For many people
(or at least for me), the array of islands that make up the Caribbean Sea, West Indies, and The Bahamas can be difficult to keep straight. “The Bahamas are not part of the Caribbean,” my colleague and shipmate for the week, Peter Swanson, reminds me for the umpteenth time since I stepped off the plane. I have just arrived in steamy Nassau on New Providence Island by way of Atlanta and Seattle. I am about to spend five August days exploring the Bahamian island chain called The Exumas. To many that read this magazine, the Exuma Cays are old hat (and you don’t have to be reminded that it is pronounced “keys”). But to someone like me from the Pacific time zone whose tropical vacations are usually spent on the less farflung beaches of Maui or Mazatlán, they are a whole new world.
Leaving the airport, my cab driver weaves a well-worn path through Nassau’s maze of roundabouts, avoiding trinket-shopping cruise-ship tourists like he’s in perfect control of a video game. Reggae music beats softly on the radio, and he’s driving casually, with one hand on the wheel and one elbow out the window. Forty minutes later we arrive at Paradise Island’s Atlantis resort. The resort is built on property once owned by Merv Griffin, and it opened for business in 1998 after four years of construction. The marina, hotel, condos, aquarium, casino, and luxury golf course that comprise the resort all feel like something torn from Walt Disney’s playbook. Atlantis is a place where words like “aquaventure” are invented—and if we’re lucky, it’s where these words stay. Twenty years on, the resort seems like it could use a fresh coat of paint, so I don’t mind that Peter and our two other shipmates are itching to untie the lines and get motoring.
But first we get the rundown on our charter vessel from Robin Cartwright, the station chief of The Moorings office here in Nassau. The Moorings, a well-known vacation charter outfit with outposts from Croatia to Tonga, has offered us a 51-foot powercat for the week, and Robin takes care to walk us through the ship’s systems and minor idiosyncrasies. She also offers itinerary suggestions so we can make the best use of our limited time. Even Peter, the only one of us who has cruised these waters before (on his 30-foot ketch, “ages ago,” as he says), finds Robin’s advice useful. Once finished, we bid farewell for our first leg, a three-hour cruise across Exuma Sound.
The Exuma Cays resemble splotches of ink dribbled on a chart. They follow the shelf of the Exuma Bank, a shallow plateau that falls off suddenly into the Atlantic on the windward side of the cays. As we steam across the sound at what we determine to be an economical cruise of 12 knots, Peter explains that the bank is the reason for extreme currents in and around the islands: “Imagine a plate submerged under an inch of water; if you were to raise that plate, all the water would fall off very quickly at the exact same time.” The seemingly strange tidal patterns make a lot more sense when he puts it like that.
“An island for every day of the year,” travel brochures boast of The Exumas. And if time allowed, we could have started from Grand Exuma, the southernmost point of the cays where you’ll find the capital city of George Town. Sailing for roughly 80 miles north-northwest, we would have passed 364 individual cays and islets on our way to the northernmost point, Ship Channel Cay. But checking off all 365 islands was not on our itinerary this time.