Exploring the Exumas

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The northern end of the Exumas chain is only a five-hour cruise from the capital island of Providence, but its string of some 365 islands and cays, largely inhabited, offer exotic ­adventure and incredible beauty.

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The startlingly vibrant turquoise sea streaked with milky white and emerald ribbons elicit oohs and aahs even from seasoned travelers who have cruised the Med and Pacific. When the sun shines upon them, the Exumas’ azure waters are incomparable and, on a clear day, are visible from thousands of feet up, forming a recognizable landmark on a transatlantic flight. This rich and diverse playground is best discovered aboard a boat, and a crewed charter yacht is better yet.

The 145-foot (44-meter) Heesen At Last, well suited for the shallow waters of the Bahamas with a big aft deck dedicated to watersports, is part of a flotilla of charter yachts that frequently cruise the area. Our trip took place in early April—a very nice time of year to explore the Bahamas. The waters are calm and warm enough to swim and snorkel comfortably. While the Exumas have secluded beaches, easy hikes and a smattering of lovely and laidback resorts, the islands’ limpid waters remain the main attraction.

In nature, beauty often comes from decay, and the Bahamas owe their beautiful beaches and caves to erosion. Rainfall over the millennia wore down the top of ancient coral reef formations that comprise the archipelago, breaking them down into the finest sand and creating shallow caves opened to the sky. Thunderball Grotto, near popular Staniel Cay, is one of the Exumas’ most famous caves. After a movie scout happened upon the site one day, it turned up in a few films, including two James Bond flicks. Entering the grotto requires a mask, snorkel and a strong kick, but it is an easy swim after that. Once through the threshold, the current takes over, which allows swimmers to simply drift, looking at purple swaying fans and fish moving in unison in the clear surf. A knowledgeable guide or yacht captain can take you to many other similar sites throughout the Exumas. And it is clear from the number of boats and yachts we spot along the way—including a 282-foot ­superyacht seeking privacy behind a small cay with nary a tree—that the popularity of the Exumas is growing.

The swimming pigs near Staniel Cay seem to wait for visitors they know will bring their next meal. They are sometimes said to be descendants of pigs brought by the Spaniards centuries ago, but who knows? The history of the Exumas is as full of holes as the caves themselves. The Exumas get their name from Yumey and Suma, words derived from the language of the ­Lucayan Indians (not Spanish). The names showed up on early maps drawn by Spanish explorers. But while Columbus made landfall somewhere close to what is now known as San Salvador farther south and eventually claimed the Bahamas for the Kingdom of Spain, he personally did not come close to this area. In the 17th century, English settlers were granted farming rights on Hog Island and Great Exuma and could conceivably have brought animals. Whatever their ancestry, the swimming pigs can be a bit temperamental, but they are far from feral. They swim right up to the boats and sniff out the latest offering of lettuce and table scraps from visitors.

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Many of the boaters meet at the end of the day at nearby Staniel Cay Yacht Club, trading stories over Kalik beer, a light local brew. The colorful bar shares space on the island with a small airstrip, quaint homes and a dock facing the sunset. Dogs of unknown origin run around freely, as a band plays for an appreciative crowd. Whatever stress you may still hold onto melts away as the setting sun paints the watery horizon crimson.

The 130-mile-long archipelago offers plenty of opportunities to mellow out. Like Staniel Cay, Norman Cay, the former haunt of the infamous ­Medellin Cartel drug lord Carlos Lehder is well known and attracts visitors year-round. One of the attractions is a drug-runners’ plane, which sank in a few feet of clear sea. It has since become a favorite diving site attracting snorkelers and barracudas. What remains of the cockpit serves as a perch for sea birds at low tide. But other cays are wilder and lesser known.

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What most visitors appreciate is the islands’ diversity. “The Exumas are the best. Depending on what someone wants to experience, there are so many places to go,” says At Last captain Herbert Magney. The charismatic captain, a hospitality pro landside and on the water, joined At Last when it became available on the charter market after an extensive refit that gave it a new and comfortable interior—including deliciously comfortable beds. Equipped with waterjets, At Last has a draft of less than six feet, which grants it access to areas that are forbidden to deeper vessels. It can, for instance, cut straight across the shallow Bahamas banks from Paradise Island, while other boats—including sailboats—may prefer, or be required, to take a more circuitous route.

Our first night is spent alone near a pristine cay. At night, the celestial vault, sprinkled with myriad stars, is reflected in the inky sea lapping at the hull. In the morning, flying from their nests hidden in the crevices of limestone walls, white-tailed tropicbirds perform an aerial ballet. The birds, easily recognizable thanks to their graceful trailing tails, are there from March to August. We are close to Shroud Cay, a limestone island surrounded by rich waters and shallow mangroves that serve as a nursery for conch and crawfish (and buffet for the seabirds).

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That’s the Exumas for you. Yumey and Suma. Within a few miles you can experience everything from the wild to the serene, socialize with like-minded friends in popular marinas one night or be perfectly alone and at peace communing with nature the next. And this great diversity is all within easy reach.

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