ED AND BARBARA CHARTER IN THE EXUMAS
Last week we returned from a 7 day charter in the beautiful Exumas, aboard the crewed catamaran ‘Solstice’.
These islands are truly uncrowded and unspoiled, which is surprising considering they are only minutes away from Florida. Except for the last night, tied up at a marina in Nassau, we had every pristine anchorage to ourselves not another boat in sight for 6 nights! Even in high season you will still find only a few boats cruising here (mostly larger powerboats, known locally as ‘white ships’, looking for total solitude for their guests).
The Exumas are ideal for people honestly looking for peace and quiet, who are comfortable entertaining themselves and who enjoy spectacular, unspoiled beaches without a beach bar in sight. This would not be an area for anyone looking for nightlife ashore there are only a handful of bars in the whole 95 mile long chain.
Barbara and I, plus our daughter Kate and her friend Carly, flew to Nassau and chartered a small, 5 seater plane to Staniel Cay. The pilot took us low over the islands, giving us a fabulous view of our next week's cruising ground. Starting further south in the island chain makes a lot of sense and avoids backtracking.
Staniel Cay has one of the few restaurants/watering holes in the area. The pace is delightfully slow - our small plane was met by a lady driving a golf cart, towing a small covered trailer with bench seats. The lanes are narrow and golf carts seem a very practical form of transportation.
‘Solstice’s’ crew (and owners), Cliff and Liza, were ready for us at the yacht club and we were aboard and heading for the first anchorage in no time.
This 47' Lagoon catamaran has two guest cabins aft, with large double berths and a third, slightly smaller double cabin forward, on the starboard side. All have ensuite electric heads. The boat was comfortable, simply decorated and in nice shape.
We enjoyed a delicious dinner in the spacious cockpit, with a beautiful sunset as a backdrop. Liza, besides being a master in the galley, worked in the theater for 14 years and sang on Broadway and on national Broadway tours, in shows such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Guys and Dolls and Victoria Victoria. A lady of many talents.
Next morning, we motored past Pig Beach (yes, real pink pigs swim out to your dinghy) to The Grotto an underground cave where the James Bond movie, ‘Thunderball’ was filmed.
The entrance to the cave is underwater at high tide, but once we snorkeled through the entrance, the cave opened up dramatically, with shafts of light entering from the roof and hundreds of colorful fish all around us.
We have watched many popular cruising grounds lose so much of their charm over the years, as they become ‘discovered’, so we were pleased to see The Bahamian government has been proactive and created a large National Park, 22 miles long and covering 176 square miles, in the center of The Exumas. There are concerns that developers are finding loopholes but efforts are being made to control this. No fishing is allowed and the scenery both ashore and below the water is totally unspoiled. Beautiful.
Kate has always wanted to scuba dive, so Cliff, who is a dive instructor with many years teaching experience, gave the two girls some instruction and, after two practice dives, took them to mysterious sounding ‘Danger Reef’! We picked up a small mooring buoy, seemingly in the middle of the ocean and Cliff dove with the two girls, while Dad snorkeled on the surface! What an incredible experience. Six Caribbean Reef sharks circled us (one we estimated was 5 feet), but they seemed less interested in us than the huge inquisitive Grouper were. The coral was just beautiful. As a father, it was wonderful to see Kate experience this for the first time.
Cliff and Liza introduced us to 'Spa Solstice' - a creative way of keeping cool in the afternoon sun. They rigged 'hammocks' in the water between the hulls, in the shade of the bridgedeck. We felt very spoiled when Liza swam over with two Mount Gay and tonics! True service!
Cliff knows the islands well and gave us several itinerary suggestions each day. When visiting Norman Island, instead of anchoring in the 'popular' main harbor, he suggested a beautiful bay on the east side. We walked on an out-of-this-world beach collecting shells and the girls snorkled for sand dollars. They found so many, they could pick and choose and return the rest - a refreshing change from other more popular cruising grounds regularly visited by tourists.
Cliff, Liza and the girls snorkled for lobster, and we all enjoyed the fruits of their labors at dinner!
Later we snorkeled on an old airplane wreck at the southern end of the island, from the drug war era of the 70's and 80's. The story goes that it was shot down by government agents or a rival drug ring, depending on who you ask. Either way it is an exciting dive and home to hundreds of corals, sea animals and colorful fish. Defense positions, once sprouting machine guns, are still visible around the nearby runway, as is the remains of the villa built by the Columbian drug lord, Carlos Lehder, who 'owned' the island. Also visible, on a nearby island, are the ruins of the small building used by the agents that helped finally bring Mr Lehder and his empire to justice. Today, all this violent history seems light years away.
We paddled kayaks up the beautiful 'rivers' that criss-cross Shroud Cay. The center of this island is filled with mangroves and these crystal clear passages offer a spectacular view of all the wildlife that abounds there.
Allan's Cay was our last anchorage in The Exumas, before heading for Nassau. Before leaving, we fed the large iguanas that live here - a reminder of how remote these islands are. It was this feeling of pristine solitude that made these islands so special for us. We were able to walk on some of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen, without another soul in sight.
There are no bareboat companies based in The Exumas (although some have tried in the past). Strong currents can run in some of the channels and a steep sea can develop quickly in unsettled weather. Best leave the driving to those who know the area!
The weather is considered better than Florida, but like the mainland, can be affected by ‘Northers’ in January and February, which can bring cooler temperatures and unsettled weather for a few days. The best time to see The Exumas is in late March through June.
The Bahamas are of course normally shallow (10-20’) and much of the sailing in The Exumas is in narrow channels, so one tends to motor more here than in other areas. We did however have two memorable sails, particularly the last one from Allan's Cay to Nassau, which we covered in under 4 1/2 hours 8 knots on a close reach!
Nassau, and particularly Atlantis, came as a bit of a culture shock after The Exumas. This area has changed enormously in the last few years, with many celebrities building extravagent homes, particularly on Paradise Island. Atlantis is hard to describe a kind of sophisticated Disneyland with a New York influence. Whatever you call it, it is impressive and the aquarium is like none other. If you like to gamble, there is an enormous casino.
If you are considering a charter in The Exumas and are interested in 'Solstice', mention her in the comments field when you request literature on suitable boats - we will include our full description of both yacht and crew, and would be happy to discuss the area in more detail.
In the next few months, we will be adding a second slide show to the 'crewed' section of our site, featuring this charter and the beautiful Exumas. The present crewed slide show is of a charter in The Grenadines. Look for an announcement in the new year!
Underwater and Grotto photographs taken by Cliff Block
Remainder by Ed Hamilton
They may not be reproduced without permission
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