Great Exuma, The Bahamas

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Exuma!  If you like long walks on soft, white sandy beaches and swimming in pristine water that reflects every shade of green and blue like an artist’s palatte, then this is for you.  The air is warm and silky smooth on your skin, and the water so crystal clear, you can see straight to the bottom. The Exumas is part of the chain of cays and islands that form the Bahamas beginning 35 miles southeast of Nassau.  Great Exuma, the largest of the Exuma islands is home to Georgetown, a charming laidback city encircling Lake Victoria with only 1000 permanent residents and variety of restaurants and small shops.

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Or maybe you just need to get away.  Beaches in Exuma are nearly deserted. I’m sure more people show up on the weekends and during high season, however we are only one week away from the beginning of the busy season and we only saw three or four other people on the beach at Tar Bay. Everything is casual and low key.  This is not a super touristy destination. There are no high rise buildings, shopping centers, mega developments or vendors hawking their wares on the beach, or anywhere else for that matter. The people are really friendly and I have completely fallen in love with the Bahamian accent, English but with a melodic and singsong twist.

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Great Exuma offers many different kinds of accommodations.  There are two large resorts, Sandals Emerald Bay, an all inclusive resort for couples and Grand Isle Resort and Spa, which offers a true luxury experience and the smaller family resort, Palm Bay Beach Club. There are also quite a few HOTELS or restaurants that also offer lodging. We opted to stay at a private residence right on the beach in Tar Bay, a cove several miles outside George Town.  One of the charming quirks of Exuma is that there are no street numbers.  Houses are known instead by their names and everyone knows them.  We stayed at “Yellow Bird House”, a charming two bedroom house, owned by our friend, Sean, who has been coming to Exuma for years. Yellow Bird House is available for rental (as are other homes) through Bahama Villa Rental.  Just click HERE for photos and information.

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The beach waits just outside the back door.

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We only had three full days at Great Exuma so we wanted to make the most of them.  Sean had arranged for us to spend our first day with Sugar Adventure’s, a Father and Son operation that was truly authentic, not like many ‘adventure travel’ excursions we have taken on past vacations that lead tourists around en masse to tourist attractions.  Sugar and his son, Montelle, took just the four of us out exploring some of the many cays that make up the Exumas launching from Barreterre at the top of the island.

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Our first stop was at Major’s Spot Cay to swim with the pigs.  The official explanation for why the pigs are on the island is unclear but Sugar told us a local restaurateur had moved them out there and feeds them restaurant scraps. It was fun to pull the boat up to their island and watch the pigs make their way down to the water to visit.

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They are domesticated and swim out to greet boats as they come out looking for bread or other treats.  The water is very shallow and offers a long sand bar which makes it easy for humans to interact with the pigs.  If you look closely, on the island are several tiny piglets just waiting for mom to come back.

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Our next stop was Leaf Cay, Nicholas Cage’s island which is completely uninhabited except for hundreds of iguanas, who also come out to visit when humans stop by.  It feels a bit like Jurassic Park but actually they are very friendly, and if invited will climb up on you.

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They have sharp talons and can inadvertently leave a scratch or two so make sure you have a towel handy for them to crawl up if you are so brave.  They are also happy just sunning with you on the beach, unless, of course, you have food.  Then they want you to share.

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Then the action adventure portion of the day began.  Sugar went spearfishing for our lunch.  We stopped at several dive spots and he came up with two spiny lobsters, two conch and a trigger fish.  He did it all holding his breath using only a rudimentary spear. Fishing with oxygen tanks and gear is illegal here.   Then, feeling like cast members from Gilligan’s Island, we had lunch on a deserted beach on one of the many uninhabited cays.

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Sugar and Montelle gathered brush and built a fire on the sand.  Then they prepared a conch salad with the fresh conch, hot peppers, lime juice and tomatoes, a very traditional Exuma dish, which was really delicious and couldn’t have been any fresher.

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Once the fire made enough coals, they placed individual covered aluminum containers with lobster, fish, plantain, sweet potato and onion on the coals to cook while we swam in the blue waters.  I have already talked about the water but I really can’t say enough about it.  When you are on a small island, water is in almost every view.  Our driver told us that the locals say that their water comes in nine different colors from champagne, where it laps the shore, to shades of aqua and azure blue to a deep sapphire blue out in the deep water.

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And, voila!  Lunch…

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Back in the boat to go exploring…

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We spotted several starfish swimming by and jumped out of the boat to say hello. Starfish grow with 4, 5 or 6 legs. Our guides were very excited that we ‘discovered’ a 6 prong starfish, only the second one they had ever seen in their lives.  We felt honored to be blessed with that experience.  After our photo op they floated away.

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The day wound down with a short stint at bonefishing, which is a sport for which The Exumas are famous.  Bonefish are elusive, silvery fish that move like shadows beneath the surface.  This is a catch and release sport as bonefish are not considered good for eating.

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Then home to shower change for dinner at the Fish Fry.  A Fish Fry is a conglomeration of small very casual restaurants.  There can be as many as 10 restaurants open during high season.  This week only Shirley’s and Charlie’s were open.  We ate at Shirley’s, which did not disappoint.  Shirley is as much a character as her restaurant – and she is a good cook.

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We ordered grilled lobster and crack conch, along with all the Bahamian favorites like peas and rice, plantains and mac and cheese, but my favorite, hands down was the coconut crusted grouper. Yum!  See below for a list of Exuma restaurants and reviews.

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Day Two began with long walks on Tar Bay beach and goodbye to our friends, then we drove into George Town to take a water Taxi to Stocking Island to hang out at the Chat N Chill. The water taxi is $12 round trip which is a bargain.  Here we had explicit instructions from Sean on how to experience the island.  We figured he should know, so why deviate?

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 “Once at the Chat N Chill make sure you: 1) eat a conch burger 2) drink multiple Gumbay Smashes 3) with full drink in tow, walk around the small inlet behind the bar (east), wade across the water crossing, pick up the small trail that takes you up and over the small hill to the east side of Stocking Island.  This only takes about 10 minutes total.  The other side is beautiful, deep water, waves, huge beach to walk.  Sea shells.  Looks different on that side than anywhere on island.  Must do this.” 

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The conch burger, a local favorite, was delicious, as were the Gumbay (or Goombay) Smashes, a ubiquitous drink in Exuma made with two kinds of rum, coconut liquor and orange juice.  We attempted to wade across the water to see the beautiful view but it was high tide and the water was up to our shoulders so we sent one plucky adventurer to report back. No photos as we weren’t willing to sacrifice our cameras and phones.

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The Chat N Chill is a great place to spend an afternoon (or day). You can swim, have lunch or play beach volleyball.

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Stingrays like to hang out along the shore and don’t seem to mind human interaction. While we were there, 5 or 6  stingrays swam close to us, brushing our legs. They are really beautiful, gentle creatures who seem to enjoy being touched or petted, especially above the eyes. Sometimes dolphins like to show off just off-shore too, but we weren’t lucky enough to see them today.

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I spotted a large pile of conch shells on the beach and was told they tie them together and drop them out in the water where they are building an artificial reef for crabs, squid and other little fish and shellfish to make homes.

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Dinner on Day Two was at Catch A Fire, a good seafood restaurant with a wonderful ambience and a great place to see the sunset.  A live music band and colorful local character, Bahama Obama (ironically, the locals call him Bush), who can show up  anywhere and does his best to make people feel welcome, added a festive note to the evening.  We enjoyed the tasty Curry Lobster with Potatoes.

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Day 3 was a lazy beach, book, long walk day.  We went into George Town for supplies and checked out some of the shops.  The most famous shop is Straw Market which offers Bahamian souvenirs and t-shirts.

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It was ‘Rake and Scrape Thursday” night at the Peace and Plenty Restaurant in downtown  George Town where they offer live music and a dinner buffet with quite a good assortment of Bahamian fare.  I believe that other nights they serve food from the menu. Of course, we saw our old friend, Bahama Obama.

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Breakfast on our patio  in the morning and one last walk on the beach.  Good bye Yellow Bird House! We’ll be back..

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TIPS:  Bring insect repellant as well as a soothing anti itch cream since Exuma is fairly insect free except for the sand flies (or No See Ems) which come out at dusk or on calm, windless days.  They can leave you with itchy bumps so be prepared. When planning dinner venues, check around to see where live music is being played as the band travels among several restaurants throughout the week. Lastly, taxi drivers are very willing to be ‘on call’ for you during your stay.  Just arrange it with them when you leave the airport.  Or you may be able to pre-arrange with your hotel.

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Great Exuma Restaurant Reviews via Travel Advisor:

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PHOTO CREDITS:

Silouette Photo: Cecilia Singh

Bonefishing, Starfish and Swimming with Pigs Photos:  Jason Windfield

Map of Exuma:  Exuma Visitors Guide

Exuma Aerial Photo:  http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-tlO4D2j42Xg/T3-JGaqE8tI/AAAAAAAAIDg/Tk5mNrzFxKY/s1600/PARASAILCHATnCHILL.jpg

George Town Photo: Hideaways Palm Bay

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