LONG WEEKEND IN THE EXUMAS -- FEBRUARY 2011
Although a mid-winter escape has almost become a necessity to maintain my mental health, when it takes the form of a long weekend, it somehow feels like I’m pulling a fast one. I suppose it’s because I’m not “paying” enough to get away, either in terms of money or vacation time. And while I certainly prefer a full-blown vacation, a long weekend away certainly serves as a welcome break from winter weariness. Having just returned from a 3-night getaway in the Exumas over the President’s Day holiday weekend, I have to conclude that either I’m getting ever-better at maximizing the benefits of an island escape, or that my beloved Out Islands provide a more concentrated dose of cure. Even having endured the chaos of Miami’s airport, arriving home to sleet and snow, and struggling through un-plowed roads for the next morning’s commute, I still feel refreshed.
I hadn’t really planned on getting to the Exumas this winter. As they did last winter, our friends – who spend October through April traveling to and through the Bahamas on their sailboat Moondance – invited us to join them. Last year, we spent a near-idyllic week with them in the Exumas; but this year, we’d already committed to sailing in the Spanish Virgin Islands with another couple. However, reasonable airfare to Georgetown convinced me that we should wedge more island time into our schedule. The Moondances were happy to have us, even for a brief visit, especially since we’re more than willing to bring boat gear with us.
Getting to the Exumas to meet a cruising boat is never guaranteed to be an easy proposition. The flights are not especially convenient – we had a 6 a.m. flight from BWI to MIA, then a 6-hour layover before flying to Georgetown, which had us arriving after 5 p.m. Moreover, boats are slaves to the weather and sea conditions, so on arrival, we could just as easily have been meeting our friends in Georgetown as scrambling to charter a small plane to drop us off at some unattended airstrip further up the Exuma chain. As it turned out, American Airlines needed volunteers to agree to take a later flight out of DCA, which worked especially well for us, since it allowed us a shorter layover in Miami, got us exit-row seats, and included enough compensation to pay for our airfare, while getting us to GGT as originally planned. Steady high winds from an unfavorable direction and the resulting heavy seas had left Moondance stuck at the Emerald Bay marina (adjacent to the Sandals –formerly Four Seasons – resort, and north of Georgetown and the airport) for more than a week, so they rented a car and met us at the airport.
Having only carry-on luggage, and now-experienced with negotiating customs with “ship’s spares,” we were soon out in the warm Bahamian air, hugging our friends, whom we’d last seen 5 months before when we saw them off the dock in Annapolis. To get immediately into the Out Island vibe, we went to Big D’s for dinner, a local beachfront restaurant reputed to have the best conch salad in the Exumas. Because of unexpected rain, we sat indoors and ordered up the ever-so-necessary Kaliks, grouper and conch while being charmed by our waitress Shorty and Big D himself. When the power went out, the staff took it in stride, never stopping. The conch salad, made with bitter orange juice, was fantastic. Between the libations, the local food, the power outage, and being with our friends, we were in full island mode.
Skip and Harriet enjoy Bahamian libations at Big D's upon our arrival in Georgetown.
Used as we to living aboard a boat at anchor, staying in a marina was un-accustomed luxury for us. Moondance was at a dock without electrical service (most cruising boats make their own electricity, by running their engine, solar power and/or wind generation, so shore power is hardly a necessity), entitling them to an un-heard of rate of $1/foot/day. By comparison, my home marina charges $3.50/foot/day. The Emerald Bay facility has floating docks, pump-out at each slip (unprecedented in the islands), a clean and well-equipped bath house, free laundry, and the most elegant clubhouse I’ve ever seen in a marine setting. Within walking distance are the Grand Isle and Sandals Emerald Bay resorts, a supermarket and liquor store, and beaches – including the mile-long crescent of powder white sand fronting the Sandals resort which, like all other Bahamian beaches, is public.
Moondance, left, (next to Onward) at the dock at the Emerald Bay marina, our home for the weekend.
We’d have been happy just to hang out in the marina for 3 days, but used the rental car to explore a bit instead. We did a pass through Georgetown en route to the southern end of Little Exuma, where we visited the ruins of a Loyalist plantation (anyone with any interest in the Exumas should read Robert Wilder’s “Wind from the Carolinas,” which is a fictionalized history of the plantation economy of the Exumas in the 18th century), as well as a salt pillar and salina. We had a lunch stop at the highly-recommended Santana’s for local lobster (tempura style – wow!) and grouper and the best peas-and-rice I’ve had in 20+ years of Out Island travels. On the Saturday we were there, Santana’s drew a decidedly local clientele, but it’s been frequented by the likes of Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom (while filming Pirates 2 and 3) and other celebrities who vacation nearby.
We devoted Sunday to the quintessential Exuma cruiser experience: the Chat ‘n’ Chill beach bar. The Chat ‘n’ Chill is on Caribbean Travel & Life magazine’s list of top 12 beach bars, and I felt duty-bound to check this one off, bringing my total to 9. Since Moondance was marooned at the marina, we drove to Georgetown and caught a water taxi across Elizabeth Harbour over to Stocking Island. As the Exumas go, Elizabeth Harbour and Stocking Island in the height of winter season are as busy as things get.
Above, a typical Little Exuma beach on the windward side -- white sand, turquoise surf, a sailboat offshore, and not another soul. Upper right, the scene in front of the Chat-n-Chill on Stocking Island. Lower right, chattin' and chillin' at the Chat-n-Chill.
Between 250 – 300 cruising boats anchored in the harbor, and all the attendant dinghy traffic and activity, made our friends not at all upset that they were “stuck” 13 miles north. We arrived to witness a large crowd near the beach volleyball courts, but that was for “Beach Church” which was just ending. Once that ended, the beach and the Chat ‘n’ Chill settled into an easy, beach-y vibe. We grabbed lounge chairs, a few Kaliks and watched the to-ing and fro-ing of the boats until lunch (hamburgers, hot dogs, conch burgers). After lunch, we strolled the beaches, each of which is – in typical Exuma fashion – more amazing than the last.
Not surprisingly, our friends recognized many of the boats in the harbour, having been cruising up and down the Bahamas chain for three seasons. But with such a huge gathering of boats, even us visitors had sightings. We spied the our old dinghy, which we sold in Annapolis to a cruising couple, racing across the harbor; we touched base with my husband’s one-time co-worker, who had arrived the day before to spend a vacation on a megayacht which we’d seen arriving just then in Georgetown from Nassau; and inside the Chat ‘n’ Chill, we ensured that our yacht club’s burgee was represented (as well as others from Annapolis), since we’d forgotten to bring one of our own to tack to the rafters.
During our brief visit, we had plenty of time to enjoy the Exumas’ stunning beaches. It’s said that there are 365 of them, but it would take far more than that many days to do them justice. We merely touched a handful of them; any one of them would make me happy for days on end … they are THAT beautiful.
But this visit was mostly about catching up with friends and sharing in their experiences; that we got to do it in such a satisfying setting made it all the better. Since we plan to go cruising ourselves someday, visiting other cruisers is a good reality check. Although there is plenty of beach time, there is also plenty of work; cruisers are fond of saying that they are not living a vacation -- they are living an alternative lifestyle. So, for every rum cocktail imbibed, there is the long hot walk to the grocery store to bring back a can of pineapple juice. For every sunset, there are the hordes of no-see-ums that bite when the wind goes down at dusk. For every beachfront lobster lunch, there are plenty of other occasions when you’re figuring out what to do with the cans of vegetables stuffed behind the settee cushions and the wilted head of lettuce that was the last available in the store until the next mailboat comes in.
We were also fortunate to participate again in the social experience of cruising in the Exumas. The back-and-forth sharing of books and DVDs and rides and advice. The help readily provided for anyone in need. The many, many cocktails and dinners shared with old friends and new. And that was what it was all about.