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It’s funny the different ways trips end up happening. I have some spots I go to annually, traditions from childhood. Special places I go to as often as possible…my go to destinations. Places I plan and save to visit that are most likely once in a lifetime trips. And then there are the trips that end of happening pretty randomly. Like, because I saw adorable little pigs swimming in turquoise water on Instagram.
I’ll be honest. That’s how my trip to the Exumas ended up happening. Because of the pigs. But first let’s back up and get a little context.
If you’re looking for paradise on earth, you’ll find it in the Exumas. The Exuma Cays are a chain of 360+ islands in the Bahamas just southeast of Nassau. They’re famous for their white sand beaches and having some of the bluest water in the world. Actually, before the Exumas “took off” as a popular destination, when asked how visitors found out about the Exumas, most visitors would say they were looking on Google Earth for the bluest water in the world and they found it in the Exumas!
And of course…those adorable swimming pigs!
My trip to the Exumas happened in June (summer is considered “off season” in a lot of places in the Caribbean) with a group of NINE girlfriends. Traveling from Tulsa (OK), I will tell you…it was not easy getting to the Exumas. 95% of flights to Georgetown (Great Exuma) come from Miami (and when we went there was only one flight a day). So our travel day started bright and early leaving Tulsa, laying over in Dallas and then Miami before finally arriving in Georgetown. And of course, we were delayed in Dallas (due to general incompetency : ) and our plane came in late to Miami. After RUNNING to get to the gate, they had already closed it. We were some of the first ones to get to the gate and the agent informed us that we couldn’t board (even though the plane was still at the gate) and the flights were sold out for the next three days but they could put us on standby for the third day. Umm, what? We were a little stunned thinking that 3/4 of our vacation was suddenly out the window and as more people from our delayed flight started showing up at the gate, it became clear that 20-30 had also missed the daily flight to Georgetown. Let me tell you…it started to get a little loud and it wasn’t very long until the situation ended up on a manager’s radar. Long story short (too late!) they ended up reopening the aircraft door (which apparently is not supposed to happen) and hurrying us all on board without checking tickets, passports, or anything. What an experience.
Anyways, we made it to Georgetown, got our rental cars, and checked into our vacation rental. We booked a large villa that was part of a little complex that had a shared pool and it was right on the beach. We did a little grocery run that night as we planned to have quite a few of our meals in our villa.
We were on the island for about 4 days and here’s what we did:
- An 8-hour boat excursion that took us almost all the way across the island chain. In addition to seeing the most insanely blue water and white sand, we swam with the pigs, snorkeled in Thunderball Grotto, swam with nurse sharks, visited some iguanas, and sunbathed on a truly amazing sand bar. Easily the highlight of the trip.
- Spent Sunday at the Chat n’ Chill for their weekly pig roast. We took a ferry over from Georgetown and spent the day playing in the water, lounging under palm trees, chowing down on local food, and hiking across the island.
- Drove down to Little Exuma to see the Tropic of Cancer beach and hang out at Santana’s. We did not see Johnny Depp.
- Poked around Georgetown and did a little shopping.
Overall, it was a nice, relaxing trip, but I still felt like I got to see what I came for. Here’s my #1 recommendation: 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.
Where to Stay in the Exumas
While the Exumas are made up of a lot of islands, not many of them are inhabited (the majority are private) and there are even fewer places to stay.
Great Exuma is the main island of the Exumas and home to Georgetown (where the airport is). You’ll find the most options of places to stay here. You’ll also have the biggest variety of restaurants and shopping (although still limited). There are a couple of resorts on Great Exuma but it’s mostly small inns and vacation rentals.
Sandals: If you want the ultimate resort experience and you’re willing to shell out the big bucks, Sandals Emerald Bay is pretty incredible. It’s adults only and it sounds like you’d never want to leave the resort! Check rates and availability here.
Grand Isle Resort and Spa: This is where I would stay if I make it back to the Exumas. It shares the same beach with Sandals, but it’s a much more laid back resort experience. The pools are gorgeous and we ate at the restaurant by the pool a couple of times. If you want some of the resort amenities (pool and restaurant) at a better bargain, Grand Isle Villas offers one, two, and three bedroom villa style options. Check rates and availability here.
We stayed in a vacation rental in the Jimmy Hill Edition. It’s a collection of about 6 vacation homes/condos that have a shared pool. The villa was great and the beach was beautiful but the water on this side of the island was pretty rough and we didn’t spend a lot of time at the beach there.
To find EXACTLY what you’re looking for in a vacation rental, search here and filter for budget, rooms, etc.
Connected to Great Exuma by bridge, Little Exuma is its smaller and quieter neighbor. You won’t find any resorts here but there are plenty of vacation rentals that front its idyllic beaches. Little Exuma is perhaps the best of both worlds. You have quiet, beautiful Caribbean style beaches but the restaurants on Great Exuma are still accessible by car.
Search for vacation rentals here, and if you want to stay on one of the world’s most epic (and uncrowded beaches) look for something on the Tropic of Cancer beach.
Staniel Cay is quite a ways northwest from Great Exuma and it’s the boating capital of the Exumas. If you’re chartering, this is the place where you’ll pick up your boat. This small island has less of a local feel than Great and Little Exuma and feels more like a resort community. There are no cars on the island and only a couple of places to stay but it feels pretty perfect. It’s also close to Big Farmer’s Cay (where the swimming pigs are), Thunderball Grotto, and an incredible sand bar.
Not see what you’re looking for? Interested in staying on your own private island? (Hey, a girl can dream). Search here for vacation rentals. You can search by size, budget, location, etc. so you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for. The great thing about the Exumas are all of the beachfront options. Even if you go with a vacation rental, you’ll easily be able to find on right on the beach.
Things to Do in the Exumas
Snorkeling Thunderball Grotto: Made famous by the James Bond movie filmed there, snorkeling Thunderball Grotto is a highlight of most day tours out of Great Exuma.
Chat n’ Chill’s Sunday Pig Roast: The Chat n’ Chill is a beach bar/restaurant but their Sunday pig roast has become an attraction on its own. Take the ferry over from Georgetown and spend the day.
Swim with Nurse Sharks at Compass Cay: Another stop on many day tours out of Great Exuma, the nurse sharks at Compass Cay have become famous and you can jump in the water for a swim with them!
See the Iguanas at Allen’s Cay: There are likely iguanas on many islands in the Exumas, but Allen’s Cay is the best place to see them right out on the beach.
Tropic of Cancer Beach: Possibly one of the prettiest beaches in the Caribbean, it’s more than likely that you’ll have this gorgeous white sand beach all to yourself. Just down the road from Santana’s and Mom’s Bakery.
Snorkeling: 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).
Shopping at the Straw Market: 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.
Swimming with the Pigs: No trip to the Exumas is complete without swimming with these cuties. The original swimming pigs are located on Big Major 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.
Here’s how my adventure swimming with the pigs went down:
We were picked up at our villa on a bus and then taken to the launch point on the northern end of the island. There were about 15 people on our boat and our Captain (Captain Smiley) knew these cays like the back of his hand. As we made our way north through the cays, he told us stories about each Cay, including which ones had famous owners (Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, David Copperfield, Nicholas Cage, and Johnny Depp all have homes in the Exumas). Our trip included stops off a cay to dive for starfish, snorkeling at Thunderball Grotto, swimming with nurse sharks on Compass Cay, and feeding iguanas on Leaf Cay as well as a stop on Mile Long sandbar.
But the highlight of this excursion, and really the whole reason why the trip was booked, was the swimming pigs! They’re located near Staniel Cay, which is quite a hike (boat ride!) from Great Exuma. As we turned a corner and started pulling up to the island, I could see quite a few boats and –eeek!!- swimming pigs! You cannot imagine how blue the water is in the Exumas and the sight of these little guys swimming out to greet our boat was just too much!!!
Our captain pulled up close to shore (for those who didn’t want to jump in and swim) and everybody piled out for some time to frolic with the piggies on the beach (getting a selfie with a pig is no joke!). Our captain had plenty of food (mostly bread) so you could feed the pigs. You cannot image the sheer amount of picture taking that went on here.
There were dozens of pigs eager to swim around with us (who am I kidding? They just wanted food!) So even though there were several boats there, it didn’t feel crowded.
We stayed on the island for probably an hour and didn’t feel rushed at all. It really was such a cool experience and I can’t recommend it enough, especially if you pair a visit with the swimming pigs with a tour through the cays like we did.
Where to Eat
If eating out is an important part of your vacation routine, you need to come prepared. The Exumas aren’t know for 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. You’ll find better food (and experiences) at the local beach bars.
Here are a few places I liked, and also some places I want to try next time:
Chat n’ Chill: 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.
Santana’s: Besides Chat n’ Chill, this is my other don’t miss beach bar. The food was very good, the drinks are perfect, but it’s the setting that puts it over the top. You’ll need a car to get down to Santana’s on Little Exuma. While you’re there, be sure to stop by the Tropic of Cancer beach.
Mom’s Bakery: Right next to Santana’s on Little Exuma, Mom’s Bakery is famous for their rum balls.
Shirley’s Fish Fry Shack: Great local food and place that you’re likely to frequent for dinner.
Haulover Bay Bar & Grill: I didn’t make it here on my trip but it’s high on my list for when I go back just based on the setting. This is why you come to the Exumas.
Things to Know Before You Go
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 recently 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.