We arrived at Staniel Cay Yacht Club from Nassau by tiny prop plane, a trip that’s only made less terrifying by the incredible views. Below – spidery turquoise estuaries bleed into brilliant white sandbars; ahead – unbroken views of sky and sea.
Staniel Cay Yacht club sits in the middle of the protected Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, and is one of the few places to eat or stay within, well, a very large radius. Luxurious but unpretentious, the hotel is made up of nine pastel-coloured wooden cottages, each with its own little balcony over the water where nurse sharks regularly come to visit. Guests are given their very own little boat to explore the pristine and secluded beaches and cays that surround the area. If you’re missing lunch to go out and explore (meals are included), the hotel can pack you a picnic basket and beach chairs so you can have your very own castaway picnic.
Staniel Cay is also the perfect home base for attractions like swimming pig beach and Thunderball Grotto. Named after the Bond movie that was filmed there, Thunderball grotto is a stunning underwater cave that has amazing marine life notwithstanding the hundreds of people that visit daily. At all hours of the day the sunlight filters through in beautiful patterns while snorkelers weave their way through hundreds of tropical fish.
Just a few minutes away by boat is Swimming Pig beach (Big Major Cay). While you’ve no doubt seen the pictures, it really is a surreal sight to see enormous pigs swim (quite gracefully) up to your boat in the crystal-clear ocean demanding food. They are utterly unperturbed by humans and very, very cute, especially the babies.
Still unconvinced by the tiny planes, I managed to find (after several desperate rounds of emails and phone calls) a boat tour that agreed to pick us up at the club on their way back down to Great Exuma, our next stop. It ended up being a great idea as we caught the end of the tour, which stopped at Great Guana and Leaf Cay. Apparently, the latter was bought by Nicholas Cage in 2006, but he subsequently discovered it couldn’t be developed as it was home to hundreds of Northern Bahamian rock iguanas – a critically endangered species. The island is currently on sale for $7,000,000. Any takers?
We only stopped on Great Exuma for one night before we set off on our Out-Island Explorer kayak tour of the Exuma Cays. We wanted to do the two night, three day tour so before we set off we had to stock up on camping gear (all provided by the tour company), food, and a heck of a lot of water.
The first slog from the setting point to the first island in the chain, Jimmy Cay, is by far the longest and hardest. As soon as we turned out of the sheltered mangrove we were hit by a ferocious oncoming wind from the North. I’ve never paddled so hard in my entire life and yet it seemed like we were getting no closer to our target island. I very almost called it quits and went straight back but J kept pushing me on. I closed my eyes so I couldn’t witness our demoralising pace, and eventually, after A LOT of cursing and drenched to the bone, we finally got to Jimmy Cay. I’m so glad that we powered through because little did I know that this was going to be the best travel experience of my life.
It was like we’d kayaked to a different country. While the water at the start was choppy and turgid, as soon as we turned in behind the islands (where the water is protected from the Atlantic side by the islands), the water was the bluest, clearest and stillest we’d ever seen. The paddling was now a breeze. The first island we stopped at was Cluff’s Cay, which features a once beautiful and now totally abandoned and dilapidated house, and some enormous resident iguanas. We got off to explore the eerily beautiful house and abandoned garden and then continued on our way to choose which cay would be our home for the next three days.
After kayaking past several islands, each more stunning than the last, we came across Lily Cay, and we knew straightaway that this was the one. The water was incredible and the island was separated by rocks into three parts, which became our campsite, sunset bar and washroom. The water is so crystal-clear and shallow here that you can walk out for miles, even to a small nearby island. There wasn’t a soul in sight. We swam to wash up after kayaking, set up our tent, and explored our island while we gathered wood for the fire. In the evening we had a sunset aperitif at our bar followed by a three-course, gourmet meal of pasta, tinned mackerel and chocolate mousse-pot. We listened to music from our phones and portable speaker (yay for solar chargers), and looked at the stars. I’ve never seen so many.
The next day we explored the islands further up the chain. The whole area is so remote and the water so clear and calm that apparently it’s easy to catch fish to cook fresh on the fire, but unfortunately we’d forgotten to bring our spear gun. We spent most of the day chilling, looking for lobster, collecting sand-dollars and rod-fishing on as many of the stunning islands we could muster up the energy to kayak to. The only people we saw this entire time were two fishermen in the distance. If it wasn’t for running out of food and drinking water I’d have stayed here forever.
We stayed at the very southern tip of Great Exuma, in secluded Williamstown. Since Williamstown was once separated from the mainland by a small toll-bridge, it has very much a small community feel of its own. One of the only activities to do here is to fish off the bridge for Tarpons, which are huge, tasty fish that our lovely cottage owner at Gunhill Bay Villas quaintly described as ‘fine fellows’.
I’m not sure if we caught turbulent weather or if the ocean is always rough in Williamstown, but our cottage was battered by the crashing Atlantic waves the entire time. We spent most of our time on the balcony, and occasionally we’d go out to the mainland or take the short ferry trip to Chat’n’Chill, a shack-like bar and grill on nearby Stocking Island. A favourite with the yachties, Chat’n’Chill sits on a beautiful beach with hammocks and picnic tables, and has resident rays and sharks that swim in the shallows. If you’re game to wade over a channel there’s also a beautiful hike that crosses over on the Atlantic side and ends with a view at the peak of Stocking Island, which boasts gorgeous views of Great Exuma.
After the hike I recommend heading to Chat’n’Chill’s conch salad bar, where they make a particularly good example of our favourite Bahamian dish. Deliciously citrusy conch salad is made with fresh conch plucked directly from its shell, cut to soak up the juices, and then combined with a mixture of diced peppers, onions, lime and hot sauce.
But our favourite meal of the trip was the seafood platter back in Williamstown, seemingly in the middle of nowhere at the GunhilI Bay Villas restaurant. Williamstown is also famous for its bakery, where local ladies make delicious rum and banana cake. We happened to be visiting during Easter so we were also lucky enough to try their famous hot cross buns. We bought them still hot from the oven and had them on our balcony with coffee, watching the Exuma-blue waves crash onto the shore.