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TRAVEL

The wildest place in the Bahamas

Andros is the largest of the country’s 700 islands, and one of the least populated

The dive shop at Small Hope Bay Lodge juts out into the crystal clear water.Pamela Wright for The Boston Globe

We were floating in clear, cobalt blue water, above a kaleidoscope of tropical fish. Skinny barracuda, striped sergeant majors, shiny blue tangs, and funny-looking, pouty porcupine fish darted in and out of the coral reef formations. We flapped our fins and headed toward Burton’s Blue Hole, a large, freshwater opening in the floor of the sea. The water grew cloudy and cold as we neared the gaping chasm. It was a surreal sight, a cavernous, yawning shaft filled with marine life, and surrounded by acres of coral.

We were snorkeling the waters surrounding Andros, the largest of the Bahamas’ 700 islands, and one of the country’s least populated. Andros is more than 100 miles long and 40 miles wide, with only about 8,000 residents, scattered in small settlements. The island, bigger than all the other Bahamian islands combined, is vast and green, and largely undiscovered. It’s also home to the largest concentration of blue holes in the world (more on those later), and the third largest fringing barrier reef in the world, which stretches 190 miles, just offshore.

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Private villas at the Caerula Mar resort have sleek, minimalistic décor, and water views.Pamela Wright

Dubbed the “Sleeping Giant,” Andros grabbed a bit of attention when it was spotlighted on HGTV’s “Renovation Island” show. In the series, contractor Bryan Baeumler and his wife, Sarah, renovated a boarded-up, run-down hotel in South Andros, turning it into the recently opened Caerula Mar resort (www.caerulamar.com). The now luxe oceanfront resort is a beauty. There are 18 suites and six private villas, boasting sleek, minimalistic décor, in crisp whites and creamy neutrals. The villas are spacious with reading nooks and decks overlooking the ocean and fronting a nearly deserted stretch of shell- and seaweed-strewn beach. Most guests spend their days around the pool or lounging in beach cabanas, moving to the on-site Driff’s Beach Bar for lunch (conch fritters and fresh fish!) and drinks. Dinner is served at Lusca, the resort’s fine dining option. The restaurant, named after a mythical sea creature said to live around the blue holes near Andros, is under the helm of Argentine executive chef Sebastian Perez, who showcases local ingredients in classic preparations. During our stay, we dined on fresh caught hog fish served with a cucumber cilantro relish, charred octopus, and red curry conch soup.

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The resort concierge was happy to arrange activities. One day, we joined a guided snorkeling and fishing trip, visiting pockets of the massive coral reef and two nearby blue holes. We caught a snapper, and gifted it to Burton Bowleg, our fun-loving captain. Captain Burton named the blue holes we visited after himself: Burton Hole 1 and Burton Hole 2. “There are so many of them, we just call them what we want,” our guide Jen Swenson explained.

Andros is home to the largest concentration of blue holes in the world; shown here is an inland blue hole.Pamela Wright

Another day we followed local guide Barbara Moore into the woods to visit four inland blue holes. Along the way, she pointed out local plants used in traditional island medicines: yellow sage tea as a muscle relaxer, strong back plant for pains in the back, acacia tree gum for constipation, and stiffcock for: yep, you guessed it. The limestone path across Crown Land (government-owned land) was uneven and pockmarked with ankle-twisting holes, but we followed her slowly to the blue holes, which were not at all blue but rather cloudy and dark, and littered with leaves and branches from a recent rainstorm. “Ready for a swim?” Moore asked us. We passed on that. Still, the inland blue holes were an interesting sight, sinkholes formed over eons, some during the last ice age. They’re openings in the ocean floor where freshwater from underground caves merges with the sea. The freshwater rises to the surface, sitting on top of the heavier seawater. Andros is said to have 175 inland blue holes and another 50 offshore, but more are still being discovered. The renowned oceanographer Jacques Cousteau visited the island in 1971 to study the mysterious underwater caves and caverns. He released a dye in a blue hole located miles inland, which later turned up in the ocean, adding credence to the theory that the holes are all connected to the ocean. “You can feel the movement in a blue hole,” Swenson told us on our earlier snorkeling trip. “At high tide the water is pushing out of them; at low tide it’s going down. They’re all connected.”

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Andros is surrounded by protected marine environments, including thick mangrove forests.Pamela Wright

After a few days at lovely Caerula Mar, we were ready to explore the north end of the island and the West Side National Park, with some 1.5 million acres of protected marine environments, including tidal creeks, mudflats, and mangrove forests. But Andros is split by streams and channels, so an overland trip is impossible. We decided to take a private charter boat (private plane charters are also available), a three- to four-hour ride ending at the local dock in North Andros, where someone from the Small Hope Bay Lodge would pick us up. We checked out of Caerula Mar with two suitcases, a backpack, and a computer bag, to meet the boat at nearby Driggs Marina. Captain Ricardo and Denzie his sidekick (and cousin) showed up in a small, well-used, shallow boat. They were drenched. “I’m not going to lie to you; it’s rough out there,” Ricardo said. Those weren’t words we wanted to hear. And we weren’t sure that there was room for us and our gear in the small boat. But Ricardo and Denzie shoved the bags here and there, and our suitcases on the floor served as foot stools. And we were off, across the choppy bay, and around Mangrove Cay. We were drenched but happy by the time we entered the calmer waters of West Side National Park.

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“This is the most beautiful place in the world,” Ricardo exclaimed as we entered the flats, rimmed with thick mangrove forests.

The water was deep blue and ultra-clear. Schools of bonefish swam by, while seabirds hovered overhead. Ricardo, who has been guiding in Andros for 27 years, took us across bays, into coves, and down tidal streams. We had acres of watery wilderness to ourselves. We stopped for a picnic lunch at the former Bang Bang Club, where Al Capone used to hang out. It’s now a dilapidated, falling down cluster of buildings taken over by Andros Rock Iguanas. The prehistoric-looking creatures have a nice life on this spit of land, and amazing water views.

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Local guide Barbara Moore points out local plants used in traditional island medicines.Pamela Wright

Four hours later, we were checking into Small Hope Bay Lodge in North Andros, just in time for a late lunch. The lodge is a well-known and long-established diving, snorkeling, and fishing resort (www.smallhope.com). This is the kind of place where everyone knows your name on the first day, and staff members, guides, and instructors sit down with you for lunch and dinner.

The friendly, low-key, all-inclusive lodge (including food and drinks) sits on a premier slice of oceanfront real estate, fronting two beaches. The cabins, hand built in the 1960s, are simple and comfortable, as are the lodge and dining areas. Meals are served buffet-style, simply prepared, homemade food using fresh island ingredients. The crispy fried snapper, conch fritters, and conch salad were standouts while we were there.

There are plenty of activities, including dive trips and instruction, snorkeling excursions, kayaking, bird-watching, fishing, and nature hikes. One day, we visited the nearby Androsia Batik Factory, a small, rustic operation producing beautiful handmade batik, with one-of-a-kind patterns that have become synonymous with Andros.

On our final day, we hired a fishing guide. Andros is well known for its world class bonefishing, so we thought we’d give it a try. “When I was little, I thought my name was boat,” our guide Mary Johnson said as we puttered out into the flats. Mary grew up fishing these waters and is the only female fly guide in the Bahamas. We drifted as she stood on a platform and long poled the boat through the shallows, along the edge of the marine forest. It was peaceful, and pretty; it was also a new moon, and the tides were uncommonly high, so the bonefish were still hiding in the mangroves. We caught nothing but doctor fly bites (like our greenheads!). No matter; Mary entertained us with stories and songs, and we knew a couple of hammocks and cool beverages were waiting for us when we returned to Small Hope Bay Lodge. As they say, a day on the water, under sunny skies, beats a day just about anywhere else.

For more information and up-to-date COVID safety requirements, visit www.bahamas.com/islands/andros.


Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com