Sail and explore the Exuma Islands in the Bahamas for tropical delights
White sand emerging from the ocean, a colorful lush nature, colonial-style villages and crystal-clear waters teeming with tropical fish. This is the spectacular scenery of the Bahamas islands. All perfectly preserved and protected thanks to the Exuma National Park.
The Bahamas seem almost familiar before even setting foot on them. This constellation of over 700 islands, islets and “cays,” the white sandy banks emerging from the ocean in a burst of colors are carved into the sailor’s imagination and scattered throughout maritime literature with their tales of pirates, paradisiacal landings and tropical scenes. However, the real impact is always more astonishing than any story. It seems that on the easternmost island of the archipelago, called San Salvador, Christopher Columbus landed in 1492 while searching for the New World. He baptized these lands “Islas de Baja Mar” or “Bahamas,” which translates to “islands of the shallow sea.”
An ideal location for a sailing cruise, thanks to the subtropical monsoon climate that offers mild weather throughout the year. Temperatures rarely drop below 16 or rise above 31 degrees Celsius. Naturally, the waters just off the Bahamas are influenced by strong currents, sustained winds, maritime traffic and underwater rocks scattered throughout the archipelago that have sunk hundreds of ships since colonial times. These risks require careful route planning and constant consultation of weather reports. But aside from these precautions, a sailing exploration of these magical and surreal beauty spots is a gift to be given to oneself at least once in a lifetime.
The embarkation point for our cruise to the Bahamas is Palm Cay One Marina, one of the largest tourist ports in the archipelago, located on the southeast side of Nassau. Its docks, bustling with nautical services, especially in high season from December to April, are a hive of activity with tourists disembarking from cruise ships coming from the United States. After all, Nassau is the capital of the Bahamas and the gateway for those looking to explore the archipelago. This former pirate haven is now a modern city with a tropical soul and a vibrant atmosphere, offering 5-star hotels, luxury restaurants, beautiful white beaches and incredible turquoise waters. In addition to various attractions, there’s also a lively nightlife scene. Locals say that Nassau never sleeps.
The colonial district of the city, organized around Bay Street, is ready to charm you with its vibrant colors and well-preserved facades from the 18th century. Here, in addition to the garden and tropical zoo, you’ll find Nassau’s most important museums, starting with the Pirate Museum that celebrates the adventures, looting and shipwrecks of old buccaneers. There’s also the Junkanoo Museum, where you’ll discover the history of this colorful carnival invented by slaves that has become a national tradition. Other interesting museums include the Pompey Museum dedicated to slaves who rebelled against slavery, the Bahamas Museum narrating the history of the archipelago and the National Art Gallery displaying a rich collection of paintings, sculptures, ceramics, photographs and fabrics by local artists.
To enjoy Nassau’s nature, there are its beautiful white sandy beaches: from Cable Beach to Cabbage Beach, Jaws Beach, and Junkanoo Beach. Nassau is also connected by a bridge to the nearby Paradise Island, home to the famous Atlantis resort with one of the world’s largest outdoor aquariums. If you want to swim with dolphins and sea lions, you can take an excursion to Blue Lagoon Island.
Day 2, Nassau – Highbourne Cay, 28 miles
With a Southeast navigation of about 4 hours from Nassau, we reach Highbourne Cay. It is a delightful island that serves as the gateway to the enchanting Exuma archipelago, a true paradise of 350 mostly uninhabited islands, white sandy beaches and one of the most beautiful seas in the world. Highbourne Cay has few inhabitants and boasts a unique “H” shape that provides boaters with various options for a pleasant anchorage in fine sand. It is a beautiful wilderness area scattered with green trails and surrounded by coral reefs for snorkeling and fishing for grouper and lobsters. You can also dock at the Highbourne Cay marina, located within a picturesque sheltered natural bay and impeccably maintained by a professional and friendly staff. Along its docks, you’ll find all the nautical services, showers, shops and wireless internet.
Old maps of Highbourne Cay dating back to the 17th century showed a water channel flowing through what is now the isthmus connecting the two larger portions of the island. Along its shores stretch eight beaches. Among them, East Beach, with its 3 miles of soft white flour-like sand, is renowned worldwide for its beauty and is classified as one of the best beaches in the Bahamas.
Day 3, Highbourne Cay – Warderick Wells Cay, 20 miles
We set sail towards Warderick Wells, the island that constitutes the heart of the protected park in the Exumas archipelago. This is where the headquarters of the conservation authority created by the government of the Bahamas in 1959 are located. As you approach Warderick Wells and are still a few miles away, simply call the park at number 16 and request a mooring among the numerous buoy fields. The main one, called Warderick Wells, is horseshoe-shaped and offers 22 moorings, providing good protection from the winds but with a strong current coming in and out. A second large mooring field is located on the west side of the island, between the bay and Emerald Rock, and is open to the west and south. A third small mooring field is located in the southeast corner of the island, between the bay and Hog Cay.
Anchoring in one of the designated areas, you can take the tender to tour the island and admire all its beauties. Starting with the incredible coral reefs teeming with vibrant-colored fish, lobsters and turtles. As well as the over 30 beaches of white sand that surround the island. Once back on solid ground, numerous excursions can be undertaken through well-marked trails accompanied by information about the history, flora, and fauna of the park. The island is scattered with a series of caves used as hideouts by pirates in times past and ancient plantations that converge on the top of BooBoo Hill. From there, you can admire not only breathtaking panoramas but also the impressive sprays of saltwater that explode up to 10 meters high from dozens of natural cavities.
Day 4, Warderick Wells Cay – Staniel Cay, 15 miles
With a 15-mile navigation, we reach the beautiful island of Staniel Cay. It is among the largest of all the Exumas and has only about 100 permanent residents. However, it attracts thousands of tourists each year thanks to the airport connected with Fort Lauderdale (United States). The main village on the island is located on the western coast. In addition to colorful houses, it hosts various retail shops, churches, a marine supply store, a post office and a library. The ideal place to dock is the pier of the local yacht club built in the 1960s, located in a sheltered bay. This area is surrounded by palms and sandbars that form as the tide recedes. In its bar, fishermen, sailors and passing tourists gather, setting off for numerous excursions amidst pristine and lush nature.
Among the most captivating experiences, there is the opportunity to swim in the lagoon full of barrier sharks (harmless) at Compass Cay or to get up close with the majestic iguana population on Bitter Guana Cay. Also thrilling is swimming with the wild piglets at Big Major Cay, also known as “Pig Island.” Perhaps the most appreciated experience is the visit to Thunderball Grotto. It is a splendid marine cave with an opening to the sky that allows sunlight to color the water in a thousand shades of blue and green. It is famous for being the set of the Hollywood film “Thunderball” starring Sean Connery as James Bond.
Otherwise, in Staniel Cay, you can simply lounge on one of its fabulous beaches like Town Beach, Pirate Trap Beach, Ho Tai Cay Beach, South Beach and Ocean Beach, or sip a drink at the Sand Bar in Pipe Creek, and feel like you’re in paradise.
Day 5, Staniel Cay – Shroud Cay, 32 miles
After a delightful sail powered by the winds of the Pacific, we reach Shroud Cay. It is the northernmost island in the Exuma National Park and also the most relaxed and tranquil, as it can only be reached by boat. Completely uninhabited and enclosed by a coral reef, it boasts an enchanting landscape with various coves, winding waterways and brackish marshes. The center of the island fills with water during high tide, becoming an extraordinary nursery for seabirds and turtles, surrounded by intriguing mangrove ecosystems all waiting to be explored with the tender.
Shroud Cay lacks tourist ports, but there are 10 moorings available for boats up to 18 meters, assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. Therefore, arriving early is essential. Once moored, simply take the tender to explore all the beauty the island has to offer. Start with the stunning beaches on the west side, being careful not to exceed the speed limits set by the reserve. Once ashore, you can reach Camp Driftwood, set up in the 1960s by Ernest Scholtes at the highest point of the island. Highly appreciated by diving enthusiasts is the Wax Cut Drift Dive. It is a marine trench protected on both sides by sandbanks, where you can dive using the strong ocean current. Practically, you embark on a kind of underwater “flight” in the company of sharks, turtles and rays.
Last stop of this sailing cruise among the islands of the Exuma Cays is Norman’s Cay, which, despite its small size, has a curious and legendary history. In the late 70s and early 80s, it became the headquarters of Carlos Lehder, one of the most powerful drug lords linked to Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel. Lehder used the island as a transshipment base for smuggling cocaine into the United States using small planes. One of these, a Curtiss C-46 Commando, crashed one stormy night in front of the bay in shallow waters. Even today, the wreckage is visited by hundreds of tourists equipped only with masks and snorkels.
During that time, Lehder expanded the island’s airstrip, heavily guarded by armed men and attack dogs patrolled the beaches. Marine biologist Richard E. Novak tried to oppose to free Norman’s Cay. However, it was only in 1987, after Lehder was arrested in Colombia and extradited to the United States, that the island was confiscated from him and returned to the government of the Bahamas.
Arriving on this enchanting island, you can dock at Norman’s Cay Marina, the official gateway to the Bahamas, hosting 63 boat slips and surrounded by 4,000 mangroves leading to a coral stone path surrounded by lush native flora. Just disembark to enjoy the wonders of pristine beaches, waters teeming with colorful fish and lobsters. And perhaps indulge in a cocktail or a dinner of local delicacies at the luxurious MacDuff’s restaurant cottages.
Day 7, Norman’s Cay – Palm Cay Nassau, 45 miles
On this last day of the cruise, all that remains is to head back south. We’re making our way back to Palm Cay in Nassau, our disembarkation base. We will take the time to cover these final 45 miles while still enjoying the primordial and lush beauties of this unspoiled nature in our eyes and hearts, adorned with the multicolored hues that set the stage for the Bahamas and the irresistible splendor of the Exuma archipelago.