Bahamian Rhapsody

With your own house and boat for a week on a private Caribbean island, you can explore these gorgeous waters from sunup to happy hour.

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Bahamian Rhapsody

Robbie Caponetto

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The Caribbean-blue shirt worn by Libby Brown reads, "Life is good." She should know. Libby and her husband, Stewart, own a piece of paradise 240 miles southeast of Miami. The Browns' tiny, idyllic island resort suffers only from a name visitors always have to spell for the uninitiated: Fowl Cay.

So called for the roaming chicken population that flourished here more than 100 years ago, 50-acre Fowl Cay sits in the central Exumas, a mostly uninhabited chain of 365 breathtaking Bahamas cays (pronounced "keys"). "I've traveled all over the world, and nowhere is as spectacular as this," says boater Michael Geiger, a dinner guest. Word of Fowl Cay's excellent cuisine and equally nourishing views has spread among yachters. Each evening, they gather at the resort's Hill House for happy hour and fresh local fare.

Before arriving, weeklong guests fax a contract and grocery list to reservations manager Ellie Caplice, the Browns' daughter. From Nassau or Fort Lauderdale, they hop a small charter flight to the Staniel Cay airstrip. There, one of the resort's nine employees awaits with a dinghy for the trip's last leg, 1½ miles over green and indigo water to the private island. The first greeters at the dock are a waddling blond couple: Zeke and Lulu, resident yellow labs. Their propensity for enjoying a cool drink and lounging in the shade or shallow water soon becomes contagious.

After settling in one of three houses (one-bedroom Lindon or three-bedroom Blue Moon and Sweetwater) and selecting snorkeling gear, visitors face an array of choices. The games, exercise room, swimming pool, and always-open bar at the Hill House vie for time with sea kayaks, sailboats, horseshoes, and umbrellas at South Beach. A walking trail winds from the golf-cart path near the tennis court to West Beach. But nothing can compete with that huge salty playground beckoning from every direction.

The first morning brings a boat orientation with Stew, the Browns' son and resort manager. A 17-foot skiff will be at the guests' disposal for the week. "Watch out for some of the darker spots―they might be rocks just under the surface," Stew explains over the humming outboard. "Stay in the green water, and you'll get a feel for how deep it is by how light the green is." He points out surefire bonefishing flats, his favorite snorkeling spots, and key landmarks. "And over there on that sandbar, you can always find sand dollars early in the morning," he says. Then guests take charge of the schedule.

"We try to give just the right amount of attention," says Libby. "I can't stand it when I'm in a hotel room and there's a knock on the door with a 'Housekeeping!' We don't want our guests disturbed or interrupted." That's why visitors are on their own for breakfast and lunch―as simple or elaborate as the mood strikes.

Boaters, even those well worth their salt, should spend the first day or two within a half mile of Fowl Cay, as the vast wet and rocky seascape at first all looks the same. (If they get lost, they simply radio the Fowl Cay office.) Within that radius, though, lie many of the sights and activities in the resort's 10-page "Fun Stuff to Do List."

One of the coolest is snorkeling into Thunderball Grotto. Named for the James Bond movie filmed here, this cave opens to a cathedral-like domed room, with jagged "windows" above and below water as well as a "skylight" sending sun rays down to countless striped and spotted tropical fish. Neon blue-green parrotfish open and close pink lips as they pass zebra-patterned sergeant majors and vibrant queen angelfish.

This is one of the few places on the list where swimmers might encounter anyone else. Guests can come in from a morning of fishing, grill a burger, take a nap, then boat off to a beach strip where theirs are the first and only footprints of the day. Or they might pack a picnic at daybreak and not come back until the 5 p.m. daily boat return. If they're pushing 5 while lingering over a Kalik (a Bahamian beer) at nearby Club Thunderball, they simply have to radio the office to say they're running late. In true local laid-back fashion, that's just fine.

"We want people to come for a whole week, so they can forget what day it is," says Stewart. As guests get familiar with the area, they'll head south to Iguana Cay to feed the namesakes, and venture north to Compass Cay, where they can swim with tame nurse sharks at the marina. Compass Cay's proprietor, Tucker Rolle, lets visitors toss hot dogs to the silent, swirling regular lunch crowd. He always offers this advice: "Don't tickle the sharks' bellies or pull their tails." No problem, mon.

Perhaps guests will skip the shark swim and hike in to Rachel's Bubble Bath. This shallow pond gets its name from its east end, where the icy cold Atlantic crashes over rocks and into the warm water. An hour or so sitting there―dissolving every ounce of tension with each foamy splash―and it's easy to forget what day it is.

But this you'll remember: Life is good, indeed.

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