Bahamian resort celebrates the simple life

Published July 18, 2004

ANDROS, Bahamas - When Garrison Keillor refers to mythical Lake Wobegon as "the town that time forgot and the decades could not improve," he might well be describing Small Hope Bay Lodge on this Bahamaian island. People who return after an absence of 20 or even 30 years are pleased that time has seemed to stand still at the scuba diving and bonefishing resort.

The feeling begins as the plane taxis up to Andros Town's two-room airport. Porters who work only on tips (as they will remind you frequently) take your bags through customs and load you into a cab.

The ride to Small Hope Bay Lodge also has changed little since the lodge was founded more than 40 years ago. The ride begins in rather plain countryside: The land is flat, the vegetation minimal and the road rough, until you reach the community of Fresh Creek.

There, things perk up. A one-lane bridge takes you over a creek. Boats lie at anchor in the harbor, the Lighthouse Club gleams pink on one side of the creek, and ancient-looking buildings of stone and wood line the other side.

The "suburbs" of Fresh Creek stretch up the road: small churches, a school, a few stores and houses, and chickens running free in the yards. The road tops a rise, turns left, and straight ahead lies the Caribbean and a white sand beach that stretches into the distance.

A sandy lane leads through coral rock, scrub brush and a grove of pines to the resort. It consists of a central lodge and cabins with a total of 21 rooms. All are built of native pine and coral rock; the oldest building dates to 1960.

Small Hope Bay Lodge holds the distinction of being the first scuba diving resort in the Bahamas, says Carla Lockhart of the Ministry of Tourism.

Dick Birch, a businessman from Toronto, founded Small Hope Bay Lodge after traveling to the Bahamas in search of a better life. Over the years, he gave his reasons variously as:

-- He feared the growing east-west tensions of the Cold War would result in nuclear conflagration, and he wanted to be upwind.

-- His daughter narrowly escaped death by taxicab on a Toronto street corner, and he wanted to raise his family outside the city.

-- He fell in love with scuba diving and wanted to make it his vocation.

All three reasons are probably valid, says his son, Jeffrey, who has run the resort since his father's death in 1996.

"Dad knew that to run this place, you have to have a love of people," Jeffrey Birch said. "This place is not a business. It is a way of life. It is not a job. It is who you are."

One price, no keys or TV

Small Hope Bay Lodge started out and remains an all-inclusive resort. The price includes the room, all meals, use of sports equipment, all drinks (alcoholic and nonalcoholic), even the round-trip taxi.

"Dad wanted people to relax and enjoy themselves, not wonder how much they were spending or what things cost," Birch said.

There are no televisions or phones in the rooms or the lodge (although there is a phone in the office for emergency use, and an Internet-connected computer available for the terminally in touch).

Another tradition is the lack of keys for the guest rooms. Because no money is necessary, guests put their wallets and passports in the office safe. The room doors latch from the inside, so guests can sleep securely.

At other times (such as dinner, when all the guests are gathered at the lodge), unobtrusive security guards make the rounds, checking on things and replacing wet towels.

Also a holdover from the early days is a child-free cocktail and dinner period. Children under 11 are fed and entertained separately. The kids are allowed out when the conch fritters appear, the high point of the evening. The fritters come steaming hot from the kitchen, morsels of hushpuppylike dough infused with bits of locally harvested conch.

"I've been going there since I was 16, and my family has been going since right after it opened," said Tam Stewart, 49, of Goshen, Vt. "It is very much the same.

"You still have the same routine. You get up and pad down to the lodge for breakfast; two dive boats go out about 9 o'clock, one (to) shallow (water) and one deep. They come back for lunch. Then you decide if you want to dive in the afternoon or take a nap or a walk.

"Physically, there is still the game room where you play pingpong, the library with the Harvard Classics on the top shelf. They've always been there."

Mainly, it's about diving

The lodge is primarily a diving resort. The third-largest barrier reef in the world runs down the eastern side of Andros, less than a mile from the lodge. On the other side of the reef is the Tongue of the Ocean, which plunges thousands of feet.

There are also blue holes, which are cave systems that have collapsed upon themselves to create holes hundreds of feet deep.

Small Hope Bay Lodge takes guests to 60 dive sites, including Trumpet Reef, a 20-foot "resort course" dive for beginners, explorations of blue holes such as Turner's Gut, and "over the wall" adventures for the most experienced divers.

Behind diving in importance are bonefishing and bird-watching. Guides take anglers through the flats for bonefish, and self-guided tours direct birders to sites for viewing some of the 300-plus species that have been spotted in the Bahamas. Ornithologist Mike Balz has staged a birding and ecology tour at Small Hope for the past seven years.

Each morning, guests who want to dive consult a chalkboard that lists the day's dive destinations. By 9 a.m., most guests are on their way to diving, swimming, fishing or touring the island by taxi.

Lunch is a buffet, served at the outdoor bar. Along with cold cuts, salads and a hot dish, usually a stew, there may be hamburgers and fries. Somebody on the cooking staff has a serious sweet tooth, so several desserts are always served.

Afternoons mean more dives or snorkeling, perhaps a bicycle trip into town, sailing or kayaking, or fly-fishing on the flats. The most popular activity, known as "hammock patrol," means grabbing one of the dozen or so hammocks and watching a small slice of the world slowly go by.

The dress code is casual, to say the least. Bare feet, T-shirts, shorts, swimsuits - all are encouraged.

Dinner is usually buffet-style and consists of a meat dish and a fish dish. On a recent visit, the menu the first night featured steak and Bahamian lobster. The next night it was roast beef and poached mahi-mahi. There were vegetables, potatoes or rice, tossed salad and more desserts.

Evenings usually involve cocktails at either the inside or outside bars. Small Hope is at about the same latitude as Key West, which means the nights can get cool in the winter and spring. On those occasions, a driftwood fire is lit in the stone fireplace in the lodge.

Because of the lodge's remote location, there is virtually no access to organized nightlife. Entertainment is provided by the guests. This remoteness is the part of the lodge guests either love or put up with.

The lodge's "Web site helps (potential) first-time visitors know if they are going to like us or not," Birch said. "But from time to time, we still get people who are incapable of having a good time in a place like this. In 99.9 percent of these cases, they have not read our Web site."

Guests come mainly from the United States, Canada and Great Britain, with a few other Europeans among the visitors. The unwritten rule is that any open chair is an open invitation to sit down, so conversations are continually renewed and enriched by the arrival of another guest.

Other popular night-time pastimes are strolling the milelong beach, lounging in the hot tub and sitting on the end of the dive boat dock and looking at more stars than most people have seen.

"These have been our entertainments for nearly 45 years," Birch said. "It's worked so far, so we see no need to change it."

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Kenneth S. Allen is a freelance writer living in Lake Wylie, S.C.

If you go

GETTING THERE: There is limited ferry service to Andros from Nassau, but most guests arrive by air, from either Nassau or Fort Lauderdale. The flight from Fort Lauderdale is via the Small Hope Flight Service, which will arrange charter flights; call Small Hope Bay Lodge for details (see number below). The flight from Nassau is on Western Air.

PRICES: For adult nondivers, the rate from mid April to mid December is $175 per day; from mid December to mid April, it is $185. For teenagers, the rate is $100 a day year-round; for children ages 2-9, $75. For adult divers, the seasonal rates are $235 and $245; for teenage divers, the rate is $190 year-round.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact Small Hope Bay Lodge, P.O. Box 21667, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33335-1667. Call toll-free 1-800-223-6961; fax 242 368-2015; www.smallhope.com .