As our small Saab turboprop swooped airport-ward, the scene came into focus through the wavy airplane window and jet fuel ripples: Islands scribbled in the sea like the impressions of a 2-year-old who has hoarded all the greens and blues from the giant box of crayons.
One cay took the shape of a leaping fish, mouth agape; others a shark, a ray, a bolt of lightning. The water was so clear I couldn’t distinguish some islands from sea bottom. Boats seemed to float on air.
I have yet to meet an island I don’t like. Staring, transfixed, I had the inane yearning to explore each and every scribble on the Abaco seascape. I had felt the same way the first time I saw Exuma and its near-endless stretch of cays from uninhabited to celebrity-owned.
It became an obsession: seeing how many of the hundreds of cays and islands in these two boating-infatuated archipelagos I could possibly add to my life list. For those island-obsessed like me, Abaco and Exuma are the two best Bahamas destinations for indulging — whether arriving by private boat, renting, or chartering.
Their long necklace of pearlescent and jade cays link south-lying Exuma and northern Abaco. Because of the relatively deep waters in the Sea of Abaco, Abaco is more suited to intrepid boaters, even neophytes, who wish to adventure it on their own. Exuma, on the other hand, has trickier waters, but more glam islands and one-of-a-kind wildlife adventures.
Overall, both destinations rank high in my estimation, but here’s how they score on certain crucial island attributes.
Both are overachievers in the subject of flung-off, secluded little islands where only beach takes up residence. However Exuma, with its 365 named islands and cays, has the edge. You can boat for hours past uninhabited beaches such as White Point, the Sandbar, and Norman’s Cay — places where you can anchor and often have the beach to yourself.
In all of the Bahamas, beaches are public even where there are homes, so respectfully share the sand on inhabited islands.
Among Abaco’s 100-something isles, Manjack Cay is a stop for a couple of snorkeling-picnic charters, but private parties too can anchor and stroll the long, sugary sands on both windward and leeward sides.
More privacy? Check out the beaches in the Pelican Cays Land & Sea Park. Even on the main island of Great Abaco, beaches hide from the throngs. If you can find it, seek out the contrast of craggy limestone and powdery sand at Gilpin Point, or explore the rustic beach and longest wooden dock in the Bahamas at Cherokee Sound.
One of the most pleasant cays-hopping experiences in Abaco, dock-and-dining options abound with variety and flavor both salty and sweet. Probably the most famous, Nipper’s on Great Guana Cay gets especially crowded every Sunday for its pig roast.
From the main Great Abaco island, you can drive to Pete’s Pub & Gallery in Little Harbour, but it’s quicker and more fun to boat in, have something fresh like spicy grilled triggerfish, and tour the foundry of late sculptor Randolph Johnston and his similarly artistic son, Pete.
At Harbour’s Edge, one of several restaurants in Hope Town on Elbow Cay, order chicken or conch in da bag. It’s an Abaconian tradition that packages the fried entree with fries pre-dressed with ketchup and hot sauce in — you guessed it — a brown paper bag.