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Trip Report It's Excellent in the Exumas ~ A week on Staniel Cay (+ Atlantis)

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Swimming pigs, friendly sharks, deserted cays, a cottage on the water and a boat with which to see it all. Sounds like heaven to me…and it was! A visit to the Exumas and Staniel Cay Yacht Club has been on my bucket list for a while now and it did not disappoint. Me, hubby and our daughter who had just turned 8 spent a week in this rustic, yet idyllic paradise. We took advantage of a promotion offered by The Bahamas Out Islands Tourist Board for 2 free flights from Nassau. And since we were going to have to stop anyway, we figured we would add on two nights on Paradise Island to check out Atlantis. Staniel Cay was much more our speed. More on that later.

I have heard some less than flattering reviews of Flamingo Air but we had no issues whatsoever. We were on a 9-seater plane with about 5 passengers total. Flights were on time and pilot seemed competent. Our honeymooning friends arrived a couple of days after we did and they did have some problems (delays with no explanation, rude employees etc). Unfortunately, we flew in during rain and storms and flew out in the same (saw lightning and a waterspout from our window which was kind of neat/unnerving) so I didn’t get the glorious conditions I was hoping for for flying over the numerous islands and cays. But even though the sun wasn’t shining, the views and colors were spectacular. We had sunny skies all the days in between though!

I am a planner by nature and we always book trips a year in advance. Since the Yacht Club has limited accomodations and is so popular, booking early is almost a necessity if you want to stay there (unless you are lucky enough to happen upon a last minute cancellation). The Yacht Club is the hub (and I use that term loosely) of the tiny island of Staniel Cay which is North of the Exuma capital of George town and about midway up the chain of Exuma islands. The Yacht Club consists of a cluster of cottages, most of which sit directly on water, a pool, a marina and a club house with restaurant and bar. This lushly landscaped compound was the perfect place for us to call home in early May of 2013. I would liken this experience to a super-awesome Caribbean summer camp complete with a delicious 4 course dinner every night. We chose the all-inclusive plan (which is definitely the way to go as you get a good bang for your buck) which included basically everything except alcoholic beverages – cottage, Boston Whaler and gas for the week, 3 meals per day, all gratuities, and the use of bikes, paddle boards and kayaks. Now if you need luxury and room service etc, this isn’t the place for you but for us is was exactly what we were looking for...it is a laid back, friendly place perfect for an escape from the real world. It was fabulous only sharing the resort with about 20 other people and we had fun getting to know everyone...we met people from Germany and France and of course the good old USA.

The cottages were small but very charming (think shabby chic). Most, if not all, have just been updated. Very comfortable bed, fridge, small sitting area (our space was taken up by a cot for our daughter) and a great covered porch overhanging the sea. Daily maid service and fresh flowers each day. This is truly the place to get away from it all because there is no TV, phone or clock in the cottages (you can purchase wifi – slow and sporadic connection but served its purpose)The pool is on the small side but perfectly acceptable..and just 20 feet behind our cottage.

The clubhouse has a happening bar on certain nights of the week. A combination of Yacht Club guests and Yachties make this a lively place, especially on the weekends. And when one of the yachts decides to party as one did on Saturday night, all of the cottages thump to the beat into the night. Thankfully we were tired and it didn’t bother us much! All meals are served in the clubhouse restaurant unless you get a box lunch (packed up in a cooler with ice) to take on your daily boating adventures. The food is very good and you get a lot of it. Breakfast and lunch you order off the menu after you are seated, and for dinner you must place your order with the bartender by 5. Then at 7:30 the bell is rung and everyone comes in to eat. The biggest disappointment of the trip was the fact that it was not lobster season. We were told that even so, it should be offered on the menu a least of couple of nights (from their frozen stash). We didn’t get it once. But we did have delicious lobster soup two nights. Some typical breakfast offerings were: French toast (made from their wonderful fresh Bahamian bread which tasted like a combination of Hawaiian and wheat), omelets, fresh fruit plate, awesome egg sandwich, pancakes, bacon, sausage etc. Lunch could be a salmon or lobster salad, conch po boy, burger, mahi sandwich or the club sandwich which was one of our group’s favorites. The BLT was ridiculous…I think there is a pound of bacon on each sandwich. And dinners always started with a wonderful soup, then a salad, the main course and then dessert. Some dinner options were: steak, cracked conch, rack of lamb, Cornish game hen, catch of the day, ribs. Their onion rings were awesome as were the peas and rice.

Let’s talk about prices. I always get sticker shock when we have to buy groceries and such on a Caribbean island. But since basically everything at SCYC must be imported, the prices here would make even seasoned Caribbean travelers do a double take. Usually rum is pretty cheap. Not so here. And the wine I drink at home for $13 a bottle was not $20, not $30 but $44 a bottle! But, being the bargain hunter that I am, I found wine in the Sampson Cay store for $15 a bottle…score!

The staff at the yacht club just loved our tow-headed little girl so I think were got extra good service (: She basically owned the place and would explore the beach, the docks, the boats and the sharks that hovered by the fish cleaning station, most of the time accompanied by Finnegan…the owners’ yellow lab who has the run of the place! I think that was her favorite part about the trip. He was in the states the first couple days we were there so she was majorly bummed but then he showed up and they were inseparable after that.

Each day was spent basically the same way…wake by the sunlight, check out the water conditions simply by opening our eyes and looking out the door, breakfast, then take the boat out exploring for the day, come back for dip a in the pool or a moment’s peace on the deck, wander over to check out what the boats caught that day and watch the sharks & sting rays, grab a drink from the bar, chat with new friends we had had made (both from the cottages and the yachts in the marina), watch the sunset (they have a nice raised deck with tables and chairs perfect for this), have dinner and then usually crash by 9:30! We were lucky…our 13’ Whaler (#9) started up like a charm each morning. Typically the wind and seas come out of the East which is good because the way the cays are situated, the areas which you would be exploring would be protected for the most part. But a front went through the day we arrived and everything was coming from the West which made for a rough couple of days. One day we braved it and my butt was bruised from all of the pounding. The other day we opted to take a golf cart tour of the island which was actually pretty fun (even though I hated losing a day on the water). And wouldn’t you know it, when we got to the other side of the island, we got a flat tire! But we managed to putt back to the club and get it pumped back up. For those of you who have read “From Chaos to Serenity,” the lady who rents the carts is the author’s daughter.

I have been to a good number of Caribbean islands and seen a lot of pretty water, but the color and clarity of the sea in the Exumas wins! It is simply spectacular. And photos don’t do it justice. You need to see it with your own two eyes! I could honestly stare at that water all day. And we loved the fact that there are so many places to explore…all just a boat ride away. And we always had a beach/sandbar to ourselves! I think this was the first trip that we used up all of our sunscreen and took cover under the shade of a umbrella at some point each day. You most definitely get a lot of sun being out on the water all day, every day. One day the conditions were absolutely perfect and the water was like glass. It was amazing to see all of the sea life below the surface as we zipped across the water, even at 40 feet deep. We only got lost once looking for Sampson Cay. Just overshot it a little. But by mid-week we were totally comfortable with how to get everywhere.

The places we visited/things we did ~

Big Major Cay – Home of the swimming pigs! Since it’s so close to the yacht club, we stopped by 3 times in hopes of seeing the piglets but no luck. The Exumas, we discovered, are the playground of the rich and richer (and sometimes famous. Johnny Depp owns an island there). You should see the mega yachts anchored behind this cay. We pull up the first morning and the beach is deserted. I am wondering if I will have to get out and find the pigs. But after a few moments, they heard the motor idling and all of a sudden they coming running out of the brush and charge into the water and swim out to our boat. It certainly is a sight to see, especially since these are about 300 pound porkers. We pulled in close enough so they could stand and they come right up and open their mouths and at times would put their front hoofs inside the boat if you didn’t feed them fast enough. The kitchen at SCYC provided us with a big bag of bread each time we went to visit. One of them accidentally took our anchor line along with the bread! Seeing them wasn’t enough for me so I hopped in with them and petted them. They aren’t really interested in you, just your food. Ellie got in with them too and loved it. Truly a once in a lifetime experience.

Sandy Cay – What a beautiful deserted little island, sandbar and lagoon. We ate a picnic lunch here on the sandbar, explored, swam and relaxed.

Sampson Cay – A very nice yacht club just a little bit north of SCYC. If want to drool over more big boats, come here. And they have a nice store with decent wine and liquor prices. There are two entrances…one is the deep water side and the other I can’t imagine anything bigger than a 20 footer could get through at high tide, but it’s really pretty.

Twin Cay – A deserted set of cays where, at low tide, a sandbar connects the two. We found lots of sand dollars and star fish here.

Bitter Guana Cay & Gaulin Cay – This is the main attraction to the south of the yacht club. To get there you must cross a channel which leads out to the ocean. On a normal day this is no problem. Unfortunately we picked the roughest day to make this journey the first time. The waves were big, Ellie was crying, hubby was getting nervous. Probably my least favorite moment of the trip! We have taken to referring to it as crossing the “Straits of Gibraltar!” Back to Guana Cay - there are actually two cays..both home to the endangered rock iguana who scamper onto the beach once you pull up in hopes that you brought them food. The sign says you aren’t supposed to feed them but someone at the club told us too many people have broken that rule and they have come to depend, in part, on food from visitors. The second of the beaches you will come to (Gaulin) I found to be the nicest. And you can hike up and see the ocean side from the top of the cliffs.

“Airport Beach” – This what we named the calm crescent of sand we found after the hellish crossing of the channel on the way back from Bitter Guana Cay. It sits at the end of the airstrip so you can watch the planes take off and land. Here is also a plane wreck in the water and the end of the runway...hmmm. A few homes sit on this stretch but the beach, as are all on Staniel Cay, is public.

Compass Cay – Home of the tame nurse sharks! The best time to go is at high tide when the lower dock is under water by about a foot so they can come lay on your lap. But of course, high tide occurred early in the morning and at dinner time so we were out of luck in that regard. But we still got in the water and petted them. They feel like sand paper. And even though they have teeth, they suck, they don’t bite. They swam around when we first arrived but then they got bored I guess and went back to laying on the bottom. Neat experience. Though we were told we could get in the water with the once at the yacht club too but I never saw anyone do it. Ellie did pet them every day though from the stone steps.

Thomas Cay – This is along the Pipe Cay stretch on the way to Compass. Yet another idyllic place to enjoy an afternoon at the beach.

Thunderball Grotto – Made famous by the James Bond film of the same name. It’s best to visit at low tide when the opening to the grotto is visible and you can swim through, head up. This was the busiest place we visited as everyone comes at the same time. Great snorkeling. It’s like an aquarium! We saw a huge grouper, angel fish, sergeant majors, parrot fish, trigger fish. And there are openings/holes at the top so the sunlight streams into the grotto. Unfortunately I had a snorkel malfunction so didn’t get to see as much as I would have liked. But it is a very cool place.

Pirate Trap Beach – We first saw this on the golf cart ride then came back by boat another day. Lovely beach with a tree swing and a little lagoon at one end which connects with ocean on the other side.

Ocean Beach – Another stop on the cart. There are several entrances paths at various points which are hard to spot. The beach is very nice and great views from the higher points.

Club Thunderball – You can see this from the water but we walked around it when we did the island tour. Such a great location..I hope someone opens this place back up again. Bar is still fully intact inside. Just needs a little TLC.

Black Point – This settlement is the South of Staniel and Guana Cay and is more populated that Staniel. Many of the employees at the club live here. We checked out the school there and bought some handmade straw bags. Again, very small and simple and not at all upscale.

South Sampson Sandbar – We found this as we were tooling around on our last afternoon looking for a spot to enjoy our final hours of sun, sand and sea. It’s on the southernmost point of Sampson Cay and we were drawn to it by all of the shades of turquoise and the sandbars of course! There is a prefect little beach and then the shallow water stretches on forever it seems.

We only had a few minor issues during our stay which did not detract from our enjoyment and were almost expected on an island this remote. Every so often the water would just go off. You might be in the middle of a shower! But if you just waited a half hour it came back on. Toward the end of our stay, they came in and fixed the toilets in each cottage, all of which had been apparently running non-stop and caused the water shortage. No problems after that. The power went out once we heard but we were on the boat or in the pool it didn’t affect us! And the boats were a little beat but that is so be expected considering the use and abuse they get!

Staniel Cay was amazing and we will definitely return. Though I fear it has spoiled me for all other destinations. I don’t know that I will be able to handle sharing a beach with other people from now on! I don’t know why it took us so long to visit the Out Islands (aka Family islands) but now that we are hooked, we will be exploring all of the other destinations the Bahamas has to offer. For those who think the islands of the Bahamas are all like Nassau and Freeport, take another look. It really is Better in the Bahamas.

NEXT STOP – Atlantis

In hindsight we probably should have stopped here first as it was quite a wake-up call going from a remote, sparsely populated island to “Vegas on the Beach.” Not to mention we had seen fish, rays, sharks, starfish, conch etc in the natural habitat and then all of a sudden were viewing them through a piece of glass. Don’t get me wrong, Atlantis is a very nice upscale resort but just seemed a bit artificial compared to what we had just experienced. It is very large and very crowded, especially when the cruise shippers descended. But it was very peaceful and pretty early in the morning.

We actually stayed at Comfort Suites across the street since I got a better deal there and it included breakfast. This is a fine home base and the location was very close to the Royal Towers. Whatever money we saved we was needed because prices are high in Atlantis! Anthony’s restaurant is a great affordable dinner option across from CS. My favorite area was probably Marina Village. Cute section with restaurants and shops. But many of the stores there and in Royal Towers were $$$$.

24 years ago for my high school graduation trip I had stayed at the Pirate’s Cove Holiday Inn where “The Cove” portion of Atlantis is. What a change! That is probably the nicest beach area in Atlantis. But we mainly spent our 2 days at the water park.

Our daughter was 47” and all of the slides had a height requirement of 48”. The Drop and Falls she rode several times without being questioned but the last ride of the trip she was booted off. We were also called out on the Surge, which was my favorite slide, but the guy was nice and let her go. She was also never questioned when going down the Jungle slide. I think the 48” rule for a few of these slides is ridiculous. I can see it for The Abyss, Leap of faith and Challenger but not for the others. “The Current” is a great not so lazy ride that we rode numerous times (no height requirement). The Dig was also neat to see.

I am glad we went but happy we did this portion of the trip as an add on and didn’t make Atlantis a vacation of its own. We saw everything there was to see in less than 2 days and have no desire to return.

This was our first time doing a 9 night vacation vs. a traditional week and those last 2 days definitely make a difference!

Here are links to my Facebook and Shutterfly photo albums. Facebook is the more condensed album (though still a lot of pictures). Enjoy!

https://www.facebook.com/kristen.edsall#!/media/set/?set=a.10201188753267116.1073741829.1419036172&type=1

http://www.shutterfly.com/lightbox/view.sfly?fid=785fafd2ed4532fc6cdd16a80fdf8c46

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