Paddling in Paradise

On the Sea
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Hubbard Marmaduke Jones III
Hubbard Marmaduke Jones III

Our day generally started with a bountiful breakfast, two hours of kayaking, lunch, and two hours more of kayaking. Our brains and our boats mostly cruised along on autopilot. No continuous fussing with the sails, no frantic compass readings; just kick back in your seat, stay within sight of Bardy's bright red lead kayak, work on a tan and savor the sensation of being a piece of high-tech driftwood riding low in user-friendly waters.

I learned one valuable lesson early on. When you go sea kayaking in the Caribbean, always take swim fins. I had every intention of packing some, but then didn't because I wanted to travel light—afraid of overloading my kayak, capsizing, and returning home with sun-filled memories of a week lost at sea. Since going barefoot in the presence of coral is a no-no, I found myself snorkeling in running shoes that sponged up about 175 pounds of seawater apiece. I couldn't have outswum a Mafia informant wearing a concrete suit.

Indeed, one day, when I was supposed to be leisurely exploring a fish-filled, partially submerged cave, my legs became sandbag heavy from fighting the devilish currents that funneled around the entrance. I had visions of getting smashed against razor-sharp coral and turned into an answered prayer for hungry sharks. It seemed a high price to pay for bad footwear.

Through the miracle of wide-eyed panic, I managed to catch a foothold on the cave wall and scurry onto an exposed ledge of smooth rock. Exhausted, I watched schools of neon fish frolic for a few minutes, then carefully worked my way back to where our three kayaks were anchored, about 100 yards away in knee-high, baby-blue water. Ah, home sweet buoyant home.

Vic has a theory that many of the same people who enjoy cycling are drawn to kayaking. Both pursuits are slower, more poetic alternatives to prevailing modes of transportation, namely cars and boats. According to the Victor Principle, pleasure is inversely proportional to speed. Vic shared his theory with me while the two of us were standing by the shore on Lower Twin Cay. We had all just completed a lazy, four-mile day on the water and had changed into our apres-kayak attire. There was a telltale arc of suntan lotion rimming Vic's ear, like the halo of salt on a drinking glass. Margarita ears.

"The thing that distinguishes Bardy's trips from other operators," Vic observed,"is that he actually makes as effort to cook. It's not just pasta and grains."

Considering that our chef was working under the handicap of no refrigeration and 100 degree temperatures, we ate like kings. Our menu included such aberrant camping fare as french toast soaked in coconut milk and Barbados rum, crab benedict, falafel, key lime pie, and rum-soaked cheese cake.

It seems odd that food is so often the neglected ingredient on adventure vacations, since it is the lubricant that greases the wheels of social interaction. When you're miles from the nearest satellite dish, lounging without radios under winking stars, talk isn't cheap. It's the primary form of recreation and stimulation. Cruising the Exumas with a pack of tight-lipped, pensive kayakers could be a hellish experience.

Thankfully, all six of us carried a full load of repartee. Under a Technicolor sunset, Bud shared the news that a Florida man has some of the beloved Disney characters tattooed on his behind—and Disney is suing for copyright infringement. Andrew supplied us with a week's worth of teasing material by confessing that he wasn't sure whether Lincoln was president of the United States or the Confederacy. "He freed the slaves, didn't he?" Andrew tentatively inquired.

We hit our raconteurial stride one evening over an enormous bonfire. Bud suggested we concoct a communal fireside story and got the snowball of a plot rolling: a swashbuckling epic entitled "Thief of the Exuma Wind." We took turns picking up the dangling thread of narrative, embellishing in the manner of jamming jazz musicians. Since Bud did most of the casting, his fictional alter ego was the "compassionate, humanitarian doctor." I got stuck with the sleazy role of "debauched silent movie producer." By the end of a half-hour our plot rivaled Twin Peaks in illogic and thorough lack of comprehensibility.

During day light hours, Bardy handled most of the storytelling. He proved adept at identifying plants and wildlife, and we brushed up against a slew of both: wild coffee, seven-year apple trees, golden orb-spiders, Antillean nighthawks, a three-foot sand snake, laughing gulls, Bahaman mockingbirds, skinks, and multiple sting rays and nurse sharks. Bardy also turned out to be a fountain of offbeat information, from the origin of the expression "shiver me timbers" (the mast and beams of wooden ships used to vibrate like a tuning fork when the vessel was sailing at maximum efficiency) to the historical footnote that, in the early dark days of World War II, England had offered to swap the United States the Bahama Islands in exchange for 50 mothballed World War I destroyers.

As we glided along in our kayaks, Bardy might abruptly note that the Bahamas' Lucayan Indianswere among the 25 million indigenous people who didn't survive the cultural clash between the Old World and the New. "They were completely wiped out by the Spanish, who used them as slaves" Bardy explained. "They took them down to work the gold and silver mines on Hispanola and were also used as pearl divers until they died of the bends."

The hours would slide by in casual conversation until we hit a campsite toward evening. After setting up our four dome tents (Bardy and I enjoyed single accommodations), we'd swim, read, and tease Andrew about mystery man Abe Lincoln until dinner. That hour or two of downtime also provided a window of opportunity to attend to accumulated sand, the petty annoyance of tropical camping. Sand was everywhere. In our shoes. In our hair. In our ears, toilet kits, books, and navels. Leave your tent flap open for one minute and a thousand of grains of sand would materialize on the bright-blue nylon floor, as dense as stars in the Milky Way. Nothing to do but go borrow Bardy's dust pan and hand broom and make a clean sweep of things.

"Sand's a pain," Bardy would say."If I told people about the sand, nobody would come."

Cays in the Exumas may look alike, but many have their own quirky features and personalities. Hall's Pond Cay, for example, contains the dashed hopes of the Exuma Cays Club. Construction began on the luxury resort in the 1970s, but, alas, the developers went bankrupt. They cut and ran, leaving behind a cluster of half-finished patios and grass huts, rusty lawn tractors, and lonesome toilets. Only the well remains in working order. We came ashore one afternoon to take ice-cold bucket showers and tour the ghost resort. The decaying reception center is set on a bluff, so its veranda affords a commanding view of the Exumas. The lizards living in this lap of luxury can now sun in style. Inside is a recyclable library for passing kayakers and yachties. Take a book, leave a book. There were several shelves filled with resistible paperbacks such as The Runaway Debutante ("She's a young lady alone in London, with a hot-headed rake on her trail!").

The Bahamas have been a place of comings and goings for centuries. Explorers, pirates, boaters, beach bums and beach bunnies have all left their marks. Rumor has it that Wardrick Wells Cay, one of the largest cays and home of the Land and Sea Park ranger station, is haunted by the tormented spirits of a slave ship that splintered on the rocky shoals. Shroud Cay has whimsical Driftwood Village, an ever-expanding work of folk art that sprawls over a hilly footpath. Tradition demands that visitors deposit weird keepsakes to commemorate their stop. Two mock shipwrecked sailors that were fashioned out of Styrofoam and scraps of clothing have been surrounded by tourist flotsam: a derelict boom box radio, deck sandals, a wooden anchor, a tube of suntan lotion from some indiscernible Arabic country, a wooden sign from the Snark II, and R. Ann Howard's Jefferson County, Colorado, laminated public library card.


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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