The Exuma Cays: An Untrammeled Paradise
Cocoa Plum Beach in Exuma - photos by Steve Mirsky
By Steve Mirsky
Crowded beaches, casino gambling, and throngs of people much like yourself looking to get away from it all -- that's often the picture people have of many resorts in the Bahamas. If you really want to get away from it all, you should visit the Exuma Cays, a necklace of 360 islands in the Central Bahamas.
Great and Little Exuma, the largest of the islands, are an outstanding pick for losing yourself in natural beauty while connecting with real island life. With wide open sun-drenched skies and beaches, limitless coral reefs, and small islands waiting for discovery just offshore, cell phones, satellite TV, and Internet suddenly devolve into annoyances hindering your escape.
Peter Oxley of Coral Gardens Bed and Breakfast located in Hoopers Bay summed it up best as he waved to the TV scuttled in the corner and drolly remarked: “If you feel the need to use this thing, it’s certainly available for your use.”
Peter and his wife Betty offer rooms with private baths starting at $95 per night. This is by far the best value on the island when compared to rooms at The Four Seasons Resort at Emerald Baystarting at roughly $300 per night.
To get your bearings, first take a guided taxi tour with a local driver. Patrick Dorsett in Taxi # 43 will explain that multicolored dilly crabs get their name from the dilly trees they crawl under to eat fallen fruit. He’ll also give you a tour of the Rolle Town tombs and perhaps pluck a ripe papaya off the tree for tasting.
Peter and Betty Oxley
Next, rent a car which ranges in price from $50-$100 per day. Bike rentals are currently unavailable except through some hotels, and scooters can cost just as much as cars.
The main and only paved two-lane road is the narrow Queens Highway running about 60 miles from the north at Barre Tarre down to its southern terminus at Williamstown. You won’t encounter one traffic light anywhere. Remember to drive to the left, a reminder that The Exumas were once a British colony until Bahamians officially declared their independence in 1973.
Since then, the Exuma Cays have been largely undiscovered by tourists and their unspoiled quality, and the comparatively low cost of purchasing small islands, has made them popular with celebrities. Nicholas Cage owns an island here. So do Faith Hill and Tim McGraw.
Part of the James Bond movie Thunderball was filmed in Thunderball Grotto, just off Staniel Cay.
Georgetown, Exuma’s capitol, is protected by Elizabeth Harbor, now a serene haven for yachts and fishing cruisers that was once ruled by harbormaster Captain Kidd, and back in the 1970’s was an epicenter of drug smuggling where 247 pounds of pure cocaine worth over two billion dollars were seized.
When you’re hungry, be sure to dig into local favorites including chicken souse, cracked conch, blackened grouper, peas & rice, washing it down with Kalik, the Bahamian Budweiser.
The Best Beaches
Since there are no signs advertising beach access, it is always an adventure hunting down the best sandy stretches. Start out by driving north of Georgetown towards Rolleville on the Queens Highway. A few portions of road in the vicinity of Hermitage are close enough to the ocean to see aquamarine waves lapping against sugar white sands. Further up in Rolleville at Coco Plum Beach, you can stroll along endless sandbars and collect sand dollars.
Be sure to refuel at the Cocoa Plum Beach Bar and Grill. Let Dana and Dee Thompson-Wilkinson prepare you a spicy Cajun chicken sandwich and tropical bread pudding while you nurse their signature Panty Drop consisting of three different rums and mango juice.
Plantation Manor House
Driving south of Georgetown, you will pass through more remote settlements such as Rolle Town, The Ferry, and Forbes Hill before reaching Williamstown at the southern tip of Little Exuma. Almost at the end of the Queens Highway to your left high up on a hill is The Exumas’ only plantation manor house left standing.
The Hermitage Plantation Ruins are largely original, and remnants of slave cottages are buried under dense bush.
When passing through Williamstown, don’t miss a roadside open-air bar called Santana’s. Order a Pain Killer consisting of rum and coconut juice and watch Dee Rolle-Styles prepare cracked lobster or grilled steak behind the bar while you perch on a plank bench chatting with the locals. Another more sumptuous dining venue further north in The Ferry is the Peace and Plenty Bonefish Lodge.
Feeding the Sharks
Sit out on the patio overlooking the waters of Mariah Harbour Cay National Park and watch the sunset fade into complete darkness while dining. Cap off the evening by either watching the owner feed the resident lemon sharks who swim every night up the channel into a lit pool sunken into the outdoor patio, or visit Tropic of Cancer Beach for a peaceful moonlit walk.
Since the ocean defines The Exumas’ psyche, get acquainted by heading out into the wild blue yonder. Begin by taking the round trip ferry running twice daily to Stocking Island from the Peace and Plenty Inn in Georgetown. It will be the best $10 you ever spend.
Elizabeth Harbor in Georgetown
This is truly an untrammeled paradise complete with cabanas, palm studded white sand beaches fringed with frangipani and hibiscus, and crystal clear waters with coral reefs right off shore to snorkel. The Peace and Plenty Club is the only venue for lunch unless you pack your own. Doralee Roache grills up her specialty tender and spicy conch burgers.
Exploring the Harbor
For the more adventurous, Minns Water Sports and Starfish Adventure Tours are the two main water sport outfitters. Minns Water Sports rents Boston Whaler outboard motor boats enabling even the greenest of skippers to explore Elizabeth Harbor. They provide detailed laminated maps of the harbor and reliable radio communication for assistance.
Husband and wife team Tamara and Dallas Knowles have been running Starfish Adventure Tours for about five and a half years. Even though there are plenty of sharks in the waters around The Exumas, Tamara and Dallas have never had a dangerous encounter with one. The dreaded more aggressive bull and other large shark species inhabit deeper ocean water and don’t venture into the shallow flats, reefs, or Elizabeth Harbor.
Kayaks at Starfish Adventures
Starfish rents both single and tandem sea kayaks by the half day up to a week. One noteworthy excursion begins at The Ferry and leads into the Mariah Harbour Cay National Park.
Once off paddling along the main channel colored like pool water, mangroves anchor the shore, and the sound of crashing waves becomes clearer until your journey dead-ends on a sand bar. Tidal waters course over the beachhead separating this sand bar from the ocean.
A modest coral reef nearby makes this a perfect paradise for snorkeling and lounging in the sun without encountering another soul all day.
As with many out islands of the Bahamas, time will tell whether tourism takes over in the Exumas or local residents harness its dynamism on their own terms. While this fleetingly hangs in the balance, enjoy!
A beach on Stocking Island
The best time to visit is between late September through mid May.
Make use of available phones at your accommodations because most foreign cell service plans including from the U.S. don’t work within the Bahamas. You can have it programmed by BTC (British Telecommunications Company) for a fee, but this is an expensive option if staying for less than two weeks.
All travelers including U.S. citizens are required to have a passport to enter or re-enter the United States from the Bahamas.
Daily nonstop flights to Georgetown International Airport (GGT) from Miami (American Eagle), Fort Lauderdale (Lynx Air International, Continental Connection) and Nassau (Bahamasair) Taxi service available from the airport. Average cost is $25 - $30 for a 20-minute ride.
Coral Gardens Bed and Breakfast (242) 336 880; $95 for B&B rooms, Separate apartments units start at $108
Club Peace and Plenty (800)-525-2210; Rooms start at $170 in season
Two Turtles Inn (242)-336-2545, rooms begin at $126 a night, double occupancy.
Coconut Cove Hotel (242)-336-2659; Rooms start at $152
Cocoplum Beach Bar and Grill (242)-554-3358
Peace and Plenty Bonefish Lodge (242)-345-5555
Minns Water Sports 242 336 2604; 15-foot Boston Whaler rental $85 per day plus $200 deposit
Starfish Adventure Tours 242 336 3033; One-day kayak rental $100 single, $150 tandem
Patrick Dorsett Taxi #43 (242) 357 0704
Prestige Scooter Rental (242)-357-0066; Average $50 per day
Steve Mirsky is a freelance writer specializing in travel communications. He can be reached at persuasivetype.com.