It was the end of August, and my little family had just spent a few amazing months in the second city of the Bahamas, a country in the northern Caribbean sea with over 700 islands and cays. Freeport, Grand Bahama, the Magic City, population circa 50,000 – my husband had somehow been offered a job out here, a piece of magic realism that began our journey from Liverpool to the Caribbean and set the tone for the unexpectedness of our experiences to come.
We were getting to know nice spots to hang out. Fish fry on a Wednesday at Smyth’s Point, just a little way up from the popular Taino Beach, was one of our favourites; the fish fry, in various forms, being a central feature of island life. I ate so many barbecues, lobster caught straight out of the water, and conch, a large saltwater snail with one claw that it uses to drag itself along the shallow floors of the Bahamas’ clear waters, and their beautiful spiralling shells, which are everywhere in Grand Bahama.
To say conch is a major part of Bahamian cuisine is an understatement. Conch salad, conch fritters, cracked conch, conch and chips – it’s all about the conch! My neighbour’s mum’s guava duff with hard cream remains the most delicious thing I ever tasted in my life and I learnt a lot about macaroni, as well as how to make fried chicken properly (thanks, Karen!)
The Garden of the Groves became a firm favourite for an afternoon out. A nature reserve towards the east of the island, the Garden of the Groves showcased the vast diversity of Grand Bahamas’ plants and had a really nice outdoor café that was also home to quite a few chatty parrots and some large waddling ‘ducks’ (they looked like chickens to me!) which would circle while we were eating, occasionally going in for a quick, unexpected peck in our general direction, just as a gentle reminder that this is their playground not ours! There was also a little park for the kids and loads of interesting spaces for them to play and run about.
Nearby Port Lucaya is a beautiful, pastel port town with a large harbour of leisure vessels, an outdoor market mainly catering to tourists and a wide range of bars and restaurants, as well as the major hotels of the island. There was also the square in Lucaya, which had events on throughout the year, weekly live music and a general family entertainment show at the weekend.
In the bars, you can get delicious classic Bahamian drinks such as Bahama Mama, Gully Wash, and Sands beer brewed on Grand Bahama Island and a rival to capital city Nassau’s Kalik beer. A cocktail on a warm evening in the busy square while the kids got involved with the show, all at the edge of the gorgeous harbour and the pretty pink and green market complex that made up Port Lucaya, was an all round great Saturday night out for the whole family.
It was a noticeable feature of Grand Bahama that family and community weaves through daily life, how for such a small place there were many more events, day and night, catering to the whole family than seems to be the case over in the UK. It is a beautiful aspect of the way of life; a kid’s birthday party is much more likely to be a large barbecue with kids, family, friends and neighbours by the pool-side, and we went to a fair few of these, than something that was a kids only affair, for example.
The West End was stunning, and we took a bus trip up there one day to experience the summer Junkanoo. Junkanoo is a bit like carnival and is at the heart of Bahamian culture. There are crews of musicians and dancers, wearing the most amazing costumes in a riot of music and colour on the promenade of the West End. There were stalls selling delicious, home-cooked food; lots of seafood and fried chicken. It was the most people we’d seen in one place since we’d arrived – it seemed like the whole island was out at the Junkanoo!
The East End was as yet unexplored by us at this point, an hour long drive across a mainly empty highway lined with palm forest and bush that just seemed to go on forever, the island narrows to the east into a series of small fishing villages and settlements and the most spectacular, empty beaches along this stretch with bleached white sand almost as soft as dust, sky and sea as turquoise as each other with no horizon line between and, set back a little from the shore, pastel painted wooden houses and cottages, each with a boat in the front garden.
We had fallen well and truly in love with this island, and my husband had another year or so left on his contract. I had a decision to make – the known or the unknown. On the one hand, my son’s school year was starting soon back in Liverpool, our home was waiting for us and our family so far away; on the other hand, we were on a paradise island in the middle of the Caribbean and if we wanted to we could stick around for a while. Erm, tough decision, right?
A few weeks later, we left Grand Bahama, heading across to the States, mainly to pick up some supplies, things that weren’t so easily available on the island. After a couple of days shopping in Miami, we were looking forward to heading back to the calm, unhurried way of life in Grand Bahama and the unknown that awaited.
We’d just landed at Freeport airport and were going through customs when my husband got the call from his boss telling us to stay in Miami. It was too late, we were back on the island and right in the path of a ferocious Category 4 storm that became known as Hurricane Matthew.
Two days later, the airport was shut. No more flights out of Grand Bahama. No more ferries to Florida. Everyone was busy making preparations for the storm’s approach, boarding up windows and doors, stocking up on water, generators, gas stoves and non perishable food. We were about to experience a hurricane.
The looming storm was all anyone could really talk about in the little community we had started to make home along Grand Bahama’s long southern shore and, with the threat of a storm surge that would swell the saltwater canal at the bottom of the garden right into our apartment, there was a strong sense of fear and urgency in making back-up plans in case we needed to evacuate and find higher ground, not that easy on an island with no hills.
The day Matthew landed, 6th October 2016, was my son’s birthday. The sky looked murderous that morning but there was no breeze in the air, the classic calm before the storm. The kids played out with the neighbour’s children, we shared some birthday cake, and after a sort of nervous twitch of a baking bonanza, some of the twenty or so loaves of bread I had made that morning and which looked nice but may or may not have actually been edible!
Avocadoes and coconuts, likely victims of the fast approaching storm, were taken down from the trees and shared about. Neighbours gathered, discussing Matthew’s immanent arrival, exchanging contact details and words of advice (fill the bathtub with water, line the windows with towels, etc). Then, the rain started to come, thick and fast, lashing down with utter ferocity, and the wind began to pick up.
Day was quickly turning into artificial night as the sky grew darker and angrier. The moment had arrived for everyone to hunker down, close up the hurricane shutters and wait it out indoors. The internet was going to go off and the power was going to be cut off, and the water system was to be shut down, at least during the storm. What would happen after that was anyone’s guess. We locked our doors, cranked up the AC and waited.
I discovered that day hurricanes bring with them epic thunderstorms, something I’d never really considered before. They are noisy affairs. Matthew bashed and bashed at the door of our apartment like the big bad wolf coming to blow the house down. We pushed the sofas up against the weak points. The window of the kids’ room lost its seal and water started to flow in. We moved their beds into the living room, closed off their room and stuck as many towels as we could find on the floor, but the water was coming in any chance it could and before long our floors became a big slidy mess while Matthew kept on crashing about outside and the whole building seemed to creek as if about to collapse.
The power went off and the internet with it. We lit up our torches and a cake full of birthday candles, huddled together and had what my son called a ‘survival party’, playing board games and cards and getting used to the undulations of the banging and booming as the storm kept up its pace outside.
It was still before dawn when Matthew started to subside, the others had fallen asleep but I couldn’t rest, the apartment was steaming hot and I craved some fresh air. I prised open one of the shutters to peek outside. It was total darkness, with the power off all across the island, and only the lightening made anything visible, flashing occasionally to reveal a scene of utter destruction. I was trying to make out the canal below, fearing the prediction that as the storm receded the surge would begin. The canal was bloated and thrashing about manically but the surge thankfully didn’t come. Eventually, daylight did though and the air was eerily calm again.
That first day after the hurricane was surreal. Roof tiles were all over the garden, palm trees that had stood so relaxed and confident the day before were collapsed on the ground. One, just outside our front door, left a gaping hole in the sandy soil that would go on to become a fire pit our neighbourhood would gather around, sharing food, liquor and friendship as all the kids scouted about for fuel for the fire. Unripe bananas turned out not to burn too well, but the rest of the dead vegetation around and about did. Outside on the road, it was an obstacle course.
Driving had become incredibly hazardous overnight as electricity pylons, street lights and parts of roofs lay scattered across the roads. There was still no water, no electricity, no internet; we were effectively cut off, to a large extent, to the community in which we were living. A few neighbours had acquired generators and the gardens became criss-crossed with wires as power was distributed across the estate and the fridges came on.
Parts of the island had been flooded, and the West End had been devastated, lying as it was below sea level: many houses had collapsed, roofs torn apart, there were people who lost everything in that storm. Matthew didn’t just hit Grand Bahama, it caused flooding on New Providence and Paradise Islands, home to the country’s capital, Nassau, and other smaller islands of the Bahamas. Matthew was deadly in Haiti where it led to the collapse of a major bridge and it was destructive along some of Cuba’s coastline. The hurricane eventually hit the States as a weakened storm, but also caused major flooding and building damage there.
Grand Bahama island had not yet recovered from the hurricane it had experienced over ten years earlier and Wilma’s enduring effects were perhaps most visible in two of Freeport’s largest buildings. Xanadu Beach Hotel was once home to the wild parties of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, and a whole floor set aside just for the reclusive Howard Hughes, providing a glimpse into Freeport’s heyday as the playground of America’s rich and famous ‘when money rolled through the island’ and casinos were a booming business. An ex-apartment block in the island’s centre was the other totem to Wilma’s destruction, having lain derelict and uninhabitable since that last major storm. Now, the mattresses from Xanadu hotel were floating in the canal and many homes and businesses had been destroyed. Grand Bahama took months to get over the initial shock of Matthew.
The water took a few days to return, and in the meantime, it became a prized commodity; so was ice, which was in scarce supply. The electricity didn’t come on for three weeks, in some cases months, as each pylon had to be re-erected across the entire island. The kids discovered there was a life without the internet, I discovered that I was more resilient than I thought I was, and we all discovered a sense of community as strangers became friends and we helped each other out. You learn to figure it out, get by, and that’s what we did. In the aftermath of the storm, I found myself getting in the car and taking the kids east a lot, to the part of the island relatively untouched by the hurricane, enjoying the calm, unspoilt beaches and looking out from the end of the island to the mysterious little cay beyond.
Nearly a year later, and Grand Bahama was working to move on. Major hotels remained shut, repairs were being carried out, there was still storm debris about, yet we had well and truly settled into island life when news came of another monster hurricane heading roughly in our general direction – the Category 5 Irma, which was barrelling up through Hurricane Alley causing death and destruction wherever it went. We had to get back to the UK for family reasons, but once again, the airports were preparing to shut… that, however, is another story!
Check out the Garden of the Groves on FACEBOOK
Check out Port Lucaya on FACEBOOK
Check out Grand Bahama Tourism Board ONLINE