Feature: Deep Blue Secret
From a helicopter, the sea surrounding the Exuma island chain resembles a giant jigsaw puzzle: all bright green swirls and crescents interlocking with pieces of grayish blue. The light patches reveal mid-ocean shallows where you can dock your boat, jump out, and stand with the water reaching barely to your chin. The sea turns dark above underwater canyons, which fall abruptly for a mile or more to ink-black bottoms where boiling water gushes from thermal vents and centuries-old shipwrecks lie undisturbed. Yet it is not just the menaces of the deep that have earned these waters notoriety, or that have made my destination one of the most enigmatic spots in the Caribbean.
“There it is,” my pilot’s voice crackles over the headphones as he points out a spit of land a mile off. “Indigo Island.” The helicopter drops low and skims over the palm trees before circling over a clearing at one end and landing. In less than a minute, the pilot hands me my bag, gives a comradely salute, and then climbs back into his aircraft and lifts off. It is at this moment, as I watch the helicopter disappear over the horizon, that it finally dawns on me: No one will ever find me here.
Indigo Island, a 135-acre patch of limestone and palm trees in the Bahamas’ Exuma archipelago, is uncharted territory. All the maps in the world will not tell searchers where I am, a thought that gives me pause considering the Exumas’ checkered past. For centuries, the islands, set amid a sea thick with sharks, have been a haven for pirates, smugglers, and embezzlers. In short, they were the last place one would think to vacation.
Despite the dubious reputation of its surroundings, Indigo Island now bills itself as one of the world’s most exclusive and idyllic destinations. At first glance, at least, the setting lives up to a brochure’s promise of “endless powder-soft beaches . . . sparkling, emerald waters . . . azure skies.” Here, neither hurricanes nor earthquakes nor live volcanoes ever mar one’s day. Also absent are cars, streets, and the noise of traffic. Best of all, there are no crowds, no autograph seekers, and no strangers forming queues for dinner tables. There is, in fact, only me, and a staff whose sole purpose is to do my bidding.
“What would you like to do first?” asks Steve Donovan, the island’s American-born manager, as we hop into a golf cart to drive up to the main house, my digs for the duration of my visit. It is not an easy decision. I could laze in the sun or go for a stroll and explore the island’s flora and fauna. I could drink fruity rum-punch cocktails or indulge in a massage. I could play tennis with the island’s pro, tap golf balls on the putting green, or even (fat chance of this) work out in the gym. Down by the island’s dock, I could find equipment for—and staff willing to assist me with—waterskiing, snorkeling, sailing, and deep-sea fishing. Yet there is just one thing Donovan and his staff will not do for me, no matter how often I ask: They will not tell me who owns Indigo Island.
That’s OK, I figure, as the golf cart arrives at the main house. Every place has its secrets; Indigo Island just has more than most.
Part of the fun of coming to Indigo, as I discovered before departing, is besting Bahamas snobs, those self-styled experts who claim to know every cave and cay in the islands.
“The Bahamas? Know it like the back of my hand,” offered one such blusterer at a cocktail party a few days before my trip. “So where will you be staying?”
Oh, I doubted he’d ever heard of it.
“Come now, I’ve been going there for years. So what’s it going to be? Paradise Island? Lyford Cay? Harbour Island?”
None of those.
“OK, try me.”
“Indigo Island?” His face went blank as he realized that . . . he had never heard of it. He looked around and then slunk off, a defeated man.
Those who had heard of it, like the pin-striped passenger on my morning flight to Nassau, invariably posed the same question. “Indigo, eh?” Then, looking around, and edging over behind his newspaper, he asked in a low voice, “Tell me, who owns that place?”
I really couldn’t say.
“Oh, come on,” he persisted.
No, really. I didn’t know.
“Mum’s the word, eh? I get it,” he said, giving me a conspiratorial wink.
As I learn once I arrive at the island, the secrets surrounding Indigo include not only the identity of its owner, but those of its visitors as well. “Our guests don’t want people to know where they’re going or where they’ve been,” says Donovan, a former charter yacht captain. “That’s one of the reasons they’re here.” For that matter, Donovan would be just as happy if the public were unaware of Indigo’s existence. “We’ve never advertised, and we’ve never allowed the media on the island, so you’ll never see Indigo Island in Time or Condé Nast Traveler.”
Indeed, Indigo is not intended for the masses. For some, however, the island’s seclusion and discretion are priceless—or at the very least worth the $182,000 it costs for a party of eight to rent the property for a week ($322,000 for a party of 18), a fee that includes gourmet fare, wine and liquor, all sports and recreation, and use of the island’s full range of facilities.
“There are a lot of people in this world who can’t go anywhere in public without being disturbed or hassled or without running security risks,” says Donovan. “Movie stars, royalty, heads of state, billionaires. Not just Americans, but Asians, Europeans, and South Americans. It’s especially hard for them to go anywhere with their families without feeling as if they’re under a microscope.”
Once on Indigo Island, these individuals and their families can do whatever they want without fear of stalkers, reporters, photographers, or kidnappers lurking around every corner. “They don’t even need to bring a baby-sitter,” Donovan continues. “Their kids can go wherever they wish; they’re totally safe. The only people on the island are our guests and the people here to serve them.”
Of course, if all you want is isolation, you have plenty of places to choose from—the Gobi Desert, the Antarctic, and any one of the surrounding Exumas come to mind. But rarely does seclusion assume such a luxurious form. “This is the owner’s dream house; he designed much of it himself,” says Donovan’s wife and the island’s comanager, Tara, as she leads the way from my master suite to the adjacent dining pavilion. Although providing few clues as to who the owner might be, each room reveals something of his tastes and personality. He is apparently someone who enjoys the exotic; the decor in both rooms is an eclectic blend of Arabian, Indonesian, and African tapestries, carvings, armoires, mirrors, lanterns, and antiques. He appreciates subtle touches, such as the bamboo ceilings and accents of dark wood, and yet he is not averse to dramatic statements, such as the all-glass walls that offer sweeping views of the Caribbean. He undoubtedly is a family man with children; who else would think to create a dining room with a curtained alcove for the kids to play in while their parents dine in grown-up splendor?
The owner’s design choices for Indigo’s five guest villas, located a short walk from the master suite and dining pavilion, are equally bold. And, like the master, the one- to three-bedroom villas come with phones, air-conditioning, satellite TV, and DVD players, and each offers ocean views. “He didn’t want to make the houses too big because they’d be obtrusive,” says Tara. Likewise, although he originally wanted copper roofs over the buildings, he decided on cedar shingles. “They just blend in better,” she says.
The owner also is to be commended for his taste in cuisine. Our exquisite lunch of seared sea scallops with a tropical fruit salsa and chicken stuffed with shrimp and spinach is served on a terrace overlooking a rimless infinity swimming pool. From this angle, the pool appears to be pouring directly into the Caribbean, as if we could dive in, be swept out to sea, and, like so many before us, become lost among the Exuma islands.
For centuries before the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria dropped anchor off the coast of nearby San Salvador, Arawak Indians plied the ocean around the Bahamas in dugout canoes that were 95 feet long and 8 feet wide. A peaceful tribe, the Arawaks smoked tobacco and ate avocado, barbecue, cassava, guava, and potato, and, in fact, gave all of these words to the English language. Alas, the Arawaks were not alone; they shared the Bahamas with a rival tribe, the Carib Indians, who were best known for their diet. They ate Arawaks.
With the arrival of Columbus, however, the Arawaks faced an even greater threat. The Spaniards enslaved them for labor in mines and plantations in Cuba and on the island of Hispaniola. The Indians did not go without resistance. Some fought the heavily armed Spaniards with predictable consequences. Others died of starvation and ill-treatment while in bondage, and by the mid-16th century, the Arawaks had been obliterated from the face of the earth.
Spain abandoned the Bahamas in 1595 (following the loss of an entire fleet to the islands’ rocks and shallows), but by the mid-17th century, the British had established colonies in Nassau and Eleuthera. The first British governor of the Bahamas commissioned privateers to plunder Spanish ships sailing between their homeland and Cuba. The laws regulating the privateers, called the chasseparties, codified their duties, conduct, and the division of booty among shipmates. But by the 1680s, the buccaneers had become less particular about their prey, and any ship sailing the Caribbean was fair game. The privateers soon became known as pirates, and in the early 1700s such celebrated brigands as Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard), Calico Jack, and the lady pirate Mary Read were among the thousand or so raiders who made the Exumas their home. From these islands, they could pounce like spiders on passing vessels.
The pirates’ heyday came to a close when the Crown appointed veteran seaman Woodes Rogers to be governor of the Bahamas. Rogers knew what he was up against, having captured 20 ships while flying the Jolly Roger himself. In July 1718, he arrived in Eleuthera accompanied by four British warships and carrying a declaration of amnesty for his former colleagues. Only one pirate—the famously cruel Charles Vane, given to hanging his victims until they were almost dead before hacking them to death with his cutlass—rejected the offer. After firing on Rogers in defiance, Vane fled across the shallow banks and was never again seen in the Bahamas. The new governor, returning from his pursuit of Vane, disembarked in Eleuthera and strolled through a double file of 300 pirates who, now pardoned for their crimes, cheered “Hurray for Good King George” while firing their guns into the air.
The pirate ships disappeared from the Bahamas, but in the 1860s, a new kind of craft arrived: the blockade runner. Long, shallow-draft side-wheelers built for speed and burning anthracite coal so that Union warships could not locate them by their smoke, the runners carried cotton from the Confederate harbors to Nassau and returned laden with supplies. The Union countered by stationing gunboats in the Exumas, successfully targeting and sinking several of the South’s runners in the island chain’s waters.
Sixty years later, with the passage of Prohibition in the United States, high-powered speedboats hauling spirits distilled in Nassau retraced the routes of the blockade runners. Even in the modern era, the Exumas—and Indigo in particular—have served as a hub for illicit activities and as a hideout for the shady characters who carry them out.
In the 1970s, Indigo became home to one of the most nefarious swindlers in American history. After allegedly embezzling $220 million from his mutual fund stockholders, Robert Vesco fled to the Bahamas and purchased Indigo, joining deposed Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza and narcotics kingpin Carlos Lehder as guests of Bahamian Prime Minister Lynden Pindling (whose own career was rumored to have been abetted by the Sicilian Mafia). Once settled on Indigo, which he had acquired for $180,000, Vesco went to work laundering money for Lehder through banks in Nassau. This sideline was interrupted in September 1979, when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration arrested Lehder and 33 of his men.
Much to the outrage of U.S. officials, Bahamian police released Lehder and his cohorts back to Norman’s Cay, the kingpin’s hideout near Indigo Island. Nine years passed before Lehder was seized in Colombia, extradited to the United States, and sentenced to life plus 135 years. By that time, Vesco was long gone from Indigo Island, having fled to Cuba in 1981 after wearing out his welcome with the Bahamian government. His exploits caught up with him there eventually, and he has been serving time in a Cuban prison since 1996. (Vesco is not Indigo’s current owner.)
The likes of Lehder, Vesco, and Somoza no longer haunt the cays, and not a suspicious character is in sight as Donovan steers Indigo’s 32-foot launch leisurely out into the Caribbean. Along the way, the boat overtakes a flock of seabirds that seem to be walking across the water’s surface. They glance at us as if to say, “What are you looking at?”
“They’re actually standing on a reef,” says Scott, the tennis pro, who has come along for the ride. Once clear of the reefs, Donovan guns the twin engines and sends the launch airborne, skipping it like a flat rock across the waves’ crests. “Hang on,” he yells. “This wouldn’t be a good place to fall overboard.”
The reason why, if I had not guessed already, becomes clear when Donovan shuts down the engines and Scott dumps a box of table scraps into the sea. Within seconds, thousands of fish a foot long are swarming around the boat, greedily snapping at the food. A moment later, though, the shapes below have become larger and far more menacing. “See the pointy nose on that one? It’s a tiger shark,” says Scott. Another shape appears, seeming to shove the tiger sharks aside. This one, says Scott, is a bull shark. “They’re especially dangerous. They’re the ones that have been such a problem in Australia.”
Although we are a long way from Australia, Donovan navigates much more slowly on the way back to Indigo.
Once onshore, I join Tara for a short hike around the island. Along the way we spot a pair of maintenance men and follow them along a trail cut through the greenery. “The staff live on the other side of the island and don’t use the same paths,” she says. “It’s a lot more private for our guests.”
The walk leads past a small garden where Tara grows carrots, coconuts, onions, sweet potatoes, bananas, mangos, and peppers. “We also have goats, but we don’t eat them,” she says. “They’re great for visiting children to play with.”
Of course, she adds, Indigo’s staff will deliver on whatever its guests demand: bands, entertainers, special cuisine, rare wines—anything (including, one might presume, eating the goats). Running the island is, Donovan explains later that day, a lot like captaining a yacht. “The weather is terrific. The scenery is gorgeous. But it’s all about service. Our guests come from all parts of the world; some are self-made men, some have inherited their money. But they have one thing in common: They’re high maintenance, with high standards.”
He looks out over the horizon, where the Caribbean sunset is streaking the sky with orange. To one side a waiter approaches with our drinks. “We get very few people here in the course of a year,” says Donovan. “But from what I hear, there’s a certain cachet in some circles to having been here.” If this is true, then surely it is at least partly because no one beyond those circles—or even within them—knows that you are here.
Indigo Island, 954.525.5101, www.indigoisland.com