Conch. It’s what’s for dinner

Have you tried conch? I don’t mean conch fritters….. those little fried balls of who-knows-what dipped in catsup. I mean REAL conch, Queen Conch, strombus gigas, straight from the ocean, maybe served ceviche style raw with lime, maybe cracked battered and fried. Well, I have had the honor of eating the best conch in the entire world on Cat Island.

On our first day in New Bight, we stopped by Duke’s Conch Shack for some cold beverages, and spent a couple of hours shooting the breeze with Duke (Or “Dukie” as the local ladies call him, although I never felt quite close enough to be on nick-name basis). Duke’s place was a huge step up from the takeaway shacks surrounding it. He explained how he made the coconut palm thatched roof by hand; what kind of wood to use for the supports and how to soak it in salt water to keep out the bugs. He explained that this type of roof is perfect, because every time a storm destroys the restaurant, he walks out into the woods and gets new building material for free. He explained that he found all of the sailing-themed decorations and light shades washed up on Ocean Beach, “you can find anything in the world over there!” And he told us the Whitty K sign is a piece of the hull of one of the champion Bahamian racing sloops. Oh! And he acted out the story of when the shark bit him on the butt and he had to get 50 stitches. After we were buddies, Duke even gave us a ride a couple of miles up the road to the best grocery store in the Bahamas.

Amid all the chatting and story telling, Duke found time to whip up the most amazing conch salad ever; ocean fresh conch “cooked” in lime and orange juice, mixed with tomato, onion, and hot peppers. I protected my treasured paper bowl in a plastic bag, on the bumpy dinghy ride back to the boat and had a divine dinner served with tortilla chips and rum punch.

Nice photo bomb, Laura!

The next day, we returned to Dukes’s after our island tour adventure, for cracked conch. Since Capt. Mike and I need to stick to a gluten-free diet, we ordinarily can’t partake of this breaded and fried delicacy. But …. after hanging with Duke all day yesterday, he told us that if we brought our own gluten-free flour, he would use it to make cracked conch just for us!

We placed an order for three portions for us and our friends. Duke said, “Let me go get the conch from the freezer”, and walked across the dirt road to the beach. Sensing something awesome, I trailed along behind him. Duke crossed the beach, waded into the choppy ocean waves, took his shirt off, and dove under water. One by one, he pulled conch shells out from the water, and threw them onto the sand. Three… six … nine … twelve. Wow! That’s a lot of conch for three portions! By the time Duke returned to the beach, the crews of Sanitas, Z-Raye, and Orion were all on the beach watching. Duke walked us through the process of cleaning and prepping conch.

First, use a hammer to pound a hole in the shell to release the suction so you can pull the conch from its home. Rinse the conch several times to clear the sand. Remove the conch “pistol”. Depending on who you ask, this is either the semen sack, which has special sexual-strength-inducing powers, or simply part of the digestive system. Either way, it’s pretty badass to swallow it hole, as Laura and I did, lol.

First taste of conch pistol

I like all the puzzled faces in this picture…

Next, you need the remove the operculum… a shell like covering that assists in locomotion, aka: a thick skin covering the conch. Cut it off with a BIG knife. Also cut off any dark of discolored pieces. Rinse a few more times.

Once you have coaxed the critters out of their shells, and removed all the nasty bits, the next step is to pound the heck out of it. FYI, this is why I don’t clean conch myself on my boat. (Picture slimy conch bits all over the walls)

After all of this extremely labor intensive cleaning and prepping (not to mention actually catching the darn things!) comes the civilized part or dipping the strips of tenderized conch in egg, cream, and flour and then frying. Add salt, French fries, and hot sauce (and a rum punch) and you have a meal fit for a queen…. conch (see what I did there?)

A few days on Cat Island

Before traveling to Cat Island, I knew nothing about it. I did not know that it was the home island of Sidney Poitier, the first black man and first Bahamian to win an Oscar for Best Actor. I did not know it was the first place that Columbus touched land in the “New World”. Ok, there’s certainly a lot of debate on this one, but our local guide made a pretty compelling argument, and since I was standing on the sand in the very harbor which the guide said was Columbus’ first anchorage, I choose to believe it! And I definitely did not know anything about beloved Father Jerome.

Father Jerome was a British architect, turned Anglican priest, turned catholic priest who was assigned to the Bahamas to build churches after the 1908 hurricane caused massive devastation. His churches are still in use on several Bahamian islands, including Cat. At the end of a long and prolific life, he designed and built by hand a hermitage on the summit of the highest hill in the Bahamas, and retired there to a simple life of prayer. He is buried in a cave on the hill, designed to look like Christ’s tomb.

We hiked to the top of Como Hill, and were in awe of the amazing hermitage at the top. Ok, it’s no Colorado 14’er, but the last steep climb really does get the heart pumping!

Gate to the walking path

The Hermitage includes a church, bell tower, stations of the cross, and living spaces.

Finally at the top!

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your long hair!

Father Jerome must have been a very short man. Everything from the stairs, to the doors, to the windows, to the bed is about three quarters the normal size.

After a short ( but hot!) walk from the anchorage, I visited the New Bight Catholic Church that Father Jerome designed.

With the door and shutters open wide, it would have a lovely breeze for Sunday services.

New Bight also has the best grocery store since Marsh Harbour. I guess it is more than a grocery store; you can also find school supplies, shoes, a good selection of hardware and household goods. And when we asked when the liquor store next door would open, the owner pulled a key off the hook on the wall and said, “right now” and let us in.

Just north of town, there is a colorful collection of wooden shacks that turned out to be small bars and restaurants. These shacks and the sailing club (plus the nicest public restrooms we’ve seen in the Bahamas) make up regatta park, where things must really get hopping during Regatta festivities in August. We spent A LOT of time here, eating excellent food, enjoying some cold beverages and meeting the local Cat Islanders. Our favorite restaurant was the family-run Hidden Treasures, where at least three generations (maybe four!) of women served the best jerk chicken, burgers, and pina coladas we’d enjoyed anywhere in the islands. The owners husband is head chef at the Albany resort in Nassau, founded by Joe Lewis, Tiger Woods, and Justin Timberlake, so obviously a talent for cooking and wonderful recipes run in the family. Ok, I had to look up the Albany resort. Apparently residences start at $5 million, and resort accommodations start at $2,500 per night. Dad must really be an excellent chef! I’m glad I had the opportunity to experience his jerk chicken marinade on a sandy beach for only $15.

Playing with little Destiny at Hidden Treasures.

Mike always orders the Pina Coladas. This one was excellent!

While the atmosphere was laid back and beach at Hidden Treasures, we could tell there was quite a party raging next door at the Starlight takeaway. So after lunch, we walked over and had a drink with the locals including Bull Hog, who kept exclaiming “I’m 39 years old, but I been playing the Rake ‘n Scrape for 68 years!” He’d clearly been drinking for a while, and shouted out quite a few other things, not exactly fit to print. Everyone welcomed us, made room on the benches, and asked where we were from and how we were enjoying their beautiful island.

Over the next couple of days, we rented a car and attempted to see every single site of interest on all of Cat Island. No, that’s not really an exaggeration. Since there’s only one real road on the island, we couldn’t really get lost, but it was a bit of a trick to figure out where we were at any given moment! First we headed south, and pulled over at Sweet Tambrin restaurant, where Daisy Mae sold homemade papaya hot sauces and jams, and served a killer papaya smoothie. She has marine biology students from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg stay with her for three weeks every year, performing research.

We explored the Greenwood Beach Resort, one of the most beautiful long beaches I’ve seen outside of a national park. If you find yourself on Cat Island without a sailboat, stay here!

Heading back north, we stopped at the Bat Cave. True to its name, it was filled with sleeping bags. Not so sleepy when we disturbed them with noise and cell phone flash lights!

After lunch at Sunshine Restaurant, we stopped for drinks at a stone bar so New, it didn’t yet have a name or a sign. But it did have a lovely view over the crashing waves, and a fairly big crowd for a weekday afternoon. We talked with the two customs officers from Nassau who had been assigned to Cat Island since January. Talked about their home islands, their favorite spots on Cat, and the difficulties of being stations so far away from their families. After a long chat, they treated us to a round of drinks and I gave them our boat card. Did I mention how amazingly kind and friendly everyone we met on Cat Island was?

Further north, we truly got off the beaten path, in order to explore Great Crown Cave. We’d read that Cat Island is riddled with caves, some opening to the ocean, and some you could hike to. But we couldn’t find any maps of detailed directions. One guide book said, “stop at the C and S farm supply store, and ask for Mr. Gaiter.” So, we did! He was sitting on a step right outside the store, and Sharon got out to ask for directions. It was a bit complicated; something like “go back the way you came, turn at the Ebeneezer Church, keep following the dirt road over a few hills, don’t turn at any of the turns, and when you get to the end of the road, the entrance is nearby.” Of course, he also said, “The Cave is three miles long. If you get lost in there, they won’t find you for weeks.” Our intrepid group of adventurers was not deterred. However, our rental mini van was not quite up to the dirt road. We went as far as the van could manage, got out and started walking, followed an unmarked dirt trail, and lo and behold! We found the cave! Or at least a hole in the ground with a rope leading down to what was probably a cave. We peer pressured each other to climb down and explore a bit by cell phone light. I was the voice of reason who stayed within view on the light of the entrance calling out, “don’t go much further Mike” while he kept going to ” just one more cavern”. I have to admit it was a pretty cool natural experience, and we tried our best to get good photos of the stalagmites and stalactites in all of their glory.

North again to Shanna’s Cove, another absolutely lovely small resort. If you find yourself on Cat Island without a sailboat, stay here too! The owner, Gabi, was lovely and talked to us for quite a while about what it was like to buy a property in the Bahamas and design a build a resort. Her homemade pizzas looked amazing! From there, we hiked to Man o War Point, where the sound and the ocean meet with a crash.

After returning the rental van we decided to relocate the big boats from the New Bight anchorage to Rolleez resort anchorage, in the hopes of a calmer night and less rocking and rolling. Z-Rays was already at that anchorage, so Orion took Drew on board, and Sanitas took Sharon, and we had a fun race of about 6 miles to the next harbor. Wind was perfect and Sanitas won! (Although Capt. Bob or Orion later said he didn’t know it was a race. Harrumph.)

Following in Columbus’s Footsteps

As soon as we set anchor on the west side of Conception Island, Capt. Drew of Z-Raye zoomed up in the dinghy shouting ” Watch out for the welcoming committee!” In response to a quizzical look, he added “two big sharks circling the anchorage.” Sure enough, by the time Capt. Mike had donned swim trunks and a snorkel mask in preparation to dive the anchor, a five foot long shadow appeared next to Sanitas. He kept us company for our entire stay on the island and I named him Oscar (the grouch). This was the theme for our stay on Conception; a balance of outstanding natural beauty, contrasted by the reality of the sharks, rays, and barracuda who really belong here.

Lunch under sail from Georgetown to Conception Island.

Conception Island is a national park made up of pristine beaches, fun hikes, and the best snorkeling we’d experienced so far in the Bahamas. It’s also one of the islands that Christopher Columbus visited after crossing the Atlantic Ocean. I’m not exactly sure what his crew did here, because as far as I can tell, there isn’t any fresh water or animals to hunt for food. But Capt. Mike is probably right.By the time Columbus reached these islands, his crew was probably very grateful for the opportunity to get off the boat onto dry land and to catch their breath for a bit.

The soft, white sand beach surrounding our anchorage was one of the most perfect I’ve seen on our travels. And from the beach, there are a few fun hiking trails to the ocean side of the island and up to the cliffs. But the island is so protected and so covered with hearty gnarled vegetation, that it’s difficult to make much progress in the interior without returning covered with scrapes, scratches, and bug bites!

Hiking on Conception

Top of the cliff

The best way to experience the interior of Conception is by dinghy hiking – taking the dinghies to a creek entrance on the south side of the island and very slowly exploring the creek and its tributaries for sea life and birds. At times, the creeks get so shallow that the best way to make forward progress is to row. And at other times, the mangroves are so close on either side that you can reach out and touch them, and can see the huge schools of fish that hide in the mangrove roots for protection from predators.

We saw dozens and dozens of green turtles in the creeks. They’d duck under water quickly as we approached, and after we passed and looked back upstream, all we could see were dozens of little white turtle heads watching us. We cooled off by swimming in a small blue hole, and returned to the anchorage. Once again, we confirmed that our dinghy / motor combination isn’t sufficient for this cruising lifestyle. All of our friends zoom back and forth between the anchorage and the sights, and we just putt along slowly in Bug, usually ending up drenched by waves in the process.

Conception Island also provided the best snorkeling so far in The Bahamas. Just north of the island, we anchored the dinghies in small patches of sand and explored colorful live coral and fish of all types. I didn’t think I was afraid of barracuda, but they glare at you! They come up close with their beady little eyes and their crooked teeth and they swim right at you and glare! I’m still not exactly frightened, but also not exactly comfortable swimming with them! I’ve added an underwater camera to my shopping list for next year, because I’m so sad not to have photos of this gorgeous reef with its purple fan coral and yellow stag horn coral.

As we climbed into the dinghies and prepared for the ride back to the anchorage, we had one of the most special experiences of the trip. Looking north, we watched a mother whale and her calf rise from the ocean in full breach, and crash back down, sending a huge plume of white water into the air! We loitered for a while, watching the calf play as she surfaced over and over again, but when we started up the outboard motors, the good mama decided to hide her little one, and we didn’t see them again. We toasted to mamma whale with watermelon margaritas at sundown on Sanitas that evening.

Conditions on our sail from Conception Island to Cat Island were perfect for our first attempt at using our asymmetrical spinnaker. Winds were light, from our stern at about 120 degrees. There was a bit of a learning curve as we got the light wind sail out of the bag for the first time and figured out how to rig it to the third furling drum all the way forward on the bow sprit, but it worked! Even sailing with only this one sail up, we made about 5.5 knots toward Cat Island.

Using the spinnaker


Full sail

Next time, we will be smoother in raising the spinnaker, and we will experiment with using it in combination with our primary sails. What a wonderful day of sailing, and a wonderful stay on Conception!

The best travel clothes!

You may have noticed by now that I love my Skirt Sports brand clothing for travel (as well as for workouts). They fit great, have lots of pockets, hold up great in the wash, and come in lots of pretty patterns. They are also a women-owned company based in my home town of Boulder, CO.

Skirt Sports has given me a discount code to share with family and friends, so if you’d like to try them, this is a great time! My current favorite items are the Wonder Girl dress (in ALL the patterns), the hover skort (shown in the photo below) and the poketopia capris (with pockets large enough for a cell phone!). But I’m also going to have to try the new Cool It collection of SPF sun protection clothing with built-in cooling technology!

9am water aerobics, 2pm volleyball, 7pm dancing, Repeat

If you’ve read or heard anything about cruising in the Bahamas, you’ve probably heard about Georgetown on Great Exuma Island. It’s the capital of the expat community during the winter, with a plethora of daily activities on offer, such as: water aerobics, yoga, volleyball, dominos, music lessons, and Texas Hold’em. Not to mentions infinite opportunities for hiking, snorkeling, and exploring. Of course, Georgetown also provides all the basic services that cruisers need, such as groceries, laundry, fuel, and trash. Georgetown earned the nickname of Chicken Harbor because so many cruisers with plans to continue south get caught in the gravitational pull of Georgetown fun, and eventually discover that the entire season has passed by, driving the decision to chicken out and head back to Florida this summer, and try again for the southern Caribbean next year.

It was an easy couple of hours sail from Emerald Bay to Elizabeth harbor, once the northerly winds and swells had finally calmed. Sanitas rejoined her buddy boats at an anchorage just off Sand Dollar Beach, and we quickly got dragged ashore to the Chat ‘n’ Chill on Stocking Island for our introduction to the festivities.

Chat ‘n’ Chill, aka Volleyball Beach is the social hub of the area; a beach bar that also doubles as the church, book exchange, volleyball league, and domino club. We spent A LOT of time here over the next few days, meeting other cruisers, and getting my kitty cat fix by hanging out with the very laid back ginger tabbys.

On our first night in the harbor, we attended a bonfire on Sand Dollar beach where we met the crew of SAVA, who are home-schooling their two children aboard, and watched the captain of Maitre ‘d twirl Polynesian fire balls. The evening was marred a bit when Z-Raye’s dinghy went for a walkabout without her captain well after dark. We put out an APB on the VHF to get everyone in the harbor on the lookout. And somehow, Stan and Chris of Disorder were able to find her, drifting in the middle of Elizabeth harbor, in a 2 knot current, making a break for Miami. I have no idea how they were lucky enough to spot her, tie her up, and tow her in using only flashlights! Note to self…. apply reflective tape to our dinghy, Bug.

After celebrating Sharon’s birthday with burgers at Splash Beach Bar, we climbed to the top on Monument Hill and surveyed the view of the harbor and of all the boat names memorialized in stone on the beach. We accepted the challenge and made our own stone tribute to Dock 4, the home base in St Petersburg of our whole group.

In Georgetown, I got my hair cut for the first time since Miami. I walked into Trainee’s hair salon (and fish market) and got a pretty darn good cut for $20. Unfortunately, Trainee was sold out of fresh fish for the day, lol.

I spent one fun afternoon on my Isle inflatable standup paddle board. It took a while to build up my courage to go farther and farther from the boat. I tend to get lulled into a false sense of security, when the water and wind are still, and I am moving at a brisk pace in a comfortable direction. Then the breeze picks up or a wake comes through the anchorage (Or I simply realize I need to turn around to get back to where I started) and it all falls apart. Today, I made it all the way around Sand Dollar anchorage, getting up close and personal with several green sea turtles, and then as I approached Sanitas, I realized I had no idea how to stop. Lacking any other plan, I pretty much ran right into her. When the paddle board stopped so suddenly, I fell off and had to collect my hat, sunglasses, water bottle, and paddle before trying to board the boat with some level of dignity intact.

Capt. Mike’s sport of choice is volleyball. Back in Colorado, he used to play on several different leagues, at various levels of competitiveness. As 2:00 approached each afternoon, I could sense him getting more antsy and ready to head over to volleyball beach. If I wasn’t ready, I’d have to follow later on the SUP, or catch a ride with another boat. He had a blast burning up the court every afternoon …. and still has the raw marks on his knees healing slowly to show for all those dives into the sand, sacrificing his body for the ball.

On our last night if Elizabeth Harbor, we dinghied over to Georgetown to attend the rake ‘n scrape at the Peace and Plenty hotel. A Rake ‘n scrape is traditional Bahamian live music, usually played with a base, accordion, and saw – maybe even a washboard. This one was a bit more polished than most, with electric guitars provide most of the melody, and one lonely quiet saw soloist way in the back. It was a great evening though, dancing to the band at the lovely outdoor patio, and hanging out with locals and other cruisers on Archipelago, Mariposa, and Wavelength. Mike noticed that the bartender was getting overwhelmed with customers early in the evening, so he offered to carry in a few cases of beer and to reload the beer fridge. She allowed him to help out until a second bartender arrived, earning a few free beers for his efforts!

Did I mention how large Elizabeth Harbor is? In my imagination, I had always envisioned a small, manageable harbor, ringed by pristine white sand beaches, where every business and amenity is right within reach. In reality, Elizabeth Harbor is huge, and there are many available anchorages to choose from depending on the weather and winds, and if you’d rather be close to Stocking Island socializing, or close to errands and shopping in town. So when we committed to dinner, drinks, and dancing at Peace and Plenty, we knew we were in for a long dark dinghy ride home across the harbor in Bug. We made it, and somehow Capt Mike was able to pick out the exact anchor light belonging to Sanitas from the constellation of artificial stars ringing the bay, and aimed us straight at her. Our first stay in a Georgetown for the season had come to a close, and any lingering crustiness we would feel the next morning on our sail east was worth it for the fun of dancing outdoors on a beautiful evening.