Let the temptation of the turquoise blue water draw you in as you dig your toes into the white sand. Feel the island breeze cool your sun-kissed skin as you sip a refreshing tropical cocktail. Drift off into dream world as you listen to the melodic rhythm of waves crashing. In a chain of more than 365 tiny islands and sleepy cays, you’ll discover the untouched paradise of the Exumas in the Bahamas.
I flew into Nassau, barely making my connection on Flamingo Air. In the tiny puddle jumper, I gazed out the window taking in the stunning aerial view and marveling at the flawless coastlines and endless natural beauty of tiny island, after tiny island. I was sitting right behind the pilot on the roughly 120-kilometer, 30-minute flight to Staniel Cay, an island just over a square mile in size and with a native population of about 120.
The island breeze greeted me as we touched down on the air strip at Staniel Cay, along with my friend in a golf cart, the main mode of transportation on the island.
We cruised over to Ting-um, a delightful two-bedroom, two-story home from Staniel Rentals. Luxuriously rustic is how I would describe the home with colorful accents, comfortable furniture, and a wonderful wrap around porch on the second floor.
Catching the Island Vibe
I was ready to get on island time, so we headed over to Staniel Cay Yacht Club for rum punch and food. We sat outside on The Deck to enjoy the view of the boats in the marina. You don’t have to go far to swim with sharks and rays. There are some right there and yes, I stood in the water with the nurse sharks and stingrays. If you’re not quite that adventurous, you can just watch them from the boardwalk. We enjoyed the people watching too as we nibbled on conch fritters and grouper fingers, that’s the island version of chicken fingers. They’re especially fabulous when you are famished. As the rum punch flowed, live music wafted through the air from The Bar. This iconic island bar is lively and filled with an eclectic crowd from celebrities like Jimmy Buffett to yachters to bronzed beach bums. As the salty air was creating beachy waves in my hair, Carl the bartender was creating a tipsy beach babe with his rum punch drinks, heavy on the rum. It was the perfect transition into vacation mode on Staniel Cay as the setting sun filled the sky with oranges and pinks.
Life is about slowing down in the islands. I seemed to have no problem doing that the next morning as I took in the sunrise from one of Ting-um’s covered porches while sipping coffee wrapped in a towel to stave off the cool early morning island breeze. After reading and chatting for a bit, we headed over mid-morning for a leisurely breakfast at Sea Level, the waterfront restaurant at Staniel Cay Yacht Club. There are not a lot of dining options on the island. But, the food is good at the yacht club, which has been around since 1956.
After breakfast, we headed to the rugged and beautiful north side of the island. As I was sunbathing on the secluded beach of Pirate Trap, I realized I had hit the jackpot for island serenity. The beach sits in a lovely lagoon surrounded by coral cliffs. With the rugged ridge dividing the lagoon and open water, it was easy to imagine pirates getting trapped. Pretty easy for the day to slip away while listening to beachy tunes blending to the music of the ebb and flow of the tide. After a couple of hours of truly being beach bums, we set off exploring. With water shoes on because of the many rocks, we slogged through the clear water over to the craggy natural barrier. I got lost in the moment as I looked for shells, gazed into tidal pools, and soaked in the rugged scenery as the spray from the waves crashing on the open ocean side provided a cooling mist from time to time.
Working up an appetite exploring, I was in full island mode by the time we got to The Deck for a late lunch. It was fish tacos for me, along with a cold Kalik, which is a Bahamian beer. The three tacos were packed with fresh fish and topped with cucumber, tomato, and onions in crispy tortilla shells and topped with a light lime sour cream. It was the perfect island lunch.
With a full belly, the nap bug was biting so we headed back to Ting-um for a lazy late afternoon of napping, reading, and sipping wine on the porch as day flowed into night with a spectacular sunset.
Boat is the way to explore the Exumas so the next day we rented one from Whees–Waves. We said goodbye to Staniel Cay for the day and zoomed across the turquoise water that faded into a deep royal shade as we got out over deeper waters.
Swim with Pigs
You know the saying, “when pigs fly?” Well how about when pigs swim? While celebrities like Johnny Depp, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and David Copperfield own islands, the biggest stars in the Exumas are the swimming pigs. I giggled at the thought of littler porkers swimming in in crystal clear ocean. As we approached Big Major Cay by boat, the picturesque setting was suddenly filled with the sounds of brash, snorting pigs paddling out to boats anchored right at the shoreline of Pig Beach. There are no people inhabiting the island, just the pigs and other more tropical species like iguanas and birds. I jumped off our boat and swam to shore, greeted by a barrage of oinkers quickly approaching me like dogs barreling down the hallway happy to greet you at the door. I fell in love with the cute spotted piglets and, ran from the much larger full-grown pigs hoping I had some sort of food for them. If you are going to feed them (I didn’t), take fruits, vegetable, or bread and feed them in the water, not on the sand. The 20 some odd pigs are not native to the island, and their actual origin on the island is a mystery. Local legend claims they swam ashore after a shipwreck or a group of sailors left them with plans to return. It was funny watching the pigs trot up and down the sandy shore of the picturesque cove, then fascinating to watch these porcine swimmers dogpaddle in the ocean. Do what we did and go first thing in the morning. That’s when the pigs are most active, and the cove quickly gets crowded with boats.
Next stop was a cove of unspoiled tropical beauty. We anchored and enjoyed the beautiful place we had to ourselves. We snorkeled, explored the beach, and sat on the boat as it rocked gently in the cove. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of serene coves like this one in the Exumas. You just have to pull into one and in a sense have your own private island for a bit. I put on my snorkeling mask and watched fish swimming in the underwater world, including the torpedo like fish, a barracuda. That signaled it was time to head over to another place, one filled with colorful fish.
We beached our boat in shallow water and I swam over to snorkel in the Exuma Land and Sea Park. It is one of the prettiest settings in all of the Bahamas for snorkeling. Everywhere I turned there was color as beautiful fish darted around me. I felt like I was in a kaleidoscope of brightly colored coral reefs and fish.
It was an exquisite underwater world. As I got lost in the moment, my friend signaled it was time to go as the wind was starting to churn up the sea a bit. As we headed back to Staniel Cay, we cruised by Johnny Depp’s island. You know it’s his because of the memorabilia from Pirates of the Caribbean, including a rope bridge on one part of the island. We enjoyed the unspoiled beauty of some islands and the monster mansions on others, like the one Tim McGraw and Faith Hill own.
After an adventurous day, we headed off to find a spot to sip wine and watch the sun go down. On a small strip of sandy beach, as my buddy clicked glasses with me he said, “Chill, relax, and enjoy the sunset.”
Cruisin’ the Cay
Our last full day on the island, was cruising around Staniel Cay. As we checked out the houses, I couldn’t help but dream of owning one. We headed back over to Pirate Trap, for a little more R&R in the picturesque setting. As hunger set it, we headed over to the yacht club for lunch. I noshed on fish tacos and sipped rum punch of course!
An Underwater Aquarium
After lunch, we hired one of the guys out in a small motorboat to take us to Thunderball Grotto, a hollowed-out island about a two-minute by boat from Staniel Cay. The underwater cave system is fantastic for snorkeling. It got its name from the 1965 James Bond movie “Thunderball,” which was filmed there. The James Bond movie “Never Say Never Again” in 1983 was also filmed there. Besides being in Bond films and other films like “Splash” and “Into the Blue,” the other mystique to the grotto is how you have to enter it. The small entrance is almost always hidden. It’s best to enter at low tide (ebb or slack tide) if snorkeling. You take a big breath in the open water, swim into darkness under the rocky overhang towards the light and enter a world that will make you feel like you are experiencing Hollywood magic. Once inside, sunbeams illuminate the yellow-tail snappers, Angel fish, Sergeant Majors, and other brilliantly colored fish surrounding you in the giant chamber. Peer out into the open water and you may see a barracuda. That would make two barracuda sightings for me that day. While we were in the grotto, there was a guy dropping some green peas into the water. It made for a frenzied flurry of color as the fish swarmed to get them. A few other brave souls climbed to the top of the grotto and jumped in. It is a wondrous place of serenity, adventure, and breathtaking beauty.
After snorkeling we reveled in the laidback vibe of the island, wishing we had more time there as we enjoyed one last sunset. They are truly magical there.
Time to Say Goodbye
The next morning, we caught the first flight back to Nassau. Having a few hours before our flights back to the United States, we set out to find a coffee shop. Our pick was Louis & Steen’s, a quick cab ride from the airport. We sat outside on the covered porch and watched as tropical showers poured. I thought to myself, even the islands were sad we had to leave.
One of the homes on Staniel Cay is named Swept Away, written on the sign in small stones and seashells. I sure hope to get swept away again to the Exumas to “chill, relax, and watch the sunset.”
*Article published in May/June 2018 issue of Ten West Living, a publication focusing on luxury lifestyles in San Antonio, Texas.