Off the Beaten Path: 7 Reasons to Visit The Exumas, Bahamas

 

The Bahamas may seem so on the beaten path that it’s easy to overlook some of the nation’s more unique destinations. A beach overrun with iguanas? Yup. An island run by a family of swimming pigs and a chicken? Um, this exists. Or how about the occasional hidden grotto, water so clear you might mistake it for air and one of the few places in the world you can make a beach day on the Tropic of Cancer?

You won’t find any of these things by hitting up well known places like Nassau or that Atlantis Resort where your cousins think they’ll run into Beyonce and Jay Z.  Rather, you’ve got to head to the Exuma Cays—The Bahamian (pronounced Bah-hee-mee-ian) Cays (pronounced keys) located somewhere between Nassau and Turks & Caicos.

Mostly over looked by the Bahamian tourist machine, Exuma has grown into a cult favorite of the well-heeled yachting/boating set, due in part to the big role it played in the 1965 James Bond flick, Thunderball.

But ostentatious, this is not. Here’s one place where the 1% (ok, maybe 5%) go to get away from their lavish everyday and revel in some secret authenticity. “CEO’s from well known companies to famous Spanish movie stars will pull their yachts up or land their sea planes here to enjoy our food, lay on our beaches and not be bothered,” says Kenneth “KB” Bowe, the owner of the picture-perfect, ramshackle looking beach bar and grill, Chat ‘n’ Chill on Exuma’s Stocking Island.

Nothing in Exuma says, “Turks & Caicos,” which is to say that it’s not exactly chic-to-the-eye, but what it’s missing in man-made elegance it makes up for in strides in natural beauty. The crystal clear waters here are known to be among the best in all of the Caribbean. The population of drool-worthy yachts and sailboats that sit off the shallow coastline are in stark comparison to the rustic, you might say, “charming” trappings of the Exuma islands.

This all might make you think Exuma to be a study in economic contrast; instead it is a place where the wealthy and the working class, black and white, casual vacationers and serious adventurers are all indecipherable under the common guise of anyone who’s heartstrings are plucked by time worn, natural, tropical beauty.

So what then, are the top reasons for you to go there? Read below and then check the images.

1—Swimming with Pigs

A metaphor for life? Maybe, but on Major Spot Cay it’s a literal thing. According to the locals, it started when a few guys living on Staniel Cay got all jittery that supplies would stop being flown into the island during the First Gulf War and found it prudent to move some livestock to this deserted island. You know, just incase. Since supplies still flowed, the farm animals were left to fend for themselves, which meant that as boats drifted past, the pigs would run into the shallow water to beg for dinner scraps. The pigs have now evolved on the island this way (who knows what generation they’re on) so that as your boat approaches the beach, a bunch of pigs will still dash into the water, where you may now take a very cool Instagram/Facebook picture. And feed them. It’s all they know.

2—Chill with Iguanas on a beach

Pulling into the white sandy beach of Bitter Guana Cay is almost like arriving on the set of Jurassic Park IV: Attack of the Mini-saurs, and then you realize it’s actually more like Lord of the Flies, but with Iguanas. No one’s sure what strange force brought the lizards, but they roam the beach with authority and are curious/brave enough to crawl right up to your feet…at which point, we suggest moving away.

3—Swimming with Sharks

Another metaphor for life? Depending on where you live, yes. But also something that happens for real at the marina on Compass Cay. They’re not great whites, tiger sharks or even hammerheads, but the 2-3 foot nurse sharks that swarm around the dock here still have the ability to chew your arm off. That said, they’re incredibly docile and Tucker, local legend and marina’s owner the owner of all of Compas Cay, hasn’t had one injury in all his years assisting crazy tourists to overcome their fear of predatory sea life.

4—Visit the Tropic of Cancer

The Tropic of Cancer is like the neglected little sister of the equator. Perhaps that’s because the line that marks the northern most region at which the midday sun actually sits at the very apex of the sky is a lot less juicy than the line noting the exact halfway point between the poles. But also maybe because said line rarely passes through such devastatingly beautiful land as it does though one of the most jaw dropping beaches in the Caribbean. It’s on the island of Little Exhuma and is officially called Pelican beach. Surprisingly, it’s not too busy (though hardly secluded) and has what some might say water that is a rainbow of blue. You can snorkel, relax and take cool pictures under a hand made wooden sign that tells you where the lines lies. Just be sure to bring your supplies because there’s not much infrastructure.

5—Go to some Grottos

…that are not built into the swimming pool at Hugh Hefner’s house. There are a few naturally occurring ones freckled around the Exumas, but the most prolific, and worth seeing, is called Thunderball Grotto on Staniel Cay. The name comes from the 1965 James Bond film that shot some pretty pivotal scenes there (we re-watched the old film and other than a some old vintage Bahamian street scenes and a hilarious moment where Q marvels at the unfathomable technology of an underwater camera with 9 shots, the movie is not worth the time) and has since been used as the location of a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. The cave is only really accessible during low tide, which is when most tours arrive, though very experienced swimmers and scuba divers will have a great time checking the maze of caves out during the mostly solitary high tide. Also of note is the grotto in Exuma Land and Sea Park.

6—The Staniel Cay Yacht Club

The name is a little misleading. Yes, there’s a marina and yes there are yachts but no, this is in no way an extravagant, stuffy, members only kind of place. Quite the contrary, but we’ll get to that.

First…know this. There are 365 islands in the Exuma Cays, of which only about 20 are inhabited. The main island, Great Exuma is the most touristy. One of the highest end Sandals is there, which actually has a gorgeous golf course (6 holes flush against the sea) and includes free scuba certification. You can get to Great Exuma via Delta through Atlanta or United Air via Fort Lauderdale and Miami. From there (you’ll land in George Town) you can book tours or charter water taxis to take you from place to place.

Or, you can do what we did—Fly via 9 seat plane from Fort Lauderdale the 2 hours or so to Staniel Cay, one of the most beautiful and tucked away islands in Exuma, over breathtaking turquoise, azure, sapphire and teal waters so shallow and translucent you can also see the bottom. Watermakers Air operates chartered flights (prices vary according to season) and offers discounts to the island’s only hotel—The Staniel Cay Yacht Club. Actually, they have the same owner so setting up the flight and hotel are pretty seamless and they pick you up on golf carts from the airport, showing you all the cool local spots to hit up along the way.

There are only 12 bungalows at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club, which despite its name is quite modest. The restaurant/bar—really the only indoor part of the property—is festooned with flags from yachts and boats that have been stopping here to eat and drink since it opened in 1956. The restaurant-bar’s filled with world travelers, boaters and lovers while dinner plates are full of today’s fresh catch (usually grouper or lobster). You can book just a room, but if you get the all-inclusive package, it also comes with your own skiff (no license necessary) and all meals. But then again, if you’ve got your own skiff, you’ll probably want to take your lunch to go and find a deserted sand bar (very possible) upon which to picnic.

Staniel Cay is a great home base for just about all of the must-see activities in the Exhumas and is a few hour water taxi ride ($12) up to the main island.

7—The People

Corny, right? Which means it’s actually true since we’re going there. It’s not that everyone’s overly “Disney” friendly, but Bahamian people are optimistic, affable and patent. This is true all over the country, but you get a special taste of it in Exuma where locals and tourists mix in less contrived settings than up in Nassau.

We surmise the plummy blend of character comes from the fact that no blood was ever spilled when they gained independence from the UK in the ’70s and that slavery here wasn’t the same viscous carnage that it was in the rest of the Caribbean. When the slaves were freed, the government bestowed large tracts of some of the Bahama’s most beautiful land to the descendants who are still living there today.

Or it could just be that one eats lobster here the way Californians eat kale and New Yorkers pizza.

And then there’s the music. You might expect reggae to permeate the island as it does on many islands, but here it’s not about Songs of Redemption or No Woman No Cry, it’s all about Motown, soul and funk—How Sweet it Is To Be Loved By You, Easy Like Sunday Morning and Sign Sealed Delivered. The last of which was played on repeat while a possibly drunk local guy danced for the crowd at a cool, side-of-the-road/beach-front sea food spot called Santanna’s on the island of Little Exuma. Get the cracked lobster and be sure to head to Mom’s Bakery right next door for the satiating rum and marble cakes. Then, and only then, will your Exuma off-the-beaten-path experience be complete.

List of Water Taxis & Rental Cars http://www.thebahamas.com/exuma.htm