Just returned from six days--with an extra day thanks to a snowstorm in the Northeast. The lodge perfectly mixes the comforts of a great location (on a remote yet not inaccessible island, in a quiet and charming town and on a beautiful beach) with cozy rooms and great food. Due to my travel plan change, I stayed in two lodge rooms (which are the cheapest) #10 on the third floor facing the ocean, and #5, a harbor-facing second floor room. They both seemed fresh and had nice new bathrooms with a patio. The views of the water are nice though more obstructed by foliage the lower you go. There was air conditioning but it was breezy the entire time I was there, with temps in the upper 70s during the day 60s at night, so I just slept with the fresh air.
Breakfast on the terrace overlooking the beach was delicious, with the usual egg choices and some tasty varieties of french toast and eggs benedict as well as a Bahamian specialty called Chicken Souse, which was unusual and worth a try.
The service overall was good, with a few outstanding folks, including Candace at the front desk and the wait staff in both restaurants, who went above and beyond to make my stay enjoyable. The manager, Mike Hartman, is well suited for the job, is welcoming and interesting to talk to.
I recommend asking if they have any special packages, as I received one which included breakfast and a snorkel trip which really gave added value for the dollar.
ELBOW CAY/HOPE TOWN:
To give a little background on what I look for in an island: As far as islands that are in easy reach of the Northeast, Bermuda is my all-round gold standard, with St. Barths and St. John good follow-ups. I look for great coral-island beaches which are not only visually appealing but good for swimming; great food; a little exploration/physical activity available; and a genuine and pretty environment (manmade and geographic) with a minimal amount of poverty.
Elbow Cay ("key") fits these requirements quite well. It's a very small place, only six miles long, but has a good number of quality restaurants, including those at the lodge, and several excellent beaches with that wonderful fine white Bahamian sand with flecks of pink coral and water in gorgeous aqua-marine shades. The "settlement" of Hope Town just oozes charm, with New England architecture--some original, beautifully preserved, and some new but in the same character--and an active waterfront with the ferry docks, yachts and their dinghies, and an occasional freight boat. Anchoring its backdrop is the pretty, striped lighthouse which itself is open for a climb for an outstanding view at not charge. There's a cute little museum with island history housed in an old house in town, good for an hour so on a rainy day, shops and at least one art gallery.
While many folks rent golf carts to get around and explore, at my request, the hotel set me up with Sun Dried Tees for a beach-bike rental. It had only one speed and there are gently rolling hills, but I found it sufficient and reverted to my stand-on-the-pedals method from growing up for the steepest climbs. I did the whole island in a day, first to the north, exploring the winding dirt road (being careful on the rocky/sandy parts), past pretty bays and docks, before returning to town and exploring the southern tip via the well-paved main road, all the way to the tip where Tahiti Beach is. This latter beach is worth the trek for the view, sunning, and wandering in the shallows for some pics, though I wouldn't come here to swim as the water doesn't get deep here.
The hotel also arranged an excellent half-day snorkel/dive trip, leaving directly from the dock and going to a national preserve. The boat ride was scenic, and I saw beautiful coral, a sting ray, barracuda, parrot fish, and many brightly colored tropical fish, all in very clear water. Mike the tour operator, provided me a complimentary wet suit, and was friendly, seeming genuinely interested in making sure I enjoyed myself.
At my request, the hotel arranged for a kayak rental from Abaco Eco Tours, which was promptly provided for me right near the hotel's own dock. The kayak was good, but it was windy, so I just explored inside the harbor and its creeks--a great way to spend part of a morning.
If I had more time, I might have taken Froggie's Out Island Adventure's day trip, which included a snorkel stop and a visit to other cays which I was interested in visiting, Guana and Man 'O War. My sense is Elbow Cay is the place to stay, as there's a more available here in the way of the town/restaurants, but it would've been fun to check them out nonetheless.
The beach behind the hotel is a little eaten away by Hurricane Sandy, I believe, but is still enjoyable and pretty and goes a long way to the south. However, I might slightly prefer the beach behind the main part of town (starting behind the white and yellow Methodist church) overall. This is only a five-minute walk from the lodge.
I ate all the breakfasts at the lodge, as they were included in my package. Coffee was good as was the breakfast and the setting on the shaded patio overlooking the beach. I also had at least three dinners in the main dining room, which were all very good. Prices, as I remember, were from the mid-teens for crabmeat mac-n-cheese to thirty-ish for rack of lamb--all delicious.
I also tried Firefly, down the road and overlooking the Sea of Abaco, which was outstanding. My waitress there encouraged me to try a burger (I was thinking one of the more proper dinners) and I was blown away. I chose the Italian burger (again not something I'd normally try), which had roasted red peppers, smoked mozzarella, mushroom, arugula and pesto mayo on a tomato fococcia roll. One of my best-ever burgers! I was too full for dessert, so I returned for lunch, mostly to try the tiramisu, which was also very good.
Once I stopped by the lime-green Starbucks-styled coffee shop in town, where they roast their own beans and have tasty-looking treats. I had an iced cafe mocha one afternoon, which was very good.
Lastly, I ate at Harbour's Edge. Their locally-caught mah-mahi was perfectly cooked, nicely seasoned, and served with mango-pineapple relish.
The restaurants out of town will pick you up from your lodging if you call them, at no charge, though I tipped the driver. The Hope Town Marina is across the harbor and provides a free shuttle (I'm told the ferry will also) if you want to eat there, which I did before visiting the lighthouse. There's no way to access this area by land.
At any rate, I would rank Elbow Cay well and recommend it for those seeking a charming, safe island with peace, quiet and great beaches. I visited in February, and to my surprise it was not crowded, almost sleepy, though I understand from March through July it gets much busier. It's not cheap but probably less expensive than Bermuda or St. Barths. The fact that it's remote helps it keep its charm but also means it takes a little more effort to get to. I've been to Spanish Wells, Harbour Island and mainland Eleuthera, the last of which I found beautiful but kind of desolate and poverty-stricken. It compares favorably with Harbour Island but has more substance to it as it's about twice the size. Don't go here for a lot of nightlife. The real draw is Out-Island Bahamian charm and relaxation.
The preferable route to Elbow Cay, if not coming by yacht, is through Nassau or Florida to Marsh Harbour, the main town nearby from where you'll catch the ferry across the Sea of Abaco. I flew with United from Newark, NJ, to West Palm, where I spent the weekend for a seminar, and then took the hour flight from West Palm to Marsh Harbour. Well worth the trip!
Higher floors in the lodge have better views but I think all are in good shape and are inviting with...
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