San Salvador's capital, Cockburn (pronounced "Co-burn") Town, is a harbor village that takes its name from George Cockburn, said to have been the first royal governor of The Bahamas to visit this remote island (he stopped by in 1823). Look for the town's landmark: a giant almond tree. Major San Salvador events, like the Columbus Day parade held every October 12, generally take place here.
Commemorating Columbus & More
For such a small island, San Salvador offers a great deal of history as well as some sights that merit a look. Rent a bike, hire a taxi, or start walking, and see how many of the Christopher Columbus monuments you can hit. All of them are meant to mark the place where Columbus and his crew supposedly anchored the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria early that morning in 1492. Note that except for the party people at Club Med, San Salvador is mainly visited by the boating set, who live aboard their watercraft. If you're exploring for the day, you might come across one or two local cafes that serve seafood.
Just south of Cockburn Town, the Tappan Monument, a small four-sided stone pillar, stands on the beach at Fernandez Bay (mile marker no. 5 on the main road). The Tappan gas company embedded this monument here in 1951 in honor of Columbus.
The Chicago Herald Monument is located on the east coast at mile marker no. 24. To reach it, turn off the main road and drive 1.6 km (1 mile) to East Beach. Unless you meet a resident who can give you a ride in a four-wheel-drive car, you have to get out and walk. Turn right and hike 3km (1 3/4 miles) parallel to the beach until the sandy road ends. You'll see a cave to the left, at the water's edge. Follow the path to the right. Cupped by vegetation, a stone structure lies on the slice of land between the ocean and the bay. Although many historians dispute the claim, the marble plaque boasts, "On this spot Christopher Columbus first set foot upon the soil of the New World, erected by the Chicago Herald, June 1891." The only problem with the monument's claim is that the treacherous reefs here make this a dangerous -- and thus highly unlikely -- landing spot.
At Long Bay, the Olympic Games Memorial to Columbus, located 5km (3 miles) south of Cockburn Town, was erected in 1968 to commemorate the games in Mexico. Runners carrying an Olympic torch circled the island before coming to rest at the monument and lighting the torch there. The torch was then taken to Mexico on a warship. Another marker is underwater, supposedly where Columbus dropped the anchor of the Santa Maria.
Just north of the Olympic Games Memorial stands the Columbus Monument. On December 25, 1956, Ruth Durlacher Wolper Malvin -- a leading U.S. expert on Columbus -- established a simple monument commemorating the explorer's landfall in the New World. Unlike the spot marked by the Chicago Herald monument, this is actually likely to be the place where Columbus and his men landed.
Among the settlements on San Salvador are Sugar Loaf, Pigeon Creek, Old Place, Holiday Track, and Fortune Hill. United Estates, which has the largest population, is a village in the northwest corner near the Dixon Hill Lighthouse. The U.S. Coast Guard has a station at the island's northern tip.
In the northeastern portion of the island, Dixon Hill Lighthouse, built in 1856, sends out an intense beam two times every 25 seconds. This signal is visible for 31km (19 miles). The oil-using lighthouse rises about 50m (164 ft.) into the sky, and the keeper still operates it by hand. For permission to climb to the top, just knock on the keeper's door; he's almost always in the neighboring house.
After huffing and puffing your way up, you'll be surprised to see how tiny the source of light actually is. From the top of the lighthouse, take in the panoramic view of San Salvador's inland lakes, distant Crab Cay, and the surrounding islets. Ask the lighthouse keeper to show you the inspector's log, which has signatures dating back to Queen Victoria's reign. Be sure to leave at least a $1 donation when you sign the guestbook on your way out. The lighthouse is about a 30-minute taxi ride from Riding Rock Inn and Club Med.
At French Bay, Watling's Castle, also known as Sandy Point Estate, has substantial ruins that are about 26m (85 ft.) above sea level. The area is located some 4km (2 1/2 miles) from the large lake on the southwestern tip of the island. Local "experts" will tell you all about the castle and its history. The only problem is that each one we've listened to (three in all, at different times) has told us a different story about the place. Ask around and perhaps you'll get yet another version; they're entertaining, at least. One of the most common legends involves a pirate who made a living either by salvaging wreckage from foundered ships or by attacking ships for their spoils.
Once upon a time, plantations -- all doomed to failure -- were scattered about the island. The most impressive and best-known ruins of one are at Farquharson's Plantation, west of Queen's Highway, near South Victoria Hill. In the early 19th century, some Loyalist families moved from the newly established United States to this island, hoping to get rich from farmland tended by slave labor. That plan collapsed when the United Kingdom Emancipation Act freed the slaves in 1834. The plantation owners moved on, but the former slaves stayed behind. A relic of those times, Farquharson's Plantation is where you can see the foundation of a great house, a kitchen, and what is believed to have been a jail. People locally call it "Blackbeard's Castle," but it's a remnant of slavery, not piracy.