The Tropics Next Door

The Ins and Outboards of the Exumas

Jun 1, 2003
Outside Magazine

Beached: solitude off the Exumas Cays

Cut your boat engine in the clear water of the Bahamas' Exuma Cays and who knows what will appear: a five-foot lemon shark swimming slow S-curves under your hull, a pair of stealthy eagle rays, clumps of conch shells among purple barrel sponges, even a family of swimming pigs—yes, pigs—which, long abandoned by their owners, live quite well off their pink good looks and the Wheat Thins tossed overboard by boaters. This bountiful 100-mile strand of 365 narrow, mostly uninhabited islands, bounded by the cobalt depths of the Exuma Sound to the east and the aquamarine shallows of the Great Bahama Bank to the west, is amazingly only 40 miles from the Vegas-like excesses of Nassau. But when you drop anchor on one of the cays' empty, wild, bisque-colored beaches, you might as well be on the other side of the big blue world.
A peripatetic island escape begins at quiet Staniel Cay in the center of the Exuma chain. Book one of the Staniel Cay Yacht Club's snug pastel cottages—each comes with a 13-foot Boston Whaler powerboat—in advance. Then spend a week day-tripping your way around these narrow, close-together islands, some barely the size of a major league pitching mound, others large enough to support a fishing village, a beach resort, and a couple of open-air bars serving conch fritters and Kalik beer. Don't worry about your sketchy navigational skills—these are nearly idiotproof cruising waters. You need only your eyes to figure out how to get to your next anchorage. A fairly reliable sense of how shallow is too shallow for your boat will help, too.
One day you might focus on fishing, working the shimmering bonefish flats of Harvey Cay and Pipe Creek, about three miles from Staniel Cay, or angling around Exuma Sound Ledge, a thousand-foot drop-off just a few hundred yards offshore. On another day, motor to Thunderball Grotto, a snorkel-through cave, swing by "Pig Beach" on Major Spot Island, and then visit Compass Cay, where you'll be greeted by a group of creepily Pavlovian nurse sharks looking for handouts. Make the short walk to the bluff-backed crescent of sand on Compass Cay's east side and spend the rest of the day prone. Or head south one morning to Bitter Guana Cay (no need to know how it got its name), where you'll see iguanas prowling the beach, and stop on another island, Great Guana Cay (don't ask), for cracked conch with the locals at Lorraine's Cafe.
Plan on taking a couple of days to explore the pristine reefs and coves of the Exuma Land and Sea Park, a 176-square-mile, no-take preserve (no fishing, no collecting) overseen by the Bahamas National Trust, where you can also hike the four miles of trails near Warderick Wells. The park begins at Conch Cut, about five miles northwest of Staniel, and ends 22 miles north at Wax Cut Cay.
Most evenings, you'll be content hanging out in the Staniel Cay Yacht Club's dockfront bar, eavesdropping on the catch-drunk anglers and hypertanned nomadic yachties. Save one night, though, for dinner in the hilltop clubhouse at Fowl Cay, a swank new three-cottage resort about a mile and a half by boat from Staniel Cay. You should know, however, that this is one very classy place—shoes are mandatory.
Flamingo Air flies from Nassau to Staniel Cay every day but Saturday for $70 one-way (242-377-0354,; from Fort Lauderdale, many companies charter planes to Staniel Cay—try Island Air Charters ($900 for up to seven people; 800-444-9904,, or from Nassau, Air Charter Bahamas ($590 for up to five people; 305-885-6665, Cottages at Staniel Cay Yacht Club (242-355-2024, start at $167 per person per night and include a 13-foot Boston Whaler. At Fowl Cay Resort (866-369-5229,, cottages start at $4,750 per week for two people, including meals, beverages, and a 17-foot boat. For information on the Exuma Land and Sea Park, visit

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