Suspended heels over head, weightless, with no visual distinction between up and down, I was momentarily thrilled and unnerved all at once. As the wall of bubbles cleared from my mask, I could see the bottom of the big Novurania tender I had just rolled off of, framed between flippers where my feet could usually be found. Silver streams of exhausted air, accompanied by deep hollow breathing sounds, showed me the way up. A couple of lazy kicks brought me vertical, reference restored, and I glanced down through crystal clear Bahamian waters to the bottom 60 feet below, watching a reef shark glide lazily through the serpentine channels of the massive reef I was about to wind my way through.
Hanging there between the reflective surface above and the white sandy bottom below, I fidgeted with my mask but never took my eyes off the dark gray shape of the shark, watching to see if it took notice of my presence, or the presence of my fellow divers. Moving its tail slowly from side to side, showing no signs of curiosity about us, it eventually swam away in search of another reef to the west. We inverted quietly and, following the seaweed-draped mooring line stretched between the permanent mooring and the float on the surface placed by the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park rangers, descended to the coral-encrusted reef below that was teeming with vibrantly colored tropical fish of every size.
You can have your Champagne, caviar, foie gras and truffles-rarely does a luxury charter offer its guests an experience this thrilling. And while not every charter guest may be trained to enjoy underwater exploration beyond the shallower reefs ideal for snorkeling, for those who have completed a scuba diving course, a charter aboard a well-prepared, well-equipped and professionally staffed yacht like Baroness offers a new definition of sunken treasure. When you add in the ability to satisfy a group of up to eight guests with grand cuisine, varied water sports and an excellent knowledge of on-land sights to see, the question becomes why wouldn't you want to have dive capability?
I joined Baroness in Nassau last March for a three-day sojourn to the Exuma Cays, along with LeAnn Morris Pliske from the Sacks Group, Gina Robertson from the Yachtstore, and Tim Nelson from Seven Seas-all charter agents who, like me, came to experience this fabulous 121-foot Crescent motoryacht firsthand, to meet the crew and sample the delights future charter parties would enjoy. Kathleen Allen, the charter operations manager for International Yacht Collection, which counts Baroness among a bevy of luxurious charter motoryachts ranging up to 228 feet, was our host, working quietly behind the scenes to ensure that our cruise would be flawless.
We were underway almost as soon as everyone was aboard, luggage was stowed and crew introductions were made. Sitting on the aft deck on the plush, upholstered bench behind a beautiful wooden table under the protection of an extended boat deck, we watched with delight as the water, slipping past on either side, changed color continuously. April Kern, our enthusiastic stewardess, happily made drinks to order and helped serve lunch-couscous salad with feta, tomato, cucumber and roasted red peppers accompanied by shrimp sautéed in butter and wine, plus a side of roasted eggplant in roasted red pepper sauce. Dessert was fresh coconut ginger ice cream garnished with a passion fruit purée, raspberry sauce and a lemon pizzelle wafer. The wonderful contrasts in tastes and textures aroused our collective curiosity about dinner.
Trish Lafferty, our chef, learned to prepare contemporary American and European dishes at resorts in Colorado, then honed her Pacific Rim "fusion cuisine at the five-star Maui Prince Resort, as well as the Five Palms Beach Grill in Wailea. An avid diver and instructor, she taught scuba diving by day and cooked by night while living in Hawaii. She describes herself as passionate about sailing, has logged over 70,000 sea miles and roughly 5,000 dives, and had cooked aboard sailing and motoryachts for over a dozen years before joining Baroness last year. With the sort of resumé that combines the talents of James Bond, Joshua Slocum and Bobby Flay, Lafferty exemplifies the charter ideal.
After lunch, we scattered throughout the yacht. Some headed for the plush couches in the comfortable, contemporary Asian-themed saloon-a restful space graced with sapele mahogany, ebony accents and stunning views. I climbed the spiral staircase from the aft deck to the flying bridge helm, where Capt. Matt Hedrick was keeping a watchful eye on the waters ahead, altering course now and then to avoid coral heads that rose like wicked fingers from the seemingly safe waters. Turning the con over to Josh Cunningham, the affable mate who had greeted us on the dock and made our baggage disappear into our staterooms, Capt. Hedrick led me into the pilothouse and showed me on the charts where we would dive and where we would stay overnight. A certified diving instructor, Capt. Hedrick spent about 18 years in the waters of Southeast Asia and the western Pacific Rim, commanding vessels and conducting charters and dive trips of all kinds. As the captain of Baroness ever since her commissioning, he has taken her from Florida to Maine, spending much of the winter in the Bahamas on charter.
After asking about the diving background, medical history and skill level of all those who wanted to do more than snorkel, Capt. Hedrick chose to lead the first dive to a reef in 20 feet of water just north of Highbourne Cay, our first night's destination. Baroness is well equipped with wet suits, masks and fins, and tanks harnessed in comfortable vests incorporating buoyancy compensators (BCs). Our first dive was almost flawless, although I had underestimated the amount of weight necessary to achieve neutral buoyancy and initially spent too much time inflating and deflating the BC. Capt. Hedrick spotted the problem immediately and added weight to my vest, after which I spent a pleasant hour cruising the reef.
Dinner on the aft deck did not disappoint. Local grouper with a mango salsa lent a Bahamian air, accompanied by plantains with pecans sautéed in maple flavor and brandy, coconut ginger rice, and sugar snap peas. Dessert was pineapple coconut layer cake with sweet cream cheese frosting. (And Trish Lafferty was only getting warmed up: The curried chicken salad she created for lunch the next day was sharply spicy, partnered with a mango chutney that calmed the taste buds before the heat struck.)
The next morning we moved farther south, into pristine Exuma Land and Sea Park, a 22-mile long preserve where yachtsmen may visit, snorkel, and explore but never fish, take lobsters or collect creatures, plants, or shells. We got permission to land on a beach near the north end of the island, where the Baroness crew produced an instant beach party, complete with a portable sunshade, horseshoes and bocci ball gear, and a well-stocked ice chest. It was heavenly.
Dinner on the aft deck after dark was a pleasing contrast: candlelight glanced off gleaming china; chilled Caribbean lobster on a bed of fresh local greens was followed by grilled giant Tiger prawns from Thailand, stuffed with crabmeat, sautéed zucchini and yellow squash. The piè ce de résistance was a lemon curd tart that ranks in my top five taste experiences.
Retiring to the boat deck we took turns identifying stars, planets and constellations. No one wanted to go below, knowing that the morrow would find us here, or on the bow, or lounging on the aft deck, watching the pink towers of Atlantis grow taller and our time together shorter. Every moment above and below the water had been memorable-a treasure indeed.
Contact: International Yacht Collection, (888) 213-7577 or email@example.com; or any charter broker.