Beating the Winter Blues | Hope Town, Bahamas Part I

I know todays post was supposed to be about my trip to Cuba however, the city of Havana was hit with a very rare F4 tornado earlier this week, killing at least 4 people, wounding close to 200 and leaving many homeless. As excited as I am to share my experience in Cuba with you, this is not the right time, as compassion for others in this world will always take top priority over plugging vacation destinations on a blog.

So instead, with most of the country experiencing sub zero temperatures this week, it only seemed appropriate to gift you with a different slice of tropical heaven, The Abaco Islands in the Bahamas!

The Elbow Reef Lighthouse, Hope Town, Bahamas (2014)

I have had the awesome opportunity to travel to the Abacos twice now, thanks to my parents who were living aboard their sailboat at the time and sailed down there for the winter two years in a row.

My first visit in 2014 was a bit of an unplanned whirlwind. This was their first time sailing the boat over the Bahamas, so they weren’t quite sure of the exact locations they would go to, how long they would be in each area or what those areas were even like.

They had taken a vacation on a tall ship, the Liberty Clipper, in 2011, which sails out of Nassau and travels to The Exumas and Eleuthera. So, they had been to the Bahamas before, but there are 700 islands to choose from so they only had a general game plan in place. This of course makes it a bit hard for their adventurous daughter to plan a trip to visit them…which maaaay have been intentional!

On their travels down the East Coast via the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), they met another couple who were headed to Hope Town in the Abacos to get married on the beach. Travelling the same direction, they became friendly along the way and were ultimately invited to attend this couples wedding, so they adjusted their plans and later met up with them in the Abacos.

As it turns out, Hope Town, located on the island of Elbow Cay is beyond beautiful! Directly north of Nassau, Elbow Cay sits to the far east of the northern two chains of Islands just off the coast of Florida. Because it is so small and remote, the only way to access the island is via the local ferry service or your own private boat. There are no big luxury resorts, no cruise ships docked off the beach blocking your ocean view and no throngs of tourists bustling about town. In fact, there aren’t even cars on the island. Okay, half the island. But seriously, the cars are only allowed out in the residential neighborhoods, miles away from town to make it easier for those residents to commute and transport things such as groceries. The main modes of transportation on Elbow Cay are either to walk, ride a bike, drive a golf cart or if you have one, a small inflatable boat called a dinghy, which of course is more to scoot back and forth between Elbow Cay and some smaller islands that surround it. Coming from a fairly populated area, you don’t know how relaxing it is to not hear a single car horn for a week straight!

A typical quiet street in Hope Town, Bahamas (2014)

But alas, I was not aware of such things yet, as I was stuck at home working, without enough vacation days available to make any sort of trip down possible…until I remembered we always have off for Good Friday! As you can imagine, last minute flights to the Bahamas during one of the biggest travel weeks of the year were not cheap and by no means was I going to pay close to $1,000 to be in the Bahamas for what would equate to a day and a half, after you factored in the actual travel time. Thankfully I was able to re-arrange a couple of things and take off the two days before Good Friday making my trip five days long instead. I know, I know, not much better, but you only live once, right? Factoring in that I was staying for free on the boat the entire time made the cost a bit more palatable.

So there I was, three weeks later, packing my bags for a 7:55am flight out of Philadelphia. With my parents, aka my usual airport chauffer’s, already in the Bahamas, I had no choice but to book a ride to the airport with a local transportation company who does airport shuttle runs from all of the local hotels. This is a great option when you don’t want to burden friends or family with the task of driving you to the airport at 5am on a workday.  The only problem with this option is that they make a TON of stops along the way picking other people up, so the trip to the airport takes significantly longer then if you just drove there on your own. Living fairly far out on the route, I was the first pickup of the day…at 4am! This meant getting up somewhere in the range of 2:45-3:00 in the morning to get ready and over to the hotel on time. I got maybe two hours of sleep that night, but it didn’t matter! I was going to the Bahamas!!

Check in at the airport went fairly smoothly, as I already had my boarding pass and I wasn’t checking a bag, due to the tight connection in Fort Lauderdale. I did not yet have my fancy TSA Pre-Check Status, so I had to go through the standard security line, which thankfully wasn’t too busy at that hour of the morning. I made my way to the gate, eventually boarded the plane, and we were off…or so I thought.

Sunrise at the Philadelphia International Airport (2014)

Philadelphia International, at least years ago anyway, didn’t have the best track record when it came to flights leaving on time. It was so bad; it was almost unbelievable when someone claimed his or her flight did actually leave on time. So there we sat on the plane, buckled in and ready for take off when the pilot starts with the generic delay announcements. “Hi folks, this is your pilot here, just a few minutes and we will be pushing back from the gate. Thanks for your patience!”Fifteen minutes go by, we haven’t moved. The pilot again “Hi folks, sorry for the delay, just a few more minutes and we are good to go!”. Fifteen more minutes go by, still no movement. The pilot again “Hello again everyone, it seems we have a slight mechanical issue, but it’s being worked on. As soon as they finish taping up the wing, we will be on our way.”Everyone in the plane…“Uhmmmmm, did he just say finish taping the wing???” **Looks out window – sees guy crawling around on the wing with a roll of what looked similar to duct tape.** Okay, this is seriously happening. I mean, I’m sure it’s fine or they wouldn’t let us take off. Speaking of taking off, when is that happening?? My already tight (by the airlines scheduling, not my choosing) hour layover has now turned into a fifteen-minute layover…at most. Panic starts setting in. I start politely enquiring from the flight attendants if we will be making up any of the lost time or if they will hold connecting flights for people who are continuing on with a partnered airline. The only answer they will provide is to check with the employees at the gate upon landing and they will assist me. Super helpful, thanks! Spoiler alert, we did not make up a single second of the time lost and landed in Fort Lauderdale an hour later than scheduled.

The minute the door opened, I semi-politely pushed my way down the aisle and off the plane to start looking for the flight status boards and someone who can help me figure out where I need to go for my next flight. The gate agents on the ground were slightly more helpful and told me the terminal and gate info but then were quick to inform me, I would never make it there in time. Pft! Don’t tell me I can’t do something! I took off running, following signs for my new terminal, which led me down a lengthy corridor and eventually out the exit doors beyond the confines of the security check points. This is when reality sets in. Arggggh! The terminal for my connecting flight is in a completely different building and no, not the one next door. Why would it be that easy? The one four buildings down, and by down I mean up, uphill, over a half mile away, in the hot Florida sun and humidity. I took off running down the sidewalk, still dressed for winter in Pennsylvania, carrying my giant duffle bag and backpack. Keeping in mind this was long before I decided to start running again, so man was I struggling! I had to stop and walk and catch my breath numerous times. Finally I see the terminal…and the big sign on the outside for my gate. What I don’t see is a plane at said gate. It’s okay, maybe this flight was delayed too. Maybe it’s not here yet! Everything will be okay!

Then I hear it, the sound of an airplane cranking up the engine to take off down the runway. I look to my left and there it goes, the tiny bright pink Silver Airways flight…that I was supposed to be on. I absolutely lost it. I set my bags down and immediately began bawling so hard you couldn’t tell anymore what was sweat pouring down my face and what were tears. Now traveling as much as I do, you would have expected my reaction to have been a bit more calm, cool and collected. Maybe if I hadn’t been up since 3am and operating on 2 hours of sleep, and maybe if I hadn’t spent the last two hours stressed to the max about missing my flight and maybe if I wasn’t now aware that I just missed the last flight out for the day, which of course was non-refundable, then maybe, just maybe, my reaction would have been calm, cool and collected. This however was a battle that even a well-seasoned traveler couldn’t win.

I tried calling my dad, who had most likely already taken the forty-five minute ferry ride to Marsh Harbour to pick me up, but he didn’t answer, so I collected my belongings and started walking towards the terminal, sweat and tears still streaming down my face. Within two seconds of the big glass doors sliding open and a blast of nice cold air conditioning hitting me in the face, I hear a woman yelling in my direction from a check in counter in a Bahamian Islands accent. “Maaaaam! Maaaaaam! You just miss the flight to Marsh Harbor sweetheart?” So I walk over to her, and she repeats her question. “Yes!” I respond, thinking in my head “that obvious, huh?”, seeing as how I am the only one who busted through the doors looking like a disheveled mess. Apparently they had been announcing my name for over thirty minutes trying to track me down, and even held the flight as long as possibly allowed in hopes I would show up! As it turns out, there are only eight to ten people per flight, due to the size of the plane and weight restrictions, so when one is missing it’s pretty obvious!

After giving me a minute to collect myself, she asked for my boarding pass and passport, and I started asking what the procedure was now, fully assuming I was going to have to pay for a new flight and spend the night in a hotel room, making my already short trip even shorter. She started typing away on the computer, called over a manager to override a code and two minutes later with a big smile on her face, handed me a new boarding pass. I was beyond confused asking her to confirm that I did indeed just miss the last flight of the day to Marsh Harbour. “Yes hon, you did, but you didn’t miss the last flight out to Treasure Cay!!”. Treasure what now? In my rush to plan, I never bothered to take notice that there was a second airport on the island! She informed me Treasure Cay was about an hour taxi ride from Marsh Harbour, but they were going to call the airport and have them give me a taxi voucher upon landing. So, not only was I not booking a new flight and spending a night in a hotel, I was now getting a free hour taxi ride to the originally booked airport to meet my dad. That is what I call excellent customer service! I sent dad a quick text with an update and headed towards security.

Just one minor detail though, this new flight was leaving in thirty minutes. I was going to have to hustle and get through security and upstairs to the gate before they started boarding. The gate was directly above the check in counter so how long could it possibly take? The answer is loooooong! Never in my life have I ever encountered such a slow security line that barely had anyone in it. Welcome to the south I guess! I stood in line and waited for what seemed like an eternity, staring down the security agents the entire time, as if that was going to make things move faster. I’m fairly certain between the teary, puffy eyes and the stare down, they were staring me down as well…as a possible flight risk to not let through! After about twenty minutes of barely moving, I got brave and started asking people if I could cut in front of them explaining my situation. Thankfully everyone was sympathetic to my cause and let me go ahead. Really they probably just wanted a front row seat to the crazy crying lady getting a special pat down at the metal detector.

By the time I got to the front of the line, I was so flustered I had no clue what I was doing. I still had my phone and boarding pass in my pocket, a water bottle from the flight in my backpack, and am wearing my belt that sets off the alarm…every…single…time. I rush and toss all those things into a bowl to go through the x-ray machine, grab the water and throw it out and hopped back in line. Grrrr! I still have my shoes on, albeit flip-flops, but still shoes. I take them off and turn to toss them on the x-ray belt as well. The woman running the metal detector now noticing my flustered dance back and forth waves me forward telling me to just leave my flip-flops on. Clearly I am not concealing anything in them. Then she asks to see my boarding pass, ya know, the one I just put in a bowl through the x-ray machine. Ugh! She lets me through but tells me to grab it on the other side and come back and show it to her. I did, she gave me a head nod, and I was off running again, up the escalators to the gate level. I now have approximately two minutes until boarding, so I go straight to the gate, only to find the plane is a few minutes late and not at the gate yet. Seriously?? I guess better it be late then me again!

Finally, they escorted the ten or so people taking this flight through a locked door, down a ramp and out onto the windy tarmac and to what looked like the worlds smallest prop plane! It was 8 ladies heading to the Bahamas for a girls trip, myself and one roughly seven year old un-accompanied minor. With the islands being so close to Florida, I quickly learned from the flight attendant, that un-accompanied minors on these short flights back and forth were quite common, as they are usually going to visit family who live in one country or the other, and having a parent accompany them each time would get expensive. Imagine paying $200 every time you want to send your kids to spend a weekend with Grand-mom. They asked one of the ladies from the group if they minded being her buddy and sitting next to her to assist, incase she needed anything.

The very tiny plane I flew on from Fort Lauderdale to Treasure Cay, Bahamas (2014)

We handed our bags off on the tarmac, and climbed the steps onto the plane. Now I knew this plane was small just from looking at it from the outside, but I had no idea how small until I was inside! There were only 11-ish rows of seats, with only a single seat down the left side and two seats down the right side, with one long bench style seat across the back. I am only 5’4” and needed to duck to sit down so I didn’t smash the top of my head against the overhead bins. We strapped in and our plane pushed back from the gate and taxied down the runway.

This is it! I was finally Bahamas bound!!

Keep reading Beating the Winter Blues|Hope Town, Bahamas Part II, to find out how I faired on a tiny prop plane with lots of wind and a dirt runway, in the middle of nowhere, plus lots of useful travel info on where to stay, where to eat/drink and what to do once in Hope Town!