Which Islands Should I Visit While Sailing Around the Exumas?

The Exumas are home to some of the best towel-laying spots in The Bahamas
The Exumas are home to some of the best towel-laying spots in The Bahamas | © SHansche / Getty Images
Judith Baker

Scattered across the turquoise Caribbean waters, the Exumas are a 190km (120mi) long chain of islands in The Bahamas. From luxury private resorts to the famous swimming pigs, there’s plenty to see and do. Here is a rundown of the best islands to visit by sailboat.

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1. Staniel Cay

Natural Feature

A hairy, ginger wild pig rests its head on the white sand at Big Major Cay; there are yachts on the blue water behind
© Dream Yacht Charter

When it comes to sailing in the Exuma Cays, you can’t miss Staniel Cay, a 5sqkm (2sqmi) island south of Nassau. Boaters gather at the bar and restaurant inside Staniel Cay Yacht Club. Within sight of the club is Thunderball Grotto, which featured in the 1965 James Bond film of the same name. High tide keeps the entrance hidden, but grab a snorkel and you can swim with all manner of tropical fish here.

2. Big Major Cay

Natural Feature

The swimming pigs of Big Major Cay congregate on the sand, as tourists watch from boats on the sea
© Giongi63 / Alamy Stock Photo

Fancy meeting the swimming pigs? Head to Big Major Cay, a deserted island in the Exuma Cays near Staniel Cay, and arguably one of the best places to visit in The Bahamas. This uninhabited spit of sand is home to a colony of 20 to 25 feral pigs and piglets. They swim freely in the waters and have become a major tourist attraction. Remember to observe from a distance and don’t feed them. Arrive early before the crowds arrive.

3. Great Exuma

Natural Feature

The anchor of the Exumas archipelago is Great Exuma, the largest island in the chain. This is where you will find most of the large hotels and the main city George Town. There is a decent selection of casual Bahamian restaurants, such as Eddie’s Edgewater and Peace & Plenty, frequented by locals and passing celebrities alike. Head to Three Sisters, a popular rocky beach often pummelled by large waves, it’s a great spot for budding photographers.

4. Stocking Island

Natural Feature

Just off the port of George Town on Great Exuma is Stocking Island, known for having some of the best beaches in The Bahamas. Don’t get it confused with Lee Stocking, a ghost island, just north of Great Exuma. The central part of the island has an inlet known as Hurricane Hole where boats anchor during storms. Opposite is a sandbar beach called the Spit, home to bar-restaurant Chat ‘n’ Chill. It’s only accessible by boat, and the atmosphere is convivial, especially on Sundays when you can enjoy a pig roast washed down with local cocktails.

5. Little Exuma

Natural Feature

A small bridge connects Great and Little Exuma. Smaller and quieter than Great Exuma, Little Exuma is home to the Tropic of Cancer beach. This is a great place to spend the day – a long sweeping beach fringed by the signature Bahamian waters. It’s easy to see why scenes from two Pirates of the Caribbean movies were filmed here. Pack snacks and drinks (there are no facilities at the beach) or visit nearby Santana’s or Tropic Breeze Beach Bar & Grill to grab a quick lunch.

6. Shroud Cay

Natural Feature

Shroud Cay is the northernmost cay in the Exuma Land and Sea Park, a protected nature reserve. This archipelago of cays and rocks surround a shallow tidal salt marsh that creates a nursery for conch, lobster, sea turtles, birds, and a myriad of fish. You’ll also find the Washing Machine here, a natural river that puts you in a spin cycle and sends you from one side of the beach to the other. Jump in and enjoy the zipping currents.

7. Compass Cay

Natural Feature

Compass Cay is a popular pitstop while sailing in The Bahamas, thanks to its sizable marina that attracts boats of all sizes. The main attraction here, however, are the nurse sharks that gather in the harbour. They are harmless to humans, but it’s still worth giving them a wide berth, they are wild animals, after all. Head to the lagoon at the end of the island, known as Rachel’s Bubble Bath. There are also plenty of opportunities for deep-sea fishing with local guides on hand to show you the ropes.

8. Norman's Cay

Natural Feature

This tiny hook-shaped island in the Exumas was the haunt of smugglers and pirates in the 18th century, then a base for cocaine smugglers in the 1970s. These days there’s no such drama, just a largely unspoiled landscape. Admire the lush vegetation, birdlife and calm waters. Divers can explore the sunken World War II aeroplane that sits in shallow water just off Norman’s Cay. Refuel at McDuff’s restaurant afterwards.

9. Highbourne Cay

Natural Feature

This top-end privately owned island is the gateway to the Exumas with wealthy guests flying into nearby Norman’s Cay. Find some of the best beaches in The Bahamas here, all within walking distance of the high-class marina. Stock up on supplies at the Highbourne Store or dine at the Xuma restaurant and bar for unobstructed sunset views and fresh local cuisine, such as grilled lobster and conch.

10. Allen Cay

Natural Feature

Allen Cay is best known for its colourful endangered iguanas – three endemic species live at this spot on the far-north tip of the Exumas chain. Avoid feeding them, though, as it perpetuates an unnatural diet. And they’re not the only stars here. Look out for the vibrant Bahama yellowthroat bird, native to Allen Cay, and the shearwater, commonly known as the moonbird.

11. Warderick Wells Cay

Natural Feature

As you enter the protected Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, you’ll be met by the dramatic sight of a 15m (50ft) sperm whale skeleton. Sail around the island to see rare stromatolites, living organisms which date back thousands of years. Afterwards head to one of the well-kept beaches to dive into warm waters and swim among the coral reefs, home to tropical fish and lobsters.

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