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Staniel Cay - Exuma Chain - Bahamas
May 11-17, 2005
Where in the world is Staniel Cay? Thanks to an obscure article in Budget Traveler we became one of the lucky few to find out. Staniel Cay is located in the amazingly beautiful Exuma Chain of the Bahamas. To get there you have to jump through a few hoops, but the end result is totally worth the effort! We opted to fly into Nassau, New Providence first and then take a puddle jumper, with Flamingo Air, over to the small island. The flight from Nassau leaves around 11:00 a.m. and takes about an hour, placing you in paradise in the early afternoon.
Our home for five days and four nights was the Staniel Cay Yacht Club, a collection of colorful waterfront cottages, a restaurant/bar, and a small pool. We stayed in the cool lavender cottage perched right on the water’s edge. Inside the cottage are a private bath, a queen size bed, air conditioning, a ceiling fan, coffee maker, and a small refrigerator…everything you need for a restful and comfortable stay. Add to that an ideal setting, some of the most friendly people in the world, excellent food, and your own thirteen foot Boston Whaler in which to cruise the nearby islands, and you have the makings of an unforgettable vacation.
The plane touched down on the small landing strip and taxied over to the shelter. We had the pilot radio over to the Yacht Club to send a golf cart to transport us and our luggage to the cottages. About an hour later we had settled into our beautiful room, and we were eating burgers and fries at the Yacht Club.
Now it was time to go exploring. Any visitor to Staniel Cay can tell you there is much to be explored, both on the shores of the island and on the many surrounding cays. The Staniel Cay Yacht Club has several amenities that make that exploration a pleasure. First and foremost are the fleet of 13 foot Boston Whalers available to visitors, each boat is slightly different than the next (some have steering wheels, some you steer with the motor), but each one is in good shape and can get you where you want to go. Also on hand are bicycles, golf carts, kayaks, snorkel gear, scuba tanks, and personal guides. Each of these things can be rented a la carte, or you can purchase a package rate which includes your cottage stay, three meals a day, daily use of the boat--fuel included, kayaks, and bicycle use. We elected to purchase the package deal at a rate of $173.00 per person.
We hopped in a boat and headed for the closest attraction—Thunderball Grotto. The Grotto is a small, partially underwater cavern with a sky-light, which is accessible to snorkelers at low tide. It was made famous by the James Bond movie Thunderball; you can see pictures from the filming of the movie at the SCYC bar. Getting inside the grotto is at first a little intimidating, but if you go at low tide you don’t even have to put your head under water to gain entrance, just find the opening and guide yourself in using your hands as a brace against the sides of the rocky cave. Once you are inside Thunderball you will be amazed! Any fear you might have had will instantly be replaced by awe when you enter the interior. Inside the cave the light beams down from the opening in the roof, illuminating the crystal clear blue water below. The light beam penetrates the surface of the water and dances all the way to the ocean floor 20 feet below, a myriad of tropical fish dart in and out of the light, their bright colors flashing in the sun. Among the colorful parade are queen angelfish, sergeant majors, rock beauties, grouper, blue chromis, snapper, and parrotfish.
The next stop on our adventure was Big Major Cay, home of the famous swimming pigs. Yes you read that right, swimming pigs! We counted six pigs that have made this small island their home, and each one has become accustomed to the fact that visitors most likely mean food. So when they a see a boat floating up to shore they know it means a handout, and so they will swim out to beg. It is the coolest and craziest thing I have ever seen! Pigs in paradise—you gotta love it! Oh, there are also stray cats on the island, so be sure to bring them a little snack and some fresh water too. The staff of the SCYC kitchen will give you table scraps to feed to the residents of Big Major Cay…just ask. We took some sardines for the cats, and some bread for the pigs, and had fun being “chased” down the beach by hungry piggies; a must do if you visit the Exumas.
Back at SCYC we cleaned up for dinner and enjoyed the company of some new found friends, a couple from the states named Karim and Michael. They have been visiting SCYC for many years and they consider it a second home and a second family. They knew all of the staff by name and always greeted each one with a hug. These kind and caring people shared all of the many things they have learned on their many visits to the island, an invaluable source of information, they helped improve our stay immensely. We can’t thank them enough for their kindness. We also met Howard, one of the coolest yacht captains in the entire Bahamas! He has captained the M/Y Liberation for many years and he always greeted us with a big smile, and was quick to give us advice when we needed it as well. Great people were easy to find on Staniel Cay!
Dinner is served at 7:30 p.m.; the ringing of the dinner bell announces the feast, just as the sun is setting beyond the docks. Every meal was out of this world! Each one was a four course meal, prepared with style and flavor with your choice of local lobster, rock Cornish hen, steak, baby back ribs, lamb, cracked conch, fresh catch, pork chops, or grilled chicken with a side of either peas and rice, French fries, parsley potatoes, or baked potato as the entrée. You just had to make your choice and let the staff know by 5:00 p.m. that day. Meals begin with a wonderful salad, fresh Bahamian bread, and soup. Your entrée is then served, followed by desert. The prices range from $19.00 up to $38.00 for the lobster, making the package deal an even more reasonable choice, especially if you like lobster.
We awoke the next morning to a beautiful, calm day, completely rested from a great night’s sleep. It was so nice to wake up to the sounds of the laughing gulls, and the waves rolling into shore, beginning your morning by walking out onto the porch in your bare feet to watch the stingrays and nurse sharks swim by your cottage. It truly was paradise.
The Exuma Land and Sea Park was our destination for the day. The park headquarters is located on the island of Warderick Wells, approximately 22 miles away…too far to travel in the Boston Whaler, so we needed a guide. We asked at the bar and were introduced to Raymond Andrews, one of the coolest guys in the Bahamas. He agreed to take us out for the day and show us his beautiful country. A guide to the park usually costs around $400.00, but it is possible to get deals, so don’t be afraid to ask. We left for the park in Raymond’s 17 foot boat at 10:00 a.m., the boat ride was spectacular! Raymond is a great driver and an informative guide, the ride was smooth and fast and he always pointed out the points of interest, including Johnny Depp’s private cay. Be sure to ask for Raymond if you want an exceptional guide, or you can also contact him personally for private trips by phone at these numbers (Home 1-242-355-3070 or cell 1-242-464-1181).
On the way to Warderick Wells we were taken in by the magnificent waters of the Exumas, the shades of blue are mesmerizing and the beauty is unmatched. The trip itself was a great pleasure, but we still had much to see at the park. When we arrived at the park headquarters we noticed a bird feeder with several bananaquits hanging around, they were feeding on sugar that had been set out by the rangers. We walked over to the feeders, in hopes of getting a good photograph of the birds, and as it turned out they were quite tame. They would even eat out of the palm of your hand if you picked up some of the sugar.
One of the unique destinations on Warderick Wells is Boo Boo Hill, a 70 foot high hill where for many years boaters have been placing memorabilia of their vessels. The Shaggy Dog Trail is the quickest route to the top, which is about a 10 minute hike away. On your way to the trailhead take a small detour down to Powerful Beach where you can see the skeleton of a whale that washed up on shore, the whale was killed by ingesting plastic, yet another good reason to clean up your trash and anyone else’s you might come across.
From the top of Boo Boo Hill the views of the island are incredible! There are also some pretty cool blow holes nearby that shoot a tall stream of water up through the rocks when the conditions are right. From the blow holes you can take a side trip down to Careen Beach where astounding views of the Caribbean waters await.
Back at the park headquarters Raymond was waiting to take us to our next stop. He wanted to show us one of his favorite snorkel spots, a place called Jeep Reef. We only had a few minutes to explore the pristine coral reef, so we made the most of our time. The coral reef was in great shape and the fish life was plentiful, making for a great added bonus.
Another added bonus to our park trip was our stop at Compass Cay. One of the highlights of this private island is a chance to swim with the resident nurse sharks. Getting in the water with these non-aggressive sharks is quite a thrill, but if that is not your style, you can still enjoy the sharks from topside by petting or feeding them. While docked at Compass Cay we found out that it is possible for individuals, not with a guide, to stop and tie up to the dock for a $5.00 fee. This sounded like a great idea, especially since the island has a hiking trail that leads to a blue lagoon, perfect for swimming, called Rachel’s Bubble Bath. We decided then and there to return in our Boston Whaler.
We made it back to Staniel Cay at 3:00 p.m., just in time for a late lunch. Afterwards, there was still a few hours of daylight left so we jumped in the Whaler and cruised to another nearby island called Bitter Guana Cay. Inhabiting the small island are several endangered rock iguanas that will come running out to any visitor for a handout. The staff at SCYC told us it was legal to feed them, so we made sure to bring them a few scraps from the kitchen. The lizards might not be as intimidating as the sharks, but it still gets your adrenaline pumping when a five foot long iguana comes running down the beach to eat out of your hand. After playing with the iguanas for awhile we set out to explore the island, as we walked toward the end of the beach towards some amazingly white limestone cliffs we were surprised by, of all things, a barn owl that flew out of a cave-like recess! We couldn’t believe our eyes, who would have thought an owl would be in the Bahamas…I guess they like to getaway too.
The next morning we made our way back to Compass Cay to swim with the sharks again, and to hike to Rachel’s Bubble Bath. Our friend Michele, at the Compass Cay marina shop, sold us a map of the island that laid out the trail to the bath, and set us on our way. The sun was shining down with intensity, making the swim in the bubble bath even more rewarding after a long hike. The pool, known as Rachel’s Bubble Bath, gets its name from the action of the waves. The serene pool is separated from the ocean by a rocky outcrop, but at mid to high tide the waves get high enough to crash over the rocks and into the lagoon, creating bubbles of white foam much like a natural Jacuzzi. Swimming and diving into the pool from the rocks above is a total blast! Remember, if you dive off the rocks you have to time your leap perfectly or you just might get slammed by a rogue wave, so be careful. Once we had enjoyed a nice swim in the bath we hiked back to the marina. Waiting in our boat was a cooler from the SCYC kitchen, if you know you are going to spend the day in your boat the staff will pack you a lunch, complete with beach umbrella, so that you can stop on any island and enjoy your own private paradise. There are so many beautiful islands in the Exuma chain that it is easy to find your own secluded spot. We picked a nice beach and enjoyed our lunch under the shade of the umbrella. Then it was back to Staniel Cay to enjoy the view from our porch until the dinner bell rang.
Our last full day on Staniel Cay was spent exploring the island by bicycle. We rode to a spot known as Pirate’s Cove where we hiked along the rocky cliffs and swam in the crystal clear waters. We also revisited some favorite spots, snorkeling at Thunderball Grotto and feeding the friendly pigs at Big Major Cay, and then before we knew it the day was over. The next day we would be flying back to Nassau, and it was hard to believe our time at SCYC was over, but we knew it would not be our last visit. It is easy to see why so many people return again and again to Staniel Cay, it is a wonderful vacation destination.
The next morning we enjoyed our last glass of fresh squeezed orange juice, and our last slice of toasted Bahamian bread. We said goodbye to Susanna, David, Ruth, Rhonda, Peevey, and Jewell, the staff who had become our friends over the past few days. All that was left to do was watch the waves gently caress the shore as we waited for the golf cart to transport us to the airstrip.
Once again, the flight with Flamingo Air was smooth and uneventful, returning us to Nassau at around 1:00 p.m. We checked into the Quality Inn, the same place we stayed our first night, a nice hotel with really great rates. The rooms are clean and comfortable, and extremely affordable at $67.00 a night. Check it out if you are on a budget.
That night we ate dinner at a great restaurant called Johnny Canoes. Try the macaroni and cheese if you are ever there…it is yummy!
Our final day in the Bahamas was spent sightseeing around Nassau. We made stops at the Straw Market, Fort Fincastle, The Queen’s Staircase, and, of course, Paradise Island. Nassau is a beautiful and friendly city, but we would much rather be far from the more populated tourist areas, so Staniel Cay fit our wishlist perfectly.
If you are looking for an amazing, off-the-beaten-track destination than Staniel Cay/Exumas is the place for you too! The islands of the Bahamas are some of the most beautiful we have seen, and the people are without a doubt, the most gracious and friendly in the Caribbean. So get out that life list and jot down Staniel Cay, someday you’ll be glad you did!
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