Two Caribbean isles . . . Once in sync with the pace of Bahamian life, you'll find it hard to slip on shoes and go home

THE first thing I did upon arriving at the Marsh Harbour airport was to slip off my shoes. Even faux snakeskin doesn't take kindly to tropical downpours. Besides, the cement floor of the one-room terminal had flooded, as the child splashing on the starboard side of the ticket counter could have testified. I sensed it was going to be that kind of barefoot vacation.

It was my first visit to the Bahamas, a vacation spot that usually connotes a combination of beaches and bingo, a sort of Las Vegas of the tropics.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Seeking to avoid the casinos and crowds of Freeport and Nassau, the two most popular Bahamian destinations, I had settled on Great Abaco, one of the less-trammeled islands.

I had flown in a twin-propeller airplane to rendezvous with friends at a private home somewhat enigmatically titled ``MLX.'' As I boarded the eight-passenger Caribbean Express flight in Miami, I remembered I had neither a phone number nor an address - only my hostess' assurances that neither was neccessary, that any cabdriver could deliver me to the correct doorstep and, by the way, would I mind lugging along a few cans of tuna fish, as the island's grocery store was more than a mile down the road, often ill-stocked, and taxis to and fro were infrequent.

As the plane swung low over the forest of scraggly palms and pines that so far constituted my view of this island 100 miles east of Florida, I dimly recalled my guidebook's gushing claim that herds of wild boar still roam the island. Peering past the pilot's shoulder, I caught sight of a herd of something or other cavorting on the runway dead ahead. Dogs, not hogs, I determined. To our left the burned-out shell of a twin-engine plane flashed by. ``Not exactly confidence inspiring, is it?'' muttered my seat mate as we hurtled toward the tarmac. So, this was the Bahamas?

As it turned out, that was almost exactly the phrase native Bahamians used when describing the vagaries of their islands: a slight shrug of the shoulders and a casual ``That's the Bahamas.'' I picked that up from the customs official at Treasure Cay (pronounced ``key''), our first stop en route to Marsh Harbour and the Abaco's official entry point. After several minutes of fuming about a piece of lost luggage and being told there was no phone in the one-room airport with which to report it, I was politely informed by the lone officer, ``That's the Bahamas.''

So it was. By week's end, however, I had not only recovered my luggage and discarded my shoes, but I had acquired a deep appreciation for all things Bahamian: the slower pace; the erratic water supply; the scarcity of public phones; and the gas station that sold bell peppers, homemade cupcakes, motorbikes and, oh yes, gas. While the island's oddities were numerous, they were also endearing. Cumulatively, their effect was a sense of rugged isolation - a barefoot tranquillity more commonly achieved after several days spent at sea or on mountaintops.

The Bahamas take their name from the Spanish baja mar, or shallow seas. Ever since their settlement by Spanish seafarers in the early 16th century, this archipelago of nearly 700 islands has attracted sailors, fishermen, and beachcombers to the warm, coral reef-studded seas. Situated in the far northeast reaches of the island chain, the Abacos are considered some of the most beautiful among the Bahamas's Family, or Out Islands. What the Abacos, Eleuthera, the Exumas, Bimini, and Cat Island lack in night life and excitement they make up for in natural beauty and serenity.

On Great Abaco, the 600-square-mile main island, the principal settlement is Marsh Harbour. It is the third-largest town in the Bahamas and considered the yachtsman's gateway to other nearby cays: Man O' War, Great Guana, and Elbow Cay. Bahamas Yacht Services, a charter boat company, is on Great Abaco, as is the Conch Inn (pronounced ``conk''), a 67-slip marina, inn, and restaurant that is host to a preponderance of boat-owning guests.

With nary a sailor among us, our party was decidedly of the landlubber variety. But that didn't keep us from enjoying this sailing paradise. One of a handful of private vacation homes built on a mile-long peninsula extending into the Abaco Sound, MLX proved to be the perfect retreat - yes, my driver did know the way. Every room in the house, as well as the spacious, open-air deck, faced either the azure sound or the cobalt ocean. Every day the four of us swam, snorkeled, and snoozed with a vengeance. Every night we gathered to watch the sunset from the crow's nest deck atop the main house.

As the week unspooled, all frustration over lost luggage, unpaved roads, and the miles-long hike to the island's lone public phone slowly ebbed as the Bahamian sun, sand, and sea worked their magic. Formed from calcareous sandstone, limestone, and coral reefs, the Bahamas vary geologically from sugar-fine sand to gnarly volcanic outcroppings. Our beach was a shallow, sandy plateau stretching a good 20 yards offshore like a giant hot tub.

Occasionaly, we broke up the seaside lethargy with a bike trip into town for a few supplies; a photo opportunity at the turquoise-colored Cottman's Castle, home of the late Bahamian physician and writer Evans Cottman; and, of course, dinner at the Conch Inn. Here, under the white linen tablecloths, we kicked off our high-heeled sandals, sank back into the wicker chairs, and let the candlelight flicker across our sunburned faces. If the food was less than four star -- with the notable exception of conch fritters -- who cared? By now, we were learning that this was the Bahamas.

We were also learning that unrelieved proximity to perfect cruising water tempts even the staunchest of nonsailors. After debating the pros and cons of renting our own boat, we decided to leave the driving to someone else: We hopped aboard the inter-island ferry. For little more than $5 one-way, we could have called at any one of several ports: Green Turtle Cay, a resort island whose town of New Plymouth is considered one of the most charming in Bahamas; Man O' War, with its long history of shipbuilding; or Great Guana, with its impressive beaches and offshore reefs. Instead, we chose to visit Elbow Cay, a tiny hook of land a half-hour ferry ride from Marsh Harbour.

As the tiny cays are reachable only by boat, taking the ferry is akin to hopping the mail train. We settled in for our al fresco ride with the rest of the passengers and cargo - other tourists, local musicians, innkeepers, houseplants, boxes of groceries, and one large stack of disposable diapers.

Motoring into the bay with the flotilla of yachts bobbing smartly under the watchful gaze of the barber pole-striped lighthouse, we discovered Hope Harbour to be one of the most picturesque villages that side of Nantucket. The tidy streets lined with white picket fences and candy-colored clapboard homes - one pink-and-white charmer was sweetly named Puff House - brought the island's history vividly to life. Although initially discovered by the Spanish, the Abacos were largely settled by British and American colonial immigrants during the 17th century.

After strolling the streets of Hope Harbour, including a stop at the Winnie Malone Historical Museum, one of the best examples of the island's architecture, we hitched a ride to the Abaco Inn, one of two hotels on Elbow Cay.

It was another typical Bahamian adventure, the van careening over unpaved roads while inside we grabbed at door handles and our fellow travelers - hotel employees and half a dozen local artists en route to the inn's annual artists' luncheon. Easels, plastic bags of thawing conch meat, and sacks of King Arthur flour rounded out the van's contents. I hadn't felt so fancy free since I had caught a ride while a college student in a cake-laden bakery truck somewhere outside Edinburgh.

After a swim in the inn's postage stamp-size saltwater pool, we lunched with the artists, sharing lasagna, chocolate mousse, and tips on the Abaco's best beaches. Reluctantly, we caught the ferry at sunset, sharing the boat home with a chatty group of binocular-laden bird watchers.

After six days in the Abacos, I longed to stay longer. The islands, I discovered, were a good place in which to feel lost; I wasn't so sure I wanted to to be found again. It had taken me almost a week to learn to live without a phone, a TV, my shoes, and now I wanted a month: to hire a boat, explore more cays, stay barefoot awhile longer.

When we finally left for home early on Sunday, our taxi driver had to unlock the airport. Out on the runway a group of barefoot boys played Frisbee. When the lone pilot finally pulled up with our plane, I slowly climbed the steps, my shoes in my hand.

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