Like a Disneyland of The Bahamas, the Sea of Abaco is a perfect playground for boaters, which may be why I return periodically to eat fresh conch, stroll along white beaches and catch up with friendly locals.
The sheltered waters of this boomerang-shaped swath of turquoise-colored water are roughly 60 miles long and five miles wide so it’s easy to visit in a short time. Only 200 miles from the southeast coast of Florida, the sea is a perfect weeklong boating getaway although some cruisers get lost in its comfortable ebb and flow for many seasons. Recently, I hopped a 45-minute flight from Ft. Lauderdale to Marsh Harbour to join friends aboard for a leisurely few days visiting two of its unique gems, Man-O-War Cay and Hope Town on Elbow Cay.
Strong trade winds sometimes cook up a local weather condition known as “The Rage” when winds gust into the 40s and the Atlantic serves up angry waves on the outside that make me grateful to be in the flat waters that rarely hold boaters captive in their slips. So, although we had a bit of crusty weather, we set sail east, from Marsh Harbour to Man-O-War Cay, only about 5 nautical miles away.
Man-O-War is a 2 ½-mile-long spit of sand where the community is small and tightly knit. A few last names like Albury, Archer and Lowe repeat on local business signs as these families have been here since the settlement was established in the 1700s. Everyone knows one another by first name so when you’re looking for baked goods you might get a response like, “Sarah used to bake out of her house but she’s retired now. Try Jane in the yellow house by the marina.”
Entering Man-O-War Cay involves a bit of threading the needle. The entrance is only about one-catamaran wide and shallow. Once inside, it’s as if you’ve stepped through the looking glass because this township has barely changed in the past hundred years. We caught a $20 mooring and decided to stretch our legs with a hike to the northernmost tip where the calm waters of the sea and the rougher waves of the Atlantic commingle and result in water coloration you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.
Man-O-War Cay has been known for its boatbuilding expertise since the 1880s. You can still stroll along the waterfront and see boats like the popular Abaco dinghies in mid-build at Albury Brothers Boatyard. A must-see is Albury’s Sail Shop where handmade canvas bags have been sewn for three generations. Each of the colorful creations is uniquely Sojer (the name of the local residents) and they make great gifts, so I always stock up.
Water, ice, groceries, and the Dock ‘n Dine restaurant are all on the waterfront but don’t expect much to happen on a Sunday when everyone is in one of the dozen or so churches of just about every denomination. This island is dry, which means you can’t buy alcohol, so we opened a bottle of wine and dined aboard in perfect bliss so long as we kept the bug spray handy as the surrounding mangroves are thick with mosquitos. The protected anchorage was possibly the best sleep I’d had in months.
Word of incoming heavy weather got us up early the next morning to motor to Hope Town, almost literally around the corner, just four miles or 40 minutes away if you dawdle. Tucked in a tiny and well-protected harbor on Elbow Cay, Hope Town is probably where Sherwin Williams sends all the crazy colors of house paint they don’t sell anywhere else.
Settled in 1785 by British Loyalists (loyal to the crown of England after the U.S. War of Independence), Hope Town boasts many fine examples of colonial architecture. The two-street waterfront is chock-a-block with houses showing off fun design details including carved lace-like trim and pineapple motif shutters. But the centerpiece of Hope Town’s skyline is its 130-year-old candy stripe lighthouse, which is one of only two manned, kerosene-fueled lighthouses still in operation in the world. A trek up the 200-plus steps inside is a must if only for the fantastic views from the top.
The Hope Town Harbor entry is well marked if a bit tricky. A shallow channel leads from the sea into the round harbor full of moorings. We picked up another $20 mooring and dinghied to Cap’n Jack’s on the waterfront for breakfast. When a downpour started, it seemed the perfect time to duck into the two-story Wyannie Malone Historical Museum dedicated to documenting the lives of fishermen, pirates and the early settlers. We learned a bit of history as we waited out the rain and chatted with the curator.
The sun popped out and wanting to stretch our legs, we took a hike south to Tahiti Beach. This half-moon-shaped white sand beach transports you from one paradise in the East to another somewhere deep in the South Pacific. Along the way, direction poles were frequent but even though we were on an island, we managed to get lost if ever so briefly. Having underestimated the length of our walk (about seven miles round trip) we fortified ourselves with unbeatable conch salad and a Kalik (local) beer at the Abaco Inn Resort where their taglines say it all, “Tan your Toes in the Abacos.”
Back in the harbor, it was time to check in with the real world via email and text. Hope Town Inn and Marina is cruiser friendly offering showers, laundry, and free Wi-Fi, so we stopped in for happy hour and a bit of Web surfing. The docks were full of boats from far-flung destinations and the bar resonated with distinctly Canadian accents.
That night, we made reservations at Firefly Grill and Resort that dispatched a “golf cart bus” to ferry six of us halfway down the same trek we had done earlier. It was shockingly short given how long we had spent on our afternoon slog. The grouper was sublime and the homemade tiramisu was artfully presented. Lit by strings of light bulbs, the dining deck defined the romance that captivates so many cruisers in The Bahamas. The sultry evening renewed my determination to return again soon because Hope Town and Man-O-War Cay just never get old.
— By Zuzana Prochazka, Southern Boating Magazine May 2016
Best Time to Go
December through March can be chilly with temps in the 60s and 70s while July to September may be sweltering, not to mention right in the middle of hurricane season. Your best bet is April to June and again October to November, although if you do go in October you might want to consider trip insurance. Winds are usually 5-20 knots except when “The Rage” is on.
What to Watch For
Depth! The Sea of Abaco is shallow and punctuated with unexpected (and at times uncharted) coral flats. There are not many coral heads to sneak up on you but the bottom does change even when well away from any island. Beware the no-see-ums especially in Man-O-War.
Anchoring & Mooring
In Hope Town and Man-O-War, your best bet is to pay for a mooring – about $20 per night. Marina’s include Hope Town Inn & Marina, Lighthouse Marina and Man-O-War Marina.
Food & Fuel
Provisioning is excellent in Marsh Harbour in a large grocery store, which is walking distance from most of the marinas. Hope Town has a convenience store right at the docks near Cap’n Jack’s. Man-O-War can be a provisioning challenge, so bring what you need with you, especially any alcohol. Fuel is available at both locations.