For many people, the Bahamas is the ideal vacation spot. From bright blue waters and soft white sand beaches to all-inclusive resorts and ice-cold pina coladas, it’s easy to fall in love with this beautiful island chain.
Because of the Caribbean’s relaxing vibes, most people want to book a hotel and sit on the beach for a week, which I understand entirely. The first trip that sparked Layton’s and my travel bug was that exact trip. However, three years and a few countries later, I’m here to tell you that these traditional vacations aren’t the best way to visit the Bahamas.
Recently, I spent a few days cruising the Exuma, Bahamas on a catamaran with The Moorings Yacht Charter. From snorkeling a plane crash, free diving, and docking for happy hours on private islands, I can 100% promise you that this is the way to experience the Bahamas. The best part about sailing is you experience more than one location, allowing you to get a real taste of the islands.
If you want to see the best of the Bahamas and are willing to step outside the resort comfort zone, then be sure to check out some of these incredible Exuma islands and cays!
Not to be confused with Allen Cay, Allan Cay with an ‘a’ is located between Ship Channel Cay and Highborne Cay. If you’re sailing from Nassau, it is one of the first islands you will pass on your journey.
What makes Allan Cay unique are the fearsome-looking, yet gentle northern Bahamian rock iguanas found on Iguana Beach. There are a few other places to spot these friendly lizards, including Allen Cay and Leaf Cay. But because of those islands proximity to Georgetown, they are typically overrun with tourist. At Allan Cay, expect maybe two dingy boats ashore with a max of five people on each.
If you want to get close to the iguanas, entice them with some fruits or veggies. But remember to be cautious when interacting with them. These iguanas are endangered and protected by Bahamas law. So let them come to you, and do not handle them.
Note: I read somewhere that the iguanas are being overfed fruit, which is affecting their health. So if you want to feed them, try to stick with veggies like lettuce.
Highborne Cay is the perfect place to stay overnight due to the high number of activities around the island.
On land, you can grab a bite to eat at hilltop restaurant where the ocean breeze and beautiful views are abundant. You also have the option to head to the cleaning station on the docks where you will see dozens of nurse sharks swimming below. While you may want to swim with these sharks, don’t. I was told by a local the sharks might bite since they are hungry and waiting for scraps from fishers. Even though a nurse shark has a small mouth, they still can puncture the skin and blood from that would alert a much bigger shark nearby. If you want to swim with sharks, head to Compass Cay where the sharks are accustomed to humans and fed before each encounter. I’ll talk about this more in a later section!
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can kayak and snorkel at Horseshoe Bay’s uninhabited beach, which is home to the “Octopus Garden” reef. Below the surface, you will see many different kinds of fish, coral reefs, sponges, and maybe an octopus! Also, near the island are stromatolites which are living relatives of Earth’s oldest reefs (1-2 billion years old). These Bahamian stromatolites are the only ones currently growing in open ocean conditions.
Norman’s Cay is famous for being the headquarters of Carlos Lehder, who was part of the Medellin Cartel. From the late ’70s and early ’80s, this little cay was the stopping point for drug transportation between Colombia and the US. Today, ruins of Carlos Lehder’s headquarters are a popular tourist destination along with a plane crash a few hundred feet offshore. Both reside on the Southwest point of the island.
Snorkeling at the sunken plane was one of the highlights! Some believe it was a drug-running plane that crashed due to a heavy load while others say it was an appliance company that crashed due to mechanical failures. Regardless of the truth, it’s still a cool place to snorkel! What once was an object flying high in the sky has now become the natural habitat for the marine life around Norman’s Cay.
After snorkeling, take the dingy to and shore enjoy the gorgeous white sand beach or grab lunch at MacDuff’s Restaurant. Nestled between MacDuff’s Cottages, this restaurant offers a blend of contemporary and Bahamian dishes in a mellow, rustic-chic environment. Make sure to try the conch burger. It’s to die for!
Shroud Cay is an uninhabited archipelago connected by shallow saltwater rivers and mangroves. The mangroves and sheltered coves offer refuge to various marine life such as crawfish, sharks, conch, lobster, sea turtles, and more. So if you’re interested in snorkeling, this is one spot you should not miss.
What makes Shroud Cay unique is the ‘washing machine.’ Near one of the estuaries (tidal mouth of a large river), you can jump in, and the current will wash you out towards the ocean. The current isn’t strong enough to cause any harm or leave you stranded at sea. Think of it like a calm, lazy river ride at a waterpark but on a Caribbean island. Click here to see a video of the ‘washing machine.’
For those who love to hike, start at Camp Driftwood Beach and hike up to the highest point of the island for the most beautiful lookout. Alternatively, you can walk to the mangroves and explore the freshwater springs at the western end of the mangrove creek.
Warderick Wells Cay
The main reason why you need to visit Warderick Wells Cay is for the 176-square-mile Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park – the largest underwater sea park in the Caribbean. The entire park extends from Rocky Dundas to Little Wax Cay. The park was created in 1958 and was the first one in the world. Also, it is the first “no-take reserve” park in the wider Caribbean, meaning all fishing is prohibited. With this law intact, marine life is abundant. Scuba diving and snorkeling are both popular along with hiking the 20 marked nature trails and relaxing on any 20 of the secluded beaches.
If you’ve come to the Bahamas to get in touch with your inner pirate, head to the southern tip of Warderick Wells Cay and explore the Pirates Lair. This campsite used to be the hideout for real pirates, equipped with a freshwater well, fire pit, and area for keeping goods. Due to its hidden location, it was the perfect place to rest and hideout during storms without risking an attack from fellow pirates or naval ships.
Another ‘must-see’ on the island is the 52-foot sperm whale skeleton in front of the Park Visitor Center. Over the last couple of years, three sperm whales have died from the trash in the water and washed up onshore at Warderick Wells Cay. Out of those three, they preserved this one to remind people to conserve and keep trash out of the water.
Remember: The Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park believe in “take only photos, leave only footprints” and that is motto they encourage visitors to respect. So don’t take any coral, shells, or wildlife with you when you leave, and do not leave anything you brought with you behind on the island.
Swimming with sharks is at the top of everyone’s list who visit the Exumas. While you can see nurse sharks anywhere in the Exumas, the best place to swim with these fantastic creatures is at Compass Cay.
The nurse sharks at Compass Cay are wild, meaning they come and go as they please. It may seem scary to swim with a 4-foot shark, but these are harmless. Nurse sharks are more like huge catfish. They are ‘bottom feeders’ and prefer sucking small creatures and sediments from the ocean floor over fish or people. Plus, at Compass Cay, they are regularly fed and have become accustomed to human interaction. In fact, you can stroke these nurse sharks and swim alongside them.
Tip: Do not try to feed the sharks or put your hand near their mouth. While their mouths are small, they still have teeth, and if your hand is too close, they may think it’s food and bite. There are no recorded fatalities and very few attacks from nurse sharks but stay on the safe side.
If you’d rather admire these sharks from afar, that’s okay as well! The Compass Cay Marina is one of the most picturesque parts of the island and a great place to enjoy the view.
Big Major Cay or Pig Beach
There are a lot of ‘Reasons Why You Need To Visit The Exumas,’ and the swimming pigs of Big Major Cay are one of them.
Big Major Cay, also known as pig beach, is an uninhabited island populated by a colony of feral pigs. Over the last couple of years, these pigs have become an international sensation featured on T.V. shows like The Bachelor, magazines, and social media sites. For this reason, it is the most crowded tourist location in all of the Exuma, Bahamas.
Tip: If you go with a tour company, you will be stuck on the beach with hundreds of other tourists trying to get photos with the pigs. Plus, the tours only give you 20 minutes on the beach. That means all your time is wasted fighting for the shot instead of living in the moment. The best way to visit Pig Beach is by chartering your own boat as I did with The Moorings Yacht Charters. With your ship, you choose when you want to take your dingy to shore to avoid the crowds and how long you stay. Scroll to the bottom to learn more!
However, if a tour company is the only way you can see these animals, then, by all means, do it! You won’t regret seeing these bizarre pigs swim towards your boat in the most turquoise, clear water.
While Staniel Cay is one of the larger islands within the Exuma Cays, it is still quite small. The island itself is less than 2 square miles in area and has a population of less than 90 full-time residents. However, regardless of size, it has an airport, church, post office, library, 14 bungalows, three small retail shops, an 18-slip marina, a marine supply store, and a yacht club. All of these amenities make the island a perfect pit stop for most travelers in the region.
I spent most of my time on the island at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club. During the day, most people will sit outside on the patio and enjoy some food while looking out over the marina, but at night, the party begins. Once the sun goes down, the bar quickly fills up with locals, sailors, and tourists alike all looking to have some fun. The relaxed atmosphere of the bar along with delicious $12.70 mango daiquiris put you in the island mood. Everyone I met at the Yacht Club seems to be living their best life, and at that very moment, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was too. Every time I reflect on my time at Staniel Cay, I can’t help but smile and dream about the next time I’ll be back.
Staniel Cay is also close to Pigs Beach at Major Cays and the famous Thunderball Grotto (which I will cover next). These are two main tourist attractions located in the Exumas so many ships end up at Staniel Cay. If you want, you could easily spend two days exploring the island and the surrounding areas.
Just west of Staniel Cay is an amazing underwater cave system known as Thunderball Grotto. This cavern has been the backdrop for the two James Bond films Thunderball and Never Say Never Again, and for a good reason.
From the outside, it looks like any other small island. But once you swim into the cave, a completely different world awaits. Inside, is a large hallow cavern with holes in the ceiling where sun rays shine down, piercing the water below. Colorful fish glisten below the surface as the beams of light reflect off their scales, and beautiful coral lines the bottom of the cave. Being inside Thunderball Grotto is like being inside your very own Caribbean snowglobe.
Thunderball Grotto is also for thrill-seekers. You can climb the outside of the grotto to the ceiling and jump 40 ft down into the water below. The first time I visited this place, I was too scared. But during my sailing trip with The Moorings, I decided to overcome my fears! If you’re interested, click here to watch me jump.
Tip: If you want to make this jump, be sure to bring along water shoes. The island is made from dead, sharp coral and will cut your feet without proper footwear.
Big Farmer’s Cay (Sandbar)
What makes Big Farmer’s Cay special is the Mile-long Sandbar situated south of the cay.
The Mile-Long Sandbar, aka Big Farmer’s Cay Sandbar, is a beautiful stretch of white sand that is accessible during low tide. Since it’s not as popular or well known as some other attractions in Exuma, you may even get the entire sandbar to yourself! But even if you’re not alone, it is big enough for everyone to enjoy.
While on the sandbar, have a picnic, take a stroll, or sunbathe. And remember that in a few hours, the entire sandbar will submerge below the surface until the next low tide. It’s one of the most surreal places in the Exumas.
While Rose Island isn’t technically part of the Exumas, most people sailing out of Nassau will have the opportunity to stop by, so I decided to include it!
Rose Island is an 11-mile paradise that has four amazing beaches—First Beach, MacTaggart’s Beach, Footprints Beach, and Sandy Toes.
Tip: If you go to Footprints Beach, check out the Footprints Beach Bar & Grill! They are so hospitable and genuinely made us feel like part of the family. The food was delicious, the drinks were refreshing, and the music was on fire!
There are also some incredible snorkeling spots around the island, including a sea turtle cove! I don’t know the exact location (ask a captain or local), but I saw a bale of eight sea turtles! During past snorkeling experiences, turtles seem to quickly swim away due to the noise coming from other people or boats. However, that wasn’t the case for me at Rose Island. I went snorkeling alone and was able to swim alongside them. Just for a moment, it felt as if I was part of their family.
What Is The Best Way To Visit These Exuma Islands And Cays?
Charter a boat.
As I said in the beginning, most people opt for all-inclusive resorts. However, they won’t see much of the Exumas. If you charter a ship with The Moorings, you can visit all of these islands and do it in style!
During our voyage, we had the opportunity of sailing on The Moorings Crewed 5800 Master. This ten-person catamaran is equipped with six cabins, seven toilets, a kitchen, dining table, a full entertainment center, audio input wired to speakers throughout the boat, an outdoor dining area, netting at the front of the ship for sunbathing, a flybridge (second story) with lounge seating, a table, wet bar, and grill, and most importantly air conditioning. This ship has everything!
Oh, and did I mention we had our very own captain and chef??? Having the ship crewed is a must! I have no idea how to sail, or quite frankly how to cook, so having those things taken care of by professionals allowed everyone on board to relax and enjoy themselves. And if you’re interested in sailing the ship, The Moorings has courses through Offshore Sailing. In no time you’ll earn an official US Sailing Certification and the confidence to captain your next charter vacation.
What I loved most about my trip to the Bahamas with The Moorings was the ability to create my vacation. By this, I mean the days we wanted to relax, that’s exactly what we did. When we were feeling adventurous, we swam with sharks and cliff jumped. I’m used to a strict itinerary while traveling in order to maximize my time in each destination. But when you’re sailing on the high seas, you just go with the flow.