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Great and Little Exumas, Bahamas

Great and Little Exumas: the Hidden Caribbean

By Steve Mirsky

Crowded beaches, casino gambling, and throngs of people much like yourself—looking to get away from it all—are good reasons why you should visit Exuma, Bahamas. Both Great and Little Exuma are outstanding picks for losing yourself in natural beauty while connecting with real island life. With wide open sun-drenched skies and beaches, limitless coral reefs, and small islands waiting for discovery just offshore, cell phones, satellite TV, and Internet suddenly devolve into annoyances hindering your escape.

Exuma, Bahamas Beach View
Island Beach View from Exumas

Peter Oxley of Coral Gardens Bed and Breakfast located in Hoopers Bay summed it up best as he waved to the TV scuttled in the corner and drolly remarked: “If you feel the need to use this thing, it’s certainly available for your use.” Peter and his wife Betty offer rooms with private baths starting at $95 per night. This is by far the best value on the island when compared to rooms at The Four Seasons Resort at Emerald Bay starting at roughly $300 per night.

To get your bearings, it's a good idea to first take a guided taxi tour with a local driver. I hopped into Patrick Dorsett's taxi (# 43) while he explained that multicolored dilly crabs get their name from the dilly trees they crawl under to eat fallen fruit. He can give you a tour of the Rolle Town tombs and perhaps pluck a ripe papaya off the tree for tasting.

"Since there are no signs advertising beach access, it's always an adventure hunting down the best sandy stretches."

Renting a car (prices range from $50-$100 per day) is an ideal solution for the rest of your stay in Exumas. Bike rentals are also unavailable except through some hotels, as are scooters, although they can cost just as much as cars. The main (and only paved 2-lane) road is the narrow Queens Highway running about 60 miles from the north at Barre Tarre down to its southern terminus at Williamstown. You won’t encounter one traffic light. Remember to drive to the left, a reminder that The Exumas were a British colony until Bahamians officially declared their independence in 1973.

Georgetown, Exuma’s capitol, is protected by Elizabeth Harbor, now a serene haven for yachts and fishing cruisers but once ruled by harbormaster Captain Kidd, and in the 1970’s, an epicenter of drug smuggling where 247 pounds of pure cocaine worth over two billion dollars were seized.

When you’re hungry, be sure to dig into local favorites including chicken souse, cracked conch, blackened grouper, peas & rice, washing it down with Kalik, the Bahamian Budweiser.

Coco Plum Beach, Rolleville
Coco Plum Beach, Rolleville

Since there are no signs advertising beach access, it's always an adventure hunting down the best sandy stretches. If you begin by driving north of Georgetown towards Rolleville on the Queens Highway, you'll find a couple portions of road in the vicinity of Hermitage that are close enough to the ocean to see aquamarine waves lapping against sugar white sands. Further up in Rolleville is Coco Plum Beach, where you can stroll along endless sandbars and collect sand dollars.

Be sure to refuel at the Cocoa Plum Beach Bar and Grill where Dana and Dee Thompson-Wilkinson can prepare you a spicy Cajun chicken sandwich and tropical bread pudding while you nurse their signature Panty Drop drink, an intoxicating blend of three different rums and mango juice.

Driving south of Georgetown, you will pass through more remote settlements such as Rolle Town, The Ferry, and Forbes Hill before reaching Williamstown at the southern tip of Little Exuma. Almost at the end of the Queens Highway to your left high up on a hill is The Exumas’ only plantation manor house left standing. The Hermitage Plantation Ruins are largely original, and remnants of slave cottages are buried under dense bush. When passing through Williamstown, don’t miss a roadside open-air bar called Santana’s. Order a Pain Killer consisting of rum and coconut juice and watch Dee Rolle-Styles prepare cracked lobster or grilled steak behind the bar while you perch on a plank bench chatting with the locals. Another more sumptuous dining venue further north in The Ferry is the Peace and Plenty Bonefish Lodge.

Sit out on the patio overlooking the waters of Mariah Harbour Cay National Park and watch the sunset fade into complete darkness while dining. Cap off the evening by either watching the owner feed the resident lemon sharks who swim every night up the channel into a lit pool sunken into the outdoor patio, or visit Tropic of Cancer Beach for a peaceful moonlit walk.

Since the ocean defines The Exumas’ psyche, get acquainted by heading out into the wild blue yonder. Begin by taking the round trip ferry running twice daily to Stocking Island from the Peace and Plenty Inn in Georgetown. It will be the best $10 you ever spend. This is truly an untrammeled paradise complete with cabanas, palm studded white sand beaches fringed with frangipani and hibiscus, and crystal clear waters with coral reefs right off shore to snorkel. The Peace and Plenty Club is the only venue for lunch unless you pack your own. Doralee Roache grills up her specialty tender and spicy conch burgers.

For the more adventurous, Minns Water Sports and Starfish Adventure Tours are the two main water sport outfitters. Minns Water Sports rents Boston Whaler outboard motor boats enabling even the greenest of skippers to explore Elizabeth Harbor. They provide detailed laminated maps of the harbor and reliable radio communication for assistance.

Starfish Adventure Tours Kayaking
Starfish Adventure Tours Kayaking

Husband and wife team Tamara and Dallas Knowles have been running Starfish Adventure Tours for about five and a half years. Even though there are plenty of sharks in the waters around The Exumas, Tamara and Dallas have never had a dangerous encounter with one. The dreaded and aggressive bull and other large shark species inhabit deeper ocean water and don’t venture into the shallow flats, reefs, or Elizabeth Harbor. Starfish rents both single and tandem sea kayaks by the half day up to a week. One noteworthy excursion begins at The Ferry and leads into the Mariah Harbour Cay National Park. Once off paddling along the main channel colored like pool water, mangroves anchor the shore, and the sound of crashing waves becomes clearer until your journey dead-ends on a sand bar. Tidal waters course over the beachhead separating this sand bar from the ocean.

A modest coral reef nearby makes this a perfect paradise for snorkeling and lounging in the sun without encountering another soul all day.

As with many out islands of the Bahamas, time will tell whether tourism takes over in the Exumas or local residents harness its dynamism on their own terms. While this fleetingly hangs in the balance, enjoy!

Tips to Know Before You Go...

  • The best time to visit The Exumas is between late September and mid May. Make use of available phones at your accommodations because most foreign cell service plans including from the U.S. don’t work within the Bahamas. You can have it programmed by BTC (British Telecommunications Company) for a fee, but this is an expensive option if staying for less than 2 weeks.
  • As of Dec. 31, 2006, all travelers including U.S. citizens are required to have a passport to enter or re-enter the United States from the Bahamas.
  • Daily nonstop flights to Georgetown International Airport (GGT) from Miami (American Eagle), Fort Lauderdale (Lynx Air International, Continental Connection) and Nassau (Bahamasair).
  • Taxi service is available from the airport. The average cost is $25 - $30 for a 20 minute ride.

Bahamas Tourism

Coral Gardens Bed and Breakfast
$95 for B&B rooms; separate apartments units start at $108

Club Peace and Plenty
(800) 525-2210
Rooms start at $170 in season

Two Turtles Inn
(242) 336-2545
Rooms begin at $126 a night, double occupancy.

Coconut Cove Hotel
(242) 336-2659
Rooms start at $152

Cocoplum Beach Bar and Grill
(242) 554-3358

Peace and Plenty Bonefish Lodge
(242) 345-5555 

Minns Water Sports

(242) 336-2604
Fifteen foot Boston Whaler rental $85 per day plus $200 deposit

Starfish Adventure Tours

(242) 336-3033
One day kayak rental $100 single, $150 tandem

Patrick Dorsett - Taxi #43
(242) 357 0704

Prestige Scooter Rental
(242) 357-0066
Average $50 per day