Blue is normally thought of as a cool color. But in the Exumas, it’s a shimmering, scorching HOT color. Hot like light sabers and lasers. Blinding, searing its image into my eyes and brain. And unforgettable.
A little taste of Exuma blue….
Just a little more than 3 years ago, my Bahamian cruising odyssey ended. But the urge to return and sail the Exumas haunted me. Unless I were willing to do a land stay and tolerate the limited range of a rented runabout, or suddenly came into some money (so that I could charter a seaplane and be dropped aboard my yacht), it would take some doing to fit the Exumas into my normal vacation allowance. Enter Navtours, a Quebec-based charter company with a Nassau base and sub-bases at Staniel Cay and Emerald Bay. Rick and I, and our friends Skip and Harriet (with 3 Bahamian seasons aboard their Moondance) chartered a 39-foot Lagoon catamaran named Narval (which devolved into Larva almost immediately).
Larva, laden with kayaks and Kaliks.
The first day of a sailing charter is not typically much fun. We had smooth travels to reach Nassau, but once there, found a junkanoo celebration and 4 cruise ships in port, clogging roads and making the 40-minute ride to Palm Cay marina at the southeast end of the island a much longer slog. Then follows the heavy work of boat briefings and provisioning and finding places to stow all of our provisions – at least we’d been excused from the chart briefing, as we were as familiar, if not moreso, with the Exumas than the briefer. Our provisioning was only modestly successful: we had good luck with the online nassaugrocer.com, but the choices at the nearest supermarket were less appealing, and the wine and liquor selection at the nearest purveyor abysmal (but you’d have been luck if you needed libations for Passover). The whole Palm Cay set-up confirmed the urge to get out of there ASAP: the gated entrance, the need to wear wristbands, the loud EDM-loving marina guests (refugees from the ill-fated Fyre Festival?), the no-see-ums nibbling at our feet at dinner, and the chain across the entry channel to keep out (or in) unauthorized boat traffic.
The mere existence of this charter company doesn’t necessarily guarantee access to the Exumas. As we’ve learned from being trapped at Emerald Bay (just north of Georgetown, on Great Exuma) due to heavy seas, getting kicked off the docks at Staniel Cay due to winds in the wrong direction, or waiting for weather windows to make crossings: planning and good conditions are essential. Our trip was timed for May, a month likely to have good conditions but not yet too hot or in the heart of hurricane season. And we lucked out, as a cold front was just dissipating and we got calm seas (and calm winds, alas) and good visibility for our 7 hour motor across the Yellow Bank (studded with coral heads) from New Providence to Shroud Cay in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.
Rick reaches for a mooring ball — we’ve reached Shroud Cay!
I’d dreamed about Shroud Cay ever since I left it. The beach on the Exuma Sound side of Shroud, reached by traversing a mangrove creek by dinghy, features in my fondest memories. But first, I had to get past the unsettling feeling that Shroud had been taken over by megayachts – visible from miles out – and their passengers on jetskis buzzing around heedlessly. Fortunately, they were anchored far from shore and their endlessly running generators were not within hearing range; moreover, their guests didn’t seem to be interested in the lower-tech highlights of Exuma Park.
Are really big boats taking over the Exumas?
The mangrove creek empties into a deep pool and then gives way to gorgeous beach.
After enjoying the magical beach at Shroud, we climbed atop the ridge to view the remnants of “Camp Driftwood” (from which the DEA was rumored to be using long-range lenses to capture the tail numbers of planes landing at neighboring Norman Cay, owned by drug lord Carlos Lehder and used as a hub for trafficking), gaining breathtaking views of the area.
Views of the mangrove creeks and the beach from the ridge.
After carefully evaluating the situation, we then concluded it was safe (and fun!) to throw ourselves into the deep blue pool at the creek’s exit and ride the outgoing current to the sand bank. Like 2-year-olds, again! And again!
Jumping into the pool and riding the current.
Because of the condensed nature of our visit, we didn’t linger at Shroud Cay, and didn’t even stop at Hawksbill Cay – which is surely worthy of more exploration – on our way to Exuma Park headquarters at Warderick Wells Cay. A trip of reminiscence like this one requires re-visiting certain touchstones: Chatting with Cherie in the office and buying a t-shirt.
Arriving at Warderick Wells.
Swimming at Tabebuia Beach.
Hiking up to Boo Boo Hill and looking (futilely) for the driftwood artifacts we’d left behind.
Gazing from above at the J-shaped channel forming the anchorage.
And walking the ironshore trails even though we each harbor fears of falling on the jagged rocks or having them poke through our shoes.
At the south end of Exuma Park, Cambridge Cay holds similar allure though fewer visitors. Honeymoon Beach, with its blue swimming hole, even tempted Skip to jump in – his standards are very exacting.
Ahhh, Honeymoon Beach.
A short hike from Honeymoon Beach reveals the beach facing the cut between Cambridge and Compass Cays, where the water is warmer and on this day offered up playful surf.
Just another sunset.
Harriet and I took advantage of the kayaks we’d rented, and for the first time ever I found myself kayaking without either wind or current against me; we paddled to both of the beaches near the mooring field, beached the kayaks, and then hiked to Bell Rock.
Fewer people visit Cambridge Cay than Warderick Wells, but that leaves more of it to just us.
Of course, the less clement side of a Bahamian journey sometimes reveals itself as well. Of this we were reminded when Rick and Harriet decided to snorkel the crashed plane and the nearby “Aquarium” site near Little Hall’s Pond Cay (Johnny Depp’s private island). I insisted on going along for the ride to serve as a lookout. When we saw how fast the current was running near the plane wreck, we came up with a safety plan; as it was, Rick and Harriet went in for only a moment, Harriet hanging on to the dinghy painter.
The wicked current ruled out too many underwater pictures; here’s one of the plane wreck.
On to the Aquarium. Most of the Aquarium site – rich with aquatic life – was an eddy, but as she approached a corner, Harriet got swept up in the current. Per plan, as Rick fought the current to swim back to the dink, I started the outboard and we motored over to find Harriet clinging to a rock outcropping. (She’d have been fine if she went with the flow, as the current would have taken her to shallows, but she couldn’t see that far. And we were reminded why slack tide is best for snorkeling.)
After that burst of adrenaline, a break was in order, so we went swimming in one of the blue pools at O’Brien Cay.
Wish we’d had more time for O’Brien’s Cay.
The afternoon was devoted to more relaxed activity: sand dollar hunting off the sand flats between Pipe Cay and Compass Cay. While my hunting technique was still on point, we weren’t especially successful. But near where I found the Big Daddy of all sea biscuits 3 years ago, Rick found its slightly smaller brother. (Having hoped that we would discover a large cache of sand dollars, we’d brought with us a box to transport them, and managed to bring the giant find home in one piece.) All was not lost, because we planned to hit more productive sand flats the next day from our secret anchoring spot south of Pipe Cay.
Hunting for sand dollars, and then relaxing during yet another world class sunset.
But before that, we had more touchstones to re-visit on Compass Cay, a short distance from where we’d anchored on the north side of Pipe Cay. The marina there was packed with huge power yachts, without a single mast to be seen. As well, Compass Cay is one of the landing spots for what I call “Hit-and-Run” Exuma tourism: go-fast boats packed with up to 2 dozen daytrippers from Nassau, cruise ship excursioneers from Nassau, and escapees from Sandals on Great Exuma zoom up to the cays and offload their cargo to swim with the sharks.
At least the daytrippers left the Sands to us.
Those detractions notwithstanding, we checked on the artifact we left at the marina (still there).
A little worse for the wear, but 3 years later, Calypso’s sign is still at Compass Cay.
Compass Cay provides art supplies, resulting in a colorful collection of artifacts.
We then hiked to Compass Cay’s east side, featuring one of the loveliest beaches in the Exumas: Crescent Beach. The name says it all.
The Exumas seem like one giant ad for local beer.
Beyond the beach, proprietor Tucker Rolle or one of his sons cooks up a limited menu of $16 cheeseburgers for lunch. They may not be the best burgers in paradise, but after several days of cooking every single meal for ourselves, it’s a delight to have someone else to do it for you. With the daytrippers gone and the burgers in the works, Harriet and I sat on the dock, dangling our feet in the water. We’ve played with the Compass Cay nurse sharks on past visits; they love to be stroked behind the gills, and will snuggle up to your feet to be petted.
Asking for trouble?
This time, though, a yacht captain was cleaning his catch at the end of the dock, and a piece of mahi mahi he tossed over incited a bit of a frenzy. My left foot was mistaken for chum and CHOMP! Unbelievably, I’d been bitten by a shark!
I’m assuming the shark realized that I was not its intended lunch, because it released my foot almost immediately. But not before leaving tooth-shaped punctures, tearing skin and drawing blood. I stopped the bleeding with a wad of paper towels and taped over the worst of the damage with band-aids at the marina. Later, aboard Larva, we found some antibiotic wipes and gauze in the first aid kit, and white duct tape in the spare parts locker, and I was able to hold myself together and hobble around for the balance of our trip. But beach walking and sand dollar hunting – especially in the deep wet sand of some of the flats – was out of the question unless I wanted to attract less-friendly sharks. The shark bite (call me “Chum”) made me forget the ignominy of a tumble down the steps down to our hull and the resulting bruises from a few nights before.
(It may seem that I’m making light of this situation, but I know I was truly fortunate that the injury wasn’t much worse. I know well that sharks – no matter how tame-seeming – are wild, unpredictable animals. I knowingly took the risk that something could happen when I put my feet in the water. Although the Exumas are not that many miles from the mainland U.S., they are truly remote and medical attention, had it been necessary, might have required a Coast Guard airlift to Miami. Also, those obnoxious-seeming, light-blocking megayachts are filled with generally kind people who have many resources and the willingness to use them – from satellite phones to surgical staplers, and I’m grateful for the offers made.)
Rick searching for sand dollars at Pipe Cay without me.
Mine and Rick’s (a great proselytizer of the benefits of rigging tape and duct tape) makeshift EMT skills held up well enough to let us enjoy a new-to-all-of-us spot, Sandy Cay. Just west of Big Major’s Spot and Staniel Cay, this tiny little islet features a lovely beach divided by a long sand spit. One side has a deep pool perfect for swimming, and the other has shallower water and a bit of surf; both feature water of inimitable Exuma blue.
Delicious beaches at Sandy Cay.
Alas, civilization was starting to call. Across the water, we could see the anchorage at Big Major’s Spot (aka “Pig Beach”) clogged with huge powerboats. Likewise, the marina at Staniel Cay was full of monster boats, blocking the view of the iconic cottages edging the water. We were running out of time.
Staniel Cay’s colorful cottages seem overshadowed by the big boats docked at the marina.
(Another break from my post for a long parenthetical editorial…. About those pigs…. Since our sabbatical, the pigs have become a real “thing,” attracting more Hit-and-Run tourism and imitators. You can accuse me of pulling up the drawbridge after having crossed the moat, since I’ve gotten to enjoy the spectacle that is swimming pigs. But in fairness, I was already in the Exumas engaging in what I like to think is fairly low-impact travel, and seeing the pigs was incidental. Now, it seems like every third post on Bahamas travel forums is a visitor to Atlantis or the like wanting to “swim with the pigs” without regard to the impact they make on the fragile environment for a few moments of amusement. You don’t really swim with the pigs; you can’t ride the pigs; and unless there happen to be piglets, they are not especially cute. They are very large feral animals that have been known to nip people and pop dinghies. These same visitors are often taking tours that also visit Bitter Guana Cay to see the endangered iguanas and blatantly feeding them despite the signs prohibiting it. Is this what we really want for these precious islands?)
Eventually, it was time to head in to Staniel Cay Yacht Club. We’d already learned that our VHF radio had a range of about 39 feet, so we had to phone in to get settled. Despite an atmosphere that seemed to favor the poweryacht crowd over cruisers, it felt like something of a homecoming. (I also pointedly placed Calypso stickers everywhere, just to get some representation for sailors.) We cleaned up the boat, got rid of trash, packed bags, and generally readied ourselves to turn over Larva to her delivery captain the next day. In the bar, we left our mark on our club burgees and chatted up fellow travelers while drinking cocktails we didn’t have to mix ourselves, before enjoying a dinner we didn’t have to cook ourselves.
As a transition before coming all the way home, we flew to Nassau on Flamingo Air. Flamingo seems fairly reliable, and they now even have a tiny office at the airstrip. But it’s still a situation where your pilot sizes you up to figure out how best to balance the plane, and loads the luggage in assorted compartments. My rear seat had such a low ceiling that it was in a permanently reclined position. The short flight offered stunning views of the beloved cays where we’d spent the prior week.
In Nassau, we were staying at A Stone’s Throw Away, a small inn near the airport which had the look and feel of the old colonial Caribbean, even though it was built in this century. Perched on a cliff overlooking the sea, you enter the inn from the bottom of the cliff, up 3 flights of stairs which tunnel through the cliff base. The landing there is the pool and grotto, and further up is receptionand the common areas. Our room had a huge porch overlooking the water, with a carved daybed and two loungers.
After a run to the supermarket for first aid supplies and lunch at Compass Point, we never felt the need to leave.
We had dinner at the inn – and I was in my happy place: whole steamed fish!
We’d managed to pack a lot of experiences in our trip. We had great company and great weather, and the prime attractions of the Exumas to me – the spectacular natural environment and the lovely people – remain the same. Despite the mishaps, and despite the creeping tide of larger-scale tourism, I would go back in a heartbeat.