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Vacationing in San Salvador Bahamas

We are home from a truly relaxing vacation to San Salvador Bahamas. Before I delve into some of our DIY undertakings, I offer this overview of the island lifestyle, vacation rental Coconut Cottage, groceries and restaurants, and day to day realities of a remote island.
sunset on san salvador island

San Salvador Island, Bahamas

San Salvador is a remote island in the Bahamas chain. It is one of the Eastern-most Caribbean islands and therefore a likely landing point of Christopher Columbus. The island is surrounded by teal blue oceans with reefs. Inland are dozens of freshwater lakes and prickly scrub flora.

A single road rings around San Sal. It is well maintained in some areas and full of holes in others. A former British colony, Bahamians follow European driving habits like motoring on the left side of the road. Visitors can find gas at a station near Cockburn (pronounced Co-burn) Town or the marina.

All purchases must be made with cash of either the US or Bahamas variety. The single island bank will allow credit card advances; we didn't inquire as to the usury rates they likely charge.

parade through Cockburn Town
The people of San Salvador are largely descendants of slaves who used to work the island under British rule. They are friendly, handy, and operate on 'island time'. Everything is very casual - the driving rules of the road, street signs (almost none!), store hours, and style of dress are all flexible. It takes a certain amount of patience and persistence to operate on San Salvador as an outsider.

Coconut Cottage Vacation Rental

My introduction to San Salvador was at the Gerace Research Station, a former Naval research station, complete with dorm style rooms and a cafeteria. To bring our family to the island, we had to find a vacation rental.

coconut cottage san salvador

Our choices were very limited. Riding Rock Resort looks great but has no kitchens and we didn't want to rely on restaurant food all the time. We selected Coconut Cottage from VRBO (we've experienced many great houses from VRBO) because it was the only rental that fit our size and requirements for a kitchen and car. On the island, we found Sands Residence Hotel offering single bedroom suites with kitchenette and daily maid service which could be a good fit for some families.

Coconut Cottage owners Sharon and Wayne met us at the airport to transport us to the house. They gave us a short tour around the island including locating the other house they are building which served as a base camp for snorkelling one day. They are very friendly and casual, answering our questions patiently.

coconut cottage living room

The house includes three bedrooms, two baths, a living area, and kitchen/dining area. The master bedroom is spacious and features an attached bathroom. The other two bedrooms and bath are down a short hall. These rooms received a lot of morning light and with no shades that blocked the sun, we were up early!

kitchen at coconut cottage san sal

The kitchen is a bit difficult to use with four adult cooks. The electric glass top range is something none of us are used to but we figured out after a few days how to make it work for our off/on style of cooking. The sharp kitchen knife we brought was imminently useful. The only cutting board in the kitchen was a glass one which none of us could abide. We ended up buying a plastic placemat at the home store (a plastic cutting board was $25!) and using that to chop vegetables. Note to self: bring cutting board on vacation.

The dining table sat four. We added an outdoor chair to expand the seating for our group of five but it was a little tight. The house is advertised to sleep 2-8 but I could never see eight adults fitting comfortably in the living areas. Even four adults and two children would be snug.

view from San Salvador house

The beach is a short walk beyond the back door. Above, Lil runs through the sticker bushes (shoes must be worn on the walk) to the water visible just down the hill.

During the heat of the midday and at dusk when the no-see-ums come out, we typically stayed inside the house and made use of the air conditioners and fans. There is precious little shade at Coconut Cottage, though the young palm trees may eventually grow tall enough to provide cool spots.

outdoor shower at san sal

The back porch and outdoor shower are my favorite features of the home. In the mornings before our outing for the day, I would frequently read on the porch. And I didn't take a single shower inside, instead rinsing off after every dip in the ocean in the outdoor hot water shower.

Groceries and Dining

My greatest concern coming into the vacation was food. Eating is my favorite thing; I always want to know where my next good meal is coming from.

san sal grocery store

Naturally, we visited grocery stores first thing on our first day. Fortunately the supply boat had just come in the day before and selection was decent. We had our choice of cabbage, iceburg lettuce, peppers, huge carrots, onions, potatoes, and garlic for vegetables. Cheese was either orange (unlabelled, a mild cheddar?) ($4/pound) or shredded mozzarella ($4/8 ounces). Oranges, grapefruit, pears, bananas, and plantains were the fruits available. As the week progressed, fewer fresh items were left from an already weak selection.

Margarine seemed to be the island standard. We prefer butter and purchased the only kind available, Kerrygold, at $3/half pound.

There was no fresh meat or fish shop. Frozen meat at the groceries was again unlabelled, resulting in a mixed up meal of lamb braise and ham steaks one night. We mixed canned tuna ($1.50/4 ounce tin) into salad for lunches. Alex's parents talked to a local at the marina who promised delivery of conch meat one night but it never appeared. Fortunately we were able to enjoy fish three times from Alex's catch.

Milk is the shelf stable boxed kind, priced at $3.50/liter. Lil was disappointed she didn't have 'good milk' (i.e. Snowville Creamery) but drank down the boxed milk when I made chocolate syrup to go in it. We drank fruit in the form of rum punches from canned and bottled juices.

Both grocery stores are located in Cockburn town and carry a decent variety of processed food like snack chips ($3/bag), stuffing mix, ice cream ($5/pint Breyers), etc. Nuts are outrageously expensive, so pack your own if you like to snack on those. One store offers local homemade bread but we were never there are the right time to buy any. Flour was more expensive ($2/pound) than buying bread ($2.50/loaf), so we did without making our own.

Foragers can supplement the grocery store offerings with fresh coconuts, sea salt, and speared fish. We'll write more about what we made soon.

homemade coconut pina colada

Liquor is only sold at the Duty Free store across from the airport and bars. When we shopped, rum ($16.50/bottle) and tequilla ($20) were the only choices. Wine was $14/bottle for bottom shelf quality so we skipped it. Kalik, Heineken, and Guiness Export are the three beers available for $4/bottle.

barbeque chicken at Paradis Restaurant

We dined at Paradis restaurant twice. They offer a different menu every night, told to customers in person only. (I assume that paper is a valuable commodity.) They offer classic Bahamas fare like cracked conch (fried pieces of smashed conch meat strips), snapper (fried lightly), pork chops, lamb chops, and barbequed chicken. Sides were unexciting fries, coleslaw, beets (cold from a can), salad, rice, or rice and pigeon peas. Meals were $10-14. We enjoyed the lightly spiced and perfectly cooked entrees and portions were big enough to take leftovers home.

Culture: Monuments & Watling's CastleMexican olympics monument san sal

Most days our time was spent relaxing and enjoying nature. After hitting up a snorkelling spot one day, we stopped at the monument circle just south of Cockburn town. Lil climbed on the carved rotunda commemorating the passing of the torch from the Mexico Olympics. We briefly looked at the cross memorializing Columbus' landing and Bahamian flags before a quick rain spell ended our visit.

watling's castle san salvador

Watling's Castle is the oldest of the many abandoned buildings on the island. After visiting the mangrove swamps, we searched for the castle ruins. We finally climbed the rocky hill after a half hour of searching down unmarked side roads. (For future travellers, look for the third road after the power lines stop when travelling south past Sugarloaf Settlement.)

The Castle was guarded by a kestrel who kept his or her eye on us the entire time we climbed, posed for pictures, and watched lizards. A mid-18th century home with slave quarters and an outdoor kitchen, the ruins are now covered with thorny briars and scrubby bushes. The hill-top location offers stunning views of French Bay.

Nature and Wildlife

As there are few cultural experiences, no museums, and little else to do, the best reason to vacation on San Salvador is to explore the wildlife. Fortunately, the natural spaces are mostly untouched by humans and the variety of species is fantastic.

threatened white cheeked pintail on san sal

Inland lakes are migration stop overs for water birds. We saw a flock of threatened White-Faced Pintail ducks one day, pictured above. The Bahamian Mockingbird is like a louder version of ours found all over the island. Kestrels are the main predator, scanning the land for mammals and lizards from the power lines. A Caribbean race of Osprey hunts the waters. Being tropical, there are some colorful little birds that Americans will delight in spotting. We added several little birds to our life list including the Bananaquit and Mangrove Vireo.

Lil and Alex snorkelling at Graham's Harbor

The waters are paradise for snorkellers and divers. An old dock that is now falling into the water provided our favorite snorkelling habitat in Graham's Harbor. The small reefs and grass beds along 'our' side of the island near Bonefish Bay contained lots of fun fish and corals. Alex spear fished in waters all over the north western side of the island and will report on that experience in a few days.

Beaches are rarely used by the natives. With so few vacationers, we saw no other swimmers on the beaches when we were there.

walking in mangrove swamps san sal

A drive to the south of the island is worth the poor roads near Sugarloaf settlement for Watling's Castle and the mangrove swamps along Pigeon Creek. At low tide, one can step gently onto the sandy mangrove roots and see the fish nurseries hiding amid the shallow pools. The mangroves also house land snails, rare birds, and lizards. There are no services and little shade on the southern half of the island; pack snacks and water to combat the heat.

exploring a tide pool san sal

Lil enjoyed tidal pools along Long Bay on the West side and Dim Bay on the East side. The pools house crabs, snails, anemones, washed glass, and shells perfect for collecting.

San Sal Conclusions

Our trip to San Salvador left me more relaxed than any other vacation. With little interaction with other people or interruptions from phone and internet (service was spotty at best), we fell into an easy routine of a single nature outing a day, rest in the afternoons, and a family meal in the evening.

Vacationing on a remote island isn't for everyone, however. You can't plan much ahead of time, nor count on supplies on the island. Dining and nightlife are minimal. Daily activities may be limited by rain showers or heat. Unless you like observing wildlife a lot (we do!) another Caribbean island might be a better choice.

We loved having the chance to show Lil untouched natural spaces like the mangrove swamps and coral reefs. I am happy that my birding life list grew by five. Alex was thrilled to practice spear fishing and cook fish he never tasted before. We created many things with the natural items on the island. Most of all, we are thankful that San Sal deepened and enriched our family memory file.