GRAND ABACO, BAHAMAS — I wander into Flippers Restaurant on a glorious sun-drenched Bahamian day and Theresa, the woman standing in the room’s sunken bar, greets me with an Abaco Smile.
It’s the most intoxicating “smile” I’ve ever been offered.
An “Abaco Smile,” you see, is actually a potent Pina Coloda made with mangos, tropical juices and copious amounts of rum.
One sip of the sweet, milky cocktail quickly brings a smile to my face.
“It’s our signature drink,” says the delightful Theresa, Flippers’ chief mixologist and a native of this beautiful boomerang-shaped island that juts out of the Atlantic just east of Grand Bahama Island.
Above: Abaco Club's championship golf course ranks among the best in the Caribbean.
Another popular cocktail with members and guests of the exclusive Abaco Club at remote Winding Bay is one named after the mixologist. Theresa’s Punch is made with lots of white rum, coconut rum, triple sec and tropical juices — it really does pack a punch.
“My punch makes people smile, too,” laughs Theresa, an 11-year veteran of The Abaco Club, which is the vacation home of rock star diplomats, golfers, entertainers and business executives.
Exotic cocktails, however, are not the only things that make people smile when they’re at The Abaco Club. The fabulous vacation resort, which opened in 2004, also features:
• The best links-style golf course in the Caribbean;
• A fine dining restaurant, the Cliff House, that would not look out of place in culinary capitals like Paris or New York;
• A pristine beach that drifts off into the turquoise Caribbean surf;
• Luxury homes and villas perched high on cliffs so guests can truly appreciate the surrounding seascape;
• And a plethora of activities that keep guests busy between this island’s spectacular sunrises and sunsets.
Above: Abaco Club's signature cocktail is called the Abaco Smile and its packs a punch.
The Abaco Club was the vision of English entrepreneur Peter de Savery, who hiked through the island’s protected pine forest to find the ideal location for his members-only resort at Winding Bay, which is famous for its turtle and parrot populations. He later sold the property to Ritz-Carlton, who in turn sold it to the present owners, Boston-based Southworth Development.
Everything at The Abaco Club is first class, starting with the remarkable golf course, a collaboration between renowned U.K. architects Donald Steel and Tom Mackenzie and governed now by charming golf director Brian Shaver and his faithful dog Gumbo.
“I’m originally from Louisiana,” says Shaver in a sweet southern drawl, “so Gumbo seemed like a good name for my dog (a handsome white German shepherd who sits on a golf cart guarding the practice area where the director gives lessons).”
The remarkable thing about The Abaco Club’s golf course is its impeccable conditioning. That, despite being under constant barrage by trade winds, sea spray and the blustering Caribbean sun. To compensate for the challenges, the designers planted sturdy paspalum grass on the rolling fairways and undulating greens and the incredible results must be seen to be appreciated. Of course, the fact there’s only about 4,000 rounds played here annually helps keep the course in tip-top shape.
Above: Resort's estate homes and guest cottages attract high powered guests.
While this Scottish links-style course is void of the troublesome fescue found on the opposite side of the Atlantic, the designers did add plenty of fairway pot bunkers and troublesome tee-to-green waste bunkers to compensate.
There’s not a bad hole on this course but several — the seaside 5th, 16th, 17th and 18th — have been mentioned alongside the best golf holes on the planet. In fact, CNN rates the par-4 5th as one of the top three holes in the world. And that’s not fake news.
This course is so special, Ireland’s legendary PGA star Darren Clarke bought a home here just so he can play it on a regular basis.
“We get PGA stars here all the time,” says Shaver. “Darren is a big supporter of the club and spends a lot of time here.”
Clarke, captain of the winning 2016 European Ryder Cup team, is so proud of his relationship with this golf course he donated the motorized golf cart he rode on during the 2016 Ryder Cup to The Abaco Club. It now holds a place of honour in a colourful hut off the first tee for all to see.
There’s a wow moment on just about every hole at The Abaco Club and the seaside brilliance that runs alongside many of the holes truly tests a player’s concentration. Accurate tee shots are a must and approach shots better land short of the pin because holding the sloped greens is tough.
Above: Fish feasts and fishing lessons are what Abaco guests are treated to.
The last three holes, perched high on sea cliffs, are especially breathtaking and the perfect ending to a perfect golf experience.
Golf is just one of the many sporting activities offered at The Abaco Club. The reefs just off the resort are perfect for divers and snorkelers to explore and avid sport fishers like Clarke rate The Abaco Club as one of the top fly fishing spots in the world.
“Darren likes fly fishing as much, maybe more, than golf,” Clint Kemp, a local fly fishing instructor tells me.
Kemp’s family roots on Grand Abaco Island date back to the early 1600s when they landed here from England. “Our family was granted land in the Bahamas by the English king of the day and we never left.”
Kemp says fly fishing is becoming the fastest growing sport among top executives (both male and female) because “it allows them to decompress.”
The waters off The Abaco Club are teaming with bone fish, a fiesty variety that are very fast and strong. While they may not be good to eat, bone fish apparently put up a helluva fight and can bend a rod in half before being caught and released.
“Darren is an excellent fly fisherman because the wrist action and upper body movement we use in our sport is very much like what a golfer uses,” says Kemp, who offers lessons to Abaco Club members and their guests.
Above: Boat trips to historic outposts where you meet legendary locals are all part of an Abaco stay.=
The hundreds of islands, or cays, that make up this area of the Bahamas known as the Abacos, have become hideouts for the rich and famous. Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini’s – the Aga Khan – sprawling vacation estate where Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a regular visitor occupies one of those cays just off Grand Abaco Island.
The Abacos are also a popular destination for sailors who like to anchor their vessels in the reef-filled waters so they can dive and snorkel with the tropical fish that hang out at the colourful natural wonders.
Many of the settlements on the cays offer safe harbour for vessels and have fascinating histories of their own. There’s no better example of that than Man-O-War, a cay that provided safe haven for those who wanted to remain loyal to the British crown during the American Revolutionary War.
One of the earliest arrivals on Man-O-War was the Albury family, who became master sail makers. Annie Albury, a fifth generation descendent of those immigrants, spends her days at a sewing machine in a harbour-side shop making colourful bags out of canvas.
“We used to make the bags out of old sails,” the ageless wonder tells me.
There’s just enough time before dinner to enjoy a treatment in The Abaco Club’s lovely spa, governed by expert therapists who deliver all the latest treatments. As part of its modernization of The Abaco Club, Southworth Development is planning to enlarge the spa, which sits opposite The Cliff House, The Abaco Club’s fine dining restaurant.
As the name implies, the elevated Cliff House sits high above the winding bay and the only thing better than its menu is its romantic setting.
Above: Darren Clarke's Ryder Cup cart gets a place of honour at Abaco.
Chef BJ rules the kitchen at The Cliff House and he and his staff put a Caribbean twist of many traditional dishes.
“I think you’ll like my Bahamian lobster tails,” says Chef, who infuses the dish with just the right amounts of curry, rum and cream. Yum!
The freshness of the seafood, much of which is caught offshore hours before being served, is the secret to Chef’s success. However, the grilled steaks featured on The Cliff House menu are equally appetizing.
All that The Abaco Club offers comes at a price, of course. Homes and soon-to-be-built lowrise condo residences start well north of $1 million (U.S.) and membership fees for residents cost $100,000.
An international membership will cost you just $15,000 but limits you and your guests to 20 tee times a year.
The Abaco Club sure gives you lots to smile about.