I'll admit to being a celebrity junkie. I know who's dating who, who got arrested for what, and what the who's who are wearing this season. But in all my mass-media trolling, even I had never heard of one of the most popular celeb getaways -- the Bahamas' Exuma Islands. This long chain of 365 islands (called cays) is an under-the-radar favorite, precisely because celebrities can escape the dogged pursuit of the paparazzi. Actors like Nicholas Cage own their own islands in the Exumas, and hip-hop moguls Jay Z and P Diddy have spent time outside the recording studio here. Magician David Copperfield has gone as far to say that he believes the waters in Exuma contain the fountain of youth. And while owning an island requires a Hollywood paycheck, an escape to the Exumas doesn't have to.
The Northern Cays: Celeb Hideaways and Yachting Hotspots
A clock at a bar in George Town, Exuma's capital, summed up the islands' philosophy perfectly -- the numbers were scrambled, and underneath was the phrase, "Who Cares?" Despite the fact that the town's population has tripled in the last five years and a Four Seasons set up shop three years ago, be ready to wait, sometimes to the tune of an hour, to be picked up for excursions and get served at restaurants. You're on island time, and locals told me that it take about two weeks to adjust to the slow pace of life here.
That slow pace of life is best experienced at sea, the true beauty of Exuma. We headed out from George Town on speedboats for an excursion northward through the cays. The color of the water around us was constantly changing, and we kept trying to find adequate descriptions for it ("electric blue kool-aid" was one). We passed Faith Hill and Tim McGraw's island (bought for a rumored $18 million), and Musha Cay, an exclusive island that rents out to celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan for upward of $300,000 per week. But we figured that they probably wouldn't take too kindly to us crashing their private islands, so instead we found some equally interesting places to explore.
First, we made a brief stop at Iguana Island; as you can imagine, it was filled with large lizards darting about. We then stopped at another island farther north, called Big Darby Island. A short, brambly hike brings you to a decaying castle that's been abandoned for 50 years. The structure was originally owned by a German family who raised goats, and it's now reputedly haunted (we called it "Haunted Goat Castle"). The castle was literally crumbling, and it was a little scary to walk the steps to the second floor, with its holes in the walls and piles of torn-apart furniture. Once ascended, though, we came to a large stone balcony with a lovely view of the sea and farther-off islands.
We continued our boat journey farther north, making an overnight stop at Staniel Cay. As we approached the island, the water became dotted with yachts that were moored from faraway locales. The island's marina, also crowded with boats, had clear waters filled with huge sharks and the biggest stingrays I've ever seen. The island is defined by the Staniel Cay Yacht Club, which has a restaurant, bar, and accommodations (more info below) for its largely yachting clientele.
Staniel Cay makes a perfect base for other activities. Scenes from the classic Bond film Thunderball were filmed here, and you can snorkel in Thunderball Grotto, a domed cave with glittery water and schools of colorful fish. We also went to Big Majors Island, where our boat was immediately greeted by swimming pigs -- certainly a memorable sight. The large, wild pigs were adorable, and we all squealed with delight as they swam around us, taking the peach slices we fed them from our hands.
You can also venture into the Exuma National Land and Sea Park, the first national park of its kind. Compass Cay has a shark-petting zoo, where you might even snorkel in the water with the sharks. And though two of Johnny Depp's Pirates of the Caribbean movies were shot in the southern cays, his private island is found here within the park.
The Southern Cays: Pirates of the Caribbean Lore
Even after two full days at sea, we still had only covered about half of the Exuma cays. For our last day, we traveled south of Great Exuma Island. This tour was hosted by the friendly Captain Steve aboard his boat, the amusingly named Exzooma, which is hard to miss with its neon yellow paint. Captain Steve is always ready to discuss the work he did with the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films, and any fan should certainly not miss his Pirates-themed tour. He may share his scrapbook, filled with photos and personal notes from both the Pirates cast and the Victoria's Secret models when he transported them for a shoot (ask him about his experiences with Tommy Lee or Mike Tyson, too).
Passing south at the Tropic of Cancer beach, we began realizing how far we had traveled. The tour's highlight was a stop at Sandy Cay, where we trekked through a long stretch of sand where scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean were filmed. If you've seen the second film, you'll quickly recognize the spot where the chest with Davy Jones' heart was dug up from the sand. The island was so isolated and placid that it was hard to imagine that battle scenes were filmed here not long ago. We took a swim in the sea, the color of a swimming pool, and covered ourselves in the soft sand. "I welcome the day I see someplace more beautiful than this," someone said, and I had to agree.
As I awaited my departure at George Town's tiny airport, I couldn't help noticing that everyone there was tan and happy. They didn't need their own yacht, helicopter, or private island to reap the benefits of the islands. Still, it's telling that those who can afford to go anyplace on earth choose to spend their time here. The appeal of Exuma has nothing to do with the stereotypical celebrity trappings, such as material possessions or a happening scene. Exuma's unique cays and natural beauty can be accessible to anyone, not just those in the upper tax brackets. The celebrities are onto something here, and I left believing that Copperfield's fountain of youth might really exist.
The most popular way to reach Exuma is via Nassau on Bahamasair (www.bahamasair.com), which flies twice daily. American Eagle (www.aa.com) serves Exuma from Miami three times a day. Delta (www.delta.com) now also has a direct flight to George Town from Atlanta four times a week.
Where to Eat
Wahoo's is located in close proximity to the Grand Isle Villas (see below) in a tent-like room near the marina. I loved their almond-honey crusted wahoo, and they have a great cocktail list.
Chat & Chill, (www.chatnchill.com) a convivial bar and restaurant, opens up onto the beach and is filled with t-shirts signed by patrons. The place is famous for its Sunday pig roast, and their Miami Vice was the best mixed drink I've ever tasted.
Located right on the marina, Staniel Cay Yacht Club (www.stanielcay.com) is the most popular spot on the island. During the day the bar has a familial atmosphere, with yachters gathered to watch baseball or golf on TV, while at night it's a more upscale affair. My favorite meal there, though, was breakfast: the French toast is made with the restaurant's own homemade bread, and the place had a relaxed vibe as Jack Johnson played on the stereo.
Where to Stay
If you want to splurge, Grand Isle Villas (www.grandisleresort.com) is the place. These beautifully decorated condos are spacious, and everything is ultra-modern from the large flat-screen TV to the enormous fridge. Each unit has its own washer/dryer and golf cart for tooling around, and there's also a beachfront infinity pool.
The reasonably priced cottages at Palm Bay Beach Club (www.palmbaybeachclub.com) have delightful names such as the Gingerbread or Butterfly Palm. The property has a pool and bar, and rooms are either beachfront (on scenic Elizabeth Harbour) or just across the road.
The first thing you'll see when approaching Staniel Cay are the pastel-colored cottages of Staniel Cay Yacht Club (www.stanielcay.com) overlooking the water. They're situated next to Staniel Cay Yacht Club's restaurant and bar, so you can feel free to drink a few extra Goombay Smashes.
Off Island Adventures (www.offislandadvenures.com) features various themed tours, hosted by Captain Steven Cole.
Barraterre Bonefish Lodge (www.barraterrebonefishlodge.com) offers accommodations and fishing tour packages.
For more information, contact the Exuma office of the Bahamas Tourism Board, P.O. Box EX-29041 George Town, Exuma, The Bahamas (tel. 242/336-2430). You can also find more info at the Bahamas Tourism website (www.bahamas.com).
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