The locals referer to Harbour Island as simply Briland, a condensed version of the two words. Seriously, say Harbour Island really fast and you’ll hear it. Briland is only 50 nautical miles away from the Abacos, but has a completely different vibe. The Abacos are home to seasonal cruising sailors, retirees, and middle-class Americans on vacation. Briland, on the other hand, is the Bahamian playground of the ridiculously wealthy. The difference is obvious as soon as you pull into the harbour and notice a distinct lack of sailboats and the sheer size of the mega-yachts all around you. But Briland somehow still manages to feel unpretentious and welcoming to all. Honestly, it was one of our favorite stops of this entire trip. We probably mingled with some Silicon Valley tycoon or some famous actor and had no idea because it really didn’t matter. Everyone was drinking the same rum punch and eating the same conch fritters. We just happened to arrive in a much smaller boat.
Because a chronological approach just doesn’t work in Briland, here are our top 10 reasons to love Briland (in no particular order).
1. TYING UP TO THE MEGADOCK
The fabulously wealthy have a thing for really big boats and Briland is more than happy to accommodate them. There is more than one marina here with docks large enough for mega-yachts, something you almost never see in the Abacos. The Abacos are generally too shallow for the deep draft of these boats. We picked Valentine’s Marina based on its central location and good reviews of the marina restaurant. As a comparatively smaller vessel, we also had the option of anchoring outside of the marina. This would have been a significantly cheaper option but we were still without a generator and therefore could not run the A/C unless we were hooked up to shore power. Even in December, the Bahamas can be hot and humid and we really wanted our air conditioning. (I know, seriously first-world problems here). Also, the experience of being able to step right off the boat and onto the dock allowed all of us a sort of personal freedom that we don’t get when relying on the dingy to get to shore. It was a welcome change of pace.
However, the best part of staying at Valentine’s was being right in the middle of the mega-yachts. We never had the opportunity to go aboard one but we walked by these huge boats every day. We had a blast marveling at their enormous size, watching the crews at work scrubbing the decks, and making up stories about what these folks might do for a living and what their opulent lives must be like.
This boat is named GiGi — 168 feet from bow to stern. She was docked right in front of us for the majority of our stay. In fact, they arrived at the exact time we did so we had the opportunity to watch the crew members setting out their enormous fenders as they docked. The precision with which the captain was able to dock this vessel was incredibly impressive. We learned from the crew that the boat had recently been purchased by the current owner (it’s a 2009) and they were on the maiden voyage with their family. They had just come from Jamaica and would be heading to the coast of Mexico next.
The back transom of the boat, showing an open compartment where they store all sorts of water toys and scuba gear.
This boat was named Life of Reiley. And what a life it must be! This boat lives in the Bahamas full-time and can generally be found here at Valentine’s Marina. We chatted with one of the owners briefly and learned that they are also sailors. Their other boat is a sailboat that lives on the northeastern U.S. coast. They split their time seasonally between the two boats. When we told her that we had sailed to Eluthera from the Abacos, all by ourselves, she said that she was really missing her sailboat. That there was a certain magic and freedom in being able to captain the boat yourself. These mega-yachts may have every amenity possibly on water, but they also require a full-time captain and crew. The owners almost never get to drive these boats themselves and driving is half the fun!
This is Katy. She belongs to the owners of Life of Rieley and spends her days lounging on the docks soaking up the sun.
For comparison, here is the Irie Joe tied up along the megadock. At 41 feet long and 24 feet wide, we often feel like one of the big boats. That was definitely not the case in Briland.
2. TEE JAY’S BEACH BAR
Brandon and I found this place on our very first day in Briland and we came here every single day after that. The bar is run by a lady named Tee Jay who comes in every day at 5am to serve rum punch and goombay smash to the beach goers. I’m not sure who orders a rum punch at 5am but Tee Jay is there to serve them.
The drinks were tasty (as they always are in the islands) but the main draw was hanging out with Tee Jay and her brother Marty. They both made us laugh and we learned so much about the island and local culture through talking with them.
We spent so much time hanging out with Tee Jay that she actually left my dad in charge of the bar one afternoon so that she could go on a supply run in town! However, his brief stint as a bartender was not a great success. He only made one sale — he sold himself a beer and gave himself a generous tip! The guy pictured below was really confused when my dad confessed that he didn’t know how to make a rum punch. He tried to sell him a beer instead and ended up losing his only paying customer that afternoon.
3. HORSEBACK RIDES WITH MARTY
Marty is hard to miss. He spends his days riding bareback along the beach, enticing tourists into going riding with him (for a fee, of course). He is also Tee Jay’s brother and spends a lot of time hanging around her beach bar. He’s got a great sense of humor and was a lot of fun to joke around with, which made it an easy decision when he offered to take my me and my mom on a ride around the island (for a fee, of course).
Marty’s “behind the scenes” tour of Briland takes about an hour and costs $100 a person. There is also the option to go on a 30 minute ride for $50, but the shorter tour only goes up and down the beach with a short swim in the water. The full-tour takes you through town, out along the salt flats to Lone Tree, through the backyards of Billionaire Row (Marty has permission from the owners), before emerging out onto a secluded beach for a swim in the ocean. This is just one of those situations when it is totally worth it to fork over the extra cash.
My mom and I both rode horses as kids, but neither of us had ridden in years. Thankfully, it was a lot like riding a bike and the skills and knowledge from our youth came right back to us. Unfortunately, we also used a lot of muscles we hadn’t worked in quite a while. The next day we were both walking like old cowboys. I recovered a little faster than my mom though. She was sore for days! Still totally worth it.
4. GOLF CARTS AS THE MAIN FORM OF TRANSPORTATION
Golf carts are ubiquitous in the out islands of the Bahamas. In a country full of narrow streets and small communities, golf carts simply make more sense than cars. But nowhere loves their golf carts as much as Briland. It’s simply the only way to get around.
The tourists in-the-know have their rental cart waiting for them when they arrive at the dock. We were Briland newbies and had to wander around town on foot for an hour before we found the rental place.
Our ride for the next few days.
Some carts are bigger and cooler than others.
A Jeeper at heart, Brandon couldn’t help but try out the flex capabilities of the cart.
This is why it came with cup holders, right?
5. JEEPS EVERYWHERE
The second most popular form of transportation in Briland seemed to be the Jeep. Now, this particular “reason to love Briland” might not appeal to or even be noticed by all visitors, but I happen to have a husband that is obsessed with Jeeps. So naturally, every Jeep we encountered was photographed, whether it was running or broken down in a field.
6. JUNKANOO PRACTICE
The video above was actually shot by my mom the day after Brandon and I left to return to the states. My parents stayed in Hopetown for one extra day and were able to see the actual Junkanoo Festival. This was the Elbow Cay festival but similar events happen all over the Bahamas, with the largest taking place in Nassau. Junkanoo is similar to Carnival or Mardi Gras but here in the Bahamas the event is more intertwined with British holidays and less connected to the Catholic tradition of debauchery before Lent. Junkanoo festivals traditionally take place on Boxing Day, a British holiday celebrated the day after Christmas, but modern festivals happen anytime after Christmas up until New Years Day.
Bahamians spend all year preparing for Junkanoo. They make elaborate costumes and practice their drumming, horn playing, and dancing. Each community has a number of teams that form to participate in the parade, all competing for the best music, dancing, and costumes. The festival is generally at night but there is often a daytime version held for the kids Junkanoo teams.
We first learned about Junkanoo while in Briland. We had finished dinner, and everyone was thinking about going to bed, when we started hearing music and loud drumming coming from the main drag in town. It sounded like some sort of local party and we had to know what it was! My parents decided to stay home and Brandon and I made our way to the streets.
When we got there we found a huge crowd of people surrounding a group of guys playing huge homemade drums hung from their chests. We grabbed some beers, joined the crowd, and looked for someone who looked open to answering questions from a few clueless tourists. We found the nice lady that worked the front desk at the marina. She told us all about Junkanoo and explained that this was just practice. The drums are so loud that they disturb the whole town so they hold practice on weekend nights in the bar district. They weren’t wearing the costumes like they would at the festival and the horn section wasn’t there either. (This was just a practice for the drum section.) Still, it was a ton of fun to watch. We hung around until the drumming stopped, which was over an hour.
You have to be in the Bahamas over the Christmas holidays to really experience Junkanoo but if you happen to be here then, it is not to be missed.
7. ARTHUR’S BAKERY
We visited a lot of bakeries in the Bahamas. As I’ve mentioned before, the homemade bread in the islands was an unexpected gem. But of all the bakeries, Arther’s was our absolute favorite. I first stopped in Arther’s while on a supply run. My only intention was to leave with some fresh coconut bread to bring back to the boat. I ended up eating a delicious breakfast sandwich, served on a fresh baked croissant, and left with a loaf of coconut bread, a loaf of jalapeno bread, two mini key lime tarts, and something called a patty. I didn’t know what it was but I watched a number of locals order them and thought they must be good. I was not disappointed. Before we left Briland we actually stocked up on a full dozen patties for the trip back to the Abacos.
A patty is very much like the Mexican empanadas or the British pasty. It seems like most cultures have some form of handheld meat pie and so far in my travels I have loved them all. I never saw patties for sale anywhere else in the islands so I was not able to do a comparison to know whether Arthur’s were the best or if they were even typical. But I loved them. The pie dough was made with sweet potato, giving it a rich starchy consistency and orange color. The filling was either chicken or beef but I could hardly tell the difference between the two options because of the heavy spice blend. I don’t know exactly what was in the spice blend but it reminded me of curry — spicy with a hit of sweetness. Warm, savory, and satisfying at any time of day. Goodness, just writing about them is making me hungry!
8. HARRY O’S BAR & QUEEN CONCH
Our second favorite hangout (after Tee Jay’s, of course) was Harry O’s Bar. This was a really simple place but we became quite fond of it. They made great drinks, but most importantly, the daytime bartender was happy to chat with us and answer all of our questions about the island. We learned more about Junkanoo, what it’s like to work in the out islands (everyone commutes from the larger islands by water taxi), and all of the best places to shop and eat. Plus, it was right down the street from Queen Conch, a food stand run by Tee Jay’s sister that made the most amazing conch salad. We went through at least four tubs of the Exotic Conch Salad, a version made with fresh mango and green apple.
Harry O’s was just a bar with a huge patio. They didn’t actually sell food but had a deal worked out with the neighboring food stand. If you wanted food they would bring you a menu and deliver your food from the food stand. I can’t remember the name of the particular food stand (there were many on this street) but Brandon said it was the best cracked conch he’d tasted. (Cracked conch is fried in a sort of tempura batter, very tasty.)
Stopping by Harry O’s for a drink and a snack (with a tub of conch salad to go) became a mid-day tradition for us. It was a nice break from our usual explorations and the view was fabulous. From Tee Jay’s we had a view of the ocean, but from Harry O’s we had a view of the shallow harbour and its many shades of blue and green that changed with the light and cloud cover throughout the day.
9. VICTORIA’S SECRET MODELS
This one was completely unexpected. By sheer coincidence we planned our stay in Briland at the exact same time as a Victoria’s Secret photo shoot. You know those gorgeous beaches that the models are frolicking on in the swimsuit catalog? Well, one of the many pristine beaches they use for photo shoots is right here in Briland.
The shoot was taking place on the beach in front of Tee Jay’s Bar. We even rode right through the action while riding horses with Marty. They drew quite the crowd of onlookers but everyone was pretty respectful about keeping their distance and not being too creepy. Later that day we saw some of the girls riding through town on their golf carts and we realized how young they were. Some of these girls couldn’t have been older than 16.
10. PINK SAND BEACHES
Harbour Island is famous for its pink sand beaches. The pale pink hue actually comes from a microscopic organism with a pinkish colored shell. These shells of these little critters have mixed with the sand, tinting it pink. Although the sand really is pink, it is not what most people expect when they first come here. If you search for “pink sand beach” or “harbour island” on Instagram or Google you’ll find a ton of filtered images, all altered to make the pink color of the sand more dramatic. You might see something like this.
This is not reality. While the color is indeed unique, it is not the color of Barbie’s convertible. In real life, it looks more like this.
PRO TIP: For the best color, visit the beach in the early morning or evening when the sun’s glare is less harsh.
Something that I found very special about this beach was the distinct lack of rocks, or really any sharp objects in the water. The soft sand stretched out undisturbed until you can no longer touch the bottom. This makes it a perfect beach for swimming. The bottom is soft and the waves are generally pretty gentle.
Also, even if the sand is more white than pink, this is still the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen.
Briland is such a lovely place with a beautifully welcoming community and we enjoyed our stay there immensely. Here’s to hoping we’ll be able to return again someday.