Roam Guide / Harbour Island
Seventeen years ago Abby Leber (a sun-seeker by nature) and her husband, college sweetheart and NFL linebacker Ben, discovered Harbour Island. Every February at the conclusion of the football season and after months of entertaining, they would escape exhausted to this tiny island. Today, it’s out of this rush of daily life that the island remains a familiar and relaxing annual retreat for their family. Midwesterners at heart, Abby & Ben live in a suburb of Minneapolis with their three children - Ames, Witt and Wells - and their ginormous Great Dane, Louie. Ben is currently a college football analyst for Fox Sports and Abby does a different type of entertaining with three kids and a small “farm” of rescue animals at home. Abby spends her days at the horse barn, on modeling sets with her darling kiddos, volunteering at school, and trying to convince Ben to buy a house on their much loved Bahamian Island. After being asked countless times on social media “where are you?” “why don’t you sell a coffee table book of your travel photos? and “why do you love it there so much?” Abby agreed to share all the details on her “home away from home” on Harbour Island.
Harbour Island, Bahamas
Known as Briland to its residents, Harbour Island is an “out island” of the Bahamas, just off the northern tip of the larger island of Eleuthera. Harbour Island is known for its historic pastel painted cottages, darling boutique hotels and 3 miles of soft, pink sand that runs the entire length of the eastern (Atlantic) side of the island.
Not only is the beach spectacular, there is an easy and comfortable familiarity to the island. The streets are safe and you’ll meet wonderful, unassuming people.
When to go?
The island is busy from November-March (spring break) and then things slow down from April through the summer months. My favorite time to visit is late April or May when the island is quieter and the water is warm. When planning your stay, be mindful that some of the hotels and restaurants close during hurricane season from September to mid- November.
How to get there?
Harbour Island is only a 50 minute flight off the coast of Florida. From Minneapolis we book round trip on Delta. We take an early morning flight to Atlanta, then board a small Delta jet for the North Eleuthera Airport (ELH) in the Bahamas. Upon arriving at the airport you’ll clear customs, grab a taxi and head to the dock for a quick boat ride to Harbour Island. The water taxi is very aware of arrival and departure times so they will have boats waiting for guests at all times. They drop you off at the government dock on Harbour Island where you can either jump into another taxi or rent a golf cart to transport you to your hotel. All of this sounds complicated but, trust me, it's a well-oiled machine.
Another option is to fly through Fort Lauderdale (seasonally Orlando) and board an early connection to ELH on Silver Airways. This is the route suggested by Jet Blue and United. Just a word of caution, Silver Airways can be a bit unpredictable because of flight delays and cancellations and you'll be flying on a twin prop plane if that is a concern for you. Alternatively (and I’ve never done this) you can fly to Nassau on Caribbean Airlines. There is a daily ferry service from Nassau to Harbour Island.
Rtip: Be sure to have cash when you arrive and depart the island. Generally speaking you should expect to tip everyone helping you load and unload your bags along the way and just a few dollars is all that is expected.
How do you get around?
For guests visiting Harbour Island the main mode of transportation is by golf cart. While you can take in the island on foot, a golf cart really is a more efficient way to buzz around. The hotel you are staying at will be happy to make a reservation for you and I suggest doing this ahead of time. During the busiest times of year golf carts can be hard to come by. It’s so easy - you obtain keys at the front desk, the carts are always gassed up, and they are all priced the same.
My kids look forward to cruising around the island in a well-worn golf cart for the length of our stay.
Where do you stay?
The ocean side of the island is one long big beach, tip to tip. Fine pink sand and crystal clear water stretches for miles. This is where you’ll find several incredible beach resorts and not a single chain hotel.
If you need to be catered to, like you might be at a big resort with lots of amenities (kids clubs and organized activities) Harbour Island isn't for you.
This property is an all time favorite of ours and considered our “home away from home” when we are on the island. It has a relaxed and charming atmosphere. The staff is welcoming, they serve great cocktails with local rum and a make a delicious conch ceviche. The Dunmore offers several ocean front villas peppered along the beach, as well as two cottages on the bay side of the island where the water can be calmer and a little less windy. The last couple of years it’s been our preference to stay in the Bayside Cottages. The cottages are known as the Low & High Tide Cottages, and labeled on the map as Point 14. They have a kitchen, share a (heated) pool and pool house, and provide views of the yachts in the bay from their expansive decks.
On the beach right next to The Dunmore is Coral Sands. It’s undergone a recent renovation and is super kid-friendly. The hotel is definitely worth checking out if you're traveling with a family or with a group of adults as they have many different room options. The staff is friendly and they have a popular lunch spot overlooking the water called The Beach Bar where you can escape the sun to have lunch while watching the waves gently wash onto the beach. My kids love to eat here because it's one of the few places to grab a pizza.
People love this place and it’s not hard to see why. It’s incredibly well-designed and family owned. They offer romantic beachfront tent cottages, an ‘on your honor’ bar for the guests and a glamping site on a private stretch of beach on Eleuthera just a boat ride across the bay. No doubt it has a lot of appeal, but for us there is a tradition and familiarity in staying at The Dunmore.
Another option to consider is this historic boutique hotel. It overlooks the harbor in the heart of Dunmore Town but only one of the rooms is ideal for a family, it has a hidden pool and a walk to the beach. Staying or not staying there, they offer a great brunch and fresh caught fish and seafood at dinner.
Rental Properties / The Hatch or The Coral House
We’ve certainly researched and experienced staying on the island in a private home rental. I would just suggest you consider this option with a certain amount of skepticism. Many of the homes are marketed beyond their reality and a higher price tag doesn’t always mean a nicer property. Maybe start by looking on Bay Street or contacting Island Real Estate. The Rock House manages a 6 bedroom property called the Allamanda that you can consider as well. If you decide to book a place on your own, I just suggest that you be sure it has it’s own filtration system (no island water), a heated pool and a generator… (or just stay at the Dunmore;)
What should we do?
Just be. We want our kids to spend their time exploring the beach and the island so we don’t usually structure many activities. There isn’t a casino or golf course so we just do what the kids want to do. It is a safe place to play and create your own fun, or to practice the art of sitting. There is something about watching the waves until sunset, or swimming with the blooms of baby jelly fish in the barely bopping, bath water off the reef. There is public beach access at Sip Sip and Coral Sands on the eastern side of the Island, where the sand is a really incredible pink, due to the tiny single-shell organisms that wash up on the shore.
“Get in with the locals, do that they do and eat what they eat.”
You’ll find charming little huts to rent chairs on the “bay side” as well — this part of the island faces North Eleuthera and is the area you might consider downtown with it’s paved streets, but it’s really more of a "village." If you want to explore the surrounding waters snorkeling (think starfish and sea cucumbers), check out Valentines Resort, Marina and Dive Shop. Valentines also offers paddle board rentals and boat tours of the Spanish Wells where you can swim the pristine Bahamian waters with the adorable native pigs.
You can also rent a boat from Lil Shan’s Watersports, and take a boat cruise through the calm waters of the harbor, or around the island to covet the spectacular homes on the private north and south ends of the island. We like to charter a boat through the Dunmore, and explore the area on our own time. We take a cooler of beverages and head to the rope swing cove on Eleuthera (the long, skinny island where your plane arrived). Stopping along pools of dolphins, where we can "swim touch" with turtles, collect sea stars and venture into caves.
If fishing is your thing you can go deep sea fishing, reef fishing, bone fishing, or spear & lobster fishing with Spanish Wells Fishing Charters.
It’s magical to wander the waters edge on horseback. At some point during vacation we make time to ride down the long stretch of sand on the beach. The tours are negotiable for a little walk alongside Marty, the local guy you'll see walking the horses to and from the stables each day. If you want to go for a ride, head to the makeshift horse pen next to The Coral Sands. This is where you will need to go to put your name on the list.
The whole family likes to visit Ramora Bay Resort and Marina for local entertainment. They offer live music several nights a week and its a great place to stop by for a cocktail at sunset. The kids stay entertained at the dock where they watch the fishermen clean their catch of the day. They throw the scraps into the water beneath the cleaning station which brings the sharks and sting rays in for an easy meal.
"There are a lot of things to do, that aren't really things."
What should we eat?
We have a routine on the island, in the morning we head to Arthur's Bakery for their delicious glazed donuts - my kids can’t get enough of them. Then we stop for coffee at Bahama’s Coffee Roasters, and we are on our beach chairs around 10. The Landing also has a fantastic breakfast menu and the ricotta hotcakes are a must.
If we’ve gone out for breakfast we often enjoy a late lunch at The Dunmore, where the conch ceviche is out of this world. Or we will walk down the beach to Sip Sip for a lobster quesadilla, conch chili and a Kalik (island beer). The chef writes her daily specials on a chalk board and they quickly get crossed off so it's best to arrive right when they open to find a table and choose from a full menu.
“I’m telling you, nothing disappoints and the Bloody Mary is perfection.”
Another great lunch spot is Queen Conch on the bay side of the island. It’s crazy, the rickety little hut has conch shells piled high next to it, and the freshest, most delicious conch salad.
For dinner, You MUST EAT at The Rock House. I don't want someone to visit Harbor Island and not eat at Rock House. This place changed the way everyone did everything on the island. Publications write extensively about this property and the Miami couple that renovated it. Nothing compares to the service and the experience here. The menu has remained mostly the same for years and there is something to say for that. Someone in your party will need to order Chef Jenny’s nightly special because it will not disappoint. Kids are allowed for dinner by the pool but not as overnight guests at the hotel until they are 18. While The Rock House isn’t mentioned above as a place to stay that’s only because we are normally on the island with our kids. It’s a great option if you are looking for an adults-only boutique property.
There are plenty of places to grab snacks and alcohol on the island. I suggest Da Vine Wine Merchants where you can pick up wine and sushi, or Bristol Wine & Spirits where you’ll find a great sandwich spot next door called The Dunmore Deli. There is also a grocery store called the Piggley Wiggley where you can get whatever grocery items the boat brings over weekly from the mainland.
Where should we hang out for a drink?
When the restaurants close for the night, people head to the island bars. The hotel staff is local so when they finish their day they join you at the bar. I've been known to enjoy a Goombay Smash at Beyond the Reef or Gusty's Bar with its sandy floor and dated playlist. After Gusty’s we usually head to Daddy’s D’s for great music and dancing (it’s above the Tropic Hut pizza place). The local beer is Kalik and the only way Kalik gets off the island is in tourists’ luggage so try to enjoy it while you’re there.
I think they have been playing the same soundtrack at Gusty’s for 17 years, but it’s oddly comforting.
Where should we shop?
The island hosts several high-end boutiques, most notably The Sugar Mill (started by India Hicks) which offers clothing, jewelry and collectibles. Dake's Shoppe is another darling boutique and I love browsing their jewelry, housewares and clothing. Coral Sands has a gift shop that sells swimwear and flip flops and I love to pop into Miss Mae's, the Blue Rooster and Dilly Dally! too. While there are so many cute shops, my favorite place to buy a souvenir is at a roadside stand called A&A Hidden Treasures. They have monogrammed totes and straw hats and clutches and can even make you a custom lampshade or basket. Miss Alice will make whatever you want, just give her a couple of days.
What’s the can’t miss item on your itinerary?
The Lone Tree, as it’s called, is the iconic piece of drift wood that sits off the coast on the northwestern side of the island (indicated on the map as Point 19). The original lone tree arrived upright during high tide almost 30 years ago and, although the original one is gone, a new tree is in its place and you really must make time for a photo op. We’ve done it for years and years, and over time it’s become a lovely tradition to watch our family grow and document visitors who’ve joined us on the island.
Tell us something we don’t know?
Two things! They drive on the opposite side of the road and it takes a while to get used to, even in a golf cart. Secondly, when given the chance, manatees will drink fresh water. So, the local marina has a freshwater hose waiting for them to swing by for a visit. They're incredible to watch.
What should we bring with us?
Cash! You will need cash for the airport transfers and tips, and the conversion rate in the Bahamas is 1:1. While the hotels restaurants and shoppes accept major credit cards, most of the local food spots such as Queen Conch only accept cash. Make note that things on Harbour Island are expensive. Even the sunscreen is expensive so throw it in your luggage if you have the space. If you have to purchase something on the island just know you’re going to pay a little more.
As far as packing goes, it’s easy breezy there. Day can often turn into night and flip flops and a sundress can totally work for dinner. You might see men in a seersucker suit or blazer to fancy it up a bit, but it’s not required. I always bring several cover-ups, a few great swimsuits and my favorite hat. I love Marysia and Wiggy Kit and both designers have homes on the island. Minnow Swim and Stella Cove are my “favorites” for kids' suits and J. Crew really does a wonderful job with kids swimwear that lasts. Two final must haves — Aquaphor SPF 30 for everyone’s lip protection, and I wear SPF powder from Super Goop! daily. I throw in my bag for touch-ups at the beach. It doesn’t have color so it’s just nice to reapply all day.
Sometimes I use a beach bag as my carry-on. I shove a swimsuit and a coverup inside. Even if my luggage is lost I’m covered, and let’s be honest that’s all you really need anyway.
See all my Harbour Island travel favorites below.
Click here to see everywhere Abby suggests you include in your visit.