The Enduring Charm of the Bahamas' Harbour Island

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Like most of the Bahamian Out Islands, Eleuthera feels sleepy and remote, with modest dwellings, potholed roads and scrubby vegetation backed by expanses of dazzling sea. The water taxi across to Harbour Island takes less than 10 minutes, but this brief journey across a lagoonlike bay brings you to a place that is unexpectedly different. Dunmore Town is a pretty and manicured settlement, its waterfront lined by enviable 18th-century cottages decked out in an entire paintbox of pastel colors and surrounded by white picket fences. Alighting at Valentines Marina or the Government Dock, there is a palpable sense of energy and bustle, evidence of commerce and prosperity.

Despite its reputation as a magnet for movie people and celebrities, Harbour Island feels open and warmhearted. It is never glitzy.

Just over 3 miles long and at most a mile wide, Harbour Island has around 1,800 permanent inhabitants, a population that swells each winter with an influx of affluent snowbirds. (On approximately the same latitude as Miami, its climate is subtropical, with cooler temperatures in January and February than in the islands of the Caribbean proper, 750 miles to the south.) Its eastern shore is lined by a spectacular stretch of pink sand long beloved by fashion photographers, while inland a network of bumpy roads slices through lush vegetation illuminated by electric cascades of hibiscus and bougainvillea. There are few cars or trucks, and most people get around on golf carts, a mode of transport that promotes an informal and sociable atmosphere. People shout cheerful greetings to passing acquaintances, or pull over abruptly to engage in conversation. And despite its reputation as a magnet for movie people and celebrities of all stripes, Harbour Island feels open and warmhearted. It is never glitzy. Unlike St. Barths, say, there are few fancy boutiques. Indeed, visitors are informed with a kind of pride that here even the billionaires dress in T-shirts and faded shorts and look exactly like everybody else.

Bahama House

Cottage West terrace at the Bahama House on Harbour Island, Bahamas
Cottage West terrace at the Bahama House on Harbour Island, Bahamas - Eleven Experience

It had been four years since my previous visit, and my return had been prompted chiefly by the opening of Bahama House, an 11-room boutique hotel that is part of the upscale Eleven Experience company owned by Chad Pike, a senior managing director at the Blackstone Group. (We currently recommend two of its properties in Colorado: Scarp Ridge Lodge and Taylor River Lodge.) I knew that Harbour Island had escaped the destruction of Hurricane Dorian, which passed to the northeast in September 2019 on its way to devastate Abaco and Grand Bahama, but it was still a relief to see Dunmore Town looking as well groomed as ever.

I was immediately struck by the sequestered atmosphere, which seemed more like a private residence than a hotel.

We were greeted on the dock by the Bahama House’s ebullient lodge manager, Giorgia Ravilli Simmons, a native of Bologna it turned out, and we clambered aboard her golf buggy for the two-minute transfer to the hotel. A low hill rises from the waterfront, topped by the pink walls of St. John’s Anglican Church, built in 1768 by the descendants of a group of Puritans called the Eleutheran Adventurers. Clustered around it are stone colonial buildings that line a network of steep narrow streets. Hidden behind high walls and accessible only with a private door code, the Bahama House compound comprises the “1800 Building,” a classically proportioned structure with wide wraparound verandas, the adjoining Annex constructed in a similar style and likewise covered in peach-colored stucco, and two newly constructed cottages, all grouped around a courtyard swimming pool. I was immediately struck by the sequestered atmosphere, which seemed more like that of a private residence than a hotel.

Rotunda at the Bahama House on Harbour Island, Bahamas - Photo by Hideaway Report editor
Our Chapel room at the Bahama House  - Photo by Hideaway Report editor
Guest bath at the Bahama House  - Eleven Experience
Guest bath at the Bahama House  - Eleven Experience
Main hotel lounge at the Bahama House  - Photo by Hideaway Report editor
Indoor bar at the Bahama House  - Photo by Hideaway Report editor
Pool detail at the Bahama House  - Photo by Hideaway Report editor
Pool area at the Bahama House  - Photo by Hideaway Report editor

We had been allocated to the Chapel room on the corner of the Annex, whose shuttered windows overlooked the swimming pool with its surrounding flower beds and palm trees. My first impression was that it was attractive but on the small side at a distinctly cozy 245 square feet. Much of the space was taken up by the king-size bed, and there was no obvious place to put a suitcase aside from an ottoman at its foot. The closet was adequate at best. White walls and a relaxing color scheme of marine blues and greens were complemented by wicker furniture and rush matting. The adjoining bath came with a striking jade-green tile floor, a powerful walk-in shower (but no tub) and a single old-fashioned sink with brass faucets. The waffle-weave robes and Malin+Goetz toiletries were a nice surprise, but the almost total lack of shelf space was not. Overall, it appeared that despite their best efforts the designers had found themselves constrained by the dimensions of the old building. On the plus side, the veranda immediately outside our room opened onto a rotunda, an outdoor sitting area appointed with a wicker sofa and armchairs that provided glimpses of Eleutheran Bay.

Further investigation revealed that Bahama House offers several different accommodation types, ranging from queen-bedded rooms, which couples should avoid, to a pair of two-bedroom cottages with living rooms and private verandas. On a future occasion, however, I would opt for either Dunmore or Colebrook, which are generous king-bedded rooms on the second floor of the 1800 Building that share a semi-private terrace with water views. Apparently, around half of the property’s business comes from exclusive buyouts (for a maximum of 22 guests). In this context, the widely differing rooms sizes make sense, as the queen rooms would be suitable for children.

Having read for a while in the rotunda, glancing up occasionally to watch the breeze ruffling the palm fronds, we headed down to the courtyard for a cocktail at the sunken bar next to the swimming pool. There, Robert, the affable barman, mixed a Goombay Smash and a Dark ’n’ Stormy, both made with local rum. An alternative venue for an early evening drink is provided by the Rum Bar and the adjacent lounge of the 1800 Building. The bar operates on an honor system and contains around 40 varieties of rum in a custom-built hardwood cabinet, while the lounge is a serene and civilized living place with a traditional Caribbean décor of cane furnishings, rush matting, bright throw pillows, shell-encrusted lamps and a collection of large-format illustrated books.

Although there is no restaurant at Bahama House — dinner is available on request — a chef can be hired to cater for private groups, and several of the island’s better restaurants are located a short walk away. Breakfast is served on an open-air terrace overlooking the pool, including home-baked breads and pastries, dishes such as lobster omelets and avocado eggs Benedict are prepared to order.

Given its seclusion and tranquility, Bahama House is an ideal place to spend lazy days beside the pool. A tiny private world, the hotel offers little incentive to venture out. However, most guests rent golf carts, and the island’s famous pink sands are a five-minute drive away. There, hotel staff provide towels, loungers and umbrellas, and serve drinks and snacks from coolers. Owner Chad Pike’s great passion is fly-fishing, and many of his other properties — including those in Chile, Iceland and New Zealand, as well as Colorado — offer trout fishing as one of the principal activities. At Bahama House, the draw is guided fly-fishing for bonefish on the flats around Harbour Island. Other diversions include scuba diving, kitesurfing and deep-sea fishing for game species such as tuna, wahoo and mahi-mahi.

Ultimately, the appeal of Bahama House comes from its secluded residential atmosphere. Other hotels on Harbour Island offer restaurants, more lavish accommodations and access to the high-season social whirl. But they lack its combination of privacy and intimacy, qualities that are doubtless best experienced when part of a private group of family or friends.

- Hotel at a Glance -

Bahama House    91Andrew Harper Bird

Like

The sense of being a houseguest in a grand private residence; the atmosphere of seclusion and tranquility; the convenient central location close to several of the island’s better restaurants; the extremely hospitable lodge manager; the friendly and professional staff.

Dislike

Queen rooms are small and best avoided; the lack of a restaurant.

Good to Know

The property is ideal for a large private group of family or friends; private air transfers from Nassau or Miami to North Eleuthera Airport can be arranged.


Rates: Lowest Rate: Queen, $600; Editor’s Choice: Dunmore, $900; Property buyout based on 22 guests, $9,700 (house wine and spirits, and airport transfers included)
Address: Dunmore Street, Dunmore Town, Harbour Island
Telephone: (970) 237-5985

View Bahama House Listing

Rock House

Another of our recommended hotels is situated just steps away, down Dunmore Street. In many ways, Rock House is very similar to Bahama House. Centered on a colonial building, it has 10 rooms and suites, and a courtyard swimming pool as a primary focal point. Likewise, its rooms tend to be relatively small. However, Rock House has an entirely different personality, being one of Harbour Island’s chief social stages. On dark wood tables in the main lounge, framed family photographs vie for attention with pictures of well-known faces, including those of two recent U.S. presidents. And the adjoining restaurant has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the best on the island, with evening reservations often hard to come by during high season.

View Rock House Listing

The Dunmore

Beach umbrellas steps from The Dunmore on Harbour Island, Bahamas
Beach umbrellas steps from The Dunmore on Harbour Island, Bahamas - The Dunmore

Prospective visitors to Harbour Island must decide between a hotel in town, offering proximity to restaurants, shops and the marina, or one on the beach itself. (In reality, the choice is not especially acute, as the island is long and skinny and the sands are seldom more than a 10-minute walk away.) Our preferred beachfront property remains The Dunmore, a patrician retreat that opened in 1963 on a 10-acre estate. In recent years it has become much less starchy, with a relaxed dress code and an expanded range of amenities. Nonetheless, on my most recent stay, judging by the conversation in the bar before dinner, virtually everyone in the hotel seemed to have come from Fairfield County, Connecticut, specifically Greenwich, Darien and Westport. Its comfortable and secluded cottage-style lodgings are set on a hillside at the end of a long, winding driveway and are surrounded by mature gardens. There are also five lavish Private Residences — including “Sitting Pretty,” the four-bedroom home of the resort’s owner — which are ideal for exclusive use by families or small groups of friends.

View The Dunmore Listing

The Other Side

On my recent trip, I wanted to find a contrasting beach property, so I decided to head back to the north shore of Eleuthera to stay at The Other Side, which is accessible by seven-minute speedboat transfer from Dunmore Town. (Its owner, Ben Simmons, also operates the Ocean View Club, a bohemian resort with an excellent restaurant, situated on Harbour Island’s main beach not far from The Dunmore.) From the jetty, we headed to reception, which, like all the public areas is housed by a large white tent with wide plank floors. There, the staff proved friendly and helpful, in a laid-back island kind of way. As our accommodations were not ready, we were escorted to the honor bar in another similar tent and encouraged to help ourselves from the open bottles of white wine in the fridge. The stylish décor featured ivory cushions atop rough-hewn wooden chaises, antique mirrors, brass candlesticks, potted palms and an outsize backgammon board for rainy afternoons.

Seaside pool at The Other Side on Harbour Island, Bahamas
Seaside pool at The Other Side on Harbour Island, Bahamas - Photo by Hideaway Report editor

Eventually, having tired of waiting for housekeeping to finish cleaning our room, I set out on a tour of inspection. The main part of the resort extends along a lovely white-sand beach, backed by palms, which has retained a feeling of wildness. At its far end, a platform jutting into the sea supports a saltwater swimming pool. Although impressed by the imaginative and dramatic design, I was taken aback to find that on the surrounding deck the wooden frames of three of the large loungers were broken. And on my walk back I couldn’t help noticing that in places the grass was patchy and unkempt. I debated whether this reflected a conscious attempt to preserve the resort’s eco-friendly character — as well as having no permanent structures, The Other Side is entirely solar powered — but concluded that it was more likely the result of poor maintenance and lack of attention to detail.

The accommodations reminded me of the lavish tents at an upscale South African safari camp. And in their styling the influence of Aman Resorts could be dimly discerned.

There are only six accommodations at the resort, three large air-conditioned Sleeping Tents on the beach and three smaller so-called Shacks on the hillside above. (These are a good deal more attractive than their unpromising name might suggest.) As our beachfront accommodations were now ready, we strolled across to unpack. Inside, our tent was much larger and more glamorous than I had expected, with varnished wooden pillars, polished hardwood floors, Berber rugs, two rough-hewn writing tables (one with a Wi-Fi hot spot), a brass chandelier, white-and-lime-green throw cushions, a Victorian dressing mirror in a hardwood frame and several potted palms in large earthenware pots. Two sets of French doors opened onto an enclosed deck with a freestanding oval tub, beyond which I discovered a huge bath with two large rectangular sinks and a ceiling-mounted monsoon shower above a floor of blue-and-green tiles laid in a striking arabesque pattern. Overall, the accommodations reminded me of the lavish tents at an upscale South African safari camp. And in their styling the influence of Aman Resorts could be dimly discerned. Indeed, the tented suites at Amanwana on Moyo Island in Indonesia are not dissimilar.

Our Sleeping Tent bedroom at The Other Side on Harbour Island, Bahamas - Photo by Hideaway Report editor
Bath of our Sleeping Tent at The Other Side - Photo by Hideaway Report editor
Outdoor bath of our Sleeping Tent at The Other Side - Photo by Hideaway Report editor
Deck of our Sleeping Tent at The Other Side - Photo by Hideaway Report editor
Communal Dining Area at The Other Side - Photo by Hideaway Report editor

The atmosphere at The Other Side is extremely relaxed and this informality extends to the dining tent, where meals are served at a communal table. (It is possible to eat alone, on the beach or in your tent by request.) A set dinner menu is posted nightly on a chalkboard, though as the resort hosts a maximum of 12 guests, a degree of negotiation with the kitchen is possible. We thoroughly enjoyed our cauliflower, mango and roasted chickpea salad, followed by coconut fever grass lobster curry with lemon rice pilaf and stir-fried garden vegetables. (The resort has its own extensive vegetable garden.) The cooking is supervised by Simmons himself, and although the selection is limited, the dishes emerging from the small kitchen are the result of fine, fresh ingredients that have been creatively prepared.

The principal activity at The Other Side is studied indolence — doing nothing much is really the whole point of the place — but for those determined to be energetic, paddleboarding and surfing are available. There is no spa, but in-room massages are on offer, and both yoga instructors and personal trainers can be summoned from Harbour Island.

On departure, The Other Side was a property about which I held conflicting emotions. Some of its attributes, notably the splendid beachfront tents, are impressive. But the place is too laid-back to appeal to a majority of Hideaway Report readers, I suspect, and the maintenance issues, especially at the pool, are troubling. In short, I liked the place, but felt unable to give it an unequivocal recommendation.

- Hotel at a Glance -

The Other Side    88

Like

The three spacious and stylish beachfront Villas; the remote and tranquil “Robinson Crusoe” atmosphere.

Dislike

The standard of maintenance is uneven; the Wi-Fi is unreliable and chiefly of use for email and social media.

Good to Know

A regular speedboat shuttle service allows guests to have lunch or dinner on Harbour Island.


Rates: Lowest Rate: Shack, $620; Editor’s Choice: Sleeping Tent, $900
Address: Queen’s Highway, Upper Bogue, Eleuthera
Telephone: (242) 808-1336

The Other Side

Read more about our editor’s trip to The Bahamas

By Hideaway Report Editor Hideaway Report editors travel the world anonymously to give you the unvarnished truth about luxury hotels. Hotels have no idea who the editors are, so they are treated exactly as you might be.
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