There’s nothing like traveling with your children, showing them the world, taking them to exotic locations, sharing the history, art, food, and culture of other countries. It’s exciting to land in a new and foreign environment, filled with anticipation for whatever comes next. But there’s also something comforting about having a place where you can take your kids year after year, as you all grow together. To find a place to build a shared history, where the main goal is to just spend time together.
As a boy, Jim spent his summers in Grass Valley, Calif., at his paternal grandparents’ 10-acre “ranch” in the foothills of the Sierras, and in Laguna Beach, where his grandmother’s house overlooked a private cove with plenty of tide pools for exploring. And I spent many a summer in the small seaside town in northern California, in what I remember as a glass beach house overlooking the ocean. I remember being excited to see my friends from the summer before, and to go to our favorite seafood restaurant for the “Fisherman’s Platter.” We knew where the best ice cream was, and which house had the mean old dog (and the mean old dog owner). In a way, it was just like home.
When we relocated from California to the East Coast some years ago, we felt a bit . . . well, rootless. We spent the next chapter of our lives exploring a whole host of exciting new places, mostly focusing eastward, toward the Mediterranean. In winter, we gravitated toward the Caribbean. And that’s how we found Harbour Island.
What makes Harbour Island so great?
Check out any “Top 10 Beaches” list, and chances are Harbour Island’s pink sand stretch of beach is on it – and most likely near the top. Located off the northeast coast of Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas, Harbour Island is nothing if not intimate. The preferred modes of transportation? Golf carts and boats. Most mornings, the harbor bustles with little rows of stands with sellers hawking their straw hats, fresh fruit, and conch salads. But by noon, it slips into a sleepy torpor that lasts the rest of the day. It’s not the Hamptons, or Miami, or even Barbados. It’s a lovely, quiet haven for people who go to spend time together – there’s no scene to be seen in. No Gucci dresses. No Jimmy Choo shoes. There’s both simple living and incredible wealth. And because there’s no airport, it’s not attractive to large tour groups or bucket travelers. You have to really want to come to Harbour Island.
What makes this such a magical place for us is not just the stunning physical beauty. It’s the absolute absence of things to do. Okay, I might be exaggerating a bit, but there are no big watersport havens or nightclubs or dinners set for groups of 40 people. Many families come to the island year and after year. Some own “cottages” that have been in the family for generations, and some rent them for princely sums. Most of the rest of us stay at a handful of elegant resorts that dot the island.
What do we do? Not much. We swim, take long walks, play in the sand, and collect shells we eventually leave behind. We eat conch in all its permutations — deep-fried, frittered, and in delicious fresh salad. We wander aimlessly around the pastel-hued Dunmore Town, the island’s 19th Century settlement. Oh yeah, we nap, drive the golf cart around the island (because we can), read by the pool, read on the beach, and read on the porch. Then we nap some more.
As I mentioned, we first came to Harbour Island as a couple, and immediately fell in love with it. When we brought Yao Yao home, we thought it would be an easy testing ground for spending time with a baby outside of our normal routine. In other words, ensuring she could comfortably join us in our travels around the world. Two flights and boat ride later, we were back on our little island, our home away from home.
Though we had previously stayed at The Landing, we opted for Pink Sands Resort for Yao Yao’s maiden voyage, so we could have a cottage and not worry about disturbing anyone — plus, it gave us the space we felt as if we needed. It was a big success: We were close to the beach, close to the pool, had complete privacy, and enjoyed amazing accommodations. Though we met other families on the beach, most of the hotel guests were couples, and we didn’t see any young children. No matter, the staff and guests embraced Yao Yao. And as luck would have it, the actor Albert Finney was a guest at Pink Sands as well, and Yao Yao and Mr. Finney seemed to enjoy their time together.
The beaches are perfect for kids — clean and uncrowded, and the water is that wonderful temperature that allows you to just walk in, without the bracing cold we know and love in the Long Island Sound. The only time in our five or six visits to the island I ever saw anyone “selling” anything on the beach was one notorious local who owns horses that swim and caper in the ocean, then roll in the sand picturesquely. This causes quite a stir, and the tourists flock to get a closer look. (That’s when the horseback riding sales pitch begins.) Lunch is at Sip Sip up the hill, or The Blue Bar at Pink Sands, or the ocean deck at Coral Sands Resort. Then we head back to the beach and sleep under an umbrella with the cool breeze blowing. There’s really no better way to while away an afternoon in paradise.
As it is with most Caribbean islands, the locals cater to children here. There’s a good toy store filled with every plastic beach toy you could ever need, and somehow we manage to buy beach toys each year and leave them behind for the next family. It’s great fun to see Yao Yao migrate into a different toy category on each visit.
Even the way we experience our golf cart has evolved over time. When we first ventured to Harbour Island, Yao Yao was not quite two years old, so I held her on my lap whenever we drove anywhere. By the next visit, age four, she began sitting between us, so we could ensure she was safe. On our last visit she sat in the back of the cart by herself. (She told us we “squished” her too much!) She’s already exacted a pledge from Jim that she’ll be able to take a turn driving the cart on our next visit. (Jim and I will be hanging off the back.)
There’s something wonderful about getting off a plane (or boat, in this case), dropping your bags, and knowing exactly what your family wants to do. We don’t waste time looking at maps, figuring out transportation systems (we reserve our golf cart ahead of time, and it’s waiting on the dock), or discerning where we’re staying and where it’s located in relation to everything we want to see and accomplish (which is nothing!). We know what to expect, so packing is a breeze. The continuity is comforting, and yet it’s just different enough from home to make it special. Yao Yao loves the size of the island and how comfortable she is walking around. The lack of cars makes it an easy place to keep an eye on small children, and after one or two visits you feel like a “Brilander” (local-ese for “Harbour Islander”). We know we’re going to breakfast at Arthur’s Bakery, who remembers Yao Yao from year to year — Jim and me, not so much. We know we’re going to “provision” at Pigly Wigly Market — and no, I am not making up the name. (It’s funny: while I can’t get Yao Yao to go to the grocery store with me at home, she loves a trip to the Pigly Wigly. Somehow, it feels like an outing!) We take walks and talk about which houses have been restored and gardens redesigned. We fret about celebrities (there are quite a few that own houses on the island) who are bringing travel press, and then bigger crowds, to the island. We lament about the boat fumes and worry about overdevelopment. In short, we feel like part of the community. It’s like being home.
We’ve stayed at The Landing a number of times. It’s an 1800 converted captain’s house that overlooks the harbor. It’s a walk to the pink-sand beach (I prefer a golf cart), where they have beach chairs and umbrellas for their guests. It has that wonderful plantation feel, with cane chairs on the verandah and a really lovely library. Our first time there with Yao Yao, we stayed in a two-bedroom suite. Yao Yao loved her long bolster pillow (her “hot dog” pillow), and the white linens and British colonel furniture fit my aesthetic perfectly. It was a property restored out of love, and the couple who runs it couldn’t be nicer. When I was a “new” mother, they really were wonderful. Yao Yao loved the hotel and the food remains some of the best on the island. Though over the years we’ve stayed at other hotels due to availability, etc., we always return for the amazing brunch and at least two dinners. They have a very comprehensive wine selection, too. Reserve, because they do get busy!
The Landing : A Boutique Hotel on Harbour Island, The …
Pink Sands is located across the island from the harbor, right on the renowned pink-sand beach. It’s been remodeled, and the 25 cottages that dot the 20-acre tropical grounds are lovely. The advantage is that you’re right on the beach and you have total privacy. It’s perfect for families, because you’re not worried about adjoining rooms or other guests. We love the Blue Bar for lunch, and then it’s a 30 second walk to the chaises and umbrellas on the beach! They also have a kids’ camp.
Pink Sands Resort in Harbour Island, Bahamas
Valentines Resort & Marina
This is more of what you would expect to see on some of the bigger islands. Valentines has a full-service marina, a large pool, and 40 townhouses with everything from junior suites to three-bedroom standalone units, all with kitchens, living rooms, and terraces. They’re all nicely (if a little impersonally) decorated and conveniently located across the street from the resort restaurant, bar, dive shop, and gift shop on the harbor. Though it lacks the funky Bahamian vibe, its spacious accommodations and kitchens make it a great option for families, especially with small kids. The food is good and very kid-friendly, and they also have a kids’ camp.
Valentines Resort & Marina
I love Sip Sip. I love everything about it: the menu, the environment, the ocean views, all of it! It’s bright and lively, without being too noisy. They take no reservations and are only open for lunch, and still it’s a wildly popular destination. The food integrates local fare whenever possible and is always fresh and innovative. My only complaint is they aren’t open for dinner!
Blue Bar at Pink Sands
This is one of my favorite lunch spots. Yao Yao and Jim love it, too. The food is wonderful and the breeze is amazing. I have never had a bad lunch here. It’s beautiful in the evenings as well, but somehow the dinner never seems to be as good as the lunch. In any case, don’t miss the lunch at Blue Bar. www.pinksandsresort.com/
Coral Sands Terrace
This large, modern hotel overlooks the glorious pink-sand beach and the food is wonderful. That is if you love Po’ Boy sandwiches and lobster rolls! We’ve had dinner there as well, and it’s also very good, but much more formal. They are welcoming and have been really flexible when we have come for a late lunch!
CORAL SANDS HOTEL
This is one of Yao Yao’s favorite spots. It’s in a category all its own. Robert Arthur is a warm, generous man who seems to know everyone on the island. After your first visit, you’ll feel like a regular, too. It’s not chic, but it’s authentic, and the baked goods are incredible and the staff as nice as they can be. They serve breakfast and lunch, and their sandwiches make for great picnic fare. I think we find some reason to stop by every day.
Arthur’s Bakery : My Harbour Island Bahamas
Do not miss this funky shack, right on the harbor – but bring your mosquito spray! He serves fried conch and lobster, fish and chips, all things fried. It’s cheap and cheerful! (Cheap for Harbour Island, I mean, which is expensive, because everything is imported.) It’s right by the fisherman’s dock near Queen Conch.
The very best conch salad you’ll ever eat. She makes it right in front of you. It’s funky and fun – but in season, you may have to order ahead.
This is a barbeque place in some guy’s (Brian’s, I suppose) garage! It’s only open Fridays and Saturdays, but boy, oh boy, try it. You eat on Styrofoam plates and your chair might be rickety, but who cares when you’re eating some of the best ribs and pork on the island (or so says my husband). They also have shrimp, lobster, and other fish dishes. The sides are rib-sticking mac cheese, beans, and so on.
Full disclosure, this is my all time favorite shop. It’s “curated” (a really overused word) accessories and apparel, and it’s a real treat. It’s on Dunmore Street.
I have never walked out of this store without buying something: a caftan, sandals, something!
This is a shop owned by a photographer from Nassau where you can buy T-shirts, shoes, shells, and other notions to bring home. Yao Yao always seems to buy something for her friends in this shop.
This is a luxury store and the new path being set on Harbour Island. Watches, jewelry, and everything from Gucci to Kate Spade.
Jaqueline’s Straw Works
On Bay Street, this little shop has straw items of every kind.
Sugar Mill Trading Company
It’s owned by Indie Hicks, who some love and others, not so much. Her father’s fame has brought attention to this tiny island and some are worried it will become the next St. Bart’s Of course, we’ve heard this for 14 years!
This is where we typically shop, but we are in hotels, so we don’t have to really buy staples.
Captain Bob’s Seafood Market
There are several small shops that sell fresh fish and produce down by the harbor.
Fly to North Eleuthera. The flights originate in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Nassau. A fast ferry also leaves Nassau daily. Water taxis from North Eleuthera to Harbour Island are easy to secure. Often your hotel will book the water taxi for you.
Book ahead as the flights into North Eleuthera are on puddle jumpers and the connections are often tight.
- I love the golf carts – they’re like being on a carnival ride!
- Pink Sands Beach is the best sand, because it’s pink and really smooth so you don’t get scratched.
- I love the spinach dip at Valentines and the games they have on the deck. Each year I get better at the rope game.
- Sip Sip is my mom’s favorite lunch restaurant. Even though I fell through the back of the directors’ chair when I was little (they don’t have high chairs), I still really like the food.
- I like the little stores like Pigly Wigly and Arthur’s Bakery, where they have the best cinnamon rolls.
- Complete uninterrupted time with my family
- Pink Sand Beach – It’s such a stunning, uncrowded beach. It’s spotless, and the sand is so fine, you’ll find it for days after you return home!
- Dunmore Town, where there’s absolutely nothing to do but just wander from store to store.
- Golf Cart Culture – This is a fun way to get around the island and driving on the left side of the street makes it even more of an adventure. You can see almost every spot on the island from a golf cart.
- The wonderful array of conch eateries and, of course, Sip Sip.