Jade and Emerald Dreams. Exuma, Bahamas
Updated: Jun 21, 2019
Exuma, Bahamas. If you've never been, let me take you there. The Out Islands, which Exuma is considered one of, have their own thing. It's not hustle, nor bustle. No highrises or sliding boards into pools with swim up bars. This is where you come to breathe deeply and have that breath taken away, to float out over the emerald / jade waters that run to a distant horizon. In our preview of what was to come, we glided in at low altitude on our connecting flight from Miami International Airport. Our introduction to Exuma, as we peered out of the windows, shimmered in all shades of green and blue. The photo below is a tropical slice of heaven, if there ever was one.
Touching down at Georgetown Airport, we were excited to get started having researched Exuma thoroughly. The GGT Airport, if you've traveled the Caribbean's less populated destinations, is a similar no frills airport composed of a single building for arrivals and departures. The airport staff seem to have that look of, "yes, welcome, we've seen your sort before, so collect your things and be on your way to whereever it is your staying". I don't think that's intended to be mean, it's more like "hey, let's keep it moving and we will all get thru this TSA attitude." Once you've collected your bags, if you've rented a car, the airport rental agencies are just outside the airport terminal doors or just down the street, literally walking distance. If you're staying on one of few resorts, Grand Isle or Sandal's, chances are your hotel livery is waiting curbside. From disembarking the plane to curbside is all a matter of a few feet, just gather your luggage from the hole in the wall where they toss it through and be on your way. As mentioned, it' "ain't" fancy and customs agents, baggage handlers and every other manner of staff will remind you of that, just don't take it personally. Upon initial greeting, Exumaians seem to forgo that "happy island people" pretense and I find that refreshing and humorous. Many Bahamians, in my limited observation, are very matter of fact, but a scant few others fully embrace the "happy to see you" mantra.
We rented our "vehicle" from Thompson's Rental Agency, right across the street from the airport. Little note if driving, in most cases, the steering wheel is on the right side of the vehicle and you drive on the left side of the road. Just do what the signs say, KEEP LEFT and everything will be fine, it just take a few minutes of getting used. Every time I wanted to signal for a turn, I turned on the wipers as the vehicle controls were also reversed. Thompson's Rental Car is a smaller operation and most of their vehicles are "heavily" used, but being a relatively small island it doesn't seem to matter. The vehicle performed exactly as requested, which was to drive without anything falling off or a mechanical failure, clearly I had very lofty expectations. There are several other rental car options to choose from (Berlie's and Airport Car Rental to be specific), none of them however are the big multinational companies, so you'll have to touch base one of the local companies via phone or online. As far as driving, the roads are passable, not to European or American paved standards, but there are few really bad roads with the exception of the Beach Access Roads, more on that later. Nine times out of ten when driving, you will find yourself on Queen's Highway. Queen's Highway snakes the entirety of the island running north and south. It is modestly maintained from a paved standpoint, with the occasional pothole or series of potholes that will inevitably present themselves. Welcome to island driving.
If the "tenor" of what I have stated so far is, "why come here?", I get it. We had that initial impression when we started our drive, but Exuma has a way of lying in wait for you to discover it. Through VRBO, we rented a one bedroom cottage situated high on a hill, which was called Halcyon, and part of Minn's Cottages, just north of Georgetown. It was spacious, comfortable with views that went on forever. Our host, Rosemary Minn, has lived in Exuma for most of her life and her family since the 1800's. She's well versed in all things Bahamas and particularly Exuma. We felt we lucked out in choosing her accommodations as she knew where to go, when to go and possibly even "why" to go. Our stay was convenient to immediate beach access at the bottom of the hill with world class beaches within 10-30 minutes in any direction. Shopping, restaurants and Georgetown, the island's hub and center, were just a short walk or shorter drive away. We drove everywhere for the lack of curbs or sidewalks.
Our first few days (three of them to be exact), were greeted by big, wet, raindrops for the better part of the day and only relented in the late afternoon, early evening hours which is where our discovery of Exuma began. One of the first things we noted was the local food. We are foodies (my wife and I), but not food snobs. Big joint, small place, roadside stand and all manner of fanciness in between, we're always game for anything as long as the food is good. That being said, we were told of a Fish Fry that took place most nights just 2 minutes away and that is where we would have our first meal. Now being on a Caribbean island, one of the celebrated foods is Conch. Conch Fritters, Conch Salad, Conch Sandwiches, Conch Fingers, you get the picture. We stopped into Shirley's Seafood, one of the Fish Fry places (there's three or four them all nestled together by the water's edge north of Georgetown), while the food was semi- fresh, the service was sassy and the meal unremarkable in every way. It's almost as if the chef forgot what spice was and this unfortunately would be a trend. In my fat head, I thought that Bahamian food offerings would closely resemble Jamaican cuisine, but uh, that would be a big fat "no mon". It was if everything was hustled together for a captive audience, you're on an island, and served to you with all the lack of enthusiasm (more like matter of fact-ness really) you could handle. Comical. What the food lacked most to me was imagination, spices and distinction. That was no where to be found at dinner our first night or the few nights that followed. Don't pity us as we didn't starve during our vacation as ample plates of nothingness were readily available, but Exuma and the cuisine did redeem it's self, admirably. We would also encounter some fellow travelers, also in search of good food and the Exuma experience, they too were a little mystified initially.
Days, two, three and four were repeats of the first day, rain for the first 2/3rd's of the day, sunshine by the late afternoon, feeble attempts to see more of the island followed by a bland dinner to end the day. Our Exuma learning curve did tick up a little bit, we discovered Kalick and Sands Beer, a local Bahamian beer product. For the record we prefer the Sands to the Kalick, both are readily available every where on the island. The weather made for more drinking than we both anticipated, not that we were complaining, well actually we were. On the last day of rain, followed by the proverbial late afternoon, early evening sun, we discovered the Rusty Anchor at February Point, Georgetown. There is a food god, prayers heard.
February Point is a well appointed gated community just on the edge of south Georgetown. The cost for the homes and "villas" here run into the seven figures, BUT February Point's restaurant is open to the public, simply let the guard at the gate know that you're having dinner there. Pricier than most island restaurants, but worth every penny. Our newfound friends joined us for dinner (we had gone from a twosome of misery and disenchantment to a foursome). Dinner was excellent all the way around from appetizer to main entree, with the exception of the Asian Marinated New York Strip, which my wife ordered. It was slathered in a pedestrian sauce, which painfully hid a lackluster, floppy cut of meat. The steak felt more like a New Jersey Strip Steak, if such a thing ever existed. My wife wound up sharing my Lobster and Shrimp Linguine, which was excellent and it was, "amore". Mix in some cocktails, good conversation, new friends and as Ice Cube would say, "today was a good day". Redemption had begun and from this moment on Exuma began to turn on every imaginable charm.
We woke to blue skies as the sun started its morning ascent, it was as if someone had turned on the lights, like a tropical Christmas morning. Our now foursome, decided to rent a boat to do some snorkeling, swimming, visit nearby Stocking Island (just across the way from Exuma), discover hidden cays and see some of the Bahamas from the water. We boarded our motorized boat, settled in (we rented from Minn's Watersports in Georgetown) and we began our slow "wake free" journey into Elizabeth Harbor. No sooner than we began to get some distance behind us, smoothly motoring the small waves in our 17 ft Boston Whaler to a snorkel site, that we felt the cold and ominous signs of betrayal. Clouds were coming in from the east at a good clip. The sun had succumbed to voluminous gray clouds, advancing menacingly and quickly from the Exuma shoreline. Bad storms, if you're a boater, can be a kiester pucker upper. The friends with us, Steve and Barb, have owned boats prior and remained alert and calm. If we (the four of us), had learned anything in our lives, you don't fight with Mother Nature and we all agreed with this. Rather than becoming a media byline of "Four Hapless Tourists Missing In Bahamian Waters", we immediately changed our course and set our bearings directly for Stocking Island. In our initial conversations of where we should go first, it was decided we would go to the furthest most point away and then anchor on Stocking Island upon return. Unfortunately, we were in a race with a storm, so any plans we thought we might have had were changed. 10 minutes later we were rounding one of the many shore points of Stocking Island where we could anchor. The wind had set in and our 17ft Whaler had thoughts of its own as it moved in conspiracy with the wind and always against our wishes as we made several futile attempts to anchor. Being so close to shore, I elected myself first mate, removed my shirt, climbed into the water, dove down and buried the anchor in the bottom of the powder white shoreline, as it was only about four to five feet deep where we were. Once anchored, we frantically gathered our things. One by one we hopped down from the Whaler, waded through the choppy surf and walked headlong into wind and the sideways rain. We looked back every once in a while to make sure the Whaler remained anchored, as it swayed back and forth in the water and the wind. "Whaler you're on your own now friend, please stay put". There is a destination on Stocking Island that most Bahamian boaters and expats know, and tourists, if they're lucky, become familiar with and that's the Chat N' Chill. You can also get a Water Taxi from Georgetown over to Chat N' Chill, a lot of people do. The Chat N' Chill looks like a collection of stilted, small rustic barns that have been strung together and re-purposed for drinks, food and merriment. Chat N' Chill served us well during the storm as the worst of it was just getting started. Timing could not have been any better as Chat N' Chill has a weekly Pig Roast on Sundays, which had just gotten started. "Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike guess what day it is?" Nope, it's not Hump Day, it's Sunday and the Pig Roast is gonna be good, in addition to the day- drinking that had already started. So the rain? Well it kept raining. The beer? It kept flowing. The Pig Roast? We licked our fingers clean of goodness til our bellies were full and plates emptied. It was a great time even with the rain, maybe Mother nature had a higher purpose in mind for us. If you visit Exuma, you have to visit Chat N' Chill, it's really as simple as that. Chat N' Chill also has a small, but nice beach and there's more to see on Stocking Island, like Lumina Point, Monument Hill and St. Frances Resort. It's easy to make a day or afternoon of it. For us, it was our refuge, our sanctuary, our gluttonous eating and drinking joy. There is no higher praise.
Weather clearing, where to, where to, where to? There are no shortages of cays to visit in the Exumas, being a collection of over 365 islands. We headed north to the Monument Hill area of Stocking Island. The sun and blue skies were finally ours, so we boarded the Whaler once again for further adventures, smiling at the good time we just experienced and the company we were keeping. What awaited us was surreal and at this point, well I'll let the pictures do the talking.
After our day on the water, we parted company with our mates and rustled some grub from Shirley's Seafood, yes that Shirley's. Being wiser now, I ordered a burger and my significant other ordered pizza. Shirley's Seafood wasn't fooling us twice. We thought it would be pretty hard to butcher those items, they didn't and they were perfectly edible. Ahhhh, passable cuisine, lovely.
You can research the Exumas' pretty well online, but there are some beaches that you need to get the "low down" on and experience first hand. Our favorites? Coco Plum Beach & Forbes Hill Beach. The Coco Plum Beach is panoramic in beauty, Forbes Hill Beach is a smaller oasis that offers perfect solitude. Each were vastly different, but equally beautiful. Forbes Hill is where we would have spent the majority of beach time. Rosemary, our host, told us about the beach at Forbes Hill. One secret, if you've rented a car and see a Beach Access sign, slam the brakes and follow that road, because like a box of chocolates, "you never know what you're gonna get ." Just one word of caution when traveling the Beach Access roads, unless you're in a Jeep or larger 4x4, go slow as they are not well maintained. We made it just fine in our geriatric but willing Hybrid Honda Civic. We proceeded with all the due caution of a snail's pace. The Civic cursed every road imperfection of the Beach Access Roads. You can ruin your rental and possibly your vacation all in one shot on the Beach Access Roads, you've been warned.
Pictures in order below, Coco Plum Beach and Forbes Hill Beach. Runner-up (not pictured) would have been Emerald Bay Beach, it's not far from the airport and just south of Sandals. It's a semi-circle or half moon of emerald goodness, just like the name suggests.
Confession time, when we were planning travel to the Bahamas, it was not Exuma I researched initially, it was Eleuthera. My better half saw videos of the Swimming Pigs (Big Major Cay, which is closer to Exuma by boat) and so it was decided Exuma it is. Want to swim with the pigs? There are Full Day tours and Half Day tours to choose from, we chose the Full Day. Not only do you get to see Swimming Pigs, but the Thunderball Grotto (Bond, James Bond fame), Iguana Island, Swim the Sharks at Compass Point and visit a downed drug cartel plane crash site that sits just below the surface of Bahamian crystal clear waters. While there are many companies that offer services for this type of trip, we chose Coastline Adventures. You can book most tours online (or call) and I would suggest booking a week in advance. We booked a day before and barely secured a reservation. Coastline Adventures offers comfortable, fast & safe boats, a homemade Conch Salad treat, day drinking, all accompanied by pop music as you ride the waves from destination to destination. Coastline Adventures also offers free pickup services from your hotel or online stay and transport you to their docks in Barreterre, which is where a few of the charter crews leave from. Great crew and definitely a good time.
Below in order, the travel destinations of the Full Day Tour with Coastline Adventures.
Now on the subject of food, we did find our oasis, it was located on Little Exuma near the Tropic of Cancer Beach. The name of the restaurant is Tropical Breeze and the name is apropos, as it is nestled up to the ocean. We were informed of this gem from Rosemary Minn, our VRBO host. She was not wrong, no, not in the least. Should you venture down to Little Exuma and Tropical Breeze, you will encounter some of the best food on the island, this was what we were expecting the entire time. Food with imagination, that feels authentic and local, and it is every bit of that. We dined here twice, once for dinner and the other for lunch on the day of departure. The first time we dined there, we arrived at 540pm and they were closing at 6pm, but we were desperately seeking to be satisfied, so we, um, begged for a seat and they let us know what was available as the kitchen was closing down operations. We heard about the mythical Lobster Poppers and Lobster Popper Burger, but those were not on menu at this late hour. We "settled" for the Caribbean Stir Fry, it's a plate licker its so good. That was just a sample of what was to come. We were flying out the next afternoon, but if we were going to have a last meal in paradise, Tropical Breeze would be it. We arrived the next day shortly before they opened and they greeted us like returning heroes. They are a friendly lot, from the bartender hitting falsetto notes to 80's pop music, to the chef and waitstaff. Feels like a family affair. We were all smiles and yes, Lobster Poppers and the Lobster Popper Burger were to be ours. To describe it as just "delicious" would be understatement. This is a pilgrimage to your soul. The Lobster Poppers are lightly coated with tender lobster bits and the Lobster Popper Burger is heaven sent. This is the ultimate Surf and Turf. It is served looking big and ornery, but it is as tender as an angelic dream. You swear you won't have another bite, but there you are with an empty plate, leaned back in your chair, ocean waves crashing in the background, feeling all kinds of full. Should I ever get the death penalty, this might be my last meal wish. There are all kinds of other deliciousness to sample, the Lobster Poppers and Burger seemed to be the gateway drugs to culinary goodness. For me, it didn't get much better than this, the perfect end to such a beautiful place.
It's not often in this life that we have our expectations exceeded, but in terms of pure, unadulterated beauty, Exuma, Bahamas is one of those places for me. Once we understood the pace of the island, we felt like we belonged (or should we say didn't want to leave?). We got used to (most) stores closing at 6pm, but some restaurants remain open later and like us, you'll find your favorites. Befriend the island waters. Whether you rent a boat or hire a water taxi, experience Exuma from the waves, there is perfection in this collision of heaven and earth. While there are no "per se" late night party bars, secure (stores close at 6pm remember?) whatever you might need to wet your lips, gather with friends or a loved one and watch as the sun falls from the day's grace or the moon rises up into a starry night sky. These are the moments when this "out island" will be all around you. Find "your" beach, make "your" moments and let them be told amidst the surreal tropical backdrop that Exuma offers in a myriad of different ways, the biggest of them, a beautiful jade and emerald hue.
From Exuma with love.