This US couple built an oceanfront home in the Bahamas. Then a hurricane hit

They’d always dreamed of living by the ocean, but when they first visited the Bahamas back in 1985, Norvell and Mark Slezycki never imagined that they’d have their very own oceanfront home in the island country.

The couple, who were living in New York City at the time, “stumbled upon” the Abaco Islands, located north of Nassau, and were struck by how underdeveloped the island chain was at the time.

“We kept coming back, almost every year,” Norvell tells CNN Travel. “And exploring all of the other islands in the chain, staying at just about every island.

“And we just fell in love with the whole idea of some islands that could still be so undeveloped.”

Dream location

The couple split their time between Florida and the Bahamas. - robertharding/Alamy Stock Photo

The couple split their time between Florida and the Bahamas. – robertharding/Alamy Stock Photo

Over the years, the pair grew particularly fond of Great Guana Cay, a seven-mile long islet in the center of the Abaco Islands, and continued to visit regularly, while wondering what it would be like to live there once they’d retired.

During one of their trips, the Slezyckis rode the entire length of the island on bicycles and eventually came across an area that piqued their interest.

“We started asking, ‘Who owns all this land? Can we figure out who owns it and if they have it for sale?’ And then we just ran with it,” says Norvell.

In 2003, they negotiated a deal to purchase an acre of land in the area for about $100,000.

“We were elated. But also scared,” admits Norvell. “[It was] such a huge decision so removed from our comfort zone.”

In order to raise the money to build their dream home, the couple, who had moved to Florida by this point, decided to downsize, selling their house in Lighthouse Point, Florida, and purchasing a smaller house in nearby Pompano Beach.

“That’s what made it feasible for us to follow this dream,” she adds.

They hired a local builder in 2005, making an agreement by handshake, with Mark designing their home himself.

Handshake agreement

The Slezyckis love watching the sunrise from their waterfront home in the Bahamas. - Norvell Slezycki

The Slezyckis love watching the sunrise from their waterfront home in the Bahamas. – Norvell Slezycki

“[The builder] said, ‘All you need to do is wire money to cover my crew every week and we will not stop working on the house,’” says Norvell.

As the couple were both working full-time for Mark’s manufacturing company, they had to coordinate the build from the US.

“It was incredibly challenging,” admits Norvell. “Bringing in material, keeping track [of everything] and wondering if the house is being built properly when you’re not even there.”

When asked how much they spent on the build in total, Norvell says that she and Mark “disagree” on the figure, but believe it was around $325,000 “give or take.”

Work on their two-bedroom, two-bathroom home was complete by 2006, with Norvell and Mark traveling over for long weekends and “sad little two-week vacations” before officially retiring in 2010.

At this stage, they were able to spend six months in the Bahamas and six months in the US, which they describe as “the perfect balance.”

“A lot of people wait, or maybe they have to [wait] financially, but they wait [to retire],” says Norvell.

“And then all of a sudden, their health issues start to compound. And we really worked hard to do this.

“This is not something that came easily financially. We worked very, very hard to make this happen and figure out a way that it would work.”

Reaching their home is no simple feat. The couple have to take a 70-minute charter flight from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport to Treasure Cay Airport on Great Abaco Island, before taking a 30-minute taxi ride to the ferry dock, where they hop on a ferry to Great Guana Cay, a journey of around 25 minutes.

“The wait for the next ferry can be several hours,” says Norvell, adding that they usually arrange for a friend to collect them and drive them to their home. “So, if we take an 8 a.m. flight, we are usually in our house by noon.”

Mark goes on to explain that he finds the journey to be an essential part of the process of “getting relaxed and patient,” in preparation for their time on the island.

“It’s quite a day,” he says. ”But we do it once a year.”

Storm damage

Sadly their home was destroyed when Hurricane Dorian hit in 2019. - Norvell Slezycki

Sadly their home was destroyed when Hurricane Dorian hit in 2019. – Norvell Slezycki

In the coming years, there were some “minor storms,” the couple say, but “the killer” was Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm that “made a beeline for the Abacos” in September 2019. The Slezyckis’ home was destroyed.

“It came through and literally stalled over these islands and caused major, major disruption,” explains Norvell. “If your house wasn’t destroyed, it was damaged. Nobody was [left] unscathed.”

Unfortunately, the Slezyckis weren’t able to return to Great Guana Cay for a while as the nearest airports had also been damaged by the storm.

The following year, restrictions were put in place across the world due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which complicated things for them further.

“We lost a lot of time, where we couldn’t get here,” explains Norvell. “Or if we could get here, all we could do was pick up debris around where our house used to be.”

Norvell goes on to explain that Mark traveled over to the island when he was able to, but she couldn’t face going in the beginning.

“I couldn’t really help that much,” she says. “And emotionally… I was pretty upset at the whole thing.”

Once they had surveyed the damage thoroughly, the couple decided that they would rebuild their home themselves, using their savings to purchase materials.

“Mark is incredibly handy,” says Norvell. “And he said, ‘I think I can build this house pretty much on my own.’”

For the next few years, they focused on making their home livable again, staying with a neighbor whose home was only “mildly damaged” each time they returned to the island.

“Believe me, if we were 10 years older, we probably wouldn’t have been able to do it,” says Norvell, adding that they’re “still not done.”

“We’ve still got a couple of good years left. A lot of people did not rebuild. They gave it up.

“But we just couldn’t do it. [The house] was too much a part of our lives.”

Despite the setbacks, the couple can’t imagine leaving their lives in Great Guana Cay behind, and say they love being there.

“First of all, the pace over here is a lot slower, which we really like,” says Norvell. “No crowds, no traffic, no road rage, little to no crime.”

Although the hurricane devastated Great Guana Cay, the island has since recovered, and “in some ways is better than ever,” says Norvell.

Simpler life

Members-only residential community Baker's Bay Golf & Ocean Club is located on the other side of the island. - Baker’s Bay Golf & Ocean Club

Members-only residential community Baker’s Bay Golf & Ocean Club is located on the other side of the island. – Baker’s Bay Golf & Ocean Club

In the years since they’ve been living on the island, private resort community Baker’s Bay Golf & Ocean Club, has opened on the other side of the island.

“When they first started building, it was a really big controversial thing on this island,” says Norvell, outlining the controversy around the exclusive development, which faced a lot of resistance from locals.

“For about five or six years, it was just all anybody could talk about.”

The Slezyckis go on to explain that their part of the island is very far removed from the private resort, where celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Tom Brady are thought to have homes.

While in Great Guana Cay, which has a population of around 150, the couple travel around on a golf cart, taking beach walks and going diving and snorkeling when they can.

“It’s sort of like living in the ’50s,” says Mark. “It’s just a different culture.”

Norvell has been collecting Bahamian sea glass since she first began visiting the island country and makes jewelry from it. She also has a vegetable and herb garden that she spends time maintaining.

“It’s just a simpler life and it’s a lot more stress-free, other than the spotty power,” she says.

“It’s a luxury to wake up and have the water in front of you, the ocean and the sunrise. Every morning is spectacular.

“It’s quiet and we don’t have any neighbors on top of us. We’re really spread out over here.”

In 2020, she launched a TikTok account, SouthPauseIslandGirl, on the suggestion of her niece, and eventually began posting about Great Guana Cay.

“I had a video go viral with like six million views, which is crazy for somebody my age,” she says. “After that [my TikTok account] really kind of took off.”

Norvell now streams live sunset sessions from Great Guana Cay while drinking her morning coffee at home and holds online auctions where followers can bid on her sea glass jewelry.

She explains that the success of her TikTok account has meant that she’s been able to “bring in a little extra income” as well as have a lot of fun figuring out how to navigate social media.

“When I first got on TikTok, I didn’t even know what I was doing,” she adds. “I still don’t, but anyway…”

Over the years, Norvell and Mark have built strong friendships with some of the other expats who live in the area, and say the “sense of community is quite strong.”

“We really help each other out,” says Norvell.

They adopted a cat, Flip Flop, who was born on their property, 16 years ago.

“She travels back and forth with us and is a pure delight,” adds Norvell.

Although Norvell and Mark concede that they don’t necessarily socialize with locals that much, they enjoy attending neighborhood events such as the occasional “community dinners” on the main street, where all of the residents get together and tuck into huge spreads, as well as the annual Christmas tree-lighting.

The Slezyckis stress that they’re aware that they’re “guests” in the Bahamas and “think it’s really important to know that and to respect that.”

“There’s a very small population of true Bahamian citizens who have lived here literally for generations,” says Norvell.

“They are reserved and religious, but if you treat them the way you should, which is with kindness and respect, they warm up to you and then you become one of them and they accept you.

“But it’s not something that happens overnight.”

New beginning

They started rebuilding their property soon after the hurricane, with Mark taking on much of the work himself. - Norvell Slezycki

They started rebuilding their property soon after the hurricane, with Mark taking on much of the work himself. – Norvell Slezycki

As for the cost of living, it’s “roughly double” that of the US, according to the Slezyckis, who explain that the remoteness of the island means that many goods are imported, so tend to be more expensive.

According to couple, the cost of gas, which they use to power their golf cart, is higher, along with groceries.

“Our little island has to bring in the groceries,” she explains. “So they’ve got to make money somewhere.”

The Slezyckis point out that one of the other “big negatives” about living on the island is that “there’s really no health care to speak of,” and the nearest clinics, which deal with more minor issues, are located in Marsh Harbour, on the island of Great Abaco.

“If you had a really serious health issue, you would have to fly back to the States,” says Norvell.

Earlier this month, the US State Department posted a travel advisory update urging Americans to “exercise increased caution” in the Bahamas, citing the islands of New Providence, where Nassau is located, and Grand Bahama, where Freeport is located, as the affected areas.

Norvell and Mark Slezycki - Courtesy Norvell Slezycki

Norvell and Mark Slezycki – Courtesy Norvell Slezycki

Norvell says that she’s received various messages expressing concern about crime, but stresses that she and Mark feel very safe in Great Guana Cay.

“We are so far away from [the areas affected], geographically and also just the flavor of this island,” she says.

“There’s really little to no crime [in Great Guana Cay] and that is something that’s difficult to find in this day and age anywhere.”

Although their rebuilt home is still not finished, Norvell stresses that it’s “totally livable,” and they hope to have it ready by April.

“I want to have a party to announce the completion,” she adds.

Owners of property in the Bahamas are eligible for an annual Home Owners Resident Card and the Slezyckis also have the option to apply for citizenship.

However, they explain, because the island country permits visa extensions allowing visitors to stay for up to eight months, they’ve never needed to.

When asked whether they ever plan to settle in Great Guana Cay permanently, the couple say that they’re happy to keep splitting their time between the island and the US, where they still have a home in Florida, for the foreseeable future.

“It just works so well,” says Norvell. “You’ve always got that escape, and if there’s something you’ve just got to get back home for whatever reason, you’re not stuck here.

“Between family, friends, doctor visits, going to a show or going to a really good restaurant, those things are just not available over here,” says Norvell.

“So it’s good to get a little dose of all of that. And I think we appreciate [the island] when we come back even more.”

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