Old friends create a heavenly domain in Wax Cay

When one dreams of the Caribbean the first image that comes to mind is of white-sand beaches and crystal-clear turquoise water. The seas in the Bahamian chain of islands are legendary, world-renowned as a yachting paradise, but nothing can prepare one for a first-hand experience of the range and beauty of their blue hues. Flying from Nassau to Norman’s Cay in a six-seater private airplane, we are dazzled by the clear water beneath us, ranging from the deepest prussian to the palest sparkling aqua. We are headed to Wax Cay, a 115-acre, private island in the Exumas, a collection of 365 tiny islands, accompanied by one of the owners who is to be our host. We land on neighbouring Norman’s Cay, taxiing along a brand new landing strip. The island is infamous for being the one-time haunt of Carlos Enrique Lehder Rivas, one of the most notorious founders of the Medellin drug cartel. He and his cohorts’ abandoned dwellings are still visited by the curious who pull their yacht dinghies up on shore to explore.

We clamber out of our small plane, to be met by the second of our hosts, pile into a sun bleached SUV, and are driven at a stately rate by the island’s cigar-toting caretaker, to the small dock from where we are to take a boat the short distance to Wax Cay.

Our hosts are long-time friends. They purchased the island 25 years ago from a caretaker who had been left the lease when the previous owner passed away. Wax was wild and undeveloped, with no buildings except for the former caretaker’s one lone cottage. Initially the two men would arrive on their sailboat, and sleep on it, sometimes bringing their families to camp out onshore. Slowly they began to develop the northern portion of the island that ends in a blunt wedge and tapers off at its southern edge. Their first project was to carve out a generous L-shaped marina that forms the heart of their development. A second marina was later cut on the southern section of the island on its western shore. Crews of local workers were brought in to hand cut the stone roads that now run the length of the island through the dense scrub. The two owners then went on to build themselves their own modest two–bedroom villa that shares an open kitchen and living area and sits on a bluff on the north-western edge, with easy access to the marina. From here they can smoke their cigars and watch the sunset in peace.

The two men were brought together in Nassau when their wives struck up a friendship through their four daughters. They joke they were “forced’’ to socialise by their wives but found to their surprise that they actually liked each other and have remained close friends for over 30 years. Despite being very different in character they made for an ideal partnership to develop the Cay, combining their complementary skills.

One, an engineer by training, took on the task of the logistics and infrastructure, the other provided the financial expertise, and having owned a design business, the aesthetic vision. The more gregarious of the two, the latter makes for an engaging and endlessly informative guide as we explore the island in golf carts, stopping to stroll along one deserted stretch of beach after another, learning about the flora and fauna and the history of the area which includes a mysterious stone wall stretching from east to west halfway down the island.

Wax Cay is the last inhabited island in the North Exuma chain before the Land and Sea Park, established in 1958 and one of 25 national parks and protected areas managed by the Bahamas National Trust. Its current owners have preserved as much of the natural beauty and wildlife on Wax as they can. They established a 14-acre plus wildlife sanctuary of their own where a small inlet snakes inland forming a lake in a low-lying area. The area is rich in birdlife. The little island also boasts the highest “mountain” in the chain and a nature trail cut through the bush winds up to its summit where one is rewarded with 365-degree views of the island and the uninhabited Shroud Cay in the distance, often with a group of mega yachts moored in its lee.

Our guide travels extensively throughout South East Asia and tells us that while shopping with his wife in Hanoi he was struck by an unusual building in the shop’s backyard. He learned that this was a traditional farmhouse brought down from rural North Vietnam. Struck by the simplicity and beauty of the building, he travelled to the North to Ho Binh near the border with China, which is home to one of the only tribes allowed to cut down trees, and purchased 20 of these dwellings individually. Traditional wooden buildings like these farmhouses are constructed with no nails or screws; instead their components are notched to fit together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Sadly this is now a dying art. Despite this being a hugely ambitious undertaking, this style of construction made it possible to have them dismantled and shipped to Wax Cay with each section meticulously numbered. Once the components were on the island, a crew of local workers was brought in to erect them, sometimes sinking part of the two-story structures deep into the ground to protect them against hurricanes. Their high-pitched Balinese Alang Alang thatch roofs with their overhangs, make them ideal for a hot climate. Unusual as it is to see these Asian-style buildings on a Bahamian island, somehow it works, their rustic beauty complementing their new home.

A large dining room with a bar and a fully equipped chef’s kitchen sits on a bluff overlooking the marina, and from its veranda has sweeping views of the sound and Norman’s Cay. There is also a games room with a billiard table and a raised open-sided “spa” which can serve as a yoga shala. Set on a small rise in the north-eastern corner of the island where the Atlantic surges through a gap into the sound and looking down onto the bird sanctuary and pond… it is a dramatic and enchanting spot ideal for a massage or early-morning meditation.

Nine cottages stretch along the north and east side of the island. Each has its own beach, formed by stone piers extending out into the water that keep the sand from being washed away. The vegetation around each cottage has been kept in its natural state giving them their own privacy. They are furnished with taste and simplicity with furniture and artwork brought in from Bali and Thailand. Every thought has been given to comfort. Each bedroom, which opens out onto a sea-facing terrace, has en suite luxury bathrooms made with Vietnamese marble and also features an outdoor shower.

We spend three days soaking up the tranquillity and beauty of this tiny paradise, strolling along one of its many beaches, watching for the pair of ospreys who have made the island their home, or driving perhaps to its most southern tip in one of the golf carts which we park to climb over rocks and explore the wild eastern stretch where the Atlantic can pound the rocky shore in dramatic contrast to the serene sound. Here we are shown a patch of stromatolites, rare forms of layered biochemical structures found in shallow water that contain fossil records as to the first forms of life on earth dating 3.5 billion years ago. The Exumas are the only open marine environment where they are known to prosper.

The island quickly seduces us with peacefulness. We linger over candlelit dinners on the restaurant’s terrace and relish our quiet nights under a star-filled sky, being lulled to sleep by the sounds of the ocean lapping at the shore. After all these years of hard work developing Wax Cay, its owners are still passionate about their island domain, clearly relishing their time spent here away from the demands of their busy lives. But they insist they are not willing to run it as a resort instead considering offering up the completed northern developed portion of 41 acres for sale. Although they are of an age when most men would consider retirement, it is hard to imagine these two vital friends doing so, or giving up their boys’ own island escape entirely.

During our last dinner together before we have to leave this piece of heaven, they admit they are not ready to turn in the towel and would like to continue to develop the southern section so that their respective families can continue to enjoy Wax Cay. I think they are excited at the prospect.