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.
In Exuma, you can’t miss conch burgers and fresh made-before-your-eyes conch salad at Chat ‘n’ Chill on Stocking Island. Chat with owners Kwanza and Kenneth Bowe, and chill with a cold Kalik beer.
Nearly as iconic, the Staniel Cay Yacht Club serves island specialties such as conch fritters and grouper sandwiches. Don’t let the “yacht club” fool you; this place is the definition of island dive (and I mean that in a good way).
Nicholas Cage, Jessica Tandy, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, David Copperfield, and Johnny Depp: All own or have owned islands in the Exumas. Glimpse the lifestyles — from Copperfield’s opulent Musha Cay to Depp’s eco-retreat on Little Halls Pond Cay. Then there are those quirky cays built with a castle, marijuana greenhouses, and other unusual and equally intriguing structures.
Rumor has it that Depp, who fell in love with the Bahamas while filming Pirates of the Caribbean and other movies, has also purchased an island in Abaco. Beyonce and Jay Z have been known to steal away to Hope Town and have been sighted at the Sunday pig roast at Nipper’s.
The sparkling, multi-hued waters of the Bahamas bear no resemblance to anywhere else in the world. The variations of depths from shallow sand bottoms to 20-foot deep reefs, mesmerizing blue holes and caves, and the 6,000-foot drop-off of the Tongue of the Ocean make it a snorkeler’s and diver’s fantasy. Not to mention the colorful sea life from neon-blue tangs to hefty green turtles.
In Exuma, do not pass up an opportunity to explore the underwater Thunderball Grotto, where the eponymous James Bond flick was filmed. It’s best to go with a guide the first time.
The fourth largest reef system in the world lies offshore Abaco. Great Guana and Elbow cays are close enough to swim to it. Fowl Cay Preserve, a national underwater park, lies off the north end of Man-O-War Cay.
Many of those same sea shanties where you can grab lunch make for a fun day of pub-hopping by boat. In Abaco, it’s practically a national pastime.
Many of the establishments mix up their own signature rum punch with names such as Blaster (Pete’s Pub) and Nipper’s Juice (Nipper’s Beach Bar). One of the most famous out-cays bars, Miss Emily’s Blue Bee Bar on Green Turtle Cay, is credited for creating the Goombay Smash, a coconut-flavored rum tipple now imitated Bahamas-wide. At Cracker P’s on a cay named Lubber’s Quarters, try to survive the Shotgun.
In Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco, cruise the strip by foot or pull into harbor for a Whatchamacallit at the Abaco Beach Resort pool bar, Mango Millennium at Mangoes, and a frozen Curled Tail at Curly Tails — named for the islands’ curly-tailed lizards (in case you thought that rum drink was making you see things).
For the best pub-hopping in Exuma, go to George Town on Great Exuma. The rum punch at Club Peace & Plenty Inn goes well with gazing over Elizabeth Harbour. A short boat-hop away, the Chat ‘N’ Chill on Stocking Island mixes up the ubiquitous Bahama Mama or guava daiquiris.
A word of warning regarding the ambiance of these wayfarer stops: Be prepared to sacrifice a piece of clothing (undergarments included) in the spirit of foolishness that prevails.
Straight out of a gingerbread fairy tale, settlements such as New Plymouth on Green Turtle Cay, Hope Town on Elbow Cay, and Cherokee Sound on Great Abaco send Abaco to the head of the class. Settled in the 18th century by British Loyalists fleeing the aftermath of the American Revolution, they feel like Nantucket and Barbados had a baby.
George Town on Great Exuma, too, exudes a Brit air enlivened with Bahamian vitality, especially come Friday evening. The boating crowd brings a nautical niceness to the main commercial center.
Most of the resorts in Abaco and Exuma have marinas or at least easy access to the water by boat.
Although Exuma boasts the biggest resort of the two destinations — Sandals Emerald Bay, a top-service all-inclusive on Great Exuma — Abaco runs neck-to-neck, thanks to all of its one-of-a-kind properties ranging from small, historic inns like the Hope Town Harbour Lodge on Elbow Cay to the Treasure Cay Resort and Abaco Beach Resort, both on Great Abaco.
Golfers gravitate to Treasure Cay, also known for its plush beach. For those like me who prefer the convenience and authenticity of staying near the local pulse, Abaco Beach Resort has a relaxed, salty style.
Also in Abaco, resorts such as the Green Turtle Club on Green Turtle Cay and Sea Spray Resort on Elbow Cay offer an out-cays experience that defies reality. Walker’s Cay, a famed resort of the ’60s and ’70s, has been purchased and will, by all reports, return to its former identity as a top yachter’s and diver’s getaway.
In Exuma, you can stay at Copperfield’s Musha Cay, if you have mucho dinero. Watch for news of an exclusive golf resort to open on coconut palm-lined Bock Cay.
One of my first wildlife-interaction experiences happened at Manjack Cay in Abaco. Here our snorkeling excursion wound up with a grouper picnic on the beach. While we waited to eat, we stuffed bits of leftover grouper between our toes as rays with wingspans like condors skimmed over our feet for handouts — well, more accurately footouts, I guess.
Since then, I have fed grapes on a stick to the endangered Bahamas rock iguanas below the limestone cliffs of Exuma’s Great Guana Cay, photographed my husband swimming with the wild pigs of nearby Big Major Cay, and snorkeled with sharks and bonefish at Compass Cay.
Besides the incredible marine life at both island groups, Abaco’s preserves afford opportunities to spot the rare Abaco parrot.
Abaco’s Marsh Harbour beats Exuma’s George Town hands-down on shopping, including art galleries and a duty-free shop among the usual souvenir joints.
Hope Town on Elbow Cay also deserves some serious shopping time, but for the most unusual finds head to Man-O-War Cay, where the Albury Sail Shop staff sews — right before your eyes — its famous sturdy duck bags in all designs and sizes. Stop in Joe Albury’s Studio. If you’re lucky, Joe will be around to show you the latest wooden boat he’s building.
In Little Harbour, tour the Johnston foundry and buy bronze sculptures from the gallery. Near the airport, Abaco Neem farms the healing neem tree to make into natural health products.