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Trip Report Bahamas Out Islands Trip Report -- Exumas (Staniel Cay) and Andros

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Going to the Out Islands in November has become an almost regular event for us, and November – in the absence of a hurricane threat (such as aborted trips to the Abacos in 2001 and Long Island in 2008) – is our favorite time to visit. The islands are just waking up from their off-season break, the water is still warm, the winter cold fronts haven’t started rolling in with regularity, and high season “crowds” – such as they are in the Bahamas – haven’t yet arrived.

The hardest part is deciding exactly where we should go. Should we revisit an old favorite? Or try out someplace new? Should we tempt fate again and try to rebook our Long Island trip? In the end, in my Web research I found a way to combine visits to two destinations that had long been on my short list and got busy booking a trip that combined 4 nights at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club in the Exumas with 3 nights at Small Hope Bay Lodge in Andros.

Casual … But Not Sloppy

Our arrival at the Watermakers Air hangar at the Ft. Lauderdale executive airport early on the Saturday morning of our departure got me quickly in the “island time” frame of mind. It was clear we were not in TSA Land anymore. No stripping of accessories, shoes and outerwear to go through security. No 3-1-1 rules. No worrying about lost luggage. Just a sensible 35 pound per passenger weight limit, which I suspect wasn’t enforced since we were the only ones on the flight. Our own private plane.

We were running a bit behind, but Pilot Dan got us safely to Congo Town, Andros, where we cleared customs and immigration. The agent (just one) joked with us, and we weren’t even required to bring our bags in for inspection. He then joined us on the tarmac, helping offload cargo. Much more pleasant than those often-snarly gatekeepers at busy island airports. If the Congo Town airport was minimal, the airstrip on Staniel Cay was purely utilitarian: an asphalt landing strip lying perpendicular to prevailing winds (the only place big enough to site it, requiring a crab-like approach in the heavy winds we had for the first few days), a paved apron for a few planes, and that’s it. No tower, no lights, no building, no office.

Which is not to say we had to fend for ourselves, for while Out Island life may be informal, it is not sloppy. The combination of the Bahamians’ gracious warmth and the small number of visitors results in solicitous service with a light but not negligent touch. So, before we even landed, Pilot Dan had radio-ed ahead to Staniel Cay Yacht Club, and moments after hitting the ground, a fleet of golf carts arrived to pick us up as well as cargo for the Club (this is how most of the food and drink arrives). There were no registration formalities … we were simply told the basics (this is your cottage, order dinner by 5) and then invited to have breakfast.

Because there simply aren’t that many places to eat in either the Exumas or Andros, our “package” included all of our meals at both SCYC and SHB; it also included everything at the self-serve bar at SHB, as well as use of a 13’ Boston Whaler at SCYC (including fuel).

Though I’ve never stayed at a truly “all-inclusive” resort or been on a cruise, I’ve heard that the food – especially at some of the AI resorts – tends to be mediocre. Not so here. At SCYC, breakfast and lunch were served during a range of hours from a fairly standard menu. Breakfast featured eggs, meats, cereal, and fruit, as well as Bahamian bread in the delightful form of french toast (if you’ve read my reports before, you’ve heard me wax rhapsodic about Bahamian bread ....). Lunches featured grilled fish “burgers”, cracked conch “burgers”, hamburgers and sandwiches, again showcasing Bahamian bread. Dinner was to be ordered by 5 p.m. every day, and was served to all diners at around 7 p.m., when a bell was rung. We chose from approximately 8 entrees; Rick and I stuck with the fish of the day – including a spectacular baked mahi mahi with a breadcrumb crust --or conch, and on our last night, split the steak and lobster entrees to create our own surf-and-turf. Dinner included soup of the day, salad, entrees, and dessert. On our first evening, Rick and I were invited to share dinner with owner David Hocher and other guests; the rest of the time, we sat at tables-for-two that were placed so that there could be easy conversation among tables.

Dining at Small Hope Bay Lodge was quite similar to Fernandez Bay Village. Breakfast seemed to find everyone in the lodge at about 8:15, while lunch was about 12:15. Breakfast was a buffet with several items to order; I always elected the Bahamian “special” of the day, and was rewarded with such local favorites as chicken souse one morning, and corned beef with grits another. Lunch was also a buffet of sandwich and salad fixings as well as a hot entrée. Dinner was preceded by happy hour at the official time of 6:30, which is when the conch fritters and crudite came out, but we typically found ourselves there much sooner (where I experimented with the many concoctions that could be crafted with Ron Ricardo mango and pineapple rums). Chef Renauldo would then come out and tell us what treats we had in store for the dinner buffet, which always featured soup and salads, dessert, a Bahamian specialty, and one meat and one seafood item. While it may not have been the composed and “pretty” food in vogue in US restaurants these days, everything was fresh, creative and tasty.

One of the nice things about happy hour and dinner every night was getting dressed up for dinner. Of course, “dressed up” for dinner in the super-casual Out Islands is nothing like it was for us when we stayed at Nisbet Plantation in Nevis, where cocktail dresses and jackets and ties were not out of line. Basically, it meant we freshened up from the day’s grime -- salt water, sand, sweat, sunscreen, insect repellent – and put on a fresh shirt and shorts or skirt. In Andros, shoes were optional, but Androsia batiks – especially following a visit to the nearby factory – we de rigueur.

Similarly, our lodgings were clean and comfortable, decidedly casual, and definitely Bahamian in style. Most people who have heard of Staniel Cay Yacht Club have seen the pictures of its colorful cottages perched over the water. For me, the chance to stay in one of those cottages was one of the draws. We stayed in Ocean Blue cottage, a two-story octagonal tower, painted turquoise, with two white decks hovering over the blue blue water. Ocean Blue is closest to the clubhouse, and hence not immune from loud weekend revelry, but that was my only complaint. On the first level was a daybed, a mini-refrigerator, occasional tables, and a full bath; sliding doors opened out onto a deck with lounge chairs. Up spiral stairs, the second level had a bed, a dresser, and a second full bath, with sliding doors opening out onto a deck with a table and chairs. Though air-conditioning was available, we didn’t bother; there was plenty of breeze and we covered up at night.

Staniel Cay Yacht Club’s focal point is the clubhouse. The Club’s activities are managed from the bar, which seems to be the heart of the entire cay, which as a population of about 80. There is also a small liquor store and gift shop, as well as the restaurant and both indoor and outdoor lounging areas. SCYC’s marina is the main attraction here, though it was pre-season with few visiting yachts while we were here. There is also a dive shop, but it was closed. There are a handful of the cottages, ranged around a pool deck and all close to the water. There is a beach as well, but it didn’t seem to get much activity since there are so many other beaches from which to choose. Closest to our cottage is a fish and conch-cleaning station, which is also a popular hangout for sharks – at cleaning times, we’d see a dozen of them, jockeying for scraps; a mallet knocked on the cleaning table was the equivalent of their dinner bell.

Small Hope Bay Lodge is virtually carved out of the land. Like at many other Out Island resorts, the focal point is a clubhouse, this one made of local stone and wood and decorated with custom-made Androsia batiks. A dining room, game room, and lounge take up much of the high-ceilinged space. The lounge includes a stone-hearthed fireplace (which came in handy when a cold front rolled through), as well as a bar made from a wrecked boat. Outside is a large thatch-roofed bar and lounge area, where happy hour and some lunches were held if the weather permitted. A long pier leads to the dive operation, which is SHB’s biggest claim to fame. (Rick got in 3 dives, but I don’t dive.)

The rest of SHB is spread over Calabash Bay beachfront, with lounge chairs and hammocks at the water’s edge, and a lush array of palms, palmettos, casuarinas, and other vegetation. Set a little way back from the water, across a sandy track, are the cottages. Made of stone and dark varnished wood, decorated in more Androsia batiks, they are supplied with the basics including fresh towels and a water cooler filled with reverse-osmosis water (“Andreausia”). Here, as at SCYC, we never bothered to test the AC, since it was comfortably breezy at all times, and even chilly enough one night to add a blanket to our bedding.

We paid for our lodging by personal check – a nice way to avoid foreign transaction fees. At SCYC, they clearly state their preference for check over credit card (though they wisely take an imprint of your card til the check clears). At SHB, I offered up my card (FF miles, you know), but they were having trouble getting a phone line. When I offered a personal check instead, they were more than happy to take it!

Informal was the name of the game when we were waiting for our inter-island flight midweek. After a gorgeous day on the water and a great lunch, we settled in to wait for our Watermakers flight to Andros Town. Around departure time, word came that the flight was delayed due to weather in Ft. Lauderdale. (This being me, I could hardly be un-affected by a late season hurricane in north Atlantic!) No worries; we just settled poolside, knowing that SCYC owner David was on our flight, and they wouldn’t leave without us. The bigger concern, however, was actually getting the flight on the ground and turned around at Andros Town, enroute to Ft. Lauderdale, before sunset, as these tiny airports all operate on Visual Flight Rules (no runway lights!). As it turned out, things were cut rather close, so while I won’t go as far as saying they threw us and our bags off the plane while the prop was still spinning, they certainly didn’t linger!

On our return to Ft. Lauderdale, Pilot Louis (whom we’d met at SCYC at happy hour) picked us out of the waiting room at the airport, whisked our passports through, and we were off, on time. One of the many nice things about arriving at the Ft. Lauderdale executive airport is the dedicated US customs and immigration station – where we and our crew were checked through with dispatch, and the car we’d hired (recommended by Watermaker’s and, now, by me – Lane’s Limousines) was waiting to whisk us back to the modern and clinically-clean Westin hotel I’d reserved. Back to civilization.

Way Out Islands

The fact that my personal check was preferred to a credit card payment is just one example of how remote you really are in the Out Islands, though you are never more than a few hundred miles from the continental US. In some ways, the islands have tried very hard to stay with the times – for example, each of the resorts has a website and offers WiFi service, and I’m now getting regular SHB updates through Facebook – but in others, they have also stayed true to their character, whether by design or by happenstance.

Due to whatever corporate or other bungling exists between Verizon and Batelco, my Blackberry (World Edition, complete with activated sim card) is utterly useless in the Bahamas, even though I’d used it successfully anchored off a deserted beach in Barbuda and other remote spots in the Caribbean. We’d brought our tiny netbook with us as a backup, but I found the WiFi at SCYC to be frustratingly slow, outweighing any benefit of keeping tabs on the office. At SHB, the WiFi was great, but wasn’t necessarily available all the time. I think there was a message there, and I heeded it gratefully; I just didn’t need to be that in touch.

Of course, the most satisfying aspect of being so far out is feeling like you’re partaking in something special and unique, even though it is quite accessible with a little bit of effort. The blank looks I got when telling people I’d been in the Exumas and Andros were priceless; the envious moans I heard when people look at my photos make it all worthwhile.

Swimming Pigs and a Freighter Named “Fartbutt”

One of the charms of the Out Islands is that they are, for the most part, so very sui generis -- unapologetically and un-self-consciously themselves. When researching places to stay, Rick and I will both look at the slicker and more luxurious resorts (and there are a very few of them) and reject them out of hand, since they are not truly Out Island in their style or vibe. Places like that don’t appeal to us; that’s not why we visit the Out Islands.

No, visiting the Out Islands is about seeking out such oddities as the swimming pigs of Big Major Spot, a cay just north of Staniel Cay. Rumor has it that the pigs are left on Big Major by Staniel Cay islanders to get fattened up by visitors, and then collected to be roasted at a later time. Whether or not that’s true, they get to live out their days on a pristine white sand beach bordered by crystalline waters. We came armed with a bag of melon rinds, and a warning to keep our Whaler in water deep enough to require the porkers to tread water; otherwise, they have been known to climb aboard and wreak havoc. As soon as we approached the beach, the pigs came trotting down the beach and into the water, paddling and snorting, waiting for a handout. I was surprised at how HUGE they were; good eating indeed! We returned several times, never failing to be delighted and amused. Disney would be hard-pressed to match this!

Another destination is the Guana cays south of Staniel Cay. These cays are inhabited by the endangered Exuma iguanas. Since they are protected by law, and visitors are prohibited from bringing ashore their cats, dogs or goats (darn, I really wanted to bring my pet goat with me….), these critters are curious and bold. The older ones bear a number painted on their side, while the younger ones seem to have a less obtrusive bead marking them. Once we landed on the beach, they marched (more like waddled) right up to us, like little gangsters, defiantly returning our stares until we flinched and walked away. The larger ones were about 3 feet long, and no match for us, but I wasn’t up for a tussle if that’s what they were in the mood for!

Early in our Staniel Cay visit, we were exploring the cay in the Whaler and passed the tiny government dock in the settlement. Tied up at the dock, and leisurely off-loading construction supplies, was a rust-bucket of a freighter. I had to look 3 times, but the name of the freighter was, indeed, Fartbutt. Not very poetic or fanciful. I guess that sums up the Out Island outlook right there. They are what they are; no apologies. (Of course, Fartbutt is not at all a fair description of these lovely islands; just evidence of an attitude.)

Like a Kid in a Candy Store

Although the metaphor of the kid in the candy shop is a well-used one, it’s so often used because it is so apt. And so it applies here, except the candy store is the Exuma cays, the kids are me and Rick, and the candy is the many varied beaches. But we have one limiting factor: time.

Given access to a boat, with effectively only 4 days in the cays, and hampered by heavy winds that make some stretches of water near cuts punishingly bumpy and the “outside” (Exuma Sound) prohibitive, we wanted to make the best use of our time. Even with weather limitations, the choices are daunting. Everywhere you look, there are beaches, blinding swaths of white. Some pocket-sized, some long, some sandbars. Each cay, each rock, is iced in sugar. As soon as you find one you like, you fear that around the next corner there is something better, though it’s hard to imagine something better than the beach you’re exploring at the moment.

Despite the embarrassment of riches, and the dozen beaches we managed to explore in virtual privacy, some manage to stand out. Guana Cay South (or Little Guana Cay), home of some of the iguanas we visited, had a stunning quarter-mile long strand, most of it the white sand and clear blue topaz water we’ve gotten almost blasé about. However, at the north end of the beach, where it curves around like the top of a question mark, are 40 foot limestone cliffs and a cut between the tumult of Exuma Sound and the relative quiet of Exuma Bank. The water crashes in, sounding like a waterfall, creating a maelstrom of current. Tide pools and current create an extra-private pocket of sand embraced by cliffs which hold the roar of the sea at bay. An occasional wave manages to toss its spray over the tops of the cliffs. The contrast of the drama of the “outside,” and the placid blue of the lee side, is delicious.

A more serene scene greets you at an area some call “Pipe Creek”. North of Staniel Cay, Pipe Cay’s east side, at low tide, is a giant sandbar. The only incursion is a small “creek” that runs through it. The creek is consistently deep enough, even at low tide, that a few private moorings have been placed there, and a handful of boats have found a hurricane hole here. When the tide is low, the boats look – from a distance – to be stranded on the sandbar, buried to the tops of their keels. Closer inspection reveals a narrow blue creek (and not much water beneath those keels). Regardless, the sand flats and tide pools create a beach-lovers fantasyland, though there are points where the sand is soft enough to suck you in up to your knees. We could have stayed for hours, and SCYC would have accommodated us by packing a box lunch, but the conditions weren’t settled enough for us to go this far until our last day on the cay. We had a plane to catch.

The beach on which SHB is located is a different creature altogether, and satisfying in a different way. Like the beaches at Ambergris Caye in Belize, which are protected by the world’s second longest barrier reef, the beach here is protected by the world’s third longest barrier reef. The reef protects the sea and plant life, but prevents the accretions of sand that make Exuma beaches so sandy. So while here there is white sand and blue water, the bottom has large swaths of turtle grass and other sea weeds and harbors a vast array of sea life. While there are sandy patches good for swimming, this is an explorer’s beach, starting from dive dock, which has extensive sights to see while snorkeling. Behind the stands of palms and pines, the beach is bounded by a mangroves and meandering creeks.

As Usual, It’s All About the People

Back when we were youngsters and good shock absorbers weren’t so important, Rick and I owned a bitchin’ red Jeep Wrangler. It wasn’t long before we learned that there was some sort of informal “Jeep Club,” the sole unwritten rule of which was that Wrangler owners would acknowledge each other on the road. It was not much more that an offhand sort of wave of the driver’s left hand, with the thumb still on the steering wheel while the other four fingers were raised. It wasn’t much, but it was consistent, and we got a kick out of it, and miss it now that we drive less distinctive (but more comfortable) cars.

When we traverse our home waters on the Chesapeake, we have a waving protocol as well. Our friends and members of the various clubs we belong to get a full-armed wave. Beautiful and well-maintained boats get a respectful but subtle wave. Boats with little kids always get an enthusiastic response. And some boaters get a different “salute” altogether….

In the Out Islands, especially sparsely populated ones, some sort of greeting to, and acknowledgment of, fellow boaters (and golf cart riders, on the day we explored Staniel Cay by cart instead of boat) is absolutely required. But the response you get is not the perfunctory, cool nod of strangers in Jeeps and boats, but a full-out smile that adds to the creases around the eyes. The islanders seem genuinely pleased to have us as visitors, and we’re more than happy to let them know we’re happy to be there.

Our hosts were similarly welcoming. When we arrived at Small Hope Bay by taxi (in which we’d picked up and dropped off several airport workers), owner Jeff quickly ushered us to the bar, mixed us drinks, and introduced us to other guests. It wasn’t long before we were comfortably chatting with the eclectic group staying here, dispelling my fear that this part of the trip was going to be all dive talk, all the time. Indeed, of the couples staying at SHB when we were, only half of each pair was a diver. And all of our fellow guests were unassuming, but ultimately fascinating and talented people, whose conversation fascinated and entertained. Throw in the friendly dive staff (each with compelling stories of their own), and happy hours and mealtimes passed seamlessly into the night.

And once again, our experiences in these islands proved that while each of the Out Islands is different from the others, they share a common denominator of welcoming and interesting islanders and visitors. It’s not for everyone, but once you find yourself at home with the Out Island experience, nothing else is quite as satisfying.

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