The adventure began with free-diving to the sea’s bottom to spot a mermaid and ended with a hot bubble bath strewn with red tropical flower petals in our villa. In between there were swimming pigs, grape-eating endangered dinosaur descendants, a free dive into Thunderball Cave (shoot site of the eponymous James Bond film), beach walks on deserted islands, and a swim with sharks.
In Your Bucket Because…
- The tricky Thunderball Cave snorkel awards with dense concentrations of tropical fish.
- Island-hopping is the ultimate Exuma experience.
- Good for couples and water-lovers.
No this was not a dream, and although we saw David Copperfield’s island home, nor was it an illusion.
It was, certainly, an opportunity to check off a number of fantasy bucket items — some I didn’t even know were on my list. With 365 named islands and cays and 50 shades of blue, off-the-radar Exuma in the southern Bahamas holds forth the promise of island-hopping as a quintessential, defining experience.
Island #1: Great Exuma Island
Let me just say there’s not a great deal to do in this Bahamian island sub-group but relax. And do the water. But the water is enough. Like David Copperfield, it hypnotizes. Enchants. Mystifies.
It started on the glide into the international airport outside of capital George Town. Those 50 shades of blue instantly seduce, while a string of islands that stretch more than 90 miles from south of Great Exuma to parallel of Nassau taunted my inner island goddess to explore.
Okay, enough of the Fifty Shades allusions. Maybe it was catching sight of Copperfield on the balcony of his gajillion-dollar home on Musha Cay. (I envision Christian Grey to look like the illusionist.)
But back to Great Exuma. Here we began our island-tripping in George Town, a somnolent, walkable downtown with no traffic lights, a few shops and restaurants, and a no-nonsense grocery for boaters coming into harbor.
From here you can catch a ferry from the government dock to tick off island #2 on the list of 365. A quick crossing takes you to Stocking Island, known for its famed Chat ‘N’ Chill, a beach party destination for locals and visitors alike. Sunday is a barbecue bash, but any day of the week you can relish grilled fish and conch salad chopped to order.
Conch man A.J. will show you how to feed conch leftovers to the rays that hover like small aircraft.
From Great Exuma, you can also reach Little Exuma Island, a short drive south. Here you can cross the line into the Tropic of Cancer and feed on conch fritters at Santana’s Grill, Johnny Depp’s choice while filming Pirates of the Caribbean on location.
In George Town, the historic Club Peace & Plenty inn is a good, central location for walking around George Town. This time, however, I stayed north of the airport at Sandals Emerald Bay, a totally polar experience.
That warm, flowery bath I mentioned? Drawn by our butler in anticipation that we’d be chilled after our all-day boating experience. Need I say more?
362 Cays To Go
My husband and I had discussed renting a boat to plunder island treasures, but when we learned that Sandals offers an all-day “007 Thunderball Island Safari,” we decided we’d opt for local knowledge to fit in as many islands into four days as possible.
We rode about a half-hour north to the fishing village of Barreterre to meet up with Capt. Ray Lightbourne and his son, Justin, operators of Exuma Water Sports. The Lightbourne family has been part of the Exuma landscape since the American Revolution, and obviously know these waters like Johnny Depp knows conch.
We didn’t get to see Depp’s hideaway — what Capt. Ray described as a humble eco-retreat -– because it was not within the 65 miles of water we covered that day. We did see islands that Johnson & Johnson, Nicholas Cage, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and various eccentrics own.
And of course, Copperfield’s cay, where if money is no object, you can rent a home or the whole island. The magician was responsible for our morning mermaid sighting. He commissioned a sculpture of a baby grand piano with a mermaid lying next to it, just to sink it to the bottom of the gem-toned waters.
“You won’t see that on any other tour,” said Capt. Ray.
The rest – the endangered Bahamian rock iguanas of Great Guana Cay, the swimming pigs of Big Majors Cay, and the swim-with-nurse-sharks experience at funky Compass Cay – are on the agenda of most local boat tours.
I didn’t count, but I estimate we saw at least 100 cays that day, each more secluded and tantalizing than the next. We stopped for beach time and a swim in the bay at dunes-heaped White Point, where Justin treated us to sweet-sweet Exuma pineapple.
Lunch on salty Staniel Cay and homemade rum cake on a surreal Sandbar topped off a day of island after island, each with its own story of drug smugglers, British castles, salt ponds, and a celebrity golf resort to come.
Just think: 365 named cays! It begs the question: if an apple a day keeps the doctor away, what fresh health would a cay a day accomplish?
- It is possible to directly book the island safari with Exuma Water Sports, but guests at Sandals get priority, so you may be disappointed. The tour lasts from eight to nine hours including the ride back and forth to Barreterre. I recommend snorkeling experience, but the crew will teach and guide you through the rough spots. They also provide equipment.
- Club Peace & Plenty 242-336-2551 or 800-525-2210
- Sandals Emerald Bay, 888-SANDALS