We may have had a headache when we arrived in our rattling Jeep 4x4, but at least we had Lighthouse Beach all to ourselves, with the exception of just a few cruise ship tourists who had come with tour guides to take quick pictures by the ocean.

You would never believe a glistening pink-sand beach was hiding at the end of this three-mile, incredibly bumpy dirt road and up a steep pass, behind a row of large shade trees. A beach that went as far as the eye could see in one direction and that was flanked by a cliff in the other. A beach where hermit crabs and live conch had not been forced into hiding as at other Bahamian hot spots, but lived peacefully and undisturbed all over the shore.

I'd come to rural, southern Eleuthera with my husband, Jay, to visit his Aunt Karen and Uncle Ron, who work at the Island Academy and Cape Eleuthera Institute, which run marine educational and research programs for visiting students and scientists. Jay and I had drooled over the idea of taking a real vacation that we didn't need a vacation to recover from. Our typical escape might involve an exhausting itinerary of sightseeing, eating, and drinking, but over six days on Cape Eleuthera, we discovered hidden beaches, pristine snorkel spots, local treats, and abandoned swimming holes. On many occasions, we were the only ones sunbathing or beachcombing by the ocean.

We stayed at Ron and Karen's apartment at Cape Eleuthera Resort & Marina, the only hotel-like property within an hour's drive. We didn't see a single glossy brochure, tour guide, or concierge. And that's exactly how you make the most of the place.

The Cape Eleuthera Resort & Marina was developed in 1973 by Pan American Airways founder Juan Trippe, who expanded the Rock Sound airport in the Bahamas so Pan Am could fly in daily from major U.S. cities. The resort was developed around a dredged marina, with a clubhouse, villas, professionally designed golf course, airstrip, and cottage sites. Just years later, the resort was millions in debt, and development was stagnant. Saudi developer Abdul Bougary bought it in the 1980s after Trippe died but shut it down shortly after. Michigan company Landquest International later bought the property, and, in 2004, began reconstructing it according to its original vision.

There are now 50 yacht slips, shiny new rental villas lining the marina, and a newly constructed pool and private beach. The foundations of the resort's old cottages can still be seen at the quiet resort, and the holes of the famed golf course are grown over with shrubs and grass. While Jay and I visited, a couple of mega-yachts were peacefully parked in the marina - crews presumably preparing for the arrival of the boats' owners. Most of the tourists in this part of the island own vacation properties at the marina, are former students of the Island School, or know about the area through friends.

These in-the-know guests are familiar with all the secret spots, which means you have to get to know them, too. Like the Blue Hole in the small settlement of Green Castle, 10 miles north of Cape Eleuthera, where locals sometimes see manta rays while snorkeling. We weren't so lucky, but Ron and Jay practiced their free diving in the deep abyss while other visiting cousins and I splashed around. Passion fruit "cups" from V&H's, a small food stand owned by an elderly man named Mr. Stubbs, were a welcome refreshment on the ride home. A mix of fresh frozen juices in a plastic cup, it's a cross between a slushie and a flavored ice cube, which we enhanced with Havana Club rum and sipped on while watching the sunset.

We'd originally planned to soak in the views at High Rock, a nearby cliff-jumping spot. But on the drive there, we noticed Island School students riding their bikes to the same sunset spot. If we couldn't have High Rock to ourselves, we'd take a pass, thanks. Yep, that's how spoiled we were.

We endured another rocky, potholed ride to Plum Creek Beach, a shallow, secluded swimming hole. During high tide, you can walk up the beach, wade in, and let the current carry you to a sandbar a couple dozen feet from shore. But we made it there just as the tide was going out. With no floating possible, we opted instead to walk our beers out to the sandbar, where we sat in six inches of water and watched the sun go down.

Perhaps the best snorkeling spot was 4th Hole, a reef named after its location just off of the old Cape Eleuthera Resort golf course. Just as the tide got so low that we could no longer swim over the reef, we spied a tan spotted skate and a few sea urchins. Jay caught a conch, which was the first time I'd seen a live one in the ocean, with its gooey body and wide eyes staring at us out of the shell. Jay toted the conch all the way to the apartment, in case, when measured, it was mature enough to eat. (It was not, and he put it back in the ocean.)

Because of south Eleuthera's low profile, dining options can be limited, making the destination most appropriate for adventurous travelers who plan to catch their food on a fishing tour or don't mind shopping a half-hour away in Rock Sound or an hour's drive away in Governor's Harbour. One day, Ron and Jay spearfished for lion fish and a lobster just off the marina's beach (called "The Saddle"), and we promptly turned them into fritter appetizers at the apartment.

Skipping the pricier menu at Pascal's, the marina's restaurant, we reserved dinner at Sharil's, an ultracasual local restaurant with the tagline, "We cook it right." Early that day, Karen had made a 7 p.m. reservation to make sure our food would be ready at a reasonable time (it's island time, after all). Sharil delivered tasty, family-style portions of fried cracked conch, french fries, fried grouper, fried lobster, rice and peas, and macaroni and cheese, which we paired with BYOB Pirate Republic and Kalik beers.

Afterward, we stopped across the street at Friendly Bob's, a local dive bar/liquor store. We pulled single beers from the coolers and drank them standing with locals, who were watching a holiday Junkanoo festival on television. Tired and stuffed, we took a few sips and agreed to head back early and relax.

It felt like a real vacation.

IF YOU GO

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The airport in Rock Sound, Bahamas, is the closest to Cape Eleuthera, but Governor's Harbour, an hour away, has more daily flights. In south Eleuthera, you'll need to rent a car.

Snorkel

The Saddle: A reef just off the Cape Eleuthera Resort & Marina beach. Nearby is High Rock, a cliff you can jump from at low tide into water 20 feet deep. Be sure to ask a local for the exact spot.

4th Hole: Another beach at the resort.

Blue Hole: About 10 miles north of Cape Eleuthera in a waterfront park in Green Castle.

Scuba and shark diving

Ocean Fox Diving: Private excursions and certification. http://oceanfoxcotton bay.com/home.html.

Fishing

Capt. Callie Jolly (Davis Harbor, offshore): Half day $750, full day $1,350. 242-557-7948 cell, 242-334-0016 home. http://www.captaincallie.com/

Manex Newton (Rainbow Bay for bonefishing, paddle boarding, offshore and reef fishing): 242-359-7492.

Ocean Fox (Davis Harbor): 242-470-2407.

Learn/See

The Cape Eleuthera Institute offers tours and opportunities to get involved with shark, turtle, stingray, and bonefish research projects: www.ceibahamas.org.

Visit http://www.eleutheratours.com/. When fishermen are at the fish-cleaning station at the Cape Eleuthera Resort & Marina harbor, gather around. The fish guts, which they throw in the water, attract several bull sharks, which are fun to see up close. Needless to say, it is not safe place to swim.

Eat

Pascal's at Cape Eleuthera

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Located at the Cape Eleuthera

Resort & Marina.

Sharil's 242-334-8111.

Open for dinner.

From the resort, drive north to Deep Creek. Sharil's is on the bend in the road, to your right.

Shop

V&H's (Mr. Stubbs, proprietor).

Stop here for a few select vegetables, fruits, and "cups" (fruit and ice desserts).

The Marketplace in Rock Sound & Sturrup's Liquor Store.

Get groceries here on the way from the airport in Rock Sound. http://www.rsp

1976.com/marketplace.html.

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