Laid out like a string of pearls along the eastern edge of the Grand Bahamas Bank, the Exumas are a breathtaking chain of idyllic, pristine islands with white sand beaches, crystal blue waters and very few people — remarkable, considering they’re only 300 miles from Miami.
This spring, my partner and I sailed this 130-mile-long archipelago from Great Exuma Island in the south to Norman’s Cay in the north.
You have two options for sailing the Exumas. You can either sail the eastern side (outside) of the islands, which is essentially deep, open ocean, or the western side (inside), which is over the shallow Grand Bahamas Bank. The inside is protected from the large waves and strong winds you’ll find on the open ocean. However, navigating the shallows can be tricky, especially in the southern part of the chain.
We chartered with Navtours, which is pretty much the only charter outfit in the region and one we’ve used and liked in the past. We chose a Beneteau 43-foot mono hull with a fairly deep draft (6 feet), so we had to start our sail on the outside. As the wind was blowing 20-plus knots and kicking up some good-sized waves, we had an exhilarating first day.
After that, it was nice to tuck back inside at Lee Stocking Island, our first anchorage. There’s an old abandoned marine biology research station there, which provided an interesting afternoon of exploring — the laboratories, fish tanks, generators and offices are still there, albeit in disrepair.
We also went on an expedition to the dizzying summit of Perry Hill. At 100 feet above sea level, it might not seem like much, but given how flat the geography is, it has an impressive view of the islands to the north and south.
Wildlife enthusiasts should visit nearby Leaf Cay and say hello to a colony of rare Exuma Island iguanas (only 1,300 remain). You won’t have any trouble finding these chunky, armor-clad creatures, as they will scramble out on the beach to greet you in search of a handout.
As the inside was still too shallow for our boat, we headed back out into the big seas. It actually wasn’t too bad sailing on the ocean (we mostly had the wind at our backs). The only bit that was a little tricky was navigating the passes or “cuts” between the inside and the outside. These cuts are generally narrow and shallow, and the waves and currents can make them a little hairy. To avoid any surprises, motor through the cuts at high “slack” tide when there’s no current.
Our next port of call, Rudder Cut Cay, is one of 11 islands that David Copperfield purchased in 2006. While his islands are private, the beaches are public up to and a little beyond the high-tide mark, and Rudders Cut has a wonderful long white sand beach that you don’t want to miss. Look for a small sea cave at the northern end of the beach; it has a “mini beach” inside that’s just big enough for two and makes for a perfect shady lunch spot.
Snorkel fans should search for The Musician, an underwater sculpture by Jason DeCaires Taylor of a mermaid resting on a piano. Copperfield sunk it here in 2011. I should say “try,” because we spent an hour looking for it only to find out later we were looking in the wrong spot. That being said, the coral and marine life is pretty amazing here. So piano or no piano, I recommend throwing on a mask and some fins.
At Little Farmers Cay, the water on the inside was deep enough to accommodate our keel for the remainder of our sail north. So we enjoyed a relaxed, calm ride to our next destination, Staniel Cay. Aside from Great Exuma, this was by far the most developed island we visited. A favorite destination for large yachts, Staniel Cay has a good-size marina, a little village, a few restaurants and hotels, and a grocery store — very important, as we needed to restock our supplies.
Staniel is also home to Thunderball Grotto, named after the 1965 James Bond movie that was filmed here. This protected spot — no fishing allowed — is rich with colorful tropical fish and beautiful coral, all mysteriously illuminated by light filtering into the cave through underwater tunnels.
Around the corner from the Grotto is Big Major Cay where you can visit the Exumas’ famed swimming pigs. One story is that these pigs were abandoned here by merchant ships many years ago and have since kind of taken over this small island. However, instead of being a nuisance, they’ve become quite a tourist attraction.
Be careful if you approach the shore with an inflatable dinghy, as we did. A welcoming committee of two or three of the larger sows swam out to greet us, obviously looking for food. Luckily we had been warned that they might try to climb into our boat with their sharp little hooves, which could have easily punctured our dinghy, so we kept our distance. Other than that, they’re harmless and very cute, especially the little piglets.
Arguably the most beautiful section of the chain is the Exumas Cays Land and Sea Park, a string of protected islands just north of Staniel Cay. Our first stop in the park was Compass Cay. Here you can explore a winding mangrove river that ends at a large pool called Rachel’s Bubble Bath. The “Bath” is fed by ocean surf crashing over a ragged reef barrier, giving it the look and feel of a seawater Jacuzzi.
Further north, the park headquarters on Wardericks Well had the best snorkel spot we encountered during this trip. The marine life is rich here, and the park rangers can provide you with a map that lists all the snorkel sites. We saw four huge spiny lobsters battling each other across the coral. As these elusive giants usually hide in crevices in the coral, this was a rare sighting (they must know that fishing is forbidden here).
Shroud Cay, in the north of the park, also has a mangrove river that winds through the island. This one takes you to a large, beautiful, white-sand beach on the ocean side where you can explore an old abandoned “camp” that drug-enforcement agents set up in the ’80s to spy on neighboring Norman’s Cay.
During that time, infamous drug lord Carlos Lehder used Norman’s Cay as a transfer point and headquarters for one of the biggest cocaine-smuggling operations in history.
In the bay to the southeast of the island, you can snorkel one of the cargo planes Lehder and his gang used to fly cocaine “under the radar” to dry lakebeds and other remote locations in the United States. The plane is pretty much still intact, even the engine and propellers are still there, although now they are home to coral and tropical fish.
The Exumas are more than 360 delightful islands, which means there’s a white-sand beach and crystal-clean cerulean bay for every day of the year. And given how undeveloped and empty it is here, you’ll most likely have it all to yourself.
If you don’t know how to sail, Navtours can provide you with a skipper that can show you all the best spots. There are also daily flights to many of these islands that leave from Miami and Nassau, and plenty of boat-tour operators who can take you around.
If you’re looking for that get-away-from-it-all place but don’t want to travel halfway around the world, check out the Exumas. I guarantee you can find that “own private island” experience here many times over.
Michaela Urban and Eric Vohr have a travel website and blog at travelintense.com.
Sailing the Bahamas
Bahamas tourism: bahamas.com
Sailboat charters: Navtours, navtours.com/en/bareboat_charters.html, has bases in George Town, Grand Exuma Island (south), and Nassau, New Providence (north). Prices start at $3,500 per week for a 39-foot monohull with three cabins (six people maximum).
Flights: American Airlines flies nonstop from Miami to George Town, Grand Exuma Island, for around $500 round-trip. There are also flights from Fort Lauderdale, with a connection in Nassau.