THERE ARE TWO imperatives for a successful trip to the Exumas, a mostly uninhabited, 120-mile-long archipelago that stretches in a narrow crescent from southeast of Nassau in the Bahamas to the Tropic of Cancer. First, while in George Town, the capital, stop in to see the Shark Lady, aka Gloria Patience, a legendary septuagenarian who earned her nickname—not to mention an audience with Queen Elizabeth II—by hunting down some 1,500 sharks around Great Exuma Island over her lifetime. Second, ignore her on the subject of sea kayaking, because she doesn't realize she lives in the best damn place in the Caribbean for paddling.
Here in the Exumas, the sea is like Bombay Sapphire in a bottle—a perfect blue lens for a paddler's up-close perspective, magnifying yellow coral heads, purple sea fans, and tropical fish aplenty. The 88-degree, unpolluted water offers world-class snorkeling, and there are no fewer than 365 cays to explore. "Most classic sea-kayaking trips—Baja, the Honduran Bay Islands—follow a coastline," says sea-kayak outfitter Bardy Jones of New York–based Ibis Tours. "In Exuma, you're tiptoeing across a string of islands. You can look to the left and look to the right and see wide-open ocean. It's kind of intimidating, and it's seriously remote."
If you have at least a week and you arrive during the spring, hop a 25-minute charter flight from George Town to Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park near the northern Exuma port town of Staniel Cay, where two outfitters have been guiding weeklong, 50-mile trips in the park by sea kayak for more than a decade. Established in 1958, the 176-square-mile park is a no-take (i.e. no-fishing) zone that serves as a nursery for grouper, conch, and lobster. Miniscule cays spring up everywhere, home to the white-tailed tropicbird—a smallish bird endowed with a spectacular, three-foot-long white streamer—and the faded ruins of British loyalist plantations.
If you have less than a week, sign up as I did with Starfish, the only Exuma-based outfitter, in George Town. For two days I explored the red mangrove colonies and bonefish flats of the nearly deserted south side of Great Exuma with a taciturn Dutch guide, Valentijn Hoff, and his younger Bahamian sidekick, Philip Smith, who entertained us with his granny's bush-medicine wisdom: The "juice" from a ghost crab kills an earache, tea from the "strongback" plant increases male virility, and sniffing crushed orange peel dispels seasickness. After a short hike around 18th-century limestone ruins on rocky Crab Cay, we camped on the sand of an unnamed barrier island, uninhabited but for a ravenous air force of mosquitoes and no-see-ums.
But the trip's standout hour came the next morning. As we coasted back toward George Town, the hot sun splintered through the turquoise sea, casting a brilliant net that scrolled across the white-sand floor—picture an enormous David Hockney pool. Then, from just beyond my right paddle, came a sudden, loud outbreath. Three dolphins leaped among our bright plastic hulls for a moment and then vanished.
Access + Resources
Whether you arrive in Exuma during the dry season, from December to May, or the wet from June to October, which averages six to nine inches rainfall per month, it's easy to locate an ocean-worthy kayak and all the gear you need to set out to sea.
GETTING OUTFITTED: Starfish (877-398-6222; www.kayakbahamas.com) runs trips around the coast and barrier islands of Great Exuma and Little Exuma for $45 (half-day) to $75 (full day) per person year-round; overnight trips, like the 12-mile route I did, cost $150 per person per day for the first two days, and $100 per night for every night after that. If you want to go it on your own, Starfish rents touring kayaks ($30 per day for singles, $40 for doubles) as well as Hobie Wave sailboats ($50 for a half-day), tents, and other camping gear. March through May, Ibis Tours (800-525-9411; www.ibistours.com) runs eight-day trips in Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park (www.exumapark.com) in the northern half of the archipelago for $1,595 per person, including charter airfare from Nassau.
GETTING THERE: American Airlines (800-433-7300) flies from New York to Nassau for about $420 round-trip, $360 from Atlanta. Charter airfare from Nassau is included in outfitters' package prices; or, if you're traveling on your own, ask at your hotel or the local marina for information on the many private planes that can fly you to Staniel Cay for about $250 one-way.
LODGING: George Town's Peace & Plenty (800-525-2210; www.peaceandplenty.com) is the small town's clubby social hub. Doubles start at $175.