I might have a New York accent and an Austin zip code, but my heart will always be in the Caribbean. Face in the sun, butt in the sand and an ice-cold Kalik in hand: this is my paradise. In the West Indies, the perfect beach is not hard to find. From Antigua to Saint Maarten to the Exumas, you’ll find water an impossible shade of blue and sand so fine that it squeaks as you walk—“barking sand,” as the locals call it. But the view from the lounge chair isn’t the only thing that keeps me coming back. For me, it is all about the people. Some vacationers prefer the seclusion of resort life where all meals are served at the same sleepy bar, and the only locals you meet are the ones tending it. Not me. Golf carting the fairway is fun, but give me an open-air jeep and a long dirt road on its way to town, and I’m in heaven.
On the Bahamian island of Eleuthera, “town” is Governor’s Harbour, a lively port community at the center of island life. I just spent a week here, and while a morning swim to the reef was a must, the best part of my day was spent cruising the narrow streets in a beat-up 1982 jeep, hunting the next local treasure. At Tippy’s, a barely-covered bar and restaurant hidden in the sand dunes just outside of town, the local treasure’s name is Vernol. A burly islander with a smile as big as his belly, Vernol slings boat drinks and town gossip with equal enthusiasm. Over a mess of stone crab claws, you’ll learn all about that morning’s fender bender, last night’s noise violation and the latest celebrity guest.
If you drive a little further into town, you’ll find Da Perk Coffee, the island’s best caffeine hub and people-watching spot. Here, locals, ex-pats and transplants shoot the breeze over laptops and lattes, always ready to give tourists sightseeing advice. If you’re lucky, one of them will be Rhonda, who owns the real estate company next door. An Eleutheran native, Rhonda will take you on a tour of properties that span a coastline of perfect beaches, and will tell you the history and politics behind each one. (“You won’t believe how much Austin bought the Banks Rd. beachfront for back in the nineties.”) And once you make friends, they’re hard to avoid. Even back at the bungalow, don’t be surprised if Stanton the taxi driver comes knocking, eager to introduce you to Austin himself. It’s a small island.
These are the real pearls of the Caribbean. People like this give every island its unique personality, and because of them, no harbor is the same as the last. No matter how many perfect beaches are out there, they are only sea and sand without the lifeblood of community behind them. If I returned to the Caribbean a thousand times (and I plan to), I would never get tired of kicking up dust in that derelict jeep, treasure hunting for the island’s best.