Best of the Exumas

There are 365 cays in the Exumas. Here are three you shouldn't miss.

I can't imagine what the first European explorers arriving in the Exumas must have felt. Today, the beauty of the island chain moves the soul of even jaded Bahamas cruisers. In the icy blue iridescent shimmer of these waters, the bottom never seems out of reach. The crown jewel of the Exumas is the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.

The Exumas share the rather eclectic history of the Bahamas. Lucayan Indians inhabited the area until Columbus' arrival led to their demise. Pirates exploited the hidden anchorages, and British loyalists grew cotton in its thin soil. Watermen tried their hand at running blockades during the Civil War and rum during Prohibition. A crashed cargo plane at Norman's Cay is a reminder of the area's drug-smuggling days. While Exumians still farm and fish, tourism has become the centerpiece of the economy. Even so, compared to other Bahamian destinations, the 365 cays of the Exumas are pleasantly free of tourist clutter.

American yachts typically approach from the north, leaving Nassau for the run (about 30 miles) across Yellow Bank to Highbourne Cay-the first inhabited island in the chain. Yellow Bank can be avoided, and the choice of doing so depends on your vessel's draft and the lighting conditions. In the Exumas, as in all the Bahamas, it is best to rely on your eyes and to have charts handy. "Explorer Chartbooks have excellent coverage of the area. All the marinas mentioned can handle vessels of more than 100 feet in length, but it is important to consider your draft-call ahead or check with the dockmaster on channel 16.

Highbourne Cay is hard to miss, as it rises more than 100 feet above sea level-a mountain by Bahamian standards. Once a haven for freed slaves, the island has ruins on the northern end that date back to the plantation period. Privately owned since the 1950s, Highbourne has long been a favorite haunt of experienced yachtsmen. New owners have tastefully improved the facilities and kept the atmosphere low-key. The marina accommodates more than 25 vessels. A small store has basic supplies, and the dock office has beer and ice. Fuel is available, too. While there is no restaurant, calling "Cool Runner on channel 16 resulted in the timely delivery of one of the finest home-cooked meals I have ever enjoyed in the Bahamas-make sure to ask for peas and rice.

The 500-acre island is impeccably managed and spotless. There are just a handful of private residences, including the homes of those who care for the island. The hilltop views and white sand beaches are first class, and the unspoiled scrub is home to a colorful variety of birdlife that is native to the region. Nearby Allan's Cay is home to the protected Rock Iguana. Be advised, they are not shy! Highbourne Cut offers easy access to Exuma Sound for offshore fishing-remember to respect the park boundaries.

Heading south, it's an easy run on the bank or offshore, thanks to the Exumas many deep-water cuts. Compass Cay is just outside the park boundary on the south side of Conch Cut. The well-protected marina has recently been expanded and has 13 slips. A scenic trail leads to a beautiful beach mid-island. A small boutique has basic supplies and gifts. A three-bedroom lodge and two apartments are offered on a weekly basis ($1,550-$1,850). The lodge comes with a 13-foot Boston Whaler.

Nearby Sampson Cay has no settlement, but it has been popular with yachtsmen since the 1960s. The new owners of the Sampson Cay Club have expanded the facilities without compromising the natural beauty of the island. The marina is brand-new, accommodates 35 vessels and has fuel. The water dockside is as clear as a swimming pool, and the buildings and landscaping are flawlessly maintained. There is a small well-stocked store and a casual restaurant and bar that is open to marina guests for lunch and dinner. Several villas and cottages, including the "tower house (an Exuma landmark), are available to guests at prices of $200 per night or $1,200-$8,000 per week, including water toys. A club launch provides transportation to the nearby settlement of Staniel Cay, where you will find a medical clinic, a church, basic supplies and an airport.

For years yachtsmen have found a friendly welcome at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club. Its marina has space for 18 vessels, and fuel is available. Shore-side facilities include a new pool and a restaurant/bar that has more character and characters than you will find anywhere in the islands. The newly renovated cottages and new suites are priced from $110-$225 per day and $670-$1,400 per week. Packages including food, golf carts and skiffs are also offered. Make sure to visit nearby Thunderball Cave. With mask and snorkel, movie buffs will have no trouble recalling the underwater scene from the James Bond classic. It is a tradition to visit Big Major's Spot and feed the not-so-wild hogs.

Take my word for it, the Exumas have the loveliest water in the world. Better yet, don't take my word for it-head south and check it out for yourself!

The Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park

Established in 1958 and managed by the Bahamas National Trust, the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park is a 176-square-mile swath of paradise that extends from Wax Cay Cut in the north approximately 22 miles south to Conch Cut. The park is a major spawning ground for sea creatures and includes more than a dozen large cays, as well as a portion of the reefs and subtropical waters of Exuma Sound and the Great Bahama Bank. There is no significant commercial development within the park, and the only inhabited islands are privately owned. Those who wish to visit the park will enjoy some of the most visually dazzling anchorages in the Bahamas. It is important to be aware of the rules-if you have any questions, check with park headquarters on Warderick Wells for details-call Exuma Park on channel 16. Mooring buoys at Warderick Wells are available, however, it is best to call ahead-no more than two days in advance. Mooring fees are based on vessel size and range from $15-$100. Mooring assignments are made every morning at 0900 on channel 16. The park headquarters has a small museum and gift shop. Visitors are encouraged to join the "support fleet by making a donation.