You might think of the Bahamas simply as a place where your IQ gets sawed in half by a dizzying cocktail of rum and saltwater, where you stumble idly along, gambling away children and vital organs while finding reggae music suddenly tolerable, trusting that dumb luck will act as a nullifying agent against it all, or failing that, the public relations attaché of your local embassy. But beyond the casinos, conga lines, and holding cells is a different Bahamas, one that annuls the phoniness of Atlantis for the real paradise looming all around.
I’ve spent a weird amount of time in Nassau, the capital, on the island of New Providence, owing to my father being partnered in a timeshare there, a venue for family summits going on 20 years now. We come for the food and the fishing. Spiny lobster — called “crawfish” in the Bahamas — is a clawless, warm-water species with a tail as fat as a beer keg but far tastier, and can be speared by the dozens in their underwater lairs. Conch, an improbably delicious mollusk that’s eaten every conceivable way in these islands — grilled, steamed, “cracked” (deep fried), stewed, chowdered, frittered, and chopped raw in conch salad (the local ceviche) — abound on the seafloor.
That alone is enough to keep us coming back. But I should also mention the white-sand beaches, the startling blue sea, the red powder-puff and silvertop palms lining the streets, and a comically uncoordinated bird called the smooth-billed ani, which, when landing in a wind, will go tumbling in a ball of feathers. The 340 sunny days a year don’t hurt. Neither does the water temperature that almost never falls below 71 degrees. A population of 340,000 spread out over a 5,383-square-mile archipelago of idyllic islands and pristine cays makes convalescing from the winter office grind totally effortless. The Bahamas has been good to me over the years, is what I’m saying, even if I haven’t always returned the favor.
But at midday, when a mutant lobster-donkey hybrid comes into range, I rear back on my spear like Hector, close my eyes and release.
My father and I, along with our Bahamian friends Steve Darville and his son Demetri, will often head out to Rose Island for a day of spearfishing. I can’t tell you exactly where our hunting grounds are, as they’re the Darville’s secret spots — lovely stretches of reef-bound coast that Steve has been fishing since he was a boy. But you shouldn’t have much trouble finding crawfish in the waters off western New Providence. Just ask around. It’s not uncommon to see a Bahamian walk into the ocean and walk out with lunch, so natural is the connection between the two.
On a recent trip, we bounced out of Nassau in the Darville’s 18-foot Sea Boss, the sun rising beyond the western horn of the bay. Just four miles offshore, Rose Island is a showpiece of nature in all of its terrifying glory. “Two enemies, earth and sea, man and nature, meet in eternal conflict,” a French historian once wrote, as if picturing this very coast.
My father, although he hails from Indiana soybean country, is oddly at home on the ocean. As the rest of us hunted lobster, he paced the foredeck with a spear, keeping an eye out for sharks — black-tip reef sharks, typically harmless, sometimes like to challenge you for the meal at the end of your spear — and hollering instructions like Tashtego.
“Stay close to the boat.”
“Watch out for jellyfish.”
“Clear your mask.”
“Take heed of fire coral.”
Not ten minutes after plunging in, I was confronted with a venomous Lionfish, an invasive species that arrived here from Florida around 2005. Lionfish can kill up to three quarters of a reef’s fish population in five weeks, and Bahamians spear them on sight. Demetri helpfully mentioned that one prick from its dorsal spine can be deadly. Moments later, a nurse shark swam past, oblivious to my thrashing. Then a giant loggerhead turtle brazenly cut me off in its blind pursuit of a jellyfish. Red snapper, grouper, amberjack — all potential spearing targets — darted just out of range.
The Westwind Club is a timeshare enclave a short drive west of downtown with none of the glitz of Atlantis or the anomie of Baha Mar. It’s just a modest collection of bungalows, swimming pools, bars, hammocks, a rotating cast of sexagenarian wiseacres, and a golden sliver of beach providing easy access to nature’s blue bounty, all for a steal. A mile across the bay sits a tiny spit of volcanic rock with big-time snorkeling and spearing potential. The club has kayak rentals and a full battery of rum cocktails waiting upon your return. westwind1.com
Once you tire of conch, lobster and the ubiquitous Bahamian sides of potato salad, mac and cheese and plantains — this will take approximately three days — a palate-cleanser of tapas and roasted-suckling pig is just what the doctor ordered. Owned by Madrid transplant Miguel Coello, La Hipica is a rare and welcomed culinary outpost, offering delicious garbanzos fritos, gambas al ajillo, and salchicho, among other tapas, as well as burgers and pulled pork sandwiches and a selection of beers and Spanish reds. Hours vary, so call ahead. tripadvisor.com
Mask, fins and snorkel can be rented for $10 a day at Bahamas Divers, which also offers private charters. A Portuguese sling, the slingshot-like lance used for spearfishing in the islands, can be harder to find, owing to a dearth of good dive shops and sporting goods stores. Your best bet is Delaporte Hardware or Lightbourne Marine downtown. The beaches of Nassau are infested with booze-cruise powerboats, so head to southwestern New Providence to the little known beaches of Clifton Bay, near the Kalik brewery, Adelaide Village, and south Coral Harbour. Crawfish season opens August 1st. bahamasdivers.com
I’m a fair shot with most weapons, but proficiency with a Portuguese sling, the slingshot-like lance used in the Bahamas (pneumatic spears are illegal here), eludes me. Vast stretches of precious coral have fallen under my spear. This has always been a sore spot with Demetri. Today, after several errant shots, a look of dismay comes across his face, which I can see even through his mask and snorkel.
There have been other times like this when the psychic and pulmonary demands of spearfishing seem beyond me. But at midday, when a mutant lobster-donkey hybrid comes into range, I rear back on my spear like Hector, close my eyes and release. It’s a Hail Mary that miraculously connects. I swim back to the boat triumphantly, careful to hold the lobster at the end of my spear, away from my hand, lest a shark should come along and snatch both.
“Nice one,” is all I get from Demetri. Five minutes later, irony rears its ugly head and I’m speared by a stick of fire coral, which turns my neck an evil shade of crimson. I probably I deserve it.
We spear two dozen lobster in three hours and pluck a few conch from the bottom, their shells glowing alabaster pink in the morning light. Far before Columbus turned up here, the native Lucayans ate conch by the boatful — huge middens of discarded shells survive at their old settlements — and they introduced early colonists to the delicacy, for which they were repaid with wholesale extermination. That’s a culinary lesson to take to heart.
The alleged life-giving qualities of raw conch no doubt contributes to its local esteem, though it doesn’t require mythologizing. If you eat nothing else in the Bahamas, make it a good conch salad, which can be found at any number of seaside shacks in the islands, rinsed down with Nassau-brewed Kalik.
Cleaning our catch onshore, we toss the lobster heads into the waves and pack the tails in ice. That night, my father and I grill them outside with some mackerel and wahoo I’d caught on a spinning rod earlier in the week. Growing up in Michigan, the closest I ever got to this was Red Lobster. It’s a welcome change that I’ve come to love.
As we eat, a yellow-crowned night heron stalks the underbrush. Heat lightning — the last vestiges of a recent storm — flashes in the north. We finish with a plate of guava duff, a dense cake filled with pulped guavas and drizzled with a sweet brandy sauce. I eat enough to fail a breathalyzer. My father, a big man, isn’t easily satisfied, but tonight he is. In fact, he’s happier with a plate of lobster and duff than anything else imaginable. It occurs to me that we represent an odd culinary reversal, our proud Midwestern stockyard palates having been radically transformed by the Bahamas. In the oncoming darkness, with the heat of the day behind us, we are catatonically sated.