Exuma Bahamas: A Complete Travel Guide
This is a 130-mile long chain of 365 virgin islands and cays and located about 30 miles south east of New Providence island. The two largest islands are Great Exuma and below that Little Exuma and they are joined by a short road bridge. The rest of Exuma (i.e. upper part of the Exumas with long string of cays) is known as Exuma Cay.
The Exuma is a district of Bahamas. George Town is the main city located at Great Exuma and the administrative center. The Exuma International Airport is located at Great Exuma near George Town. You get a range of luxury resorts, budget hotels and even family owned lodges at Great Exuma.
There are many casual friendly restaurants and bars here preparing great Bahamian food including seafood (try out the grouper fry or the lobster... and you won't forget that ever).
Exuma boasts of its powdery white sandy beaches and claims that it has more number of beaches than any other island in Caribbean, and most can be enjoyed in exclusivity. The Tropic of Cancer Beach located near William's Town in Little Exuma is the longest, one of the prettiest and secluded. It is named after the meridian line passing right over the beach defining the northern boundary of the tropics.
Two successful James Bond movies ('Never Say Never Again' and 'Thunderball') have been shot at the Exumas. It has stunning green-blue luminescent waters and amazing beaches that you can hardly find anywhere else in the world.
About 176 sq. mile area of Exuma's vast expanse of beaches and waters are protected under Exuma National Land and Sea Park. You can snorkel or dive here to experience jaw dropping reefs, underwater caves and limestone formations, huge drop offs, stunning blue holes and vast marine life. This is also the home to rare Bahamian iguana, a huge lizard like creature which can grow to 2-feet.
Most of Exuma's population (around 4,000) live on Great and Little Exuma which offer all modern amenities to tourists although the life style here is laid back and easy going. Most islets and cays of Exuma Cays are the destinations of rich and famous. Several of these cays have ultra-luxurious resorts and lavish beach-side villas. Many cays here are privately owned by celebrities.
Road Map Location of The Exumas
Exuma has a history of its own. In late 1700s and after the American Revolutionary War, many returning British Loyalists were allowed to settle in the Exuma with their slaves. They initially thrived on cotton cultivation in the island. One of the well know loyalists was Lord John Rolle.
Those days the slaves had to take up the surname of the master. Lord John Rolle finally handed over his land to the slaves. Today almost half the population of Exuma (most of who are descendents of the slaves) continue to bear the same surname ... Rolle. Even today you can see wild cottons growing as a sign of the past... visit Williams Town in Little Exuma to take a look at the plantation ruins.
Due to the vast Elizabeth harbor at George Town, it once became a den of pirates. However the harbor is now the venue of the famous Family Boat Regatta (handmade boats with wooden hulls and tall wooden masts with sails) held annually in every April.
The Pig Beach in Exuma Cays (formally known as Major Cay) is another wonder.... this is where you can see pigs swimming on the waters and you can swim with them. These pigs were once left by the sailors as stand-by food for future, but the pigs survived. They are fed by locals from the neighboring islands like Staniel Cay. You can easily visit the Pig Beach from Staniel Cay. Once you reach Staniel Cay, you can see at a distance the Thunderball Cave named after the James Bond movie.
Why should you visit Exuma?
It's a paradise for those who love to dive, snorkel, lounge and swim off beautiful beaches, do kayaking through the mangroves, love fishing (deep sea, bonefishing in shallows.... everything is here). And if you want a special ultra-luxurious or intimate romantic stay by the beach side, then go to one of the cays in Exuma Cays. And on top of all these, you get to enjoy the laid back Bahamian life, meet outgoing and friendly islanders and have wonderful local food.
The cays and islands in Exuma hold indescribable marvels and natural wonders… all of which have prompted bio-diversity projects, zoological and aquatic research projects and media attention from National Geographic and other channels. However Exuma is almost devoid of glamor, glitz and touristy comfort barring some areas like George town, Staniel Cay etc.
There is one prominent attraction which requires a special mention... Land and Sea Park in Exuma
, which is a 283 sq km national park with land, sea and corals that are teeming with exotic marine life ... a paradise for those looking to snorkel, dive or kayak.
The Exuma International Airport has regular air connections from the US east coast (Florida) and Canada (Toronto). You can also reach the northern tip of Exuma from Nassau in 1 hour by a speed boat. Staniel Cay (the hub of Exuma Cays) takes about 2 hours from Nassau (there is a daily flight here as well from Nassau). So getting to Exuma is quite easy.
Local transportation is mostly by boat and then by golf carts and then walking… so be prepared for some level of hardship. The incredible diversity and unusual heritage of Exuma promises all who venture there great rewards in the form of natural beauty and laid back Bahamian charm.
George Town and Great Exuma
George Town - The capital of Exuma has a lot of historical past... 17th century British planters settled here and the place later became a hideout of notorious pirates. Elizabeth harbor was once an active base of British Navy.
There are a couple of nice peaceful beaches here….you can visit the Jolly hill beach which is a crescent shape white sand beach (5 minutes’ drive away) north of George town. There are no amenities here but it’s good for nature watching and relaxation.
The Three Sisters beach (near Exuma Palms hotel) runs parallel to the Queens highway and is often deserted. There are three rocks here dedicated to three mythical sisters who supposedly fell in love with a sailor way back in history. When he sailed away they swam after him and eventually drowned.
The Hoopers Bay beach is in the northwest portion of George Town…this is a great place for some quiet beach time and photography. Just park on the side road near the beach and walk down to the sandy beach…you will see lots of sea turtles. The docks here are all private properties… you will see many rental villas and homes around.
George Town has a nice Straw Market…you can pick up straw hats, baskets, craft items etc from here. You can also browse through the gift shops here and purchase ceramic items, postcards etc from a famous shop called Sandpiper (it’s owned by a friendly local artist Diane Minns). You will get everything from tunics to cute dresses, quaint books, swimsuit cover ups, local art, and pottery here at competitive prices.
Georgetown is one of those rare towns in Exuma that offer options for nightlife….Two Turtles Inn, Club Peace and Plenty hotel, and Eddie’s Edgewater Rastaurant are all great for food and drinks. February Point and Four Seasons Hotel that are a little far away from town have live music and great bars.
While you are in George Town you should surely check out St Andrews Anglican Church on the main street….it has a beautiful view and is reachable via a short hike up a hillock. Another notable church here is Saint Theresa’s Catholic Church that’s on the Queen’s highway.
There are plenty of restaurants in Georgetown but the Fish Fry strip along the shore is notable…it’s a collection of shacks and restaurants that serve street Bahamian food, beer and indoor games with gusto. February Point near George Town is a private community surrounded by luscious natural marvels…celebrities and regular tourists have all rented homes here.
If you can bear the heat and the mosquitoes then you can consider going up to the Bowes family plantation (you will need approximately 2 hours to reach the ruins from Georgetown). These are ruins of the Bowes estate which flourished in the 1700’s after establishing an economy of tobacco and cotton which was primarily run by slaves. The outline of the house, kitchen and slave quarters can be clearly made out. The Rolle Town Cemetery (12.2 km away from George Town) is a testament to a benevolent landowner who gave up his entire property to his slaves post his death.
Georgetown has a superstore on Queens’s highway called Exuma Markets and you should stock up on groceries, food and drink while you are here. Grocery stores are pretty uncommon in remote areas of Exuma….however don’t expect USA prices…everything here is pricey!!
Lastly, Georgetown has plenty of moorings….the Brown’s Marine and Boat Storage, Exuma Boatyard and Georgetown Dinghy Docks are all pretty near each other. The Peace and Plenty Hotel Dock (Stocking Island) and Exuma Yacht Club Dock are other options. The most beautiful marina here is though the Emerald bay marina at the Sandals Emerald bay that’s about 4.8 km from George Town.
A few kilometers away from Georgetown is Rolleville Town and even this has pigs on the beach. Should you wish to save some time (if you are accommodated in George Town) as Big Major cay with its more famous pigs is a little far away then this is a great option.
On the way from George Town to Rolleville past the Exuma Point Bar & Restaurant near the 3 way junction (Stewart Manor, Rolleville and Curtus)... there is a dirt road on the right. Turn here and go past the shacks and park and you will reach a very beautiful beach here called Cocoplum Beach. This has a lots of resorts and hotels nearby but the beach itself is very quiet.
There are lots and lots of sand dollars on the beach and you can just pick them. Just make sure that you take the bleached ones (these are dead) and the darker ones are living. Lots of parties happen on the cocoplum beach…weekends are a good time to visit.
Moriah Nature Reserve
Moriah Harbor Cay spanning across 16,800 acres is a sort of a bridge ecosystem between Great Exuma and Little Exuma (it is reachable by Water Taxi). It has wonderful white beaches, rolling sand dunes, mangrove creeks and beds of sea grass. There are lots of birds here including several varieties of terns, oyster catchers, ospreys, nighthawks etc.
The mangrove population here is a nursery for crawfish, conch, snappers, yellowtails, groupers, conch etc. you will also find bay cedar, sea oats and button woods here. Incidentally this is Exuma’s newest nature reserve…it was established in 2002.
There is an amazing beach here and some interesting ruins where you can hike and explore. The Moriah Cay reserve can be accessed all year round and there is no entry fee. For more information about the natural reserve, for photography and videography permits etc. you need to contact Mr. David Knowles (director of Parks) on (242) 225-4479.
Lee Stocking Island
If you sail through the chain of islands of Exuma then you will come across the Lee Stocking Island as the first stop. This is best known for its mountain Perry Hill…while the “mountain” is only 100 feet above sea level…it’s actually the highest point in Exuma. You will get amazing views from Perry Hills…it’s a good spot for photography. There is a an abandoned marine biology research station here that makes for interesting exploration….you will be able to see offices, laboratories, generators and fish tanks in close detail.
Celebrity Island circuit
Some tour operators take guests on a trip across the many celebrity islands in Exuma and give guests a sneak peek into their world of glamor and luxurious seclusion. These are some of the most famous celebrity islands.
Rudder Cut Cay is one of the 11 tiny islands that the legendary magician David Copperfield has bought. All his islands are private but the beaches in some are accessed by public. Rudders Cut has a long sand beach that’s very pretty. There is also a small sea cave at the north end of the beach that’s wonderful for exploration.
If you are a snorkeler you will love Rudder cut and its marine environment…in case you are looking for adventure then start looking for the Musician. This is an underwater sculpture of a sensual mermaid resting on a piano….Copperfield had sunk the sculpture in these waters in 2011…snorkelers are still looking for it!!! Copperfield also runs a resort on Musha Cay but you need to rent the whole island and not just a room!!!
Little Halls Pond Cay is 45 acres long and hosts Johnny Depp’s villa and a 156 foot steam boat called Vajoliroja (mixture of the names of his partner Paradis and their kids jack, rose and lily). There are six beaches on the island named after his mentor, partner and kids.
Richard Branson owns a magnificent home in Necker island and Princess Diana, Robert De Niro and Steven Spielberg have all visited this island. There is a wonderful ecofriendly eco resort here that charges 53,000 USD per night. Regular tourists can just tour the island from outside…incidentally Branson allows his employees to vacation here making him the most wonderful boss ever!!!
Faith Hill and Tim Mc Graw owns the 20 acre L’ile de Agnes Island…they have their visually wonderful 6 pavilion eco-friendly thatched roof home here. Their open spaced all white architectural marvel of a home has been featured in many magazines. Tourists can see their retreat from outside as they pass the island.
John Travolta (he flies his personal Boeing jet into his personal runway in his personal island), Carl Ichan and Mariah Carey are other celebrities who have brought islands in Exuma.
Stocking Island is a short distance away from George Town and is an excellent place with beautiful beaches that are ideal for swimming and snorkeling. There are great resorts and restaurants here too.
The Government Dock in Georgetown operates a ferry to Stocking Island and so does Club Peace and Plenty. You will get guides from the stocking Island dock who can show you around the best spots. Interestingly stocking island protects Georgetown from ocean waves by creating an organic harbor. The island has a high hillock called the Beacon which sports an old unused Gas Beacon whose concrete pillar is visible even from a distance.
Stocking Island is known for abundance of starfish and sand dollars... the Starfish Beach at the north end of the isand is well known for this. However, numbers have now dwindled due to guests randomly picking them up and carrying them away. There is also a small sitting area here where you can sit down and admire the hermit crabs.
There is the Bottomly’s Blue Hole that’s a turquoise blue hole which is connected via a web of passages to the Mystery Cave (which is a lovely blue hole grotto) that’s 70 feet beneath the island. The entrance to the cave is a lovely snorkeling spot that’s visited by schoolmaster, snapper, sergeant major, spadefish and grunts.
Angelfish Blue Hole that’s located in an enclosed bay that’s right off stocking Island is flanked by a group of hose eye jacks that circle around the blue hole entrance along with colored parrot fish. Eagle rays and turtles also populate the blue hole which is at a maximum depth of 92 feet.
Around stocking island…there are groups of stromatolites that are technically the world’s oldest blue green algae…these are 2000 years old at least. If you are lucky you will get to see fossilized stromatolised that date back to 3.5 million years.
Allen cay is a very popular place in Exuma and known for the Iguanas... large lizard like creatures that are now an endangered species. You can take a boat ride and easily reach there. There are over 1,000 Iguanas here which are quite friendly in nature and always eagerly waiting to be fed. The heavier ones can weigh over 20 pounds.
Sailboats and yachts usually anchor on Allen Cay and that’s another reason as to why these iguanas are so well visited and popular. Another popular feature here at Allen Cay is the native 7 year apple (it tastes so bad that you won’t have it for the next 7 years). The iguanas are seen happily munching on the turpentine like apple. Technically southern Allen cay and Leaf cay (private island owned by Nicholas Cage) also have these iguanas but their population or the cay connectivity isn’t as good as it is here.
Charter Sailboat Cat Ppalu
(a 65ft catamaran with 6 cabins and accommodating up to 12 persons) visits Allen Cay every week from Nassau (Phone: 800.327.9600; Email: [email protected]
Bitter Guana Cay
This Cay lies to the south of Staniel Cay and it has a native population of Iguanas. Though not as popular as Allen Cay, Bitter Guana could be a part of your schedule if you are not visiting North Exuma. Like Allen Cay the Iguanas here will come up to you expecting to be fed. The ones at Bitter Guana aren’t as large as the ones at Allen cay but if interacting with Iguanas is what you want then this is also a good option.
Big Major Cay
This is another highly popular place for the tourists where you can watch and feed swimming pigs. Big Major Cay is only around 50 miles north west of George Town. Strangely these pigs here have learned to swim efficiently and they are always hungry to be fed and often swim up to the approaching boats. But they are usually quite friendly and interested only in the food you carry.
You can visit Big Major Cay Pig Beach any time but the period between June to November is best avoided as it’s known as hurricane season. The tours run all day starting from 9 a.m. but early morning is when the pigs are found wading in the waters…by late afternoon they are likely to lounge in the sand. If visiting Big Major is the highlight of your trip and you want to stay overnight in a really nice place then Fowl Cay Resort is just a few miles away from here with its pretty waterfront villas.
In 2018 February 7 pigs were found dead and investigating officials say that swallowing excess amounts of sand could be the reason. So if you do go to feed the pigs there… feed them approved food in the water and not on the sand.
Staniel Cay and Thunder ball Grotto
Staniel Cay is also a much travelled to destination in the Exuma as it offers a lot of activities in one package. You will experience high end beach luxury accommodation (Staniel Cay Yacht Club), interaction with wildlife (a swim with the sharks experience is there) and it’s pretty near thunder ball grotto and big major cay (the pig beach that’s 2.2 km and a boat ride away).
Alternatively if all you want is to experience the attractions in and around Staniel cay in a day then you can try any of the airline operators who fly to and fro to Staniel cay from Nassau.
If you are cruising down to Exuma then Staniel cay is the first stop where you can stock up on groceries and benefit from good anchorage. The Staniel Cay yacht club has a great restaurant, bar and laundry facilities. The waters here contain lots of pet nurse sharks and rays and tourists are seen swimming and interacting with them.
This is a free experience unlike the more publicized and more organized swim with the shark facility at Compass Cay. Staniel Cay has 3 beaches including a dinghied one that’s privately owned by the staniel Cay Yacht Club…so spending a couple of days in Staniel Cay might appeal to you. But what its best known for is Thunder ball Grotto.
You can be sure of finding snorkeling in Thunderball Grotto on the schedule of any Exuma day tour and with good reason. Located near Staniel Cay (which makes it accessible) this is a fantastic underwater cave system that has great options for diving, wading and snorkeling.
Lots of marine life are found here including colored coral, fish (angel fish, yellow snappers and sergeant majors are there in abundance) and arthropods. The grotto got its unusual name from the James Bond movie ‘Thunderball’… this was shot at this site along with other movies like ‘Splash’, ‘Into the Blue’ and ‘Never say Never Again’.
Don’t miss the Serenity Reef too…as soon as you spot a pink house with a dock you will know that this is the serenity house…there are three rocks right in front of it. The first rock is the landmark for serenity reef…below the rock is an amazing snorkeling spot filled with thousands and thousands of coral and lovely fish. The Grotto is present below the third rock…it is even more enticing because of its hidden entrance….you need to enter it at low tide if you don’t have snorkeling equipment.
The structure of the Grotto is like Swiss cheese…it’s a hollow island with holes running through it and people can swim through it. You can basically swim through dark caves into light filled caverns that are teeming with exotic marine life. The sunbeams lighting up scores of jewel toned fish and the clear water makes the whole place look like an aquarium. Unlike a typical underwater cave that’s dark and mysterious…the Thunderball Grotto has light coming in from all directions.
If you want snorkeling into the Thunderball Grotto as one of your main agendas then you can stay at the Staniel Cay (that’s the nearest cay) Yacht Club or other alternative accommodation on Staniel Cay. You will need a guide to help you explore Thunderball Grotto, and unless you are an accomplished snorkeler, go at slack tide only.
Great Guana Cay and Black Point
Go south from Staniel Cay and you will reach the Great Guana Cay that’s dramatically different from Staniel Cay in its environment. The most interesting point of this cay is the Black Point Settlement that’s stretched on the wide banks that overlooks the Tongue of the Ocean.
You can also approach great Guana Cay from Farmers Cay, Exuma Sound (from Dotham Cut) etc….incidentally there are no moorings here but this has one of Exuma’s best anchorages…boats can be anchored right from Dotham point to Black point.
There are 2 government docks, and Rockside Laundry and good grocery stores (these are a rarity in Exuma). There are lots of local women weaving hats, baskets etc. inside the town from fallen palm leaves and these make for good souvenirs. The water here is very pure and eco-friendly…fill up your bottles with reverse osmosis water from faucets that are to the south of the dock. Lorraine’s a local restaurant here is something like an attraction …most local tours stop here for lunch.
The Black Point Beach here is a 15 minute walk from the government dock…it’s very beautiful and secluded. There is hillock nearby with a blowhole that showcases large swells coming in from Exuma sound. You will also find stalactites and stalagmites here inside a cave. It’s not tough to find the cave…you have to look out for trail markers at north end of Oven Rock beach.
Locals here are very friendly and there is a homely feel to the place complete with regular Sunday mass service…this explains why many sailors spend repeat weeks of vacation at Black sound.
Little Exuma and The Tropic of Cancer
Great Exuma has a small bridge joining it to little Exuma that’s well known for its beautiful Tropic of Cancer beach. The waters are beautifully blue and the beach is pretty secluded. Make sure that you stop at the shack called Santana… it serves amazing varieties of lobsters.
The first of the Pirates of Caribbean movie series was shot here. There are no access signs but the beach has a proper gravel road access that comes off a left turn from the highway. The tropic of cancer line passes through this beach.
Little Exuma also has a placid settlement called Williams Town which offers some decent spots to stay including the Island Seas resort. The William Town beach is good for long walks, jet skiing and nature watching….right across the beach you will see road side bars with intriguing names like Gone le Grit and Toads.
Two other lesser known beaches around here are Forbes Hill Beach and Love Beach. These are ideal for photography, sunbathing and relaxing and you are likely to find these un-crowded apart from some stray beach rentals. About 3.4 km away from the tropic of cancer beach is the Tropic Breeze restaurant beach and a popular bar by the same name…this one is easy to find as there is proper signage.
Little Exuma had cotton plantations which thrived on slave trade and Williams town hence had a 970 acre cotton plantation.. An ode to those days are the Hermitage ruins which comprise of an old house and some ancient tombs (1700’s)…the tombs are believed to contain the remains of the Ferguson family who settled here after the American war of independence. Look out for the tombs of George Butler, Henderson Ferguson and Constance mc Donald.
Activities in Exuma
Most people who visit Exuma are interested in few specific activities like swimming with pigs, sharks and feeding iguanas and picking sand dollars along with sandbar picnics etc. However there are many hardcore snorkelers and fishers who claim that Exuma is unparalleled in its offerings. The diversity of terrain also makes these cays and islands perfect for trekking.
Whatever activities you may wish to indulge in the Exuma… remember that unless you have very good local knowledge or exemplary skills in snorkeling/ diving/ hiking etc…its best to collaborate with a local guide as weather conditions, current conditions and diversity of flora and fauna here make conditions unpredictable.
Like already mentioned, Exuma are pretty scattered so covering all of it in one holiday is tough. What you can do is to select the kind of experiences you want and then select a tour operator who can give you those experiences in a reasonable package.
Don’t go around scouting for the cheapest deal when it comes to tours as transport comfort and quality can be severely compromised. While you are exploring a relatively amenity deprived terrain like Exuma….comfort, safety and reliability should be your top 3 priorities.
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