In the Bahamas, Cat Island offers spectacular diving and solitude for miles


A corroded fishing boat, abandoned after the death of its captain, is located on a beach at Exuma Sound on the island of Cat. The Out Islands still support small-scale commercial fishing, with the capture almost exclusively intended for consumption local. (John Briley / For the Washington Post)

Sometimes, a shift in perspective makes the difference. They are 100 feet deep in a sea of ​​the Bahamas, while scattering a coral reef that dives like a cascade of color in the deep blue below. Jacks, parrotfish and dugongs glide through a jungle of corals and sponges – green, yellow, purple, red – sprouting from the coral reef. A school of Bermuda chub passes over his head, silhouetted in the refracted sunlight. And here, at the sunset of this dive, my mood is improving second.

It's half a mile off Cat Island, a 130-mile-curved limestone scythe and a galaxy far from cruise ship ports, casinos, and the harsh resorts of Nassau and Freeport. Cat is one of the Out Islands of the Bahamas, an assortment of small islets scattered like twigs on the tropical Atlantic Ocean.

I had arrived the night before on a 33-seater propulsion plane of Nassau, exhausted and irritable by sleep deprivation and a series of unnecessary stress. A predetermined ride brought me an insignificant ribbon of broken asphalt, through a soggy bush and a few signs of life, except an open liquor store and a closed bar. Looking out the window at the meaningless green wall, all I could think of was "Huh".

But soon my driver, following a hand-painted wooden sign, turned down a dirt road to the Greenwood Beach Resort and I caught the first whispering of the charm of Cat Island.

"Beaches, caves, 300-year-old plantations, diving, fishing, call it," says Donihue Waters in a Tennessee accent. "This island is 50 miles long! You could spend a month here and not be short of things to do." Waters, a regular visitor who flies his plane here from his home in Savannah, Georgia, with his wife Angie and Kaia , their Alaskan Klee Kai, is in court at the Greenwood bar. The other guests – couples from Toronto, Berlin and Houston – who run like a safari of neighbors with the guitar, mostly expats with holiday homes in small buildings nearby, wander around for a weekly open mic evening.

I do not have a month In fact, I barely have a long weekend and now my diary – diving, relaxing and repeating – suddenly seems weak.

It does not matter. I step behind the concrete and limestone bar to get a Kalik Bahamian beer, dutifully recording the shot in the ledger of the honor system, and I go out on the porch to watch a tangerine moon rising in the ocean .

The Greenwood, built in the 70s, could use an update, but has a kitschy charm, with buoys dangling from the trees, old school chaise longues that ring a small pool and maritime relics that adorn the walls of a room with tiled floor used for eating, drinking, socializing and making music.

Even better, with WiFi only in that common area and no TV in the property, guests quickly connect with each other, the three resident dogs – Luis, Nolly and Guinness – and the irreproachable French managers of Greenwood, the 34 year old Pauline Vaz Branco and his companion, Antoine Barbier, 33.

A few minutes from the finish line, I am in a tête-à-téte with Pauline, trying to persuade her that I am a competent diver despite the seven years since my last underwater experience. Doubtful, Pauline raises an eyebrow, opens a shed full of diving equipment and kitesurfing and spreads a tank, a regulator and an attitude control vest, pieces that must be assembled perfectly if you want to survive underneath. water. "Ok, we're going diving," he says. "Let me see what to do."


The worms of Christmas trees emerge from a coral colony of mustard hill on a cliff off the island of Cat. These worms retract with the speed of light when visitors get too close. (John Briley / For the Washington Post)

The next morning, under a sunny 75-degree sky, Pauline, Antoine, the Houstonites – Clement and Caroline, who are also French – and I load our gear in a 2005 black Dodge pickup for a short boat ride. Like many of the Out Islands, Cat Island is the fantasy of a diver, with almost no competition for dozens of dive sites along a coastline beaten by the reef and not another piece of land that can be practiced east to Africa.

We build our equipment on the boat, a 26-foot Mako, sail the anchor and the engine to the dive site. The only divers are Pauline, Caroline and me. We descend to 40 feet and begin to follow the descending contours of the reef. Like many divers, I'm waiting too long to scan megafauna, but Pauline knows that the soul of the reef, as in most of life, is in the details. He uses a torch to point out fascinating little ones I would never have seen on my own: a polka-dot flamingo tongue snail, poised like a rare gem on a coral stem; an arrow crab, all but completely camouflaged in a sea plume; a translucent shrimp hidden in a rocky corner.

Back on board, Antoine drives the Mako to prevent the coral heads from hiding inches below the surface. The low sandbanks of the Bahamas give these waters their mesmerizing tone, an effect that led the Spanish explorers to decipher these baja mar (low seas). But contrary to the famous fable of discovery, the Spaniards were not the first here.


A tree grows on and around the ruins of a plantation in Port Howe. Dozens of such ruins around the island stand as a reminder of the use of slave labor to produce sugar cane and other crops in the 18th and 19th centuries. (John Briley / For the Washington Post)

Cat Island was established between 300 and 900 AD. from Arawak Indians who sailed (or drifted) from the Lesser Antilles. Then came the Europeans, who went to shore carrying gifts of subjugation and illness, a combined punch that left the entire native population dead. The Europeans left and the island remained uninhabited for 100 years.

In 1649 the British arrived, founded a colony (in 1717) and, after surviving the lightning of piracy – the island took its name from the pirate Arthur Catt – built cotton plantations and sugar cane fed by slaves. Next to fascinating beaches, the remains of those manors are today, many of them in various stages of crumbling. After England abolished slavery in 1838, many of the newly liberated people began to grow pineapples, tomatoes and other crops, building an export economy that thrived until the US stopped buying products from the Bahamas. in the 40s because too much of the crop ended up rotting on the quays of Nassau. The country gained independence in 1973, but remains a voluntary member state of the British Commonwealth of Nations, and English is the official language here.

A population that once counted 5,000 people has fallen to 1,300, forcing the recent closure of one of the two schools of the island and its orphanage. But there are indications that tourism could turn a revival: a trio of small airlines are increasing the service to the main northern settlement of the island, Arthur & # 39; s Town, and a French expat that I met is building houses of luxury that will rent for $ 10,000 a week – personal chef and other extravagances included.

I'm turning around the southern end of Cat Island, I find it a little bit of action. Saturday night, Donihue and Angie invite me for a 25-minute trip to the island's cultural district known as Fish Fry, a series of tiny bars, restaurants and shops along the west coast.

In a pastel-colored hut called Anniboo, five guys in jeans and island style shirts sit at the open bar looking intensely at a Golden State Warriors-Sacramento Kings game on TV. We order Kaliks and a plate of fritters of shells, paying with US dollars and changing the value in dollars of the Bahamas, because one of the boys explains the high interest: the guard of King Buddy Hield is one of the two Bahamians of the NBA, together at Deandre Ayton, 7 feet 1 center of Phoenix Suns.

I'm not in the mood to talk, so I follow a sandy path behind the shack to a wonderful beach where the moonlight glistens on Exuma Sound. Observing this Elyos coast without other visible artificial lights, I realize how few places remain like this: peaceful and simple communities, anchored to the shallows of paradise.

The next day, I join the Berliners, Daniela and Mark, in their rental car, who bought from a club without showing the identity or a credit card, or even filling out a form. After snorkeling in a deserted limestone bay, we follow a road that climbs towards the most prominent hill of the island of Cat. At the head of a small parking area, we begin a track lined with carefully crafted Cross stations. A short, steep walk past the stone station VIII – "Do not cry for me but for yourself and for your children" – delivers us to the highest point of the Bahamas, 206 feet airy above sea level.

But it is not the 360-degree opinions that attract our attention. It is the (kind) mash-up of the miniaturized medieval castle and a church, complete with a tiny chapel, steps similar to an elf, wooden beds and a bell tower. A hermitage, it turns out, built in 1939 by Monsignor John Hawes, an English priest and architect who named the hill Auvergne, after La Verna, a Tuscan hill left as a legacy to St. Francis of Assisi as a place of private contemplation. Hawes intended to puncture Auvergne in the same way but in the end could not stick to his plan: he continued to build churches in all the Bahamas until his death in 1956.

As with most of the places I go to Cat Island, we have the grounds for ourselves and we do not meet guardrails, restrictive signage or other people. I'm sure there are rules here, but the dominant atmosphere is that people do more or less what they want, while they find a way to get along with everyone else.

The aura is being played at Fish Fry, where we sit at CeeDee's Restaurant and Bar (which still bears its former name, Sunshine Restaurant) while the matron is writing the menu on a chalkboard. Lobster. Seashell. Barbecued ribs All local A Bahamian man of Santa size with a white beard, dressed in khaki shorts, blue T-shirt and black cap, clutching half a flask of Absolut vodka.

I ask if fresh fish is on the menu.

"Oh, we have the grouper," he says.

"We do not have any grouper!" The woman corrects him.

"Oh, then the barracuda."

"No barracuda, either."

"We have a red snapper."

"No, we do not! Stop selling these fish people we do not have."

Pompeo Johnson, who claims to have "70 years in abundance … and the best accordion player in the world," sits down and continues.

"In 1952, when King George died, we marched down this road here." Indicate a few steps from where we are sitting. "They march all day because we respect the queen." Pompey pauses. "Did you know that I fought in the Bay of Pigs? And did I play my music at the Smithsonian?"

I do not know what to believe but I want to hear the accordion, so I'll take it. Pompeo leaves with a friend and returns 10 minutes later with a red juicer of about 1960 by Hohner Erica and leans on melodies and waltzes while a boy of about 6 plays irrelevantly on an oiled goatskin drum.

Pompey tries to convince bandmate Cedell Hunter to stop cooking long enough to play rake-and-scrape – traditional Bahamian music with a saw, a drum and a melody instrument like an accordion or a guitar. Someone even produces a saw ready for the stage. The music never happens, but when I go back to the District, I look for his band, Bo-Hog and Da Rooters, and sure enough, there's Pompey, who squeezes away on a recording of the Smithsonian Folkways.

Returning to Greenwood, we will head to the south coast of the island, approaching Da Pink Chicken, a sky-blue, concrete and plywood bar that overlooks a canal where the tide is pushing towards a lagoon. On a pier, two Bahamians use an ax to break the shells and throw the shells on a mountain stack. Adjacent to an open kitchen where a woman is eating a shell, a crowd of 15 – many from the crew of the expats I met at Greenwood's open microphone – beers, beers and spin stories like a lipstick sunset illuminates water and sky.

My last morning, I wake up just after dawn and kayak on a calm sea where small waves curl up a cliff, their white foam dazzling in the first sun. Below me, the fish hurls around green coral domes. On my left, a deserted beach ark towards the infinite. Back in Greenwood, people appear on the ground. But the sea is calling and I will not come back yet.

Briley is a writer based in Takoma Park, Maryland. His website is johnbriley.com.

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