underwater visibility is among the Caribbean’s clearest—the diving is great year-round.
Captain Don’s Habitat is the nerve center for visiting scuba divers. Californian Captain Don is a salty island legend and was instrumented in the dive industry’s early days of conservation. His 1970s pit-stop beachfront bungalows have evolved into some of the island’s best accommodations, and his five-star, full-service PADI diving center is considered the finest in the Caribbean.
Pink Sand and Turquoise Waters
This time the tourist literature doesn’t exaggerate: The sand of Bermuda’s beaches – especially in the late-afternoon sun – really is rosy pink, the result of granules of crushed coral washed ashore from the island’s band of protective reefs.
Though it’s known as an island, Bermuda is actually a fishhook shaped archipelago made up of seven major islands and about 143 smaller ones, interconnected by bridges and causeways. That’s a lot of blushing pink coastline.
Of the world’s resort islands, Bermuda enjoys the highest rate of return visitors, many of whom come back, at least in part, to bask on the dozens of small, hidden beaches they didn’t have time for on their last trip. Typically, southshore beaches are more scenic than those on the north side.
Postcard-perfect Horseshoe Bay is one of the most popular and the most photographed— which means lots of cooler-toting families and teenage beach-blanket parties. Lovely as it is, on weekends you’re better off going to nearby Elbow Beach. For utter serenity from sunrise to sunset, search out Warwick Long Bay—lengthy, soft, and truly pink. Really.
Bermuda’s diminutive 21-square-mile dimensions belie its riches, including more golf courses per square mile than anywhere else in the world. Six public and two private golf clubs offer spectacular scenery, challenging courses (seven are championship standard), and wind—plenty of wind—plus a British tradition of excellence not easy to find outside Scotland.
Riddell’s Bay, established in 1922, is the island’s oldest, most picturesque club. Belmont, challenging and undulating, opened a year later. Port Royal also figures on any visiting golfer’s shortlist, with a much-photographed sixteenth hole. But the ne plus ultra (and private) Mid Ocean Club is undoubtedly the island’s finest, with a fabulous fifth hole regularly included in surveys of the world’s top fifty.
Some of the better hotels can facilitate booking tee times at these enclaves, among them the venerable Cambridge Beaches Hotel, only 2% miles from the Port Royal Club. The century-old grand dame of Bermuda’s cottage communities, Cambridge Beaches occupies a beautifully landscaped peninsula edged with private coves and pink sand beaches. High tea is observed punctiliously, and the formal Tamarisk Restaurant serves some of Bermuda’s best food.
A Palladian Estate Where Everyone Gets the Royal Treatment
Sandy Lane is one of the resort world’s classiest acts, its house-proud Bajan staff treating every guest with the same degree of service they gave Queen Elizabeth when she visited. Although independent since 1966, Barbados has retained a veddy British atmosphere, and life at this former sugarcane plantation is redolent of the old cultural ties, with many Brits (including some royals) filling the guest register.
Things are done on a grand scale, from the snow-white Rolls-Royce greeting you at the airport to complimentary Champagne at breakfast and vast marbled bathrooms the size of most hotel guest rooms.
An army of gardeners carefully tends the 320-acre grounds, and the hotel’s own championship 18-hole, par-72 golf course is but one of a host of complimentary recreational activities (which also include tennis, deep-sea fishing, and scuba diving).
Plan to spruce up for dinner—the dress code is enforced more by the guests than by management—and plan to follow your meal with dancing under the stars on the Starlight Terrace. Could it be more swank?
Thrills and Chills in Bahamian Waters
In old times a rumrunners’ refuge, Walker’s Cay today is a small, world-class sport fishing center that gives Bimini a run for its money. Despite a panoply of diving and water activities, the Shark Rodeo is undoubtedly the headliner.
At least 100 (and probably twice as many) Caribbean reef, bull, blacktip, and nurse sharks gather to feed from a frozen “chumsicle” of fish carcasses that your boatman lowers into clear, 35-foot-deep waters.
Divers wait nearby, and, if they choose, can take a confident swim among these magnificent creatures— having never been hand-fed, the sharks do not associate their daily hors d’oeuvres with the divers, and so are completely uninterested in their presence.
Safely swimming eye-to-eye with the big guys is a surreal experience, but only one of the many available in the famous waters and reef structures of the Abacos Islands. Walker’s Cay Hotel and Marina is the site of the Annual Billfish Tournament every April, and is one of the world’s best deep-sea fishing resorts for marlin, wahoo, and tuna.
Its full-service, seventy-five-slip marina is the best in the Bahamas and boasts more International Game Fish Association records than any other resort. Sooner or later you’ll find everyone in the Lobster Trap lounge, swapping tales.
A Pastel Village on a Gorgeous Beach
As the Bahamas’ first capital, before Nassau, Harbour Island is rich in history, but today it is best known for the 3-mile-long cover of pale pink sand. It’s a private fantasy beach with water as clear as a swimming pool, rimmed by the classic seashell-pink-and- white Bahamian cottages of the Pink Sands Hotel.
Spread out over 16 green acres, the Pink Sands, once a venerable and slightly stodgy favorite of old-money families, has been transformed into a glamorous destination for a younger, more international, and decidedly cooler crowd. The elegant informality of the place is deliberately, deceptively unassuming, in keeping with the personality of Harbour Island, an offshore cay of Eleuthera.
Lacy gingerbread houses and white picket fences remind some visitors of Nantucket, but don’t think stuffy: There’s fun and whimsy in Pink Sands’ strong pastels and chic decor, and the restaurant’s Caribbean-Asian cuisine is one of the most exciting in the far-flung Out Islands.
Enchanting Creatures, Face-to-Face
There’s a magical place northeast of Grand Bahama Island where a pod of wild spotted dolphins congregates regularly—without the enticement of food or reward—to play and swim and interact with people, apparently more charmed by their human playmates than fearful.
There’s no way to predict exactly when or where they’ll show up, so you’ll have to team up with a reputable operator who’s familiar with the dolphins, their habitat, and their habits. Captain Scott of Dream Team is the most experienced, having photographed, identified, and named more than a hundred dolphins.
They’re not sideshow performers or pets, yet Scott seems to have an uncanny intuition for finding them, and treats them like old friends. His 65-foot live-aboard, the Dream Too, scores an 85 percent success rate, sometimes with several encounters a day, lasting from a few emotional moments to a couple of adrenaline-packed hours.
The water over the Little Bahama Banks—shallow, calm, and with excellent visibility—is perfect for nondiving snorkelers and swimmers, who can enjoy themselves here even after the dolphins get bored and disappear.
A Shrine to Hemingway and Big-Game Fishing
Ponce de Leon discovered Bimini in 1513, but Papa Hemingway put it on the map, immortalizing Alice Town in Islands in the Stream. The author lived in the Compleat Angler hotel in the 1930s before building the Blue Marlin Cottage next door (now a private home).
His spirit still lives on in yellowed photos, memorabilia, and a bar made from Prohibition-era rum kegs, where visitors young and old gather nightly to toss back Goombay Smashers and Bahama Mamas while discussing what’s on everybody’s mind: blue marlin, swordfish, wahoo, tuna, and barracuda.
Bimini’s sportfishing is still the best in the world (Hemingway’s best catch was a 785-pound mako shark), and the island is suffused with the legendary sportsman’s mystique. The Compleat Angler has thirteen guest rooms upstairs— including one where Hemingway penned parts of To Have and Have Not in 1937—but you’re not likely to get any shut-eye before the calypso band downstairs packs up for the night.