(Telegraph) – Frederick Lightbourn, the proud owner of Nassau’s Poop Deck restaurant, approached us as we finished a delicious plateful of conch fritters and rice and peas, anxious to know if everything had been to our satisfaction.
“We take great pride in serving the freshest seafood,” he insisted.
“It’s a lot easier – and cheaper – to serve imported fish these days, but I want people to get the real thing. I come from this beautiful country, and it’s a great place to have grown up, so I want everyone to have a little taste of our island. I promise you the best meal you can have in this country.”
For Frederick, proprietor of our pink-hued seafront lunch spot overlooking Delaport Bay on the northern shore of New Providence, local flavour and authenticity is a genuine concern. And, as it turned out, it’s a familiar refrain.
Everywhere we went in the Bahamas, people were almost painfully keen for us to appreciate “this beautiful little country”. We did appreciate it, of course.
It’s hard not to fall in love with the Bahamas, with its outrageously azure waters, seemingly endless white-sand beaches and soul-soothing tropical lilt. And the people. Ah, the people. If we weren’t greeted with a toothy smile and a heartfelt “How ya doin’?” it was a rare occurrence.
The warmth of that memory made watching the recent savage progress of Hurricane Dorian all the more distressing.
As we sat on the fringe of 2019’s great storm in Orlando in central Florida, where we live, we could only lament the terror and anguish brought to this incomparable collection of islands.
The roiled outer bands of Dorian were distinctly visible in the far distance – an atmospheric wrecking ball of record proportions that left dozens dead, hundreds missing and some 70,000 homeless in Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands.
And yet, remarkably, Nassau, Eleuthera and Harbour Island all escaped the full ravages of Dorian’s category-five fury, as did Andros, the Exumas, Long Island, Inagua and the other scattered blue-green gems to the south.
It’s an area we know well, as these islands are little more than an hour’s flight from Orlando. This is our go-to bolt-hole when we need to drop out and recharge, a sybaritic refuge guaranteed to enchant and enliven in equal measure.
That’s because there are two sides to the Bahamas, and visitors can pick and choose between them.
Perhaps start – as we did earlier this year – on New Providence, home to the capital, Nassau, and some of the most action-packed, high-energy resorts in the Western Hemisphere.
The mammoth Atlantis has been the standard-bearer of the Bahamas’ big and bold face for more than 20 years, a dramatic exemplar of action, adventure and gambling, with just about every holiday activity known to man, including a 141-acre “waterscape” of aquatic wonders.
Bigger and bolder still is the new mega-resort of Baha Mar: 2,200 rooms spread over 1,000 acres, the largest casino in the region, a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, high-end shopping, a gigantic array of restaurants, and an outdoor recreation area roughly the size of the Cotswolds.
At the same time, Nassau also basks in its colonial history, offering the likes of Fort Montagu and Fort Fincastle, with its 18th-century Queen’s Staircase, as well as Rawson Square and Parliament Square.
A more recent development is that of the Heritage Village at Graycliff, a project intended to breathe new life into historic West Hill Street, the former home of the Sisters of Charity convent (founded in 1889) and Mountbatten House (built in the early 1850s).
Under the stewardship of the Graycliff Hotel – which itself dates back to the 1740s – the previously abandoned structures have been converted into the Heritage Museum of the Bahamas and Heritage Village Artists’ Studios. The latter features local artisans who offer a healthy antidote to the frenzied cruise crowds of the harbour’s Straw Market.
But for all Nassau’s charms – and there are many – it is still the gaudier, mass-market edition of the Bahamas.
As you progress to the “Out Islands”, such as Eleuthera and Harbour Island, the high-rise glamour and glitz fall away and you are left with a stripped-down version of elegant simplicity, gracious service and unspoiled ocean vistas.
This low-rise alternative is a place of largely empty beaches and glittering sapphire seas. Instead of shopping, casinos and golf, there is kayaking, paddleboarding and beach yoga.
If Nassau is for activity hounds, Eleuthera is for beach bums; indolence as opposed to effervescence, leaving you chilled rather than thrilled.
Take Tippy’s Beach Bar in Governor’s Harbour. Its ramshackle decor of mismatched window shutters, chalkboards and recycled piano keyboards suggests an air of utter insouciance.
Yet the quality remains first class, with the cuisine straight out of the high-grade Baha Mar handbook. The lack of obvious activities – and brand-name hotels – is the essential difference here. You might go snorkelling, cycling or fishing, but that is about the limit of the attractions on offer.
That isn’t to say Eleuthera and Harbour Island can’t do luxury. If anything, upscale indulgence is their stock in trade. It’s simply that, here, everything slows down to a laidback pace.
The resorts are the key. At Eleuthera’s Pineapple Fields and French Leave, and Harbour Island’s The Dunmore and Pink Sands, we were seduced into an easy-going elegance that benefited from blissful simplicity.
All four offered fresh, local food with a sea view that stretched seemingly forever, a warmth of service that extended Bahamas bonhomie to new limits, and individual accommodations that challenged the definition of “cosseted”.
While the Baha Mar and Atlantis count their rooms by the thousand, the largest resort on either Eleuthera or Harbour Island has a mere 69.
One lunchtime, we walked into Tippy’s straight off the beach, and barman Elliott had an “Industrial” – the bar’s signature margarita – settled in front of us before we had so much as plonked ourselves onto our barstools.
Kayaking gave way to snorkelling, before descending into lounging on the largely empty two-mile (3km) stretch of beach.
We had toured the Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve, with its extensive trails and beautifully presented ecosystems, and decided that that was quite enough excitement for one day. We achieved ultimate chillout.
In the aftermath of the hurricane, the perception that the islands as a whole took a crippling blow has been hugely damaging. As people watched the news and feared the worst, the surge of visitors that the islands would normally see throughout September and October has been reduced to a mere trickle.
For a nation that depends financially on tourism, it is a disastrous state of affairs.
The truth is, it’s business as usual in the Bahamas. Frederick and Co would like you to know they are still there, eager to greet you with the freshest seafood and the warmest smiles.
We’ll certainly be back this winter for our regular dose of Bahamian bliss. We hope to see you there.