If there is a more ephemeral, idyllic, effervescent, sublime, transcendent spot in the greater Caribbean than the sandbar on the north shore of St. George’s Cay — more commonly known as Spanish Wells — on the north end of Eleuthera in the central Bahamas, it has yet to be found.
At the eastern end of a massive sand bank that stretches for 10 miles along the Devil’s Backbone, the bar proscribes a big horseshoe 500 meters across, enclosing, at low tide, a waist-deep lagoon of sapphire water, warm on this sunny day in January, salty enough to float you like a cork, light play on the velvet bottom, shadows of wavelets and prismatic bursts of rainbow color dancing below. Diagonal shafts of sunlight play across the bodies of my companions.
From the air, the brown-green coral heads along an east-west string of cays give way to a pink shoulder of sand, which turns to bands of turquoise and cerulean blue, then ultramarine, then deep-navy to black as the bank falls away into the Northeast Providence Channel, the Deep, highway for the great whales and, in the spring, schools of tuna.
A couple promontories, the Dutch Bars, stretch into this underwater canyon, causing an upwelling of things to eat: plankton, krill, little fish and progressively bigger fish. This time of year it is wahoo and mahi that end up on the hook. A merry parade of boats ply the offshore grounds, bobbing in and out of sight, flashes of white against the steel blue. Some locals fish every day, year-round; it’s just what they do.
Hats off to the hardy fishermen, for today a heavy north swell sends combers onto the reef; getting in and out requires confident handling. A light off-shore wind stands the waves up and they peel off the edges of the reef. A sailboat rounding Gun Point, heading out, his mast a wildly swinging metronome, has a master either bold or foolhardy.
The swell is strong enough to come inshore and form back up in the shallows just outside the sandbar, forming perfect one-foot waves that wall up, peak in the middle and peel off either side. It’s just about longboard-able. Conditions couldn’t be any friendlier to introduce The Little One to boogie boarding, so I head back to the house to grab the boogie board from the stash of water toys — masks, fins, snorkels, foam noodles — in the garage.
We’ve come here to Lignum Vitae, the family house of my wife’s family, for a visit every winter for the last 30 years. The house sits proudly atop the limestone cliffs looking over Meek’s Patch, a bay separating Spanish Wells from the Current Peninsula, where during Hurricane Andrew in ’92 Wanda’s dad Bill looked out upon a dozen tornadoes and reckoned they were in for it. Heavy in our hearts is the knowledge that this may be our last visit.
Bill passed away 24 years ago and his absence is felt keenly still, his laughter missing from the dinner table, his exclamations of dismay at not getting a ringer while throwing horseshoes down at Muddy Hole, his harmonica after dinner, his sometimes-bawdy jokes, his hearty “Vaya con Dios!” at bedtime. Betty ended her battle with illness and age this summer. Her leaving has yet to sink in; the grief is still raw.
Still fresh are the memories of the many feasts — turkey with fixings on Christmas; boil fish with grits and goat pepper on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day; conch fritters and grilled lobster tails any old time — and legendary parties hosted by Betty, birthdays, weddings, New Year’s Eve’s. The Grand Dame of Russell Island was Betty, generous and welcoming to all, not shy of dancing, laughter and champagne. It is the end of a special era.
As with many families, the children are spread to all points of the compass. The fate of the house is being discussed. We try not to be sad, eating dinner out on the deck looking over Meek’s Patch on quiet mid-winter evenings that are warmer than the warmest mid-summer evenings back home, the day’s breeze dying at sunset, the sun a blazing orange wildfire just over the horizon, a dozen sailboats and their reflections at anchor on a flat calm sea, like seabirds at rest with wings folded.
We feel very much alone, moving forward on our own, hearing the toasts and snatches of conversation from before in the occasional breath of wind that stirs the trees and makes the clacking fronds of palm trees sound like rain. A great yellow anvil rises from the sea, a Vulcan cloud. From the perfect sky, from song, from rich memories, the gifts of others, from the joy of The Little One, we take courage.
The girls are outside the sandbar, the tide running out, when I return. I swim the boogie board across the lagoon, walk across the bar and join them in knee-deep water. The sky, sea and sand have blended into one element, carrying us in its current. I put The Little One on the board and turn it to face shore while I look back for a good wave.
The wait isn’t long; there are tons of waves. Here comes one now, standing up nicely, water sucked up into a glassy rolling face, a strip of sunlight reflected at the top of the lip. As it crests and foams white, I take two quick steps and thrust the board and its precious passenger in front of the curl. The board lifts, the girl disappears, the soles of her feet, little toes like grapes, kicking in the air, and she is gone, gliding on silk, happily screaming, exultant. These are the things. The things that dreams are made of.
Sean can be reached at: email@example.com.