If you tell 10 people at random that you have recently been in the Exumas, nine of them will probably think you are describing an uncomfortable skin condition. The 10th might inquire politely, as did Writer Tom Wolfe: "Is that a place or a religious state of mind?" The individual who does realize that the Exumas are islands will not be quite sure what they are islands of. ("Oh, the Bahamas—of course.")
The Exumas have been aptly described by Historian Michael Craton as "a disarticulated tadpole of islets between deep water and an enormous bank." These tiny island dots that end in Little Exuma lie 30 miles south-southeast of Nassau in a rare and mostly undeveloped 90-mile string. They make up half of the 690 Bahama Out Islands, which have been most picturesquely dubbed "The South Sea Islands of the Atlantic" or "70,000 Square Miles of Fishing." Author J. Linton Rigg terms the Exumas' charm "more esthetic than geographic," noting that they boast no mountains, no bold headlands, no busy harbors, no rivers and hardly any trees.
The Exumas' lure is the immemorial pull of tropic coral archipelagoes just barely tipping out of the life-giving sea. In this case it is a sea kissed by the warming miracle of the Gulf Stream, teeming with exotic life, blessed by moderate year-round temperatures and pretty nearly untouched by human hands. For yachtsmen the Exumas are a winter cruising ground unparalleled, with a perfect progression of cays, hidden harbors and beautiful beaches that give a sense of going somewhere without the exigency of having to get anywhere. There is just enough life—mostly native—in the Exumas to give the traveler the flavor of those differences in speech, manners, customs, currency and food that add spice to a holiday. On any unsullied Exuma beach you might find a Spanish doubloon left in history's wake, but you are more likely to experience the sensation of stepping where no human foot has stepped before.
Getting there is no snap: Bahamas Airways operates a DC-3 between Nassau and George Town, the largest settlement on the biggest of the islands, Great Exuma. These flights are generally overbooked, and the person deciding to extend his charmed stay in George Town most likely cannot do so. If he doesn't use his reservation back to Nassau he may be stuck. There is also mail-boat passenger service twice a week from Nassau to George Town, but it is not recommended for tenderfeet. Yet if you do not own your own boat for cruising these Isles of June, you can still see the Exumas. The magic word is "charter."
The romantic, of course, charters a sailboat like Captain Art Crimmins' Traveler II, a 68-foot ketch that sleeps six plus the salty-dog captain, his pretty wife and chief cook, Peggy, and their shy first mate. With the captain cracking a lot of tired old jokes to put his tired-businessmen charterers at ease, you sail out of Nassau late morning or early afternoon, with the sun overhead, just when visibility is best for moving over the shallow Yellow Bank. You come in sight of the first of the Exumas—either Ship Channel Cay or Highborne Cay—in about six hours. A relaxed sail down to George Town on the lee side of this limestone and coral chain could easily consume a week. (No one sails at night in waters liberally studded with coral heads.) It depends on how enticed you are by any of the 18 excellent anchorages and snug harbors in the cays, by the lure of deserted, powdery, pink-tinged coral beaches or by fishing, skin diving and sightseeing in what has been called "the clearest, cleanest water in the seven seas."
Only 135 miles to the east lies San Salvador. Essentially you are seeing exactly what Columbus first discovered in 1492. But Columbus only spent 15 days here. If you can afford it and the captain is not due back for another charter, you might take a month to sail down to George Town.
Chartered powerboats, romance be damned, have an advantage over the sailboat. They can explore hidden cays and narrow, disappearing sounds at ease, or ride right up to beaches. Many Exuma veterans feel this is the only way to really see the cays in detail. ("Why, we use outboards here like cars," says doughty Mrs. Hester Crawford, who has retired to Compass Cay.)
People in a hurry fly to the Exumas. In an hour's trip from Nassau to George Town they pass over all the islets shown on the map on the following page.
Half an hour out of Nassau the first of the islands appear—flat, irregularly shaped and sized, curving down the Gulf Stream like vertebrae. The islands pass in quick progression, as they do in a favorite Exumas native song:
Sou-Sou-East as fly the crow
To Exuma we will go
Sail her down, sail her down
Sail her down to George Town.
Highborne Cay the first we see
Yellow Bank is by the lee.
Harvey Cay is in the moon,
Farmers Cay is coming soon.
Now we come to Galliot,
Out into the ocean we must go.
Children's Bay is passing fast
Stocking Island come at last.
Nassau gal is all behind,
George Town gal is on my mind.
A wiggle and a jiggle and a jamboree,
Great Exuma is the place for me.
Unheralded in the song are a number of cays that typify the modern Exuma boom. One of these is Norman Cay, soon to be widely known, although at the moment its 11 miles of white, paved roads seem to lead nowhere from its 3,000-foot airstrip, one of three in all the Exumas. Norman is being developed by the enterprising William Wicoff Smith of Philadelphia. Today only Caretaker Al Watt and his wife, Grace, and a few native employees live on Norman, but there are more than 250 lots for sale here, ranging from¾ acre to five acres each. This land sells for up to $25,000 an acre. Twelve years ago Exuma land was only $2.80 an acre.
In time Norman will have swimming pools, golf courses and luxury homes. What it won't have is the automobile. Save for maintenance vehicles, only bikes and motorcycles will be allowed. Whoever buys on this island in the sun is going to find the flavor retained—or else.
Landing on Great Exuma, an island slightly smaller than New Providence, the flying tourist heads for George Town. This hardscrabble village appears to be not much to shout about. There is a square with an evergreen ficus tree, and leading from it narrow roads that wind among rude, half-finished native huts and stores of concrete block. Abandoned autos rest just off the road in a tangle of greens where goats are grazing.
But George Town has hidden charms and a not-so-hidden hysterical sporting bash—the Out Island Regatta. This Bahamian annual party has replaced the junkanoo as George Town's big celebration. Even Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, came to see the native Bahamian fishing boats compete in April 1959 in this celebration that Carleton Mitchell called "somewhat like transporting the Milwaukee Braves' bleachers to a tennis match at Wimbledon." In fact, a photo of H.R.H. hanging in the bar of the pink Club Peace & Plenty shows a cartoon balloon coming out of the royal mouth as Philip steps into the dusty George Town street. It reads, "But I thought the Wilmington crowd [the yachting Du Ponts] was here."
This is typical of the informal and irreverent atmosphere of George Town, where the bars have an honor system. You can make your own drink and enter it in a book. In the Peace & Plenty, if you let Manager Georges Franke make it, you'll drink a superb daiquiri under such ship nameplates washed ashore as Fascinating Bitch, Florence, Isle of June, Gulfmeadows, Old Horse Eye, and you will sleep in modern comfort, with the water of one of the world's most beautiful natural harbors lapping under your balcony. Prices are moderate here and also in the Two Turtles Inn and Pieces of Eight, two other good hotels whose bars comprise the rather provincial and limited nightlife of George Town.
In the daytime there is plenty to do. George Town has fantastic bonefishing on the nearby south flats, where the wily lighters come to feed at low tide, staying in the mangrove-studded shallows so long that their fins stick out of the water and they are in constant danger of being left high and dry. There is pigeon shooting in September and duck hunting in winter. Stocking Island is a short ride across the bay to what experts term the world's best shell beach, a pink, claylike sand awash with collector's items. Traveling through the bay in a Boston Whaler, only 10 minutes from your hotel you find deserted beaches with submerged and derelict houseboats, driftwood, white sandy bottoms for swimming and enough varied vegetation to provide respite from the sun just 25 to 30 feet back from the water. Most interesting is one large abandoned ketch with canned goods still in its galley.
The George Town native who would leave such largess untouched is a rather unique creature who refers to himself as "a British object." He is typified by Taxi Driver Stafford Ferguson, who picks up air travelers in a vintage Plymouth and wears his cap backward, Barney Old-field style. Asked, "Are you going to hold us up?" he smiled and said one word, "Yes." Queried about one hotel over another, he advised that one was "heavier." He meant more expensive. He also said, "The weather is lightning up" (getting better) and described the unusual heavy surf as "real surgy today." Touring, he pointed to a house owned by Theodore Roosevelt III, and said, "Dey de first to squat here."
"Fergy," like most Exuma natives, is smiling, dignified and placid.
Most likely his ancestors were brought to the Exumas as slaves, and the wonder is that his name is Ferguson, not Rolle. When the islands were emancipated in 1834, a certain Lord Rolle deeded all his lands to his slaves and their descendants in commonage. This explains why nearly half the population of Exuma proudly bears the surname of its benefactor. The George Town native watches the tourists with a smile, sees their amazement at his town's backwardness, notes their ill-concealed impatience for the cocktail hour and observes their odd vacation miseries—too much sun, too much exercise and too much unaccustomed gorging on fresh fish and hot rice dishes.
Though Great Exuma, unlike many Bahama islands, has a good water table and exports 100 tons a week of the famous onion that is emblazoned on the Exuma seal, there is nothing very lush about it. In fact, at times there is something so spare and hard about these coral reefs in their aqua seas that they remind one of Crete. As you travel the dusty roads, everyone has a greeting, as if every man's movement is a mute testimony to life itself, a reaffirmation that the greeter as well as the greeted lives and is not just a stone in the road.
Here the Out Islander who has never seen television and perhaps not even a movie—and many of them have never been to Nassau—speak knowingly of the astronauts launched from Cape Kennedy and heard talking plainly on car radios as they pass in outer space over the Bahamas tracking stations. Natives who never heard of Joe Namath, Elizabeth Taylor or Johnny Carson know all about Scott Carpenter and the Gemini twins.
In spite of George Town's lacks as a metropolis, it remains the natural trading center for Exumans, rich or poor. This includes multimillionaires who have bought whole islands for their own, such as Pickle King H. J. Heinz II and his socialite wife, Drue. Local legend has it that they paid Actor Hume Cronyn $1 million for the showplace of the Exumas, Children's Bay Cay.
The story is told with some relish of Mrs. Heinz's first trip from her new island to George Town. She had heard of a supermarket and wanted to go there. In George Town "supermarket" is a euphemism for a very small, ill-equipped general store. Standing inside it, Mrs. Heinz asked to be taken to the market. "This is it," she was told. She was very disappointed. "Well," she said, "in that case take me to George Town." It took some time to convince her that "this" was also "it."
Another time Mrs. Heinz went to George Town to pick up a fine Oriental rug. Learning that it was lying out on the dock in a downpour, or what the natives call "just a spry," she was horrified. "How could you leave it in the rain?" she asked. "Well, ma'am, we didn't have enough raincoats to cover it," said a guileless native.
In George Town dinner is frequently served by candlelight because the power has failed, and a flashlight by the bed is a good idea. Telephone service is erratic, and one's palate can be insulted by instant coffee, bottled lime juice and at times even frozen fish. But the charm is still there, especially when the trio sings Big Bamboo or Please Marry Me, Gloria in the garden under a star-studded sky at the Two Turtles. When asked, "Do you have this music every night?" a waiter smiles and says, "Yes [pause], sometimes."
Real-estate developments are booming on both Little Exuma and Great Exuma. On the former there is Bahama Island Beach, on the latter Bahama Sound. Many Europeans are attracted to Exuma land because the Bahamas are in the sterling bloc and there is no trouble transferring funds. For instance, 131 Swedes are coming this month to see the pig in a poke that they bought from Bahama Acres, Ltd. (One-quarter of an acre—$1,095 or more, $15 down, $15 a month.) Salesman Walter W. Wood says of the Frank Magnuson-owned development, "It's a military secret how much we have sold, but there is more than a million dollars' worth in Sweden alone." Mr. Wood is from Miami.
Basil Minns and his wife, Jane, who own Minns' Water Sports business, typify the white George Towner. Though they have had to send their children to Nassau for high school, Mrs. Minns says she would rather live there than any place. "You know, George Town is where the Temperate Zone and the Tropic Zone meet, right out there at the airport. There are about 300 people living in George Town, and when you suddenly get 150 tourists here, you sure notice it."
Sailing away from George Town and back up the cays, the perfect halfway stop is Staniel Cay, where supplies are sold, cottages are rented, a summer camp for the kids is operated and the Staniel Cay Yacht Club is run by two goateed gentlemen, Bob Chamberlain and Joe Hocher. They and their wives, who are sisters, are the only white people in this community of 80 natives. One of the latter is the best sailor in the Exumas—Regatta Champion Skipper Rolly Gray.
There is something infinitely satisfying about Staniel Cay in that it lives up to its first impression of picturesque rusticity. As you sail into the natural harbor, four thatched huts stand appropriately on the beach. The huts are new, but are intended to maintain an atmosphere of island romance. Their yacht club is also a thatched Polynesian-type building that Trader Vic could take over without redecorating. In front of it, just for laughs, stands a parking meter embedded in the cement. There are no roads or cars of any kind on Staniel Cay, and it may never develop much more than it has—there probably is not room enough to blast out an airstrip.
But Staniel Cay has everything for the layover visitor, including a trip to the very cave where part of Thunderball was filmed. At low tide even the devout coward may enter this weird, wonderful, rocky temple through two narrow cracks—daring types can swim in through three underwater openings. Once inside, there is a ledge to stand on or you can snorkel about to watch the colorful parrot fish snipping off pieces of coral with their fused, platelike teeth or to observe giant crabs crawling on the bottom. Small silver schools of fish flash by, their guanin bodies catching the sun that filters into the cave. Or Joe Hocher will take you diving to his special "icebox"—a secret hole where he catches the enormous Bahamian crayfish or langouste (clawless lobster) for a special evening's treat.
The natives visit on the dock near the gas tanks with Captain Crimmins, and when he says "fissioning" instead of "fishing" they laugh. "Cap'n, you getting to be just like one of we." There is much conversation about sharks, and the captain, who has chartered for 25 years in these waters, vows he has never seen one in white water in the daytime. "It's a different matter at night. I can always catch a shark right off the back of this boat then." Joe Hocher displays pictures of an 11-foot lemon shark caught in this very spot. Later he towed it underwater, pried open its fearsome jaws and anchored it near a reef. Then he took swimmers back to be photographed riding it, spearing it and looking scared to death.
Though Captain Crimmins keeps a copy of if hanging in his main salon and a corny sign announcing that he performs marriages for the duration of the voyage, he comes into his own when he talks seriously of the Exumas or tells what he knows of fish and sea lore. "I don't believe sharks attack people down here. There is too much for them to eat here naturally. Sharks only attack people off Australia or California or maybe the Atlantic coast when they are hungry. The only shark victims I've ever heard of here were both occasions where a swimmer got mixed up in a school of fish and a shark struck at the school."
So the next day, emboldened by the clear white water that shows all the way to the bottom, you dive off the boat atop the very spot where they caught the lemon. Or you drift up to look at the graceful hawksbill turtles swimming with birdlike turns in a tank near the Yacht Club. ("When they grow large enough," says Chamberlain, "we will eat one of them—the meat is delicious marinated in lime juice and sautéed in butter.") On the dock wonderful conversations always seem to be hanging in the air waiting to be overheard:
Man from Mississippi powerboat: "I guess you know where all these reefs are."
Native grinning: "I don't know where they all is, boss, but I know where a few of them ain't."
At night there may be a dancing party in the native nightclub, the Village Pink Pearl, where the electric-guitar band whoops it up for one and all, and the silk-shirted Mississippi ladies hang back shyly but are soon dancing with all the handsome young gleaming Staniel Cay fishermen to "freedom" songs played merengue style. Aside from the music, the night sounds are those of the sea and the generator—the two life-giving sources of Staniel Cay.
Your only pests here will be the invisible sand flies, or what the natives call no see'ums. Along with an occasional Kamikaze attack of mosquitos, for which one never seems to have the tobacco-scented insect repellent ready, no see'ums are about the only drawback to Staniel Cay, and indeed many islands of the Exumas and Bahamas. The sand fly bite, like the good old southern daggers', is indescribable, but the mark it leaves resembles the poor in that you seem to have it with you always. Sailing out of Staniel Cay past the coral formations that guard the harbor like humpbacked whales, you pick up a copy of The Bahamas Pictorial, a small newspaper with the slogan "Let us show these islands to the world" repeated in Latin: "Omnibus Has Insulas Demonstremus." Over your shoulder one of your shipmates, scratching wildly, quips, "You can say that again, but first let us show them to a good insect exterminator."
Captain Crimmins roars from the wheel, "No see'ums never killed anybody and anyway they only attack in a calm after a rain. This is very unusual."
With these "very unusual" tourist conditions ringing in your ears, you sail away from Staniel Cay. But it isn't no see'ums you remember; it is the sign hanging in the Pink Pearl bar: "Relax a while and live longer."
Exumas land, of limestone and coral, is nothing very special. But Exumas water, as seen from a low-flying Widgeon, is some of the most beautiful in the world.
In clear shallows Sunny Bippus porpoises near Staniel Cay's cottages.
These 365 cays run for 90 miles down the Gulf Stream. Nassau, 30 miles to the northwest of Highborne, is half an hour's flight, half a day's sail, but a tourist light-year away.
SHIP CHANNEL CAY
EXUMA CAYS LAND and SEA PARK
WARDERICK WELLS CAY
GREAT GUANA CAY
BIG FARMERS CAY
CHILDREN'S BAY CAY
ISLAND TRAVEL FACTS
GETTING THERE: The DC 3s of Bahamas Airways make the one-hour flight from Nassau to George Town every day but Thursday. Round-trip fare is $35.80. Bahamas Air Traders has a four-place Widgeon and a six-place Goose for charter, with pilots who know every Exuma cay. There are only three landing strips in all the Exumas, hut these amphibious planes can take you to the most remote islet and deposit you on the beach. Charge for the Widgeon is $94.50 per flying hour, the Goose $126. A flight to Staniel Cay in the Widgeon costs $126 for four people. Nassau Yacht Haven has a fleet of charter boats whose captains are Exuma specialists. Art Crimmins' Traveler II, a 68-foot Alden ketch that sleeps six with crew, goes for $1,200 per week. Food, drink, tips, fuel and dockage are extra on all charters. Captain John Weeks's Heron, a 52-foot Alden schooner, sleeps six guests for $900 per week, four for $700. Smaller sailboats are available for $500 per week for four. For the fisherman the Nassau Charter Boat Association, Box 1216, Nassau, Bahamas, lists 17 power cruisers equipped for Out Island cruising. Prices for cruisers in the 38-to 44-foot class average $80 per day or $500 per week, and most sleep four guests. Larger craft, sleeping six, go for from $800 to $1,400 a week.
STAYING THERE: There are only 75 tourist rooms in all the Exumas. The Staniel Cay Yacht Club has four thatched bungalows, each sleeping two. Rates are $35 for two, American plan. Meals are served in the yacht club, where Bob Chamberlain presides over a well-stocked bar and a well-stocked freezer (most Exuma meals come out of one). The exceptions are native specialties such as conch chowder, conch fritters and broiled crayfish and dolphin. Chamberlain will cook your catch.
In George Town the Peace & Plenty, right on the bay, has 32 rooms. Rates are $30 single, $50 double, full American plan. The Two Turtles Inn has an Out Island louvered charm. There are four double bedrooms at $15 per day for two, European plan, and efficiency apartments at $20. Newest George Town establishment is the motellike Pieces of Eight. A single is $20 per day, a double $32, full American plan. Minns' Water Sports rents bonefishing skiffs with guide, tackle and bait for $30 per day, and you-drive-it Boston Whalers for $25. Scuba gear is for hire in Staniel and George Town but you must have a diver's certificate. The Hawaiian sling is the only spear allowed.