Doing The Bahamas on a (Tight) Family Budget
Family vacations don't come cheap, or easy, nowadays, but our family bareboat charter in the Bahamas' Abaco Islands last summer gave me the ultimate test of living the champagne charter lifestyle on a beer budget. In the end, a boatful of seven (four adults and three hungry kids) enjoyed nine days of tropical living for less than $200 per person, per day (good luck finding that at any all-inclusive family resort!).
In my experience the only way to start a bareboat charter is to get there a day early, giving yourself time to unwind from traveling and a chance to scope out the base for the right people to get you off the dock without delay (think squeaky wheel). If you don't bring your own snorkeling gear, getting in early also allows you to hit the charter base's loaner bin before it gets down to the dregs. For those inclined, an early arrival also lets you find the cabbie that can lead you to the local produce.
In our case, the $189 dollars we spent for our first night, at a collection of villas called the Lofty Fig, just across the street from the marina, was worth every cent. While checking in, the Lofty Fig's owner/inn keeper, Sid (visualize a cross between Telly Sevalis and former Minnesota governor, Jesse Ventura), asked if I'd ever been to the Bahamas.
"No, never," I told him.
"It's a good thing you came to the Abacos first then," he said, "because people who go to Nassau or Freeport and see that version of the Bahamas for the first time usually don't come back. They can get the same thing in Miami."
Sid's villas, with kitchenettes, are far from luxury, but they're on par with the rooms at the charter base hotel, and more importantly they conveniently encircle a small freshwater pool frequented by fast-moving curly tail lizards. The kids were cannonballing and lizard chasing before I'd even paid my deposit, and somehow a six pack of ice-cold beers appeared poolside before I could pull the shorts out of my bag.
The following morning, we casually packed our bags and strolled across the street to the base. There are a number of charter companies operating out of Marsh Harbour, the official hub of the lower Abacos, and it's here where the Moorings and Sunsail have set up camp as well. Puddle jumpers from Florida serve the Marsh Harbor airport, which is more like an open-air train depot, and many regular flights connect in from elsewhere in the Bahamas. The base is a short taxi ride from the airport. The Sunsail and the Moorings fleets have plenty of boats available (see below), but given the cruising ground's numerous shoals, a catamaran is a wise choice for peace of mind.
Sunsail's Marsh Harbour base is tiny compared to the sprawling new mega-marina in Tortola, and it's a welcome throwback to the early days of bareboat chartering. Compared to other bases I've experienced, assistance in Marsh Harbour was much easier to find, and with fewer boats to service and turnaround, checking in and out was rapid. Granted, our trip took place in mid-June, the early days of the low season, so it was comparatively quiet. But everyone, from the base manager to the playful natives manning the reception desk, always responded to our random questions and requests with a smile and a twinkle in their eye.