In an article I wrote several years ago about Staniel Cay in the Exumas, I gave a slight dig to George Town, Great Exuma. It wasn't that I disliked the serene paradise, charming village, nearby deserted beaches or hospitable residents. No, my gripe was based on a handful of cruisers who flocked to George Town each year, parked their boats and organized their own little society, casting a wary eye at new arrivals, especially those who cruise sans mast.
However, if I formed my sole impression based on a few harsh stares and words from people who are probably just as grumpy back home, I would have lost out on the friendly people, family atmosphere and paradisiacal settlement of George Town. My eyes opened during subsequent trips, and I came to appreciate why cruisers flock to this Exuma settlement.
One reason George Town is so popular with cruisers is its location at the southern end of the Exumas in the Bahamas. The chain of 365 islands lies southeast of Nassau and stretches more than 100 miles, running northwest to southeast. These out islands, referred to by Bahamians as the Family Islands, are a pleasing contrast to the buzz and glamour of Nassau.
George Town often is the turnaround stop for cruisers from the East Coast of the United States who have spent the season meandering south through the chain. For many, though, George Town is a winter haven, a primary destination. Some cruisers drop the hook in November and don't leave until May. Also, yachts heading to and from the Caribbean often use George Town as a jumping-off point. It's a convenient destination to restock, refuel and refresh, though recent marina developments in Clarence Town, Long Island, now provide options farther south.
It's true the entrance to Elizabeth Harbour (the body of water surrounding George Town) has its challenges, but it's not quite as daunting as some cruising guides may lead you to believe. The main issue at Conch Cay Cut is the lack of fixed navigational aides, so you have to rely on eyeball navigation. Some cruising guides provide waypoints for the various stages. These should be used as a general guide only-by no means should you make the entrance on autopilot. The better cruising guides provide a step-by-step description. If you are still apprehensive, call a guide. The first time I entered the cut we had no visibility due to a squall, so I used a guide and had my crew videotape our entrance for future reference. It helped the following year.
Elizabeth Harbour has several anchoring options, but expect challenges during the season as 300-plus boats jockey for position. I actually had a couple tell me I was in their spot while we were nestled in a cove off Stocking Island. Apparently, each year they cruised from Canada to George Town and dropped the hook in the same spot. During the man's tantrum, he even showed me the waypoint to prove it and demanded I leave.
If you would prefer to tie up, Exuma Docking Services has 35 berths and is the only game in town. Fuel, fresh water, ice and laundry are available. The marina answers to "Sugar One" on channel 16.
A benefit generated from the large population of transient cruisers is the Cruisers Net. It begins broadcasting each morning at 8:10 on channel 16 and then switches over to 68. A wide range of topics is covered, and there is some good information for new arrivals.
I generally get a little freaked out by organized activities, but it's worth your while to put out the welcome mat. If you're cruising with kids, this is especially true.
George Town is home to about 900 people, and the core of the settlement wraps around Lake Victoria. One place that can't be missed is the Peace & Plenty, located in town. The restaurant and hotel have an unspoiled view of the harbor, and there is a special charm about the property, especially the bar area. I was waiting for Bogart to appear in a white linen suit, wiping the sweat off his brow and looking for a cold one. Sitting with a refreshment at the pool as the sun dips below the horizon is tough to beat. Stanley and Jeanne Benjamin have owned the place for many years. They also operate the nearby Peace and Plenty Beach Inn and the Peace and Plenty Bonefish Lodge, 10 miles east of town. The lodge has a shuttle service, tasty Bahamian cuisine and professional bonefishing guides. For a casual beach day, check out their Beach Club on Stocking Island, across the harbor.
As the sun goes down, a mellow yawn is cast over George Town as residents and visitors stroll the streets at island pace, meandering into watering holes and looking for some good vittles. Pockets of conversation flow through the tropical air. One night, we followed a rather loud chatter and found the Two Turtles Inn. This centrally located bar and restaurant (it also has a few rooms for rent) is a popular meeting spot and does a brisk bar business. A cook sipping a Kalik on a nearby barstool examined our windblown hair and salt-soaked skin, and intuitively understood our need for red meat and starch. Without a word, he sneaked back to the kitchen and cooked up a steak feast. We never saw a menu; he just brought out a home-cooked meal with all the trappings and proceeded to sit down and eat with us. What a treat.
Be sure to make your way to Volleyball Beach and take the time to enjoy the rough charm of the Chat and Chill, but don't bother bringing shoes. The name says it all: It's a great place to meet fellow cruisers in the afternoon and enjoy a few beers, delicious ribs, chicken, burgers and conversation.
Although the ambience of George Town is tough to beat, the beauty of Great Exuma and Little Exuma outside of town is inspiring. Rent a car or scooter and get lost exploring. We found some gorgeous bays and deserted beaches. It is tough to find a better perch to clear your head, forget about things for a while and just relax. A great lunch stop is the Club La Shante, about 12 miles east of George Town at Forbes Hill. It sits on an awesome bay with crystal clear water and a flour-like beach. Club La Shante has guestrooms and a restaurant open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
A lot of the beauty of the Exumas is said to be under the water, and there are spots around George Town that certainly live up to this reputation. The Angelfish Blue Hole is close to Stocking Island and has a variety of vibrant colors and sea life. Exuma Dive Centre and Water Sports has trips for all levels, including some spectacular wall dives.
If you want a real treat, time your arrival with the Annual Family Island Regatta, held in April. Scores of locally built boats, representing each of the major islands of the Bahamas, converge on Elizabeth Harbour. The five-day event is filled with racing, crafts, parties and a host of events.
I'm glad I looked past a few overbearing cruisers and discovered why they have gravitated to this special island. If you are planning an Exumas cruise, make sure you add George Town to your list.
Just don't anchor in my spot.