A Few Days In

The Better Bahamas? You Mean Eleuthera

by Juliana Jaoudi
Eleuthera Eleuthera. All photos by Juliana Jaoudi.

When you imagine the quiet and gorgeous Bahamas, you're probably dreaming about Eleuthera.

ELEUTHERA, Bahamas - Welcome to Eleuthera, the narrow, 110-mile strip of land surrounded by clear turquoise Caribbean and perfectly blue Atlantic waters. Home to more than 100 idyllic beaches, Eleuthera may be the birthplace of the Bahamas, but it’s the polar opposite of the mega resort scene found on Nassau (we're looking at you, Baha Mar, Atlantis, and Paradise Island). Eleuthera is mostly unspoiled and beyond charming — the rare Caribbean island that’s not overdeveloped, brims with local charms, has a surprising history, and offers so many (so many!) undiscovered gems. That it’s almost impossible to find good info on Eleuthera online keeps a lot of travelers away. (Thanks for reading this!) That the WiFi is so unstable is a bonus: It makes it easier to check out when you’re on vacation. (You’re on vacation, remember?)

Let’s start at the beginning: Eleuthera was founded in 1648 by religious pilgrims who were first kicked out of America and then Bermuda on their search for a home that was free of British prejudice. Traces of this heritage remain in the whitewashed churches and colorful cottages that dot the island, as well as in the seemingly ancient, non-working ports.

Harbour Island and Spanish Wells

Northern Eleuthera, which is home to the airport and the point of entry for most visitors, connects by ferry to two smaller islands that are considered part of greater Eleuthera. To the east is chic Harbor Island, famous for its pink sands, colorful homes, great restaurants, and resorts beloved by affluent regulars. To the west is Spanish Wells, an English Puritan settlement dating back to the 1600s that remains a primarily white and insular community. Spanish Wells has beautiful white sand beaches with gorgeous sand bars; colorful homes; great fishing, snorkeling, and reef diving (Devil's Backbone reef is popular for a reason); and a big grocery store, Food Fair on 17th and Leo Pinder (a bonus on any Caribbean island, especially if you're renting a house). You'll need to rent golf carts to get around both islands, as cars are not allowed. Ferries to and from Harbour Island leave from the water taxi point just beyond North Eleuthera airport and can run as late as 11 p.m., but confirm this on your way over, as schedules can vary by season. The water taxi for Spanish Wells leaves from Gene’s Back dock. Be careful with your return trip, as service ends at 5:30 p.m., though you can arrange a private water taxi for a later time with one of the captains on your way over, like Daniel at Knight Rider (+1-242-557-7299). In terms of planning, you can visit Spanish Wells and the Eleuthera beaches Ten Bay and Preacher’s Cave on the same day since both beaches are on the way to Gene’s Back dock.

Eleuthera GPS

The main island of Eleuthera is unblemished, laid back, and somewhat rugged — and where you should spend your time. The island can be loosely divided into three main regions: northern, central, and southern. Getting around on Eleuthera means driving a 4x4 along the Queens Highway, the two-lane road that runs from north to south. Because the island was settled by crown loyalists, you’ll need to be comfortable driving on the left side of the road. Why a 4x4? Because the best beaches and secret coves are down bumpy dirt roads, and they are always worth the effort! (Scroll for car rental resources.)

The beach in Harbour Island.
Gaulding Cay.

Around Gregory Town

On the drive south from North Eleuthera airport towards Gregory Town, you’ll pass thick, tropical brush, the “Australian” pines that dominate the coastlines (they're not really Australian, though everyone calls them that), and drive the amazing (and narrow!) Glass Window Bridge. It's not glass and there's no window, but it's a stunner for the contrast between the gorgeous waters: clear Caribbean on your right and deep blue Atlantic on your left.

Exploring the Beaches

Northern Eleuthera cays, beaches, and coves were my favorite spots for perfect swimming and snorkeling, gorgeous coral and tropical sea life, and picturesque sunsets. (Local celebrity Lenny Kravitz built a house in Northern Eleuthera, if you're curious about the neighbors.) Ben Bay and Preacher’s Cave on the northernmost tip of Eleuthera are at once a treat and an adventure. Sapphire Blue Hole, just a few minutes from Preacher’s Cave, is popular if underwhelming. The books The Elusive Beaches of Eleuthera and The Beach Book: Eleuthera, Bahamas Edition are both excellent guides to the island's 100+ beaches.

My favorite beach near Gregory Town is Gaulding Cay (pronounced “key,” which you probably know), a short drive from the main road across from Daddy Joe’s, a locally owned and reliably delicious restaurant with a small inn. Take the dirt road across from Daddy Joe’s towards the Caribbean. At the fork, take a right onto a narrower dirt road all way the to the beach. The swimming is easy, the waters are crystal-clear, and the pine trees offer natural shade. What makes Gaulding Cay so special is the surprising coral island a short swim or snorkel from the beach, rich with tropical fish and other sea life.

Lover's Beach.

Another favorite is Lover’s Beach on the Atlantic side, accessible via 4x4. You take a left on a white powdery dirt road just north of Oleander Gardens (if you’re coming from the north) between the two salt beds. Proceed about a half mile past working pineapple fields, then fork left for another third of a mile, and before you would fork right through tall grasses to get to the beach, stop and park to take in the gorgeous vistas from the cliffs. Walk the remaining little bit to make your way down the sandy hill to the beautiful and isolated beach. (What? This is what directions are like when life slows down. It's nice, isn't it?)

Tom, a lifelong surfer and US transplant with 30 years of ecological touring, is your best bet for discovering the hard-to-find but delightful sea life in northern Eleuthera by boat and 4x4. With him, we explored 250-foot cliffs only a local could take you to, swam with turtles late in the day at Whale Point and Cistern Cay when no one else was around, and had lunch on a private beach with stunning sand bars on Jacob’s Island, which sits between Northern Eleuthera and Harbour Island. You can reach Tom on a local number (+1-242-335-5644: a landline, so don't try to text him) or just can drop by and ask for his availability. To get to Tom's, take a right into Oleander Gardens (you'll see the sign on your right) as you’re driving south on Queen’s Highway past Daddy Joe's, just before the entrance to The Cove Hotel. Take a left at the end of the road, then a right when you can’t go any further and follow the signs directing you to the left. Park right in front of the water and walk to the house on the cliff overlooking the cove, then up stone stairs inlaid with shells. That’s where you’ll find Tom and his gorgeous and charming jewelry-making wife, Pearl. The signs look like this:

The way to Tom's and Pearl's.
Pearl and Tom.

Rebecca’s Surf Shop in Gregory Town is a great spot for renting paddle boards and surf boards. They sell fish, local hot sauce, and fun trinkets to take home.

Where to Stay

You’ll find a number of beautiful Airbnb/VRBOs for rent in Gregory Town, but if you want a traditional hotel, the best known is The Cove Hotel. Another charming option (and a Fathom award-winner as a World's Most Romantic Hotel) is The Other Side, a solar-powered glamping resort on a private beach directly across the bay from Harbour Island, where the owners also have The Ocean View Club.

We stayed in Oleander Gardens, one cove over from The Cove Hotel, and just loved the small private community that's developed over the last 40ish years. Oleander Gardens offers waterfront homes built on the coral foundations, which make for snorkel-friendly sea life in warm Caribbean waters. You can find homes for rent on Airbnb, VRBO, and other private options; just search "Oleander Gardens Eleuthera."

If you rent a house, which I highly recommend, know that grocery shopping is more limited and pricey, but manageable. Here's an excellent summary of where to shop for the essentials. JC Discount Super Store in Gregory Town stocks frozen fish, vegetables, bagels, meat, eggs, canned goods, some fresh veg and fruit, and pantry staples. Not far from JC’s, you’ll see a 7-11 where you can fill up on gas and find snacks, some fresh veg (check the refrigerator for the delicious locally farmed bags of mixed greens) and fruit, and other necessities. If you fly into Northern Eleuthera airport, your best bet is to stop at Burchie’s in North Eleuthera Shopping Center and load up on your way to your rental. My favorite spot for fresh produce is Hearty Mow Farms, owned by a Bahamian couple, Marilyn and Phillip. (Hearty Mow is cash-only and pricey.) Fresh Fish at the Docks in James Cistern, a ten-minute drive south of Gregory Town is another good one: Look for fishermen selling their daily catch at the docks across the street from Kel-D's around 2 p.m. most days.

Whale Point.
Cliffs on the Atlantic coast in northern Eleuthera.

Around Governor's Harbor

About 45 minutes south of Gregory Town on a beautiful bay lies Governor’s Harbor, the capital of Eleuthera. It feels like a capital, with more grocery stores and restaurants, the only ATMs on the island, a Shell gas station, the telco store Aliv (it's a good idea to get a local SIM card, especially if you need reliable WiFi), upscale expatriate homes, and a wine shop. But let’s be clear: The feel is still small, cute, and low-key.

Here’s a cheat sheet for grocery essentials:

And restaurants:

If you want to stay in a hotel, try French Leave Resort, part of Marriott's Autograph Collection. Squire Estates is a better bet for renting a big house for a family or a charming cottage for two. Squire Estates manages a collection of gorgeous homes that start at the bay and make their way up to the top of a hill, most with Atlantic ocean views. Easy, walkable access to French Leave beach, the bay, and the conveniences is really lovely, but it does feel more congested than Northern Eleuthera.

My favorite beaches for swimming near Governor's Harbor are Rainbow Bay beach and Alabaster beach, both on the Caribbean side. On the Atlantic, Twin Cove and Surfer’s Beach are gorgeous too. A worthwhile stop on your way to Governor’s Harbor from northern Eleuthera are the Hatchet Bay caves. They are well traveled, so just ask around for directions, or refer to The Beach Book if you have it.

Here's the bottom line: While the services and amenities in Governor's Harbor are a definite upside, I didn’t find the beaches and coves to be as picturesque and interesting as those in Northern Eleuthera.

But top to bottom, Eleuthera stole my heart. I was already booking my next vacation before leaving. You probably will too.

Rainbow Bay beach.

Plan Your Trip

Flights to Eleuthera
Fly into Northern Eleuthera Airport (ELH) to stay near Gregory Town or further north, or into Governor’s Harbor Airport (GHB) for Central Eleuthera and the capital, Governor’s Harbor. Rock Sound International Airport (RSD) serves southern Eleuthera and Rock Sound. Delta Airline flies from Atlanta; American, Silver, Aztec and Bahamas Air fly from Miami or Ft. Lauderdale.

Or fly into Nassau and transfer to one of Eleuthera’s airports on a local airline. Bahamas Air, Southern Air Charter, and Pineapple Air all service GHB, ELH, and RSD. Flights don't run daily, so plan ahead.

Car Rentals
You absolutely need a car down here. A 4x4 will make it much easier to reach remote beaches on dirt paths and navigate very bumpy roads. Reliable local companies include Turnquest Car Rentals (Arthur Turnquest; +1-242-332-2467), Cadet Car Rental, and Big E and K's Car Rental. If you rent a house, ask the house owner who they recommend, as they often work with specific companies they know and trust. Locals often rent their cars — there's a whole network — and many only accept cash. I loved working with Arthur: We signed a contract and he took my credit card, which made me feel more assured and insured.

Money Matters
Cash vs. Credit: The Bahamian dollar is pegged to the US dollar, and everyone takes both. While cash is king, credit cards are widely accepted as well. Governor’s Harbor in Central Eleuthera has two ATMs for local cash. Harbour Island and Spanish Wells also have an ATM.

Never Enough Bahamas

While you're down here, you might want to visit nearby Harbour Island, a quick ferry ride away. And check the Bahamas Tourism website for more info about Eleuthera and Harbour Island.