For many sailors, the Exuma island chain in the central Bahamas holds a special place in their cruising memories. I know it does for me. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit these islands several times, beginning in 2003 and most recently in 2017. Each occasion is a blend of discovery and homecoming — the excitement of anchoring somewhere new, or the comfort of revisiting an old favorite. The Exumas, which include some 365 cays and islands spread over 130 nautical miles, offer plenty of opportunities for either.
New for 2018, both The Moorings and Dream Yacht Charter offer bareboat and crewed charters from bases in Nassau, which is about a 30-mile sail to the northern end of the Exumas chain. If you’re planning a cruise of the Bahamas, here are a few of my favorite stops in the northern and central Exumas that are within reach of a weeklong charter.
Allan’s Cay and Highbourne Cay
Near the top of the Exumas, Allan’s Cay is a popular first stop on a cruise of the islands. After a day traversing the Yellow Banks from Nassau, I am always more than ready to jump in the water for a swim or take a walk on a beach. Allan’s and its neighbor Leaf Cay have another draw besides their location — their reptile residents. If you land your dinghy on the beach, iguanas will come out of the brush to greet you, which makes for an entertaining walk along the shore.
Next down the line is Highbourne Cay, which makes my list due to the great snorkeling in the area, both near the anchorage and at reefs a dinghy ride away, and the facilities at the Highbourne Cay Marina. If you’re in need of a few provisions, water or fuel, the marina offers one of the few fuel docks in the Exumas, and the store is well-stocked (albeit on the pricey side).
Brought to notoriety in the ’70s and ’80s by Carlos Lehder and his cocaine operation, Norman’s Cay is thankfully a far cry from that today. All that remains of the island’s seedy past are the ruins of Lehder’s compound and airstrip and the wreckage of a smuggling plane that rests near one of the anchorages — all of these just beg for exploration. There are also several sandbars at Norman’s Cay that dry out at low tide and offer great shelling opportunities.
Shroud Cay and the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park
In my mental list of favorite places on earth, Shroud Cay is near the top. From the anchorage off the western shore, it’s nothing spectacular, but once you hop in the dinghy and explore the mangrove creeks and the beach on the eastern side, you discover what makes Shroud magical.
Shroud Cay is part of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, which stretches 22 miles from Wax Cay Cut on the northern end to Conch Cut at the southern. The park is managed by the Bahamas National Trust and is a no-fishing zone. The park’s headquarters is located on Warderick Wells, and it is well worth the stop.
A longtime favorite among Bahamas cruisers, Staniel Cay and the surrounding area boast several attractions. Although the swimming pigs are a draw, my personal favorite is Thunderball Grotto, a gorgeous underwater cave that got its name from the James Bond movie that was filmed there. If you’re in need of civilization, Staniel Cay has that too.
Great Guana Cay and Black Point
At 12 miles long, Great Guana Cay is the second-longest cay in the Exumas (Great Exuma is the longest), and has only one settlement, Black Point. This pretty little village has friendly residents, a great cruisers happy hour and easily the best laundromat in the islands (it has a dinghy dock!). If you’re searching for solitude, there are several great spots to anchor along Great Guana, and you’re just about guaranteed to have the place to yourself.
The Exumas are made for exploration, and a visit here can be as busy or laid-back as you want. Whichever cays you visit, just remember to slow down, enjoy some conch salad and take in the amazing sunsets.