One of my most memorable Caribbean days took place in Exuma, Bahamas. It began with free-diving to the sea’s bottom to see a mermaid and ended with a hot bubble bath strewn with red tropical flower pedals in our villa. In between there were swimming pigs, grape-eating endangered dinosaur descendants, a free dive into Thunderball Cave (shoot site of the eponymous James Bond film), beach walks on deserted islands and a swim with sharks.
No this was not a dream, and although we saw David Copperfield’s island home, nor was it an illusion. It was, certainly, an opportunity to check off a number of fantasy bucket items — some I didn’t even know were on my list. With 365 islands and cays and 50 shades of blue, off-the-radar Exuma in the southern Bahamas holds forth the promise of island-hopping as a quintessential, defining experience.
Here’s a chronicle of my perfect day, which should inspire you to plan your own island-hopping tour.
You can rent a boat and pilot it yourself, but because of tricky waters, first-timers are better off joining a boat tour.
My adventure took place aboard the “007 Thunderball Island Safari” with Capt. Ray Lightbourne and his son, Justin, operators of Exuma Water Sports Safari Tours. The Lightbourne family has been part of the Exuma landscape since the American Revolution, and obviously know these waters like Johnny Depp knows his conch.
You see, Depp discovered the Exumas while filming Pirates of the Caribbean and ended up as not only a conch fritters aficionado but an Exuma island owner.
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We didn’t get to see Depp’s hideaway — what Capt. Ray described as a humble eco-retreat – because it was not within the 65 miles of water we covered that day. We did see islands that Johnson & Johnson, Nicholas Cage, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and various eccentrics own or once did.
And of course, Copperfield’s Cay, where if money is no object, you can rent a home or the whole island. The magician was responsible for our morning mermaid sighting. He commissioned a sculpture of a baby grand piano with a mermaid lying next to it, just to sink it to the bottom of the melodic waters.
“You won’t see that on any other tour,” said Capt. Ray.
The rest – the endangered Bahamian rock iguanas of Great Guana Cay, the swimming pigs of Big Majors Cay, and the swim-with-nurse-sharks experience at funky Compass Cay – are on the agenda of most local boat tours.
I didn’t count, but I estimate we saw at least 100 cays that day, each more secluded and tantalizing than the next. We stopped for beach time and a swim in the bay at dunes-heaped White Point, where Justin treated us to sweet-sweet Exuma pineapple.
Seafood lunch on salty Staniel Cay and homemade rum cake on a surreal Sandbar topped off a day of island after island, each with its own story of drug smugglers, British castles, salt ponds and a celebrity golf resort in the making.
Just think: 365 named cays! It begs the question: if an apple a day keeps the doctor away, what fresh health would a cay a day accomplish?