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Sea, sun, its old-time soul make Cat Island purr

A view of The Bahamas' Fernandez Bay from Hibiscus House. A view of The Bahamas' Fernandez Bay from Hibiscus House. (PATRICIA BORNS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Patricia Borns
Globe Correspondent / October 19, 2008
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CAT ISLAND, Bahamas - "There won't be air conditioning or television or night life," warned the owner of our rental cottage in the Family Islands. "Oh, and don't be surprised if land crabs walk through the living room to get to the beach. The house is in their way."

Situated between the Atlantic Ocean and Exuma Sound, Cat Island called to our inner castaway. Here 1,700 people live sparely, 12 to a square mile, occupying five pages of the Bahamas phone directory. Their bays of pure aqua stretch emptily in the lee. Hours pass with the hallucinatory quiet of a Peter Matthiessen novel.

"We came here to crash," said a couple from the Yukon who discovered Cat when it was so undeveloped, "we checked for snakes before getting into bed." Now the original thatch-and-coral-stone resort of Tony and Pam Armbister, Fernandez Bay Village, has been joined by more accommodations. So far, each has added modern amenities while respecting the spirit of the place.

My travel companions, Sterling Mulbry and her sister and mother, are amazing cooks who enjoy provisioning from the world's larders. While I surfaced from my first swim, clutching whole, bleached sand dollars to my chest, Sterling scored a bush of Scotch bonnet peppers to season the night's penne arrabbiata. A beatific Carl Pinder, our caretaker, brought coconuts. There would be no eggs until the next mail boat, he advised, or fish until the wind died down. Unfazed, we piled into Rocket II, the battered pickup that came with the cottage, indispensable on a 48-mile-long island where cars rent for $85 a day. Jouncing along the left side of Cat's lone paved road, we added to our stores: watermelons and peas from the Smith Bay packing house; a dense coconut torte from Lola's Delites; whole wheat loaves baked by Olive King in the administrative center of New Bight. We learned where to find Solomon potatoes, grits from locally grown corn, and conch on the Atlantic coast.

Everywhere we went, people waved, as they do in places where visitors have yet to outwear their welcome.

On Cat, one quickly discovers the Zen of out island vacationing: Plan as little as possible. (The exception: For dining reserve ahead.) We couldn't plan a ride on the Greenwood Resort dive boat, for instance - Cat's best reefs are offshore, and the boat takes nonguests on a space-available basis - but proprietor Anna Illing showed us several inshore reefs on a map. We spent a day each at Winding Bay and Morgan Bay in Port Howe, snorkeling and beachcombing.

I didn't plan to visit the homes of Cat Islanders, but Uschi Ingersoll, a Fernandez Bay resident who brings care packages to the elderly, invited me to tag along. With us was Barbara Van Sciver from Newport who, with mate Stephen Connett, helps the Bahamas National Trust conserve sea turtles. From Arthur's Town to Dumfries, islanders aged 72 to 90 welcomed Ingersoll into simple homes surrounded by stunning natural beauty. Theirs is the generation of actor Sidney Poitier, whose father farmed tomatoes on Cat; their roots deep, their footprint light. While Ingersoll massaged their feet, Ambrose Harcourte described his years picking crops in the States; Mabel Rogers spoke of children and "grans" in Nassau; Iva Ambrose recalled a woman banned from a radio talk show for calling in too often. When we left, most returned to weeding gardens or weaving silver palm baskets to sell in Nassau's straw market.

Anne Mulbry, the matriarch among us, planned simply to read novels by the sea. Carl, who has worn many hats from career IBMer to Jehovah's Witness minister, brought her a copy of "Mankind's Search for God." In a few days, the wind did die, Carl did take us fishing, and while Anne fried up mounds of yellowtail snapper, they discussed their ideas of faith with intelligence and an almost loving respect for the other's point of view.

Church is not only Cat Island's social glue, it's a star attraction. The religious monuments of John Cyril Hawes, better known as Father Jerome, can be found along the coast, but none so well preserved as the Hermitage atop Comer Hill. As you ascend the steep incline past the Stations of the Cross, you'll appreciate every rock Jerome hand-carried to fashion this miniature homage to ancient Greek and Moorish architecture. Not to mention the forever ocean view.

"There's no telling when or if they'll play," locals said when asked about rake and scrape, the folk music arguably invented on Cat. Serendipitously, we stopped at the Sailing Club on New Bight beach one evening where congregants of St. Saviour's Parish welcomed us to a feed of red snapper, rice, and peas for $3 a plate.

When we had finished eating, Father Chester Burton stepped to the mike. "Welcome to Cat Island, the ground zero of Bahamian culture," he said. Then he introduced "that icon of culture" Sylvia Laramore Crawford, who read a poem, and the Down Home Dancers who demonstrated quadrilles, while Bohog and Da Rooters led by Pompy Johnson squeezed the accordion, beat the goatskin goombay, and kept rhythm with a carpenter's saw. As everyone danced a visiting sailor tapped his foot to the beat.

"Weren't the 1900s great?" he smiled broadly.

Yes, I thought. They sure are.

Patricia Borns can be reached at patriciaborns@comcast.net.

If You Go

Where to stay

Hibiscus House

Fernandez Bay

10kvacationrentals.com/bahamasbeach

609-294-2975

Self-catering rental $1,500-$2,125 a week.

Island Hoppinn

Fernandez Bay

216-978-8800

www.islandhoppinn.com

New B&B, from $200 a night.

Fernandez Bay Village Resort

1-800-940-1905

fernandezbayvillage.com

Cottages from $225 a night, self-catering houses from $320.

Where to eat

Sammy T's

Bennett's Harbour

242-354-6009

Breakfast, lunch, or dinner: omelets, grilled conch, Bahamian lobster, burgers.

Island Hoppinn

242-342-2100

Seats non-guests at its dinner table for 18 as space allows. The varying buffet often includes conch chowder, just-caught seafood, and homemade bread. Reserve by 2 p.m.

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