SI Vault
Liz Smith
January 17, 1966
If you tell 10 people at random that you have recently been in the Exumas, nine of them will probably think you are describing an uncomfortable skin condition. The 10th might inquire politely, as did Writer Tom Wolfe: "Is that a place or a religious state of mind?" The individual who does realize that the Exumas are islands will not be quite sure what they are islands of. ("Oh, the Bahamas—of course.")
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January 17, 1966

The Gulf Stream's Coral Spine

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Most likely his ancestors were brought to the Exumas as slaves, and the wonder is that his name is Ferguson, not Rolle. When the islands were emancipated in 1834, a certain Lord Rolle deeded all his lands to his slaves and their descendants in commonage. This explains why nearly half the population of Exuma proudly bears the surname of its benefactor. The George Town native watches the tourists with a smile, sees their amazement at his town's backwardness, notes their ill-concealed impatience for the cocktail hour and observes their odd vacation miseries—too much sun, too much exercise and too much unaccustomed gorging on fresh fish and hot rice dishes.

Though Great Exuma, unlike many Bahama islands, has a good water table and exports 100 tons a week of the famous onion that is emblazoned on the Exuma seal, there is nothing very lush about it. In fact, at times there is something so spare and hard about these coral reefs in their aqua seas that they remind one of Crete. As you travel the dusty roads, everyone has a greeting, as if every man's movement is a mute testimony to life itself, a reaffirmation that the greeter as well as the greeted lives and is not just a stone in the road.

Here the Out Islander who has never seen television and perhaps not even a movie—and many of them have never been to Nassau—speak knowingly of the astronauts launched from Cape Kennedy and heard talking plainly on car radios as they pass in outer space over the Bahamas tracking stations. Natives who never heard of Joe Namath, Elizabeth Taylor or Johnny Carson know all about Scott Carpenter and the Gemini twins.

In spite of George Town's lacks as a metropolis, it remains the natural trading center for Exumans, rich or poor. This includes multimillionaires who have bought whole islands for their own, such as Pickle King H. J. Heinz II and his socialite wife, Drue. Local legend has it that they paid Actor Hume Cronyn $1 million for the showplace of the Exumas, Children's Bay Cay.

The story is told with some relish of Mrs. Heinz's first trip from her new island to George Town. She had heard of a supermarket and wanted to go there. In George Town "supermarket" is a euphemism for a very small, ill-equipped general store. Standing inside it, Mrs. Heinz asked to be taken to the market. "This is it," she was told. She was very disappointed. "Well," she said, "in that case take me to George Town." It took some time to convince her that "this" was also "it."

Another time Mrs. Heinz went to George Town to pick up a fine Oriental rug. Learning that it was lying out on the dock in a downpour, or what the natives call "just a spry," she was horrified. "How could you leave it in the rain?" she asked. "Well, ma'am, we didn't have enough raincoats to cover it," said a guileless native.

In George Town dinner is frequently served by candlelight because the power has failed, and a flashlight by the bed is a good idea. Telephone service is erratic, and one's palate can be insulted by instant coffee, bottled lime juice and at times even frozen fish. But the charm is still there, especially when the trio sings Big Bamboo or Please Marry Me, Gloria in the garden under a star-studded sky at the Two Turtles. When asked, "Do you have this music every night?" a waiter smiles and says, "Yes [pause], sometimes."

Real-estate developments are booming on both Little Exuma and Great Exuma. On the former there is Bahama Island Beach, on the latter Bahama Sound. Many Europeans are attracted to Exuma land because the Bahamas are in the sterling bloc and there is no trouble transferring funds. For instance, 131 Swedes are coming this month to see the pig in a poke that they bought from Bahama Acres, Ltd. (One-quarter of an acre—$1,095 or more, $15 down, $15 a month.) Salesman Walter W. Wood says of the Frank Magnuson-owned development, "It's a military secret how much we have sold, but there is more than a million dollars' worth in Sweden alone." Mr. Wood is from Miami.

Basil Minns and his wife, Jane, who own Minns' Water Sports business, typify the white George Towner. Though they have had to send their children to Nassau for high school, Mrs. Minns says she would rather live there than any place. "You know, George Town is where the Temperate Zone and the Tropic Zone meet, right out there at the airport. There are about 300 people living in George Town, and when you suddenly get 150 tourists here, you sure notice it."

Sailing away from George Town and back up the cays, the perfect halfway stop is Staniel Cay, where supplies are sold, cottages are rented, a summer camp for the kids is operated and the Staniel Cay Yacht Club is run by two goateed gentlemen, Bob Chamberlain and Joe Hocher. They and their wives, who are sisters, are the only white people in this community of 80 natives. One of the latter is the best sailor in the Exumas—Regatta Champion Skipper Rolly Gray.

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