Some call it a paradise while others call it hell on earth. Some revel in the seclusion while others say it is a place where a sane man can lose his sanity. These extremes are indeed very correct. It takes a certain person to live on such an island that is barely more than 200 feet wide and 400 feet long.
Sanity is retained by the ample ability to leave versus the ample opportunities to stay. The human condition is like this. Restricting yourself to a small place is not a problem until outside influences restrict the ability to leave. In much the same way a child is punished by being sent to their room, finding it the worst place to be, yet given the liberty to stay in that room leads to hours of fun and enjoyment.
Simply put, the folks who love the seafaring life have a deep love of this little place but those who are not enticed by the ocean are bored to tears. Even the waves lapping at the shore irritate because it is constant.
Today about 20 people live here. They come and go at will and even the older kids vanish during the week, attending school off the island. The people carve out a life with mostly short term visitors that come to the island. Even that is random.
Mike Ferrell and his wife Julie moved to the island in 1988. Mike had sold his business and he and his wife had always pined to live in a tropical climate isolated from all the woes that normally come from tropical island life. They found Almanack Cay, named after the vessel that discovered the island, after hearing about it from other mariners. It seemed a visit was a good idea. Simply put, they fell in love with the island and the people. Julie added it was just like their second home back in the states that was located on a popular lake’s waterfront. There were always friends and family coming out to enjoy the lake. Julie said weekends were always whirlwind social events while weekdays were more tranquil alone time and a time with other lake residents had low key visits.
Mike was an avid diver and fisherman. Julie loved diving and at one point had done some bartending, so the two joined the families there to offer diving and drinks to visitors.
Mike explained the locals originally fished for their survival but as tourism became more important they took their fishing skills to better use. He noted the change came rather quickly because the mariners tend to be pretty talkative about their visits to various ports. At first people mostly tied up their boats and stayed on board because there was no place to stay on the island. Eventually a few guest houses popped up. The islanders decided that an organized plan was needed.
They certainly did not want their tiny island to become a place foreign to them. They wanted visitors, but they wanted the quiet life as well. In fact, Mike said he had to visit a number of times to convince the islanders he wanted what they wanted before gaining their seal of approval. Simply put, only locals can set up on the island (Mike and Julie are the exception). No resort hotels just simply true to life island stays.
The plan has worked in spite of the disorganized plan. You see, there is no scheduled service to the island and no phones for making reservations. To reach the island you need your own boat or a visit to a nearby island where you ask if anyone is heading that way. Simply put, that is not difficult since there are 3 or 4 boats virtually every day. Fishermen and others are always out in the area so hitching a ride is no big deal, usually a few dollars each way.
Without reservations, there is no way of knowing if you can get a guesthouse for the night or longer. Sure, you can write a letter but that is not a given because there is no way to put down a deposit as only cash is accepted. Not even travelers checks are welcome. Needless to say, there is no facility for cashing a cashier’s check and no way to process a credit card. Still, if you write, the islanders will hold a room for you. More often than not, visitors will inquire about a guesthouse and maybe one will be available. But, don’t expect a life of luxury. The guesthouses are simple affairs and cheap. You might be able to pitch a tent, however. Most visitors just come out and see what happens.
For a mere 20 people, there is quite a bit available on the island. You can dive, fish and play on the beach, including lounging in a hammock. When you get thirsty you can grab a drink at the store or a restaurant (of which there are two). You can grab any meal or snack at several spots. One resident is a good baker and offers breakfast goodies. Snacks and soft drinks can be had at the store. Alcohol and prepared foods are at both of the restaurants. Mostly the residents don’t keep business hours but simply are open when you want them to be. Local musicians play at a restaurant/bar in the evening and everything goes quiet about 10 or 11 in the evening..
Weekdays tend to be much quieter. In fact, locals may take a boat to a nearby island to do some shopping or just for a change of pace, so not every place is open every weekday. The locals understand the need for these services, so usually a neighbor sees to the business as well.
The beauty of the island, aside from it being a true working community, is the quiet and security. There is not a lock on the island. They simply are not needed. In such a small community any infraction comes to light very quickly and getting away with something just will not happen. When you are on such a tiny dot of land everyone knows everyone’s business almost minute by minute.
For such an isolated place, the islanders are pretty well on the same page as the rest of the world. One must suspect they hear enough from visitors to have a good understanding of the world around them. They are educated and civil and tend to make a fairly high income compared to some areas.
There are some relative ‘dangers’ on this tranquil spot. There is no medical facility although most residents have some basic knowledge and can take care of minor emergencies. Getting advanced care means going by small boat to a neighboring island, then transport to the nearest hospital. Even though hurricanes are rare, they do happen. One hit in 2002. The island was evacuated and when they returned they had to rebuild everything. This was the second time in 100 years or more the island was wiped clean except for the vegetation which is mostly palm trees and introduced species. Locals say on four other instances the island was submerged by breaking surf and tropical storm force winds. That is why all buildings are on stilts. There is the ever present concern of a water shortage as all drinking water is collected in rain catchments. Usually not a concern because of plentiful moisture, there have been a few fairly dry years.
English is the language of the island with a few other local or foreign words added to create an interesting lingo. Mike had added it is no trouble understanding the locals or communicating with them. He noted the accent might throw you a few times on a few words.
The people are Christian but there is not a church on the island.
Electricity is handled by generators.
Government is a collective affair. Generally speaking, volunteers manage to organize the logistics and make needed arrangements for the island. Such chores was getting rid of trash is made by contracting for a boat run as is the delivery of fuel. Even groceries are handled in this way. As Mike puts it, the island is for all intent and purpose much like an independent nation. He noted he doesn’t see government officials and nobody pays a dime in taxes to any government. As Mike put it, “It’s like we’re there and we are ignored”. Mike says that is fine with him as the island is well prepared to fend for itself. When asked if there was a need for law enforcement, he said there was no need in recent memory. He said one tourist got really drunk and out of control but some locals grabbed him, ordered him into his guesthouse and told not to come out until he was sober. The next morning he was sent off the island. He said except for that one instance, all the visitors were well behaved and are cautioned about disrupting others visiting the island (ie: no loud gatherings, public drunkenness and the sort). It seems at one point a young boy on the island was sneaking out at night stealing from neighbors. When his father found some of the stolen items they were returned and he tied a rope around his son’s hand and the other end around a palm tree outside the home, leaving him there all night. By the time he was let loose the whole island knew why he had been tied to the tree. His humiliation proved enough to stop the practice. That’s as bad as it gets, according to Mike, who claimed the punishment was pretty clever to him.
Tourism is the moneymaker here. For such a tiny island there is sure a lot of commerce. There are 6 places to stay, all very small, offering 4 to 6 guest cottages. Each place has an arrangement for meals. In many respects these places operate like American Bed and Breakfast facilities where the family tends to your needs, cooks the meals and so forth. Meals can be negotiated as two of the places let visitors dine at their tables as well. Some guests want to eat a few meals at these two restaurants. Most places offer only communal dining. One has a bar. There is a dive shop and a convenience store with many typical offerings like Doritos and Starbucks bottled coffee drinks. You can ask any boat owner for a fishing trip and get a price right then. It is very spur of the moment, unplanned and geared to making the visitors have a good time.
Tourism brings in the money. The average price for a double ranges from about $25 to $30 US Dollars nightly and the new guesthouse with air conditioning runs around $50 a night. Per capita income, as a result, is around $8,400 US Dollars per year.
ALMANACK CAY MONEY
A local coin is available on the island and accepted as a local currency. The reality is foreign currencies are utilized almost exclusively as most economic activity comes from off the island. We suspect the local coins might be more for souvenirs for tourists versus an actual currency although we have reports the coins can be spent on the island.