Zach Stovall  /  CT&L
Marlin fishing with Captain Billy Black of Dutchess Great Abaco Bahamas.
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updated 10/24/2006 8:06:20 PM ET 2006-10-25T00:06:20

Put a gaggle of gals together, and it automatically becomes a Lifetime Network special. Send a bunch of guys off on their own, and you get Animal House. Just clichés, right? We sent two groups to the Bahamas to find out.   

A Bahama Pajama Party
As soon as Margo stepped through the Grapevine’s white-picket fence, I knew I’d picked a winner. The antique clapboard cottage, a charmer in teal and white, practically reached out and gave her a hug.

“It’s perfect, just perfect,” she said, walking into the cozy living room where islandy artwork and tropical furnishings stood out against freshly painted white floors and walls.  “The colors,” she said, touching the tropical-blue sofa patterned with bits of staghorn coral. “The view,” she sighed as she stopped at the front door, looking out over the blue-green waters of Harbour Island.

I think Margo wanted to marry the Grapevine, which confirmed that if you’re planning a girls' getaway, you should never underestimate the value of charm. When I hatched the idea for a weeklong Bahamas trip with Margo and two other dear friends, I wanted more than a prepackaged resort vacation with complimentary rum punches and a couple of spa treatments. Harbour Island, a 3½-mile sliver of paradise off the coast of Eleuthera, offered exactly what I was looking for — easygoing atmosphere, great restaurants, local color, a famous pink-sand beach — all just 45 minutes from Fort Lauderdale. Finding the beautiful three-bedroom cottage on the bay to serve as our home for the week was the icing on the cake. Instead of separate hotel rooms, we’d get to play house in a cozy retreat with the privacy to let it all hang out.

Margo, Carolyn, Erin and I first met when we were pups just out of college, and formed a bond that has endured 20 years, through marriages, kids and career changes. Though it’s a challenge, we still carve out girlfriend time every few years and shed our responsibilities as moms, wives and career women. Our number-one getaway activity is gabbing, and this trip got off to a fast start. Carolyn and Erin couldn’t even wait until they got to the island. They were yakking so intently at the airport that they didn’t hear their flight called — or the airline paging them. Carolyn phoned to let us know they’d missed their flight and couldn’t get another until the next day: “We’re sorry! I can’t believe we did this, but we’re here in Fort Lauderdale drinking margaritas.”

Zach Stovall  /  CT&L
The Grapevine, charming inside and out.
The next morning, Margo and I hopped in our golf cart and whizzed around historic Dunmore Town looking for a latte. The village was humming. Folks going about their business smiled and waved; roosters darted across the narrow streets; and fishermen brought in the early catch. We found our fix at Arthur’s Bakery. Inside the simple pink building was a decadent display of fresh croissants, pineapple muffins and the biggest temptation — Key lime tarts. We sampled the croissants and grabbed a box of temptation to go. Passing a series of cottages almost as cute as ours, we drove at a snail’s pace while talking a mile a minute. We made it to the dock just as our tardy chat queens stepped off the water taxi. A squealing four-way hug-fest made a bit of a scene, but none of us cared. We could be as girlie as we wanted: There were no husbands or sons around to embarrass.

Zach Stovall  /  CT&L
The Grapevine
Back at the Grapevine, our gab-athon shifted into full throttle.

“Being with you guys makes me feel like I’m 20 again. I don’t look like it, but I feel like it,” Carolyn said. 

“Oh, you guys look the same as you did 20 years ago,” Erin said, which greenlighted the tell-each-other-how-fabulous-we-look conversation.

“You don’t have a line on your face, honey. What are you hiding in that makeup bag?”

“Well, look at her wearing that bikini. I can’t wear a bikini anymore.” 

“Your hair color is fantastic. I’ve never seen it look better. Look at the highlights, they’re sonatural.”

Who needs Botox when we’ve got each other?

If Margo wanted to marry the Grapevine, we all wanted to have a torrid affair with Pink Sand Beach. Our first sight of that wide blanket stretching seductively to the glistening teal water even caused a pause in the chatter. When someone finally spoke, it was Erin, our Colorado ranch girl turned Denver attorney. “This is the most beautiful spot on God’s green earth.”

Zach Stovall  /  CT&L
Pink Sand Beach
Nestled in sea grapes at the top of the dune was Sip Sip, the beach bar favored by movie stars and supermodels. From our table on the deck, we took in the beach view and had fork fights over grilled shrimp with black-bean cakes. Rum punch and laughter flowed, and if there were any A-listers or leggy models around, we were too busy with the great company, food and
view to notice. 

Stopping at Arthur’s Bakery became our morning ritual. When Robert, the owner, discovered we were on a girls’ getaway, he started teasing us.

“There were paparazzi on the island yesterday looking for Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz,” he said. “I told them they were staying at the Grapevine.”

“Well,” I said, “I bet they think Cameron and Drew look a lot shorter and older in real life.”

After Arthur’s we’d head straight to the beach. We’d walk and talk, swim and talk, and sometimes just sit and drink in the beauty. And talk.

“Look at that stunning red tree in bloom. What kind is that?”

“Have you ever seen water that color? That blue?”

“He was a mama’s boy. I was so glad when you two broke up. You were way too good for him. Thank goodness you didn’t marry him.”

“I really needed this.”

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“Look at the way the sand shifts from pink to purple when the tide comes up. It’s gorgeous.”

“Can we stay another week?”

“Being with you guys is the best!”

“Who ate my Key lime tart?”

Afternoons found us sprawled on the veranda of the Grapevine. We watched kids fishing off the dock out front, and it made us miss our own. Day by day we all fell in love with Briland (run “Harbour” and “Island” together and you get the nickname). Some evenings we dressed to dine out among the beautiful people — one night at the renowned Landing, where local grouper in Thai red curry sauce was a big hit. Another night we set a lovely table back at the Grapevine, lit candles and sat barefoot, eating one of Carolyn’s famous pasta dishes.

Just so we couldn’t be accused of only talking, eating and drinking, one afternoon we climbed aboard a snorkel boat for a trip to the Devil’s Backbone, a long reef littered with shipwrecks.

“What about sharks?” Margo asked as we were about to jump in. I laughed, but she didn’t.

Zach Stovall  /  CT&L
Abaco Beach Resort offers a beachy base for boaters, fishermen and divers.
“I’ll put you out on the side of the boat with the vegetarian sharks. And we’ll put her on the meat-eaters' side,” our guide deadpanned, pointing to me. This time everyone laughed.

Margo probably would have been happier hanging back at Sip Sip, but everyone took the plunge. The colorful underwater scene teemed with sea life, but it’s tough to talk with a snorkel in your mouth, so the girls were in and out pretty fast.

On our final evening, realizing the precious time was coming to an end, we climbed on the golf cart for one last joy ride and sunset on the beach. Down past Fisherman’s Dock and the conch shacks on Bay Street, we ended up on Girls Bank — site of a lone tree standing out on the flats, well known as a location for fashion shoots. We waded, chatted and shared cold Kaliks. Just after the sun dropped below the horizon, the afterglow shifted through a palette of pink, orange and purple — all reflected on the shallow water covering the sand. For the first time all week, nobody needed to say a word.

Blood, Sweat and Beers
Words of encouragement rained down from the peanut gallery.

“Bob, you okay down there? With all the grunting, it sounds like either a pig farm or a porno movie.”

“Hey, it’s getting really hot up here in the shade. Grab me a Kalik out of the cooler if you’re not busy.”

Zach Stovall  /  CT&L
A sunset stroll on Girls Bank.
Actually, I was a little busy — 30 minutes into a battle with an extremely miffed blue marlin about twice my size. It was 4 o’clock on a Bahamian August afternoon. Ninety-five degrees, no breeze and the sun beating on my head like a blacksmith. Using heavy big-game gear to fight a billfish is akin to holding a broomstick at arm’s length with a 30-pound weight dangling from the far end. After 10 minutes, all pretense that it’s not a physical strain goes overboard. After 20 minutes, your face contorts into the heart-attack red, jowl-shuddering, snot-blowing grimace of a constipated lumberjack.

It wasn’t pretty, but it didn’t matter — it was only us guys out there.

“Can we wrap this up already?” came another hoot from on high. “My arm’s getting tired holding up the camera.”

“Yo, Bob, are you crying? I thought I just heard a little girl weep.”

Arrayed above me, on the boat’s flying bridge, were my uncle Frank, cousin Tim and a clairvoyant dog wearing mirrored sunglasses. My dad was down on the deck behind me, tasked with driving the fighting chair, steering it so I always faced the fish as it tore line off the reel. Apparently, though, he thought he was working at a barber shop and wanted to make small talk.   

“Hey, this fight is just like that Hemingway story ...” he said.

I really couldn’t spare the breath to respond, but I’m genetically programmed to never pass up an argument. 

“No, that was a swordfish.”

“No, it wasn’t,” he said, proving that the debating gene comes from his side of the family. “I’m not talking about Old Man and the Sea …”

“Yeah, I know. Old Man had a marlin, but this fight is more like the one in Islands in the Stream …”

“Right, it’s a marlin …”

“But in Islands in the Stream they hooked a broadbill swordfish …”

“No, it …”

“Reel! Reel!” yelled Captain Billy Black, a grizzly with a perma-tan who’s been fishing monster marlin all over the Caribbean for the last three decades. He terminated our inane literary debate with the implied threat that if I let the line go slack and the fish threw the hook, I’d be swimming back to the dock.

We had arrived in Marsh Harbour the day before for what was to be a boys-only portion of my dad’s 70th birthday celebration. When we checked into the Abaco Beach Resort & Boat Harbour, Tim noticed a photo pinned to the message board. “We must be at the right place,” he said. It was a shot of a 900-pound bluefin tuna caught during a fishing tournament earlier in the summer — one of six big-time tourneys hosted by the resort each year.

The rest of arrival day was a blur. We went right from a swim off the beach to the bar by the pool for an extended happy hour full of “remember whens,” keeping alive the oral history of our family’s most important events.

Zach Stovall  /  CT&L
Abaco’s bonefish flats
“Remember when that dusky shark tried to bite you in the ass?”

“Remember when you drank the glass of water with Tim’s contact lenses in it?”

“Remember when you sliced your wrist open trying to get the milk out of a coconut to mix with rum?”

After a Bacchanalian feast of spicy Bang Bang Shrimp, tuna sashimi and grilled grouper at the resort’s excellent Angler’s Restaurant, it was back to the bar, talking and drinking until they pulled down the shutters on us.

Forty minutes into the fight with the marlin, I was really regretting those last four or five rounds. So much rum-tinged sweat soaking my shirt that I smelled like the dumpster behind a Barcardi factory. Each time the fish made a run, the dog, Little Foot — who wears shades to prevent sun-caused cataracts — started barking. He’s lived with Captain Billy aboard the 50-foot Duchess ever since he was a pup, so it wasn’t surprising that he got excited about a fish on. What was amazing is that Little Foot had started yapping before anyone else even knew we’d hooked the marlin. And earlier, he’d started barking at the empty blue ocean a full 10 seconds before a pod of dolphins surfaced. “I can’t explain it,” shrugged Billy.

“What brand of sunglasses does he wear?” asked my dad. “I need to get me some of those.”     

After nearly an hour, my arms were limp as cooked noodles. I was so dehydrated that even my jaw muscles were cramping. But I finally reeled the fish within sight of the boat. Captain Billy was like a one-armed short-order cook, rushing from one side of the boat to the other to keep an eye on the fish, then back to the wheel to steer and then readying gloves and a hook remover, all the while yelling directions to me and my dad. Tim climbed down to the deck carrying a $10 disposable underwater camera. “Um,” he asked Billy, “is it okay if I jump in and get a picture of the fish?” This stopped the captain in his tracks. For one thing, the boat was moving — both to keep the fish healthy and to prevent it from cutting the line off on the props — and second, marlin are armed with dagger-sharp bills and are always feisty when hooked. In fact, the big news around the docks that week was the true story about a blue marlin that jumped out of the water, speared a fisherman through the chest and took him overboard off Bermuda. Billy wasn’t sure if Tim was joking. And, of course, he wasn’t.

Billy talked my cousin out of suicide-by-seafood by offering to let him help wrangle and release the estimated 300-pound blue. While they were pulling the hook, the marlin thrashed and raked the captain with his bill before swimming off triumphantly, adding fresh-flowing blood to our sweat-soaked, diesel-smoked, hairy-chested, salty-language-peppered day. Even allowing for the tasty pesto lobster wraps and fruit cups that Abaco Beach’s chef had packed for our lunch, there was more testosterone on board than in a Tour de France first-aid kit.

Though it’s most celebrated for being close to offshore waters rich with marlin, tuna, mahi-mahi and wahoo, Abaco Beach Resort also sits near productive flats. The following morning we traded our heavy gear for light tackle and followed guides out into mangroves. This time, Tim had the hot rod, hooking a dozen bonefish. It was a blast, battling the three- and four-pound fish in skinny water, but the tenor of our guys' trip really called for getting back to dealing with something that could shove its nose through your sternum. Or worse.    

“You want to see some sharks?” asked Kay Politano of Above and Below Abaco, the dive and tour operation based at the resort’s marina. She must have noticed that Tim’s “I Have Gas” T-shirt was cut to reveal an arm covered in a frenzy of shark tattoos — each an animal he’d seen up close underwater. We’d taken to calling my cousin “Mongo,” both for his sophisticated sense of decorum and because the sleep deprivation and endless bull-and-beer sessions had worn him down to a slack-jawed shell of himself. The mention of toothy critters, though, instantly perked him up.

On the way out to the reef, Kay and her crew stopped at a secret spot in the Sea of Abaco to show us a bizarre sight for the Bahamas: a full-grown lionfish, a beautiful and painfully poisonous native of the Pacific and Indian Oceans that must have been released from someone’s aquarium.

Next stop was Shark Ledge. My dad’s last scuba dive had left him with a bum ear, so he’d be snorkeling above the rest of us.

“The sharks might take an interest in you bobbing around up there,” I said.

“No problem,” he said. “If one attacks, he’s going to have to swim through a lot of dirty water to get to me.”

“Yeah,” added Frank. “If they think it’s bad when a squid shoots ink, wait until they get a load of what my big brother can do.”

I swam down over the coral wall trying to shake that image. It’d taken only a few days away from the civilizing effect of women for us to devolve into grunting beasts that wallowed in bathroom humor. It felt great.

At the bottom, three Caribbean reef sharks approached. I pointed to the biggest one and signaled Tim to swim close to it so I could get a picture. Without a moment’s hesitation, he took off after the shark into deep water. As he herded it back towards me, I could tell by the gleam in his eye that he was deciding where on his hide he was going to immortalize the scene. 

Caribbean Travel & Life is the magazine for anyone in search of the perfect tropical getaway. Each issue presents expert insider’s advice on where to find the Caribbean’s best beaches and attractions, its finest resorts and spas, liveliest beach bars and activities, and its friendliest people.

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