Technicolor Dream

If you cruise the Bahamas looking for a laid-back respite, Staniel Cay is it.

Some of the best (and worst) cruising advice flows from fellow cruisers. Conversation usually starts with what a rarity good service is, then covers a few good sea stories and, finally, some favorite cruising destinations. This is how I found out about Staniel Cay.

While dining in St. Thomas last fall, I lamented an anticipated stopover in Georgetown in the Exuma Cays. I had been happy to make port after the first few times I stopped in the charming town. The services are good, there's a customs office and Georgetown is a great stop when headed for points south. That day in St. Thomas, my problem was not with Georgetown or the locals. My problem was with some fellow Americans and a fistful of Canadians who had infested the once paradisiacal settlement.

These people had developed a sort of freaky cruisers' theme park that includes potluck suppers, daily chat sessions and-it pains me to say it--game night. But what really makes Georgetown intolerable is that these same cruisers also formed their own militia, policing where others anchor and even claiming spots they had the year before. Indeed, I was told about a fellow who returned from shore to find his boat moved by another cruiser claiming "his spot." Apparently, a fight broke out and others joined the fray. My guess is they were releasing bottled up hostility from one too many Scrabble games.

It was then, amid my outward distaste for the upcoming stopover, that my friend Graham told me about Staniel Cay in the Northern Exumas. I soaked in every word.

"The people are great," he said. "The island is beautiful, and the whole place is laid-back."

I'm an easy sell and changed our itinerary.

Staniel is perfectly situated in the middle of the Exuma Cays, offering a great staging ground to explore the whole chain. You also can cruise north to Eleuthera and Nassau, or south to some of the outer islands.

Although our first few days on the island were marred by rain, Staniel and its people made a lasting impression. The small-town atmosphere and gentrified surroundings captured our souls.

"Hey, do you want to stay for another day?" That was I all I had to say. My crew quickly responded with a solid "yes." I asked the dockhand if it was a problem. "No, but it would be a problem if you left," he said in the hospitable attitude of Staniel Cay's people.

"We are all working together," said Solomon Robinson, owner of the Club Thunderball. To his thinking, adding more slips at his marina can only help the other two.

Heading north on the Exuma Sound, we chose Big Rock cut to make our way into Staniel. We followed the advice in the Yachtsman's Guide to the Bahamas by Thomas Daly (Tropic Isle Publications, 2001) and favored the north side of the cut. Once clear of the rocks, we turned south toward the yacht club, hugging the eastern side of the channel. You need to be savvy about determining the depth from the water's color, and the downpour in which we arrived made it difficult to judge. I briefly misread the color and left about an inch between our keel and the sand. Also, note the strong tidal current that rips through the area.

We arrived a few days after Thanksgiving. The island was still not at full throttle, and the Staniel Cay Yacht Club was the only marina open. During the high season, Club Thunderball is open with 11 moorings. New slips were under construction during our trip. The Happy People Marina has 17 slips and is south of the Yacht Club. There are also several good anchorages.

The Staniel Cay Yacht Club (it's not a yacht club, but a clever marketing gimmick) is the only facility with a fuel dock. Pastel cottages, sprinkled around the property like salt on a tropical margarita, are available for weekly rental and, combined with one of the fresh Boston Whalers, could make a fun getaway.

During our visit, the Yacht Club was also the only place open for dinner. I've never been blown away dining out in the Bahamas, except for an occasional fresh piece of fish. However, the food at the Yacht Club, combined with the vintage crackerjack ambience, creates a pleasant respite. Let the bartender know what you're going to eat by 5 p.m. because around 6:30, the dinghy dock begins to fill up as the herd makes its way to the trough. Our service was flawless, and the food was simple but fantastic.

If you're on the island during the season, be sure to go to Club Thunderball for the Friday barbecue. We were told it is a real event that requires reservations. You can bring your dinghy to the dock and enjoy the stunning view from Solomon's deck. There is a third restaurant at the Happy People Marina, where the food is recommended.

We drove our rented golf cart toward no particular destination, with no directions and no map. The only road sign we came across had two arrows and read, "This way. That way." We went "that way" and discovered spectacular coves with white flour-like beaches touching crystal water. We found a foundation of an old house that had formed tidal pools on the beach-idyllic for a picnic and dip.

A highlight of our trip was snorkeling into Thunderball Cave, made famous in the James Bond flick "Thunderball." Be sure to go at low water and wait for slack. The strong current should be avoided. The fish are used to being fed and will come right up to you, highlighted by the beams of sunlight shining through the cave to a Technicolor light show. You have to go under water through one of two entrances, but there is plenty of air space when you pop out.

What a way to finish our day at Staniel Cay. The town overflows with charm and great people. It's been a year since my brief stay, and I'm already planning my return. After all, it is better in the Bahamas.