Planning a trip to the Exumas? Haven’t heard of the Exumas?? I know where you’re coming from…I didn’t either until a few months ago, but let. me. tell. you…you’ve got to get to the Exuma Cays! This little island chain in the Bahamas has some of the prettiest water in the world and still feels very “undiscovered.” Because it’s not a super common vacation destination (yet!) here’s 20 things that you should know before you go:
1.It’s not the easiest place to get to. Though located just off the coast of Miami, there are only a few flights coming into Georgetown each day. Chances are that you’ll be connecting through Miami (where American Airlines offers one flight each day) but Delta has just added a direct flight from Atlanta and Air Canada has a direct flight from Toronto. If you’re needing to make one (or more) connecting flights before flying out of Miami, you might consider flying in a day early and spending the night so there’s no chance that you’ll miss that flight.
2. The most common place to go in the Exumas is Great Exuma (the largest island where the capital Georgetown is located. Also where the Sandal’s resort is.) The beaches around here are great (and you’ll find the largest selection of accommodations and dining options) but for an alternative consider Staniel Cay. It’s much smaller, a bit more idyllic, and more centrally located in the island chain and closer to popular attractions like the swimming pigs, mile long sand bar, the nurse sharks on Compass Cay, and Thunderball Grotto. Staniel Cay is also considered the gateway to boating in the Exumas.
3. There are only two resorts on Great Exuma. If you’re looking for a resort experience, you’ll only find two options on Great Exuma, both on Emerald Bay. The large and luxurious Sandals Resort and the villa style Grand Isle Resort.
4. You’ll need a passport. Even though it’s super close to the US, you’ll still need a passport to travel to the Bahamas.
5. They drive on the left side of the road. This takes some getting used to but not to worry, most of the rental cars come with large stickers on the windshield reminding you to keep to the left.
6. If you’re staying on Great Exuma, you’ll need a car to get around. The island is bigger than you think it is. Unless you’re staying at Sandals and never planning to leave the resort, you’ll need a rental car to get around. If you don’t get out and explore, you’ll be missing out on a lot. Take a day trip to Little Exuma, check out some local restaurants and beach bars, and go to a different beach everyday.
7. The prettiest sites in the Exumas are best seen by boat. While the beaches are spectacular, the real beauty of the Exumas is the water. You have to plan at least one boat excursion during your trip as getting to zip in between white sandy cays as you glide through turquoise clear water is the real magic of the Exumas. For more on this, check out this post on 15 things to do in the Exumas.
8. Groceries are EXPENSIVE!! If you’re staying at a place with a kitchen, you’ll probably want to pick up some groceries. While there are two grocery stores in Georgetown, be warned—groceries are expensive! If you have room in your luggage, consider packing some dry good staples. Surprisingly, or maybe not, liquor is pretty affordable.
9. Restaurants are few and far between. If eating out is an important part of your vacation routine, you need to come prepared. While there are probably a dozen or so solid restaurants on Great and Little Exuma, there always seems to be more people than availability. You’ll find some of the best dining experiences at the local beach bars (Santana’s Grill Pit on Little Exuma and the Chat ‘n’ Chill on Stocking Island) but also try the poolside restaurant at the Grand Isle Resort, Tropical Breezes on Little Exuma.
10. Everything runs on island time. This means it’s slow, slow, slow. Plan on a solid 2-3 hours for dinner in the evenings (no one is in much of a hurry) and expect for some restaurants to just not be open sometimes.
11. The snorkeling is incredible. The Exumas really are “untouched” and they offer some spectacular snorkeling. There aren’t a lot of organized excursions offering snorkeling, although if you’re chartering a boat for the day to visit the swimming pigs and other sites, they’ll most likely stop along the way if you mention you want to snorkel. If you’re staying on Great Exuma, call or stop by and talk with Elvis’ Water Taxis at the government dock. He will arrange to take you out snorkeling around the nearby islands for a nominal fee (something like $20/person).
12. They have the bluest water in the world. When asked how they found out about the Exumas, most visitors say they were looking on Google Earth for the bluest water in the world and they found it in the Exumas!
13. Go to Chat n’ Chill on Sunday. If you’re staying on Great Exuma, you MUST take the ferry over to Stocking Island for the pig roast at the Chat ‘n’ Chill on Sundays. It’s probably one of the best beach bars in the Caribbean (practically on its own private island) and there’s plenty to do (hike across the island to the Atlantic side, volley ball, swimming with stingrays, etc). You’ll find dozens of boaters that drop anchor and swim ashore for Bahama Mamas on Sunday afternoons.
14. Avoid “fine dining.” The Exumas aren’t know for its fine dining, so avoid restaurants claiming high-end or luxury experiences as they’re usually overpriced with mediocre food. Stick with the local dives instead.
15. Mosquitos are bad!! Like many islands in the Caribbean, the perfect storm of conditions are created to be an excellent breeding ground for mosquitoes. Pack your bug spray with you as it’s super expensive if you have to buy it once you arrive!
16. You can’t get into Sandals at all if you’re not staying there. Sandals is all inclusive, which means that non-resort guests are not allowed in to eat at the restaurants. You can however use the spa with a reservation. At slow times of the year, it’s been said that you can purchase day passes to use the facilities (and eat at the restaurants) at Sandal’s but you’ll likely pay a high price for the privilege.
17. Shopping is limited. If you’re looking for souvenirs, Georgetown is really your only option. The Straw Market is a great place to find locally made gifts. There are also probably 3-6 decent shops in town (don’t miss the Sandpiper) that sell a variety of gifts and merchandise. Don’t come expecting excellent shopping though, you won’t find it here.
18. Don’t miss swimming with the pigs! No trip to the Exumas is complete without swimming with these cuties. The original swimming pigs are located on Farmer’s Cay (near Staniel Cay), which is quite a boat ride from Great Exuma. Most day tours offer half day or full day tours, which take you as far north as Staniel Cay and include stops at the Thunderball Grotto, the Swimming Pigs, and Compass Cay (where you can swim with nurse sharks). Exuma Water Sports (the number one tour provider on Great Exuma) has a nearby private island where they have their own collection of “cute” swimming pigs (the tiny little pink ones). This is a good option if you want to get there quickly and don’t mind missing out on the stellar sites near Staniel Cay. Exuma Water Tours offers a full day (8 hour) tour for the price of most other company’s half-day tour. It’s great if you want as much time as possible out on the water. Read about my trip to see with pigs here.
19. Wi-Fi is not great. Even if your resort or vacation rental is equipped with Wi-Fi, if likely won’t work all that well and may be limited to one room. Consider to be fairly well “off the grid” for most of your trip.
20. Don’t expect a lot of development. The Exumas could be one of the prettiest island chains in the world, but they’ve been practically undiscovered until recent years. Because of this, their tourism infrastructure is having trouble keeping up with increasing demand. The Bahamas definitely has the feel of a third world country and without a lot of development, you’ll get a much more local experience in the Exumas than in nearby Nassau. Expect a lot of changes here in the next 3-5 years as the Ministry of Tourism is beefing the island’s offerings and infrastructure up to handle the new influx of tourism.
Been to the Exumas and think they’re awesome? Haven’t been and want to know more? Hop on over to Facebook and let me know!