There are two faces to the Bahamas: The one most visitors see is the resort-laden facades of Paradise Island and Grand Bahama Island, with their bright-blue swimming pools, soft white sand and immaculate green lawns.
Though I'm an off-the-beaten-track kind of traveler, the truth is that I was grateful to be on Grand Bahama Island over Shabbat a little while back.
I'd carried portable candles with me in my luggage; nevertheless, I was yearning to be among other Jews. So, I was thrilled to learn the island has a synagogue, the Luis de Torres Synagogue in the town of Freeport, and that the synagogue was conducting regular services. Hopping into a cab, my family and I joined the service, my 3-year-old son heading up to the bimah to sing "Adon Olam" with some of the local Jewish islanders.
An unassuming white stucco building built in 1972 and sandwiched between two churches, the Freeport synagogue is a Reform community with 20 resident members and 30 off-shore members. It was named for de Torres, a Marrano and the interpreter for Christopher Columbus who arrived on the island of San Salvador — one of the Bahamas' 700 islands — some 500 years ago.
The Shabbat service was spirited, and it felt good to be part of a Jewish community, albeit briefly, for the winds of travel were calling loudly, and I had no option but to follow them to the island of Eleuthera.
Unlike Grand Bahama Island — which welcomes some 3 million tourists each year and has the infrastructure and attractions to sustain their interest — Eleuthera boasts untamed natural beauty and homely accommodations reminiscent of grandma's house. Considered one of the out-islands of the Bahamas, this one has no artificial attractions. The shopping is lousy and a typical dinner is takeout from the corner store, which can take 45 minutes to prepare.
But take a walk on an Eleuth-era beach and you'll find massive conch shells scattered on the ocean floor, exquisite snorkeling in reefs that have not yet been destroyed, and an easy, slow pace of life that somehow just makes perfect sense.
Back in 1648, 70 Bermudians in search of religious freedom found themselves shipwrecked and sought shelter in a limestone cave. They called themselves the Eleutherian Adventurers, and made their home on the 106-mile-long island named Eleuthera, which is the Greek word for the freedom they sought.
They left a lasting legacy, for Eleuthera today is imbued with a spirit of liberation — one that's fiercely protected by the 11,000 residents who make their homes in the small settlements dotting the island's western shores.
Every day feels like a sleepy Sunday on this island, where life is entirely unpretentious.
Women greet the day by leaning over their balconies and gazing at the ocean, and other locals slow down and wave as they drive by. There's a single road that winds between the island's six-mile diameter, where cars are few and far between, and traffic jams are unheard of.
The island bustled in the 19th century as a center for pineapple growth and export, but its commerce has long since died down, and if there's business taking place on Eleuthera, it's devoid of the urgency and pressure that characterizes financial transactions in the United States.
In its place, a sense of community reigns, together with a generosity of spirit that's remarkable to anyone who has grown up in its absence.
I met a farmer on Eleuthera, who erected a single chain to demarcate the entrance to his property. All you had to do to get inside was step out of your vehicle and release the chain from its hook, but its proprietor was unconcerned.
"I don't mind if passers-by help themselves to a watermelon or a few bananas," he confessed. "They're welcome to it. It's only if they tried to fill up their car with my produce that I'd get upset."
But petty theft like that is not an issue on the island, he insisted. "Where would a thief go?"
There's everything and nothing to do on Eleuthera. The island's only adventure tour company — Bahamas Out-Island Adventures — has the answers for those who like to keep busy, with activities like kayaking through channels lined with mangrove trees, boogy-boarding in the island's best coves, snorkeling and fishing.
You don't have to look far to find magnificent, secluded beaches, where there's no competition for the best spot to lay down your towel, while a leisurely drive along Eleuthera's only thoroughfare will take you through the settlements, where locals are happy to give you the time of day.
Info to Go
Accommodations? Try Our Lucaya Beach & Golf Resort on Grand Bahama Island. With 15 restaurants, two 18-hole golf courses, a spa and a kids club spread out over 327 acres, the resort never feels congested or overcrowded. For more information, visit: www.ourlucaya.com.
For information on the Luis Del Torres Synagogue, log on to: www.grandbahamassynagogue.org.
For general information on the islands of the Bahamas, go to: www.bahamas.com.