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!).

March 12, 2009

sunsail base 368

The Sunsail base at Marsh Harbor in the Abacos Islands. Dave Reed

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.

The recently renovated base has all the essentials: a relatively upscale (island-wise) restaurant, a dive shop, a hotel (think more the lines of motel . . . but you’re not there for the “room” anyway), and of course, any kid’s favorite place-the pool. A boutique liquor store with great wine selections-and even better rum-is directly across the street. A 10-minute walk gets you to one of a few “big-box” grocery and liquor stores should you decide to provision yourselves, as we did.

A word on provisioning: I know a lot of charterers, particularly first-timers, prefer to have all their food delivered to the boat and are willing to pay the higher price for provisioning, but for me, shopping is part of the adventure, and an easy way to save. With every charter I’ve done, I’ve planned a detailed daily menu and an organized shopping list so we can get in and out and back to the boat. Planning like this also eliminates waste at the end of the charter. We also import what we can. In our case, with three young kids we knew we were going to plow through plenty of macaroni and cheese, so we brought plenty of it; discarding the cardboard boxes at home to cut down onboard trash.


When it was all said and done, we got out of the grocery store for less than $600. We’d planned on having all of our meals on the boat, so that wasn’t too bad given what we’d heard of the Bahamas (“Bring a credit card.”) The liquor tab hit us at $160 for three liters of rum, two cases of beer (beware the $40 cases), and a liter of vodka. We carried in our own wine-four boxes of the perfectly drinkable and affordable Black Box label (it’s actually good!). As with the mac & cheese, we unboxed it, and the spigot-bags packed well.

As a group, we enjoy cooking so we did eat on the boat every night; plus what’s the point of dragging kids to a restaurant after they’ve been in the sun all day. I like to feed ’em , put ’em to bed, and have a relaxing adult dinner.

As with arriving, I also believe in booking a room on the last day of the charter. It is a vacation after all, and our savings elsewhere offset the cost of a one-night stay. Because the boat has to be back to the base at 11 a.m., the typical charterer is always rushed on their last day, anxious about getting back to the base on time, getting the boat cleaned, bags packed, and then sit and wait for a depressing day of travel. In my experience, you’re already planning your exit strategy on the last night of your charter when you’re supposed to be relaxing.


Sunsail Marsh Harbor Base Stats
(Accurate on March 1, 2009) The Sunsail fleet in Marsh Harbour consists of Sunsail 36i and 39i monohulls (new for 2009) and Lagoon 380 catamarans. There are bareboat, skippered, and flotilla vacations there. The cats and 39i’s are very popular, so advanced booking highly recommended.

The seasons are as follows:
High Season Feb 16-June 27 and Dec 20- Jan 1
Mid Season June 28- Aug 8 and Oct 11 – Dec 19, Low Season Jan 2-Feb 15 and Aug 9 to Oct 10

Sunsail special offers:
Single Reef Weeks: Get away with 15% off charters of 5 days or more from April 18 to 25 and from May 16 to 23, 2009.
Double Reef Weeks: Get away with 25% off charters of 5 days or more from March 14 to 21 and May 23 to 30, 2009.
Summer Reef Weeks: Save 15% off 5 to 13 days or 25% off 14 days or more, on charters from June 1, 2009 to September 30, 2009.


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