Visit this Bahamas Out Island, where you can enjoy solitude and get pampered at the same time.
Captain Ray gives my daughter and me floating foam noodles as we jump in the waters off Great Exuma at The Cut, a small channel that separates the island from its neighbor, Little Exuma. As we lazily lounge on the noodles, the current glides us through the channel and around its bend as the vivid aquamarine colors of the water change in hue like a marine rainbow. If ever there was a water ride, this is it, au natural.
Forget the hustle and bustle of bigger Bahamas islands with overwhelming straw markets and tons of tourists. Exuma is known for some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and for tranquility. It’s all about the natural element, the spectacular azure waters and private coves. One exquisite beach we visited was so secluded that our captain found it by scanning Google Earth. (And while Exuma does have a Straw Market, on the road to George Town, it boasts only five to 10 stalls.)
Exuma is a quiet island, but with the addition of the Four Seasons Great Exuma in November 2003, it now packs in some big luxury. The resort is nothing short of spectacular with its crescent beach at Emerald Bay, service extraordinaire and a Greg Norman golf course overlooking the water. (Four Season standard rates start at $375 per night.)
The Exuma resort is a first for the luxury Four Seasons chain in the Bahamas, and no stone is left unturned. My oceanfront suite opens up to a windswept beach, with unmanicured foliage. My daughter is delivered a pail and shovel, once guest services is alerted about her shortage of critical tools for the beach. And a golf cart arrives at our cabana within minutes if we don’t feel like walking the lovely grounds to get where we’re going. The resort is exquisite, as are its surroundings, with a crescent-shaped beach and clear waters.
The resort goes all out for families. When one group with small children wanted to rent the exquisite Royal Beachfront Villa residence, guest services installed a childproof fence around the infinity pool prior to their arrival. Hotel employee Shavan Ferguson says of special requests, “As long as it’s not illegal, we’ll do it.” (The three-bedroom Royal Beachfront Villa has its own private pool, two balconies and an unobstructed view of Emerald Bay. Rates start at $6,300 per night and are subject to a 20 percent Bahamian tax.)
Unlike some very high-end resorts, the Four Seasons Exuma is also very child-friendly, so consider it for your Bahamas family vacation. The Kids For All Season camp, for ages 5 to 12, is complimentary, as is the Teen Center—a fully-equipped recreation space open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily. Of course, the cost is somehow incorporated into the price of the room. But when you have several children, being able to come and go from camp activities without calculating how much every minute is costing is a godsend. The activities are nonstop and even include occasional kid pajama parties (at 6 p.m.) and golf cart drive-in movies for teens (minimum age 16 to drive).
Aside from being a family oasis with snorkeling, kayaking and more right off the beach, there is plenty of respite for adults including an adult-only “quiet pool,” a casino, a challenging Greg Norman golf course and a spa. I indulged in a Javanese Lulur Royal Ritual, which includes a Balinese massage followed by skin polishing with turmeric, sandalwood, ginger root, a yogurt splash and more.
But what’s really nice about Exuma is that I can bask in such luxury and then experience the opposite extreme at a Sunday pig roast at Chat ‘N Chill, a funky bar on a mostly deserted island where the wind whistles through the haphazardly placed clapboard. Chat ‘N Chill owner KB Bowe says, “We have some of the richest people in the world, and they say the day I change this, paint it, they’re not coming back.” The unassuming restaurant is so popular that during one big cruising week, hundreds of boats tied up their dinghies to one another so you could walk across them from the bar to the mainland a mile away. Or so the tale goes.
And Exuma has many tales. I visited ruins of homes built by British loyalists who fled America’s independence and settled on Exuma with their slaves. Many of the island’s towns are named after those slaves who were given the lands when their former masters gave up on cotton farming. A tiki bar, Santana’s, at the very tip of Great Exuma, served as a launching pad for Pirates of the Caribbean movie scenes.
Nor is that the Exumas’ only Hollywood connection. Thunderball Grotto, a hollowed out island near Staniel Cay, was featured in a pair of James Bond films—its namesake and Never Say Never Again—as well as the Tom Hanks mermaid film Splash.
Diners may also want to check out Iva Bowe's Central Highway Inn, on Queen’s Highway in George Town, which is well known for its local cuisine, particularly its conch, a local delicacy.
There are, of course, activities for the adventurous traveler. Exuma Kiteboarding, a new school on Tar Bay, offers lessons and guided Kiteventures, half-day tours that combine sightseeing and launches at some of the islands’ best kiteboarding sites, starting at $230. The school also rents out its three-bedroom Tar Bay beach house for three to seven-night stays that can be paired with in-depth instruction by Gary Sweeting, the school’s owner, who has instructor certifications from the International Kiteboarding Association and Professional Air Sports Association.
Although Exuma has in recent years become more known to a wider range of travelers, it has for some time been a noted destination for sailors. Home to a number of boating competitions, including the high-profile Family Island Regatta, The New Year’s Day Cruising Regatta and National Out Island Regatta, Exuma’s island cays and many coves make it a great sailing destination.
The highlight of a trip to Exuma is still about beaches and boats. Visitors up for a daylong boating excursion can head north to the Exuma Cays such as Big Major Cay, where wild pigs eagerly swim up to boats in search of apples; to this day, no one knows how the pigs got to these outer reaches. And there are opportunities to feed the particularly large iguanas on Allan’s Cay, swim with docile sharks and visit still more beautiful beaches.
The Four Seasons sometimes arranges for Captain Ray to drop guests off with nothing more than an umbrella, lunch and towels at a nondescript sandbar in the middle of the ocean, retrieving them before the tide makes the sandbar all but disappear. And on Exuma, that’s what is so special. Visitors disappear into the calm of the tranquil days.
Exuma International Airport can be reached via Bahamasair from Miami or Nassau, on American Eagle from Miami, and on Continental/Gulfstream International Airlines and on Lynx Air International from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
Additional reporting by Leo Jakobson.
Its a great place for family beach vacation . Yachting, diving and cave exploring are among the popular activities offered in Exuma, a district of the Bahamas. Exuma consists of over 360 islands, also called cays, of which Great Exuma is the largest. Just a 90-minute flight from South Florida, Exuma attracts tourists for its pristine beaches, coral gardens and cave diving excursions. Angelfish Blue Hole, Mystery Cave, and Crab Cay Crevasse are among the popular sites among the Exuma islands for exploring the natural and artificial underwater caves. While fishing is quite common in the Exuma waters, it’s prohibited within the boundaries of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, a specific area in Exuma designated to protecting the fragile ecosystem both above and below water. For a night on the town, visit George Town—the largest city located on Great Exuma—where you can find a straw market that sells authentic Bahamian crafts, walking tours that run past historical churches and local shops that sell Kalik, a popular beer of the Bahamas.