Bahamas Out Islands
I thought I knew what to expect before I pointed my airplane eastward from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for the short over-water flight to the small island country of the Bahamas. Indeed, the unspoiled beaches, rustic resorts, and clear blue water did not disappoint. But the overwhelming impression I came away with—one that sets the Bahamas apart from many other destinations—is the friendliness of the people.
Bahamas Out Islands
By John T. Kounis. Aerial photos by George A. Kounis.
From the bustling streets of Nassau, with its casinos and expansive resorts, to isolated coves and uninhabited islands, the Bahamas is a diverse country. This trip focused on the more remote and laid-back Out Islands, where the pace is slower and people don’t lock their doors at night. It’s the kind of place where kids on bicycles wave as they ride past, drivers stop to offer directions if you appear lost, and the police chief sits down to share a soda with you in a restaurant.
Rick Gardner, a Bahamian native and member of the Bahamas General Aviation council, and his wife, Pia Hilbert, operate Caribbean Sky Tours, a company that conducts escorted flying tours of the Bahamas and Mexico, and offers vacation planning services for solo travelers to the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America. Rick traveled the islands extensively by boat while growing up on New Providence Island. Drawing on his expertise, he planned the itinerary for me and my brother George, concentrating on his favorite out-of-the-way places, many of which he has visited since childhood. He also escorted us in his Cessna 337 Skymaster. Caribbean Sky Tours, 786/206-6147.
A week before the trip, Rick emailed me a trip plan with a nav log and route maps built by Jeppesen FliteStar and RMS Flitesoft, as well as a daily itinerary. We would meet at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, brief, and then depart for the Bahamas as a flight of two aircraft. This was my first over-water flight where I was in sight of another airplane the entire time, and seeing Rick’s Skymaster 30 feet away was certainly comforting. Along the way, Rick gave George and me a crash course on Bahamian phrases that would prove useful during our trip. “Skylarkin” means to goof off and “tingum” is any object, which would be loosely translated as a “thingamajig.” Unlike the period, which is silent at the end of English sentences, all Bahamian sentences end with “mon”—mon.
Our route took us across the Nassau Terminal Control Area (TCA), the larger of the two control areas in the Bahamas. The controller was working a couple of frequencies, transmitting nonstop to IFR traffic and making handoffs so quickly that we couldn’t get a word in edgewise for our initial VFR call. We actually penetrated about 10 nm into the TCA before establishing contact, but the controller seemed unconcerned; he simply approved our transition and asked us to report 10 nm past Nassau on the way out. After leaving Nassau behind, we continued down the Exumas chain of islands. The farther we flew, the sparser the traffic became and the more idyllic the scene below us.
Our first stop in the Bahamas was on the 80-mile-long, aptly named Long Island. The difference between the coastlines on each side of the island was apparent as we flew south to Stella Maris, our destination 7 nm from the northern tip. Mangroves and white sand beaches against a backdrop of the shallow, light blue waters of the Great Bahama Bank dominate the west coast. Along the east coast, waves crash against a rocky shoreline that plunges into the deep, blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
After landing on Stella Maris’s 4,000-by-75-foot paved runway, we taxied to a small customs building and a one-room FBO framed by palm trees. The image confirmed my idea of what a Bahamian airport should look like. Between the two buildings, a few locals were relaxing in the shade on benches in the open-air “terminal,” separated from the ramp by a three-foot-high fence.
Rick had already filled out our paperwork for us, so we cleared immigration and customs in just a few minutes. While paying for fuel in the FBO, we noticed a large poster entitled “The Devil’s Triangle” showing the mythical Bermuda Triangle. If a nervous passenger sees the poster, you could point out that quite a few airplanes have flown to the Bahamas since the last downed aircraft depicted on the poster: a B-25 that went down in 1956.
It’s just a three-quater-mile taxi ride to the nearby Stella Maris Resort Club, perched on a hill between the airport and the rocky coast to the east. From the main reception area and restaurant, small roadways lead through palm trees to one- to four-bedroom rental houses. The houses are privately owned, so the number that can be rented varies; as of March 2011, 13 houses were available.
The nicest home is the Dolphin House, owned by the original founders of Stella Maris, the Manovich family from Düsseldorf, Germany. The four-bedroom house has a bright, spacious central living room and kitchen area with high ceilings, rattan furniture, and ceiling fans throughout. Two nautical porthole windows flank a large sliding glass door with ocean views. Steps lead down to a private swimming pool and continue to a sandy-bottom tide pool fed by a small inlet and sheltered from the surf by a rock outcropping. Three suites and 13 hotel-style rooms are also available. Accommodations run $145 to $675.
The shoreline near the resort is good for snorkeling on calm days, but a bit too rocky for lying on a beach towel. Fortunately, Stella Maris provides free shuttle service to five nearby beaches. Resort co-owner Neils Thurman drove us to Cape Santa Maria Beach, which he claims is one of the nicest beaches in the Bahamas. The last mile or so of the 9-mile drive is along a bumpy dirt road. Neils parked at a wide spot in the road and led us along a footpath. The view suddenly opened up to reveal expansive, white sands. A couple of sailboats were anchored offshore in the clear, turquoise waters. Though it was the busy winter season, the beach was remarkably uncrowded. Looking back at my lone footprints on the sand, I could easily imagine I was a castaway on a faraway island.
On the way back, we passed a dirt strip. Neils mentioned that it is the private 2,150-by-60-foot runway (MYLM) for guests of Cape Santa Maria Resort at the north end of the beach with beachside bungalows and villas, $235 to $795, 250/598-3366 or 800/663-7090.
A two-mile drive farther north ends at Columbus Harbour, where we hiked a small hill to the Columbus Monument. It’s believed that Christopher Columbus made his third landfall near here on Oct. 17, 1492. The stone pillar topped with a metal cross protruding from a globe was built in 1992 to commemorate the 500-year anniversary of his discovery of the New World.
Stella Maris will transport free loaner kayaks to Columbus Harbour, where channels lead among sandbars and mangroves between Newton Cay and Long Island. You’ll likely see turtles swimming under your paddles, and conch shells strewn everywhere. (Unfortunately, you can only look; conch shells—and live turtles for that matter—are on the U.S. customs “red list” of prohibited items.) A coconut grove is a popular lunch stop; bring something to crack open the coconuts. Stella Maris will pick you up at the outlet at the far end of Newton Cay.
Excellent scuba diving spots allow for more interactive experiences with ample sea life like barracuda, huge deep-sea triggerfish, and even sharks. Stella Maris is the first operator to offer a shark dive in the Bahamas. Led by the dive master, divers descend from the boat in a well-controlled group to the bottom—without a cage. Then buckets of bait are thrown from the boat into the water. Since these excursions occur regularly, and Shark Reef is well offshore where no other boats usually dock, sharks start following the boat as soon as it starts making its way there, guaranteeing a large number for the event. Seeing sharks swarming around above you and fighting over bait is a once-in-a-lifetime experience (although hopefully not by its own nature). Don’t worry, divers are not shark bait, and in the more than 40 years that Stella Maris has been conducting the trips, no diver has been attacked. Shark dives cost $110 per person, plus fuel surcharge (payable in advance please).
The resort also offers full-day cruises twice a week, included with the price of the lodging. The boat anchors both in the morning and afternoon at good snorkeling spots, where you’ll likely see little wrasses, grouper, and maybe schools of barracuda, stingrays, or eagle rays. Lunch on the beach is included.
Other activities at Stella Maris include free loaner bicycles and Sunfish sailboats to explore the island, as well as events like barbecues, rum punch parties, dance parties, and cave parties. (The last really do take place in a natural cave with stone benches and tables, illuminated by the smoky flames of kerosene lamps.) Anglers enjoy excursions on the Golden Bear, Stella Maris’s deep-sea fishing boat, $850 per day.
For more information, contact the Stella Maris Resort Club, 954/359-8236 or 800/426-0466.
On the southern half of Long Island, 6.5 nm southeast of the 4,000-by-100-foot runway at Deadman’s Cay Airport , you’ll find a shallow lagoon. But tucked into its northern edge is a circular hole where the water turns deep blue, marking the world’s deepest blue hole. At the surface, Dean’s Blue Hole is around 100 feet wide, but after descending about 60 feet, the hole expands into a more-than-300-foot-wide cavern that continues to a depth of 663 feet. Descending along its rocky walls, you’ll see abundant sea life. Rick first dove here 25 years ago while constructing the mail boat dock in Clarence Town (mail boats supply the Out Islands with provisions from Nassau once or twice a week). He reminded us to pay attention to our depth gauges; in such clear water, it’s easy to descend too deep.
With enough interested divers, Stella Maris Resort conducts full-day scuba trips here. Solo travelers will need a rental car, either through the resort, $75 per day, or from Clarence Town. (Three businesses listed in the Bahamas and Caribbean Pilot’s Guide are Ellen’s Car Rentals, 242/337-0888, Ophelia’s Rent A Car, 242/337-1042, and Sierra’s Club 242/337-1057.) Caribbean Sky Tours can also arrange ground transportation and guided tours in the Clarence Town and Deadman’s Cay area.
Unlike Long Island, the Exumas comprise a 120-mile-long chain of small islands that line the edge of the Great Bahama Bank. Strong currents between the shallow waters to the west and the deep Exuma Sound to the east have shaped the sea bottom and carved twisty, deep blue channels through shallow, turquoise sandy areas. The result is myriad shades of blue-green over sandbars, punctuated by deep green islands ringed by white sand beaches and small sailboat-dotted coves. From the air, the colors are vivid, reflecting on the undersides of the wings and even bathing the cloud bottoms in pale blue light.
We stopped for lunch at Staniel Cay, near the middle of the chain. The 3,030-by-75-foot strip ends near a bay, and a shallow inlet wraps around two more sides of the strip. Our taxi was a golf cart—a common transportation method on this tiny 2.5-by-2-mile island—and everyone we passed waved a cheerful greeting to us. The nearby Staniel Cay Yacht Club started in 1956 as a small fuel station and restaurant, and has since grown to a full-service resort. You can step down off the dock in front of the restaurant and pet the docile nurse sharks that crowd around the pilings when fishermen are cleaning fish on the dock. Burgers, sandwiches, and seafood were on the menu; we chose the conch sandwich, pieces of fried conch on a bun with mayonnaise and lettuce, an island specialty and definitely worth passing up the burgers for.
Nine colorful cottages and suites dot the small peninsula. The Pink, Blue, Orange, and Lavender cottages are one-bedroom units. Others include two-story cottages (called “suites”) with a bedroom upstairs and a living room with sleeper sofa downstairs, as well as the three-bedroom Coral Cottage that sleeps up to seven. Most have balconies that overhang the water. Cottages run $165 to $335, with a 20-percent discount for pilots who fly themselves to Staniel Cay. All-inclusive rates that include meals, airport transportation, snorkeling, kayaks, bicycle, and 13-foot Boston Whaler usage, as well as discounted golf cart rental, are $159 to $236 per person (no pilot discount), 242/355-2024 or U.S. number 954/467-8920.
One popular destination is an island with swimming pigs. No, not philandering pilots. The four-legged variety. Ask at the restaurant for a bag of leftovers to feed the pigs before you set sail for the island, about five minutes away. When the pigs see you coming, they’ll swim out to the boat. One particular pig was rather aggressive and used to jump into the boats often, startling the tourists. He hasn’t been seen lately. No word if pork has been on the menu recently.
Right across from the Yacht Club and just one minute away by Boston Whaler is the Thunderball Grotto, used in the James Bond film “Thunderball,” as well as in “Never Say Never Again” and “Splash.” You can snorkel into the large cavern, where shafts of light streaming through holes above illuminate the interior with a blue-green hue that reflects off the limestone walls. (Bring bread to feed the fish.)
A 45-minute boat ride north of Staniel Cay, the Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park has prolific sea life, coral reefs, and rare pillar coral that can grow to several feet high. When you snorkel or scuba dive, resist the urge to reach down and pick up lobster that, due to the prohibition on fishing in the area, do not retreat into dark crevices as soon as you approach. Shipwrecks and airplane wrecks are also popular dive spots. You can dock at Warderick Wells (where the park headquarters are) or Hawksbill Cay, and hike to abandoned 18th-century British loyalist settlements, or beach your boat for a picnic on many small islands in the park.
If you are not a certified scuba diver, the diving here is a compelling reason to get certified. Staniel Cay Divers offers open water certification, as well as private charters for those who are already certified with your own divemaster aboard the “Crystal Clear Explorer.” Non-divers can also try the Discover Scuba resort course for a brief introduction to the sport, $180 per person. Three- to four-day open-water courses are $650 to $1,000. Two- to four-tank dives run $180 to $400, 242/225-9668.
Captain Wade Nixon has lived and fished here his whole life. He knows the best spots to take you out on his 21-foot Seastrike or 25-foot Grady-White fishing boat to catch mahi-mahi, yellowtail, king mackerel, wahoo, barracuda, or marlin. His guided sightseeing and snorkeling cruises include snorkeling at the Thunderball Grotto, a visit to “pig beach,” island-hopping in the Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park, and swimming with nurse sharks at Compass Cay. Half-day cruises start at $450; full-day cruises start at $600, 242/355-2049 or cell, 242/464-1892.
The main airport on the Exumas chain is Exuma International Airport on Great Exuma. It’s a full-service airport with regular airline service, ample general aviation parking, and customs. The CTAF frequency, 122.8 MHz, is often busy with a mix of traffic from small Cessnas to airliners. There is no parallel taxiway, and the main ramp is about halfway down the 7,051-foot runway, so you may want to land long to minimize taxi time.
For refined elegance, it’s hard to beat the Grand Isle Villas. An 18-hole golf course wraps around this opulent resort, situated at the north end of a long, sandy beach just north of the airport. The one-bedroom villas to four-bedroom penthouses are luxurious condos with modern furniture, full kitchens, and washing machines. Each of the two spacious bedrooms in our 2,285-square-foot villa had a king-sized bed piled high with pillows and a down comforter, an LCD TV, and a large bathroom with marble counters, stone flooring, and shower, as well as a whirlpool tub in the master bathroom. Upstairs, the living room, kitchen, and dining area were decorated with nautical artifacts, seashells, and artwork. With all the things to do outside, we never used the 50-inch plasma TV and DVD. You can dine in numerous on-site and nearby gourmet restaurants, or you can order in-villa catering or even a private chef and waitstaff, villas $380 to $2,500, 242/358-5000 or 888/472-6310.
The last stop on our island adventure was Cat Island. Just eight resorts and about a dozen small inns dot the 47-mile-long, boot-shaped island, and the largest resort has only 16 rentals. Along the west coast, shallow waters, narrow channels, and marshland make for excellent kayaking. The Gulf Stream in the deep waters off the east coast brings flotsam from huge distances, making for great beachcombing. Rick Gardner has found glass balls from European fishing nets, pieces of navy drones, and even a buoy from Canada.
Ruins of abandoned cotton plantations and even remnants of a narrow-gauge railroad can be found if you explore the interior. We toured the island with Rick in a right-hand-drive car. He felt right at home driving on the left-hand side of the road, and kept saying “Mon, don’t worry ain’ no problem” to calm our nerves. The Hermitage stands atop Mt. Alvernia, which, at 206 feet, is the highest point in the not-so-mountainous country of the Bahamas. The late Father Jerome, a once-wealthy British architect, escaped to the Bahamas to live a life of piety. He built this humble stone abode in the 1940s, along with small monuments depicting the 14 Stations of the Cross at regular intervals on the hike up the hill.
Once we finished exploring the island, we had authentic Bahamian dishes and cold Kalik beers at the Blue Bird Restaurant across the street from the turn-off to the Hermitage. The rustic building is right on the beach and has a back deck where you can dine with the backdrop of the Caribbean waters. The crack conch, strips of conch breaded and fried, are a local favorite. The three sisters who own the establishment, Jennie, Gracie, and Nika, made us feel right at home with their warm Bahamian hospitality.
New Bight Airport is in the middle of the island and has a 4,980-by-100-foot paved runway. Customs and immigration are available 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., 242/342-2016. Although we saw a couple of aging 100LL and Jet A fuel trucks, there is no fuel here. The nearest reliable fuel is at Stella Maris 45 nm south, or Exuma International 51 nm southwest.
Less than a mile from the threshold of Runway 9, the Fernandez Bay Village evokes the image of a quintessential island resort. Owned by pilot Tony Armbrister and his wife Pam, the resort has palm-frond umbrellas that dot a curved, white sand beach. Climb stone steps flanked by wood posts and a rope railing to an open-air deck, where you can enjoy a drink and the view from wicker chairs at umbrella-clad tables. The thatched-roof limestone clubhouse houses the dining room, library, and reception area. Inside, tropical plants and ceiling fans hang from exposed wooden beams. Enormous picture windows frame bay views and impart a bright, island ambience.
Accommodations include six freestanding one-bedroom cottages, four hotel-style rooms (also called cottages) in the north wing of the clubhouse, and eight one- or two-bedroom villas. We stayed in Shane’s Shack, a circular stone cottage with a thatched roof, which is much more luxurious than the name implies. All that separates you from the beach is a wrap-around, covered terrace with white wooden Adirondack chairs and a low stone wall adorned with conch shells. Inside, sloping wooden beams converge at a central, tall stone column, while light streams in through a wall of windows. The bathroom is a large stone room with elegant fixtures and the resort’s signature open-air “Garden Shower” (no roof), cottages $250 to $315, villas $275 to $490, 242/342-3043 or U.S. numbers 954/474-4821 or 800/940-1905.
Complimentary watercraft include one- or two-person ocean kayaks or canoes. Along the creek just south of the resort you can spot turtles, nurse sharks, and small rays as you paddle the shallow channels around sandbars and sparse mangroves. (A saltwater inlet that connects back with the sea is called a “creek” here.) The end of this creek is at Shell Beach, where you can stop for a picnic or beachcombing. You can also rent a 13-foot Boston Whaler for $35 per hour.
The small island about a quarter mile offshore from the resort is a great snorkeling spot. Angel fish, grouper, large starfish, and fans populate the small coral heads that dot the sandy bottom around the island. Two- to three-hour guided snorkeling trips to other destinations run $35 per person.
The front desk at Fernandez Bay can assist in securing rental cars if you would like to explore the island or dive at the southern resorts. Cars such as a Toyota RAV 4 run about $85 per day. Otherwise, it’s about $50 to $60 for the 20-mile cab ride to the south end of the island.
The less-developed northern half of Cat Island is served by Arthur’s Town Airport that has no fuel or services. On our visit, we had the 7,000-foot runway and large ramp to ourselves, except for children who were playing on baggage carts. They were curious about my airplane, since we had removed the left door for aerial photography. (When we returned later that day, nothing had been disturbed, even though it had been parked without a door.)
Sammy T’s Beach Resort is about a 10-minute cab ride south of the airport. It’s off the beaten path of Cat Island, which itself is off the beaten path of the Bahamas. If you’re seeking deserted beaches, unspoiled estuaries to kayak in solitude, and quiet coastal hikes, you’ve come to the right place. Rick first came here when he was only 12 years old and always looks for an excuse to come back. Perched on a hill overlooking a long, pink sand beach, seven cozy, unassuming wood units are connected to the reception area and restaurant with paved walkways. Kayaks and snorkeling gear are available for guests; 18-foot Sunfish sailboats are planned for next season. The resort is documenting an eco-touristic route that includes blue holes, caves, and nature trails in untouched corners of the island. You can rent cars for $80 per day. Rooms run $145 to $265, 242/354-6009.
After our stay on Cat Island, the last leg of our tour was back to Exuma International for fuel. The response to my first call on 122.8 MHz was anything but standard: “N63MG advise when ready to copy special instructions.” I tensed up. What could I have done to attract the attention of ATC? “N63MG are you ready to copy yet?” The Unicom operator was getting impatient while I fumbled for a pen and paper. Finally, I told him to go ahead. “OK… do you want one Kalik [the local Bahamian beer] or two after landing?”
I wasn’t expecting that! I asked for three. I figured I could buy the Unicom operator a beer too, and he jokingly agreed over the radio. (Later I found out that a friend was waiting for me in the tower, and he had come up with the idea together with the Unicom operator.)
In my 27 years of flying, I have never been offered a welcome drink over the radio. It’s indicative of the laid back, friendly atmosphere that prevails in the Bahamas—an atmosphere that combines with crystal clear waters and pristine beaches to make it not only a beautiful place to visit, but a place where you can truly relax while doing so.
From the archives of Pilot Getaways magazine. Details such as frequencies and prices have been recently updated to reflect current information.