- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2007

GREAT ABACO ISLAND, Bahamas — It’s not every day that you’re guiding a golf cart along a tropical pathway, smiling and waving to strangers passing on the other side.

Such a simple exchange and yet how satisfying: reducing life to the core experience of acknowledging another human being. This can happen only when the pressures of daily living have been eliminated and a virtual screen is substituted — in this case a sporting resort called the Abaco Club on Winding Bay, situated on a coral peninsula on the eastern coast of Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas.

I never before had driven a golf cart, and certainly not on the left side of a road — although it hardly counts as a road because no motorized traffic is allowed on this 520-acre private reserve bordering a 2-1/4-mile curving white-sand beach. The only buildings in view belong to the club or to people who have invested in property here and built homes as part of their membership agreement.

Other members live off-site but still pay dues. In return, all can enjoy a top-notch golf course as well as horseback riding, tennis, sailing and croquet. To attract permanent denizens, the club has an open-door policy that allows anyone to visit for a cool $1,000 a day, inclusive of dinner and breakfast, staying in Bahamian-style cottages whose interiors have bamboo floors, flat-screen TVs and bed linens of top quality.

I am here courtesy of the club’s founder, Peter de Savary, the British-born entrepreneur whose idea it was to establish a secluded retreat for people of means to enjoy escaping to an environmentally friendly place, a magical kingdom of sorts. One can be whisked away by the club’s private plane if need be — for a four-figure sum —or take direct commercial flights from Florida, 136 miles away.

Great Abaco is 14 miles wide and more than 100 miles long, but as I steer my toy vehicle, its electric motor purring quietly, I’m aware only of the azure sea on my right. I am going from my lilac-colored cabana to the clubhouse dining area, which, at an 85-foot elevation, is the highest point around. Signposts are marked with hand-carved statues. The entire island has only one stoplight, and only unobtrusive stop signs are inside the compound.

The 18 greens make up what is said to be the world’s first Scottish-style tropical links course. Not being a golf hound, I’m better off vouching for the beach — cleaned daily and empty most of the time. At low tide, it is possible to wade to little Sugar Island in the distance, feeling underfoot the cool currents of the Atlantic Ocean that break over a distant reef before cruising onto the shore.

Farther on, I glide by the red clay tennis court where earlier I had a session with “Funbob,” the improbable nickname of the club’s coach and children’s program supervisor. His son is called — pointedly — Robert.

Robert senior, Funbob, has a gracious, unassuming smile that leads me to wonder if anyone here ever has a down moment. Even the vegetation looks upbeat, a splendid mix of oleander, bougainvillea, cactus and palm, 115 species in all. Hammocks are strung invitingly among the trees at intervals in the greenery, but most times they are as empty as the pathways.

Several thousand casuarina trees, a spindly, invasive species that is an enemy of civilized landscaping, had to be uprooted and carted away before these gardens and homes could be constructed. A few remain as orphans of the rebuilding frenzy that followed in Mr. de Savary’s wake. But not even an entrepreneurial tycoon can stop a hurricane. Much of the initial planting and native flora had to be replaced following a 2004 storm.

Along with outside investors, the restless Mr. de Savary — known as “PDS,” as in “PDS may or may not be arriving today” — put down about $100 million to build this idyll. (He already had rebooted and sometimes sold several estates in Ireland, Scotland, England and the United States). The Ritz-Carlton and its mother ship, the Marriott Corp., subsequently took a 50 percent equity interest in the Abaco property, and they manage operations, including food and beverage and training programs.

The estimated value of all the Abaco Club holdings, public and private, stands at $250 million. Homeowners to date include England’s Lady Astor, who claims title to one of the sites perched on coral rock above the sea.

To make sure his gardens are properly grown and cared for, PDS bought the island’s nursery.

To make sure guests are out of harm at all times, he installed his own fire engine and ambulance; medical care is available 24 hours a day.

“It’s not that everything here is the best of everything, but I’m happy if people say they are having a good time,” he says modestly. The project, he adds, is “a work in progress. We have a learning curve.”

Most people come for a three-night stay, with members remaining at least two weeks.

The temperature is relatively stable year-round, with the only possible extremes during the summer and fall hurricane season. Mr. de Savary plans to buy more land, expand the spa — already a cozy two-story cabana overlooking the sea — and create more sports facilities and restaurants. In addition to the clubhouse, there is a casual bar and grill on the beach.

“I’m in the entertainment business,” Mr. de Savary declares cheerfully before heading off to dinner in his home down the road — pardon, the path.

• • •

The Abaco Club on Winding Bay, Abaco, Bahamas, phone 242/367-0077; visit www.theabacoclub.com; email info@theabacoclub.com.

Flights on American or Continental airlines to Abaco from Florida airports have connections at West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. The flying time is about 50 minutes.

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