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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Vacationing on the OUTS

Bahamas promotes island hopping

Posted: 03/13/2010 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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WE now liken it to a (luxury) walking of the plank.

When the boat for our snorkel-and-beach excursion pulled up in front of beautiful Cape Santa Maria Beach in the Bahamas in three or so metres of water, we were suddenly told we'd have to swim the 100 metres to shore, holding our personal belongings above our heads as we did so.

Incredulous gasps all round, especially from the ladies who were using the entire outing as a sunbathing exercise and hadn't even gotten their hair wet yet.

But our tour guide -- the big and affable Sanfred Rolle -- laughed and said he was deadly serious: The boat would get stuck if it went in any farther.

Anyways, he'd help.

And so started the convoy, with some jumping off the prow of the boat and others stepping in carefully off the back platform.

My wife swam in, floating only an ultra-light aluminum-and-fabric lounge chair behind her.

I wrapped cameras in towels, put them in a cooler, and swam to shore half lifting it, half floating it.

Rolle, true to his promise, swam in, armed with another cooler full of our gourmet boxed lunches and bottles of water.

While startled initially by the abrupt drop-off, our group laughed about it while we splayed on the beach and devoured our turkey sandwiches.

After all, we'd been cast away on Cape Santa Maria Beach, a five-kilometre crescent of white sand that constantly crops up on Top 10 lists of the best beaches on Earth.

At the end of the afternoon, a van picked us up to take us back to Stella Maris Resort -- no swimming out to a boat involved.

Cape Santa Maria Beach is on Long Island, one of the Bahamas' 700-some Out Islands.

They get their name from the fact they are 'out' from the Bahamas' main population and resort areas of Nassau on New Providence Island, and Freeport on Grand Bahama Island.

The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism is promoting The Out Islands of the Bahamas as a brand and experience that goes beyond the famous sun, sand and sea, to embrace uncluttered and unhurried places with incredible sightseeing, fishing, snorkelling, scuba diving and ecotourism.

Vacationing on the Outs takes a little extra time and effort.

After arriving in the capital of Nassau on WestJet or Air Canada, an inter-island flight lasting as little as 10 minutes or as much as an hour is needed to reach the Out of your choice.

Long Island is 50 minutes from Nassau on a 10-seater plane.

Besides Cape Santa Maria Beach, Long Island is also famous for snorkelling and scuba diving; the locale of the Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3 movies starring Johnny Depp; an abundance of the Bahamas' national food (conch), national bird (pink flamingo) and national beer (Kalick); and Dean's Blue Hole.

Dean's Blue Hole is the deepest blue hole -- a.k.a. sinkhole -- in the world, and is as picturesque as it is mind-boggling: In the middle of a pretty inlet of light blue water is a perfect, 30-metre-wide circle of dark blue, marking where Dean's plunges into a deep abyss.

Rolle was also tour guide on our outing to Dean's, and he played the tease again.

Initially, he didn't let us near the water, preferring to build the tension. So, first we hiked to a vantage point to marvel at the perfect dark water and its setting between scooped-out cliffs and beaches.

There were multiple exclamations of beauty and numerous photos taken.

Then Rolle pulled out the snorkelling gear and finally let us go in the water.

At first, the swimming was through shallow water filled with darting fish.

All of a sudden, there was a sheer drop-off marking the blue hole.

While it seemed bottomless, it has been measured to be 202 metres deep.

But it might as well be bottomless, because even the fish don't dare swim there, and, while snorkelling in it, it produces conflicting feelings of fright and well-being.

Dean's consistently shows up as one of the best and coolest places to swim in the world.

A stop at Max's Conch Shack right on the Queen's Highway is mandatory for conch salad and Kalick.

You can go out back to watch Max Ritchie pull the white meat from the fresh conch.

This is when you find out that conch -- even though it comes from that distinctive and beautiful curved, pink shell -- is basically a giant snail.

Don't let that put you off.

Follow Ritchie around to the big bar to watch him dice it and add it to a combination of similarly cut apple, onions, pepper, tomato and citrus juices. It's delicious and refreshing served in a bowl with a plastic spoon.

Max's Conch Shack is an institution on Long Island.

Island-hopping the Outs will bring you to Andros, the largest land mass in the Bahamas, and the remote and rustic Small Hope Bay Resort.

The resort only has 21 rooms in a string of beachfront bungalows, and the vibe is incredibly chill with its help-yourself bar, honour-system gift shop and communal dining, including a night seated beside the Finnish ambassador to the Caribbean, Mikko Pyhala, and his wife Pia.

One of our travelling companions quipped that Andros was made for the sport of extreme hammocking. (Hammocks are plentiful and strung waterfront between palm trees.)

Again, snorkelling is on the agenda, with Small Hope assistant manager Mike Hornby (originally from Gravenhurst, Ont.,) taking us to a shallow-water coral garden, and then to Liebens Point on the edge of the world's third-largest barrier reef.

Another small plane takes us to Bimini, the closest of the Bahamas' islands to Florida, and a deep-sea fishing mecca.

The ritzy and new Bimini Beach Resort is a collection of pastel-coloured, colonial-style mansions and duplexes set back from infinity pools and a marina, with both regular-sized and mega-yacht boat slips.

Transplanted American Bill Keefe of Keefe's Bimini Undersea takes us out to the snorkelling and diving site reputed to be the Lost City of Atlantis.

The sophisticated formation of huge, flat parallel stones four metres underwater looks like a road system, but is believed by many to be a breakwater or pier built by the advanced Atlantis civilization some 12,000 years ago, when the earth's water level was lower.

-- Canwest News Service

IF YOU GO

For more information: www.myoutislands.com.

WestJet (www.westjet.com) flies to Nassau non-stop from Calgary and Toronto and to Freeport non-stop from Toronto. Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) flies into Nassau from Toronto and Montreal.

Inter-island flights are available on Bahamasair, Flamingo Air, Performance Air or Stella Maris Air.

Stella Maris Resort from $175 a night per person, all-inclusive (www.stellamarisresort.com).

Small Hope Bay Resort from $235 a night per person, all-inclusive (www.smallhope.com).

Bimini Bay Resort from $300 a night per suite (www.biminibayresort.com).

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 13, 2010 E6

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