Great Abaco and the surrounding cays lie along the northeast portion of the Bahamas, 200 miles from the coast of southern Florida, and the area offers some of the world's best cruising and sailing destinations. Each cay has its own ambiance and character, with access to the Atlantic Ocean and the pristine Sea of Abaco.Marsh Harbour is the hub and commercial center of Great Abaco Island and serves as an ideal base for any visit. There are a host of anchoring and docking possibilities, an infrastructure to support extended cruising and a variety of shopping, dining and entertainment options. Anchoring in the harbor provides easy access to Maxwell's, the major grocery store, and dining and bar hopping options such as Snappa's, Mangoes and Curley Tails. On Wednesday and Saturday nights, boaters gather at the Jib Room, located at Marsh Harbour Marina (242-367-2700, jibroom.com) on the harbor's north side; It is well known for its ribs and steaks. Both are popular with boaters and locals, so reservations are required. Harbour View Marina (242-367-3910, harbourviewmarina.com) provides convenient dockage to downtown, a pool and patio deck, a friendly atmosphere and fuel.Boat Harbour Marina at Abaco Beach Resort (242-367-2158, abacobeachresort.com) is located on the southern shore of Marsh Harbour, with direct access to the Sea of Abaco. With more than 198 slips for vessels up to 200 feet, fuel, two swimming pools and two restaurants, it is the most comprehensive development on Great Abaco Island. Each year the resort hosts several fishing tournaments, and the private beach is a gem for those looking for solitude and privacy.
At the end of the American Revolution, loyalists to the British Crown fled to Abaco and established settlements throughout the area. The settlements of Man-O-War and Hope Town offer glimpses of those early days. Most of the 300 residents on Man-O-War can trace their family lineage back to a young couple from Charleston, S.C., who settled there in the late 18th century. For hundreds of years, Man-O-War was known as the boat-building capital of the Bahamas. The wooden sailboats constructed here along the protected harbor played a major role in the development of reliable transport and shipping throughout the region.Man-O-War Marina (242-365-6008, manowarmarina.com) provides a limited number of slips for docking and has moorings for transient or long-term use. Their Dock-'N-Dine Restaurant serves up some of the freshest Bahamian cuisine around. The folks at Edwin's Boat Yard (242-365-6006, edwinsboatyard.com) provide excellent marine repairs and services, and seldom does anyone visit Man-O-War without purchasing a canvas bag from the Sail Shop or a souvenir from Joe's Studio, one of the best shops in the Bahamas. Taking a walk on the beach is as easy as strolling along the settlement's narrow streets to find the perfect spot.
Hope Town is the principle village on Elbow Cay and the site of the candy-striped Elbow Cay Lighthouse, one of only two hand-wound kerosene lighthouses remaining in the world. The 89-foot-high edifice was built in 1863 and played a significant role in the development of Hope Town, as fishing and shipping industries flourished throughout the Bahamas.Today, thriving Hope Town is full of New England-style clapboard cottages painted in an almost endless array of pastel colors. Gateways along the walking-only paths are festooned with bougainvillea and native plantings. Dining out is popular here as is clear from the wide assortment of casual and fine dining establishments. A trip to Hope Town would be incomplete without visits to the Wyannie Malone Museum, to learn more about the early days on Elbow Cay, and Vernon's Grocery, to sample the ever-popular key lime pie.At the foot of the Elbow Cay Lighthouse is the newly constructed Hope Town Inn and Marina (242-366-0003, hopetownmarina.com), which boasts 50 slips set on a private 15-acre estate. The in-harbor setting makes for a spectacular view of the village, and there are two pools and a restaurant with casual Caribbean cuisine.
If time permits, it is well worth the effort to visit Nassau on the island of New Providence, a one-day run from Hope Town and just 90 miles south of Marsh Harbour. The open-water passage across the channel from Abaco is straightforward and enjoyable, weather permitting.Nassau once had a rich history of rum running and pirating, but today it is the capital of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas and the islands' largest city. A tour of the area will reveal how the Lucayan Indians, Spanish rule, post-Revolutionary loyalists, Bahamian Independence and a flourishing tourism industry influenced development.There are many marinas along the harbor, including Hurricane Hole Marina (242-363-3600, hurricaneholemarina.com), a 90-slip full-service facility. On the southwest shore is Albany Marina (242-676-6020, albanybahamas.com), a megayacht complex accommodating vessels up to 300 feet. The most recent addition to the eastern shore of Nassau is Palm Cay (242-324-5132, palmcay.com), an oceanfront marina residential community offering seaside living and world-class amenities. Its full-service facility can accommodate 194 vessels, and amenities include pools, a gourmet market and a private beach. If you make it to New Providence, the 69-acre property is a must-visit.