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The Exumas

The Exumas are known for their gorgeous 365 cays—most uninhabited, some owned by celebrities. Get the wind and sea salt in your hair as you cruise through the pristine 120-mile chain. The water here is some of the prettiest in the world, and comes in every shade of blue and green (you’ll grow tired trying to name the exact color); beaches are dazzling white. Combine that with fresh seafood and friendly locals, and you have yourself one of the best vacation destinations in the Bahamas.

Yes, the Exumas are Out Islands in the fullest sense of the word; there isn’t a casino or cruise ship in sight. Those who love the remote beauty of the windswept cays keep coming back, people like Jimmy Buffett, who once docked his seaplane behind the historic Club Peace and Plenty and amused islanders by fishing from the cockpit. A vacation here revolves around uncrowded beaches, snorkeling, fishing, and enjoying a freshly caught dinner at an outdoor restaurant by the beach.

In 1783 Englishman Denys Rolle sent 150 slaves to Great Exuma to build a cotton plantation. His son Lord John Rolle later gave all of his 5,000 acres to his freed slaves, and they took the Rolle name. On Great Exuma and Little Exuma you’ll still find wild cotton, testaments from plantations first established by Loyalists after the Revolutionary War. But today the Exumas are known as the Bahamas’ onion capital, although many of the 7,000 residents earn a living by fishing and farming, and, more recently, tourism.

The Exumas attract outdoorsmen and adventurers, particularly fishermen after bonefish, the feisty breed that prefers the shallow sandy flats that surround these islands. And the healthiest coral reefs and fish populations in the country make for excellent diving and snorkeling. But for those simply seeking secluded beaches, starry skies, and a couple of new friends, the Exumas won’t disappoint.

You can’t go wrong with any of the beaches in the Exumas. They’re some of the prettiest in the Bahamas—powdery bleach-white sand sharply contrasts the glittery emerald and sapphire waves. You can even stake your umbrella directly on the Tropic of Cancer. And the best part of all? You’ll probably be the only one there.

The Exumas are made up of 365 cays, each and each one with pristine white beaches. Some cays are no bigger than a footprintless sandbar. But you won’t stay on the sand long; Perrier-clear waters beckon, and each gentle wave brings new treasures—shells, bits of blue-and-green sea glass, and starfish. Beaches won’t be hard to find on the tiny cays; on Great Exuma, look for “Beach Access” signs on the Queen’s Highway.

POINTS OF INTEREST

GREAT EXUMA

George Town is the capital and largest town on the mainland, a lovely seaside community with darling pink government buildings overlooking Elizabeth Harbour. The white-pillared, colonial-style Government Administration Building was modeled on Nassau’s Government House and houses the commissioner’s office, police headquarters, courts, and a jail. Atop a hill across from it is the whitewashed St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, originally built around 1802. Behind the church is the small, saltwater Lake Victoria. It was once used for soaking sisal used for making baskets and ropes. The straw market, a half-dozen outdoor shops shaded by a huge African fig tree, is a short walk from town. You can bargain with fishermen for some of the day’s catch at the Government Dock, where the mail boat comes in.

Small settlements make up the rest of the island. Rolle Town, a typical Exuma village devoid of tourist trappings, sits atop a hill overlooking the ocean 5 miles south of George Town. Some of the buildings are 100 years old. Rolleville overlooks a harbor 20 miles north of George Town. Its old slave quarters have been transformed into livable cottages. The Hilltop Tavern, a seafood restaurant and bar, is guarded by an ancient cannon.

LITTLE EXUMA

Scenes from two Pirates of the Caribbean movies were filmed on the southern end of Little Exuma—only 12 square miles—and on one of the little cays just offshore. The movies’ stars, Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom, often roamed around the island and ate at Santana’s open-air beach shack, the island’s best-known restaurant. But that’s just one of the reasons people are drawn to this lovely island connected to Great Exuma to the north by a narrow bridge. Rolling green hills, purple morning glories spilling over fences, small settlements with only a dozen houses, and glistening white beaches make a romantic afternoon escape. Near Williams Town is an eerie salt lake, still and ghostly, where salt was once scooped up and shipped away. You can hike old footpaths and look for ruins of old plantation buildings built in the 1700s near the Hermitage, but you’ll have to look beneath the bushes and vines to find them. Little Exuma’s best beach is Tropic of Cancer Beach (also known as Pelican’s Bay Beach); it is a thrill to stand on the line that marks the spot. You’re officially in the tropics now.

THE EXUMA CAYS

A band of cays—with names like Rudder Cut, Big Farmer’s, Great Guana, and Leaf—stretches northwest from Great Exuma. It will take you a full day to boat through all 365 cays, most uninhabited, some owned by celebrities (Faith Hill and Tim McGraw on Goat Cay, Johnny Depp on Halls Pond Cay, and David Copperfield on Musha Cay). Along the way, you’ll find giant starfish, wild iguanas, swimming pigs, dolphins, sharks, and picture-perfect footprintless sandbars. The Land and Sea Park, toward the northern end of the chain, is world-renowned.