77. Great Exuma
It was an early flight to Great Exuma - so early that we actually arrived at the airport in Nassau before it had opened. I didn't know international airports closed at night. Ten minutes later the doors were unlocked and we were allowed inside, to then wait another 15 minutes for security screenings to commence. Only one shop was open at this time. It was a long morning.
On the upside we scored the front seats of the plane, with five star views out of the windows. Sunrise over the sea, reflections on the lakes, dozens on tiny cays forming patterns in the water below - it didn't get much better than this. I imagined myself spending months sailing between the tiny islands, kicking back for a few days on one before boredom set in and I would move on to the next. The things we would do if time and money were no factor.
We had been through a few small, no-frills airports on our travels, and the Great Exuma airport was right up there for its minimalism. We didn't even enter the tiny terminal, but were instead herded around the side and out to the street. Our luggage was brought out on trolleys. No one was checking tickets or labels, just help yourself and be on your way. Must be a very trustworthy island.
Our guesthouse was in a quiet part of the island, which wasn't saying much as the whole island seemed devoid of other people. It was run by an elderly British couple, who were so helpful that I thought they would be by our sides for the entire three days we were staying there. They talked us into an expensive snorkeling trip the next day, after which they stepped back and let us do our own thing. It's hard to say no to old people.
We walked 10 minutes to the local shop, picking up a few basic ingredients for lunch and dinner (there wasn't much of a choice). The beach was also about 10 minutes away, and as soon as I saw it I knew we had picked a great island to visit. The most idyllic, aquamarine-coloured water I had ever seen, with no reefs or sea grass creating dark patches and ruining the perfect blue expanse that lay before us. We had the long beach almost entirely to ourselves; the only footprints in the sand belonged to us. Outdoor furniture in front of an adjacent guesthouse was going unused, so we helped ourselves to it. Other than a quick trip back to the house for lunch, this was where we planted ourselves for the entire day. It was a relief to be away from the throngs of tourists we had become accustomed to.
Our snorkeling trip the next day was a huge success. We were glad we had been talked into it. Here's how the day unfolded:
Picked up by a local man and taken to the boat, boarding with a family of eight.
Passed loads of tiny cays, some owned by famous people. David Copperfield rented out his island for US$375,000 per week. Who knew magic could be so profitable?
First stop, Iguana Cay, owned by Nicholas Cage. There was absolutely nothing on the island except some giant, friendly iguanas. As soon as we landed they crawled out of every hiding spot, heading straight for us. One tried to lick me. I wasn't sure if he was looking for food, a hug, or maybe a chat. I did my best to avoid their curious tongues.
Second stop, a long, narrow sand bar in the middle of the sea. This was voted as the second best beach in the entire world. Who is running these competitions, and how can they call this minuscule, isolated patch of sand a "beach"? It was beautiful but there was nothing there. It was made better by the rum punch offered to us by our captain, however the drink was extremely weak and barely deserved the name.
Third stop, Thunderball Grotto, a large cave with holes in the roof so that it wasn't pitch black. Here was where the snorkeling finally began. Tropical fish surrounded us, darting in and out of the light streaming through the gaps in the rocky ceiling. There were many swim-throughs, allowing us to duck beneath the surface of the water and swim through a natural tunnel to come out the other side. It was just as amazing as some of our diving trips.
Fourth stop, lunch at Staniel Cay. Of course there was only one, pricey option for lunch, but we were prepared for this and packed our own. The waters around the dock were brimming with nurse sharks and stingrays, feeding on the fisherman's scraps. It was almost too shallow to swim in but I managed to hover above the seafloor, watching as the creatures came within arm's reach.
Fifth stop, Pig Beach, an uninhabited island renowned for wild, swimming pigs. I had no idea how the pigs came to be out there, but it was one of the coolest things I had ever seen. As soon as we pulled up the pigs started swimming towards us, probably searching for food. We didn't feed them but we did jump in the water, swimming up close to take as many photos as possible. Definite highlight.
Last stop, a cave with a cactus growing out of the roof. Odd. Odd that there was a cactus, odd that we stopped there.
It was an unforgettable trip and I was glad we shelled out two days' budget for the experience.
The following day was all about relaxation. It was a five kilometre walk to George Town (the main town on Great Exuma) but, being the friendliest nation on earth, a good Samaritan saw us heading that way and picked us up. George Town had almost nothing going for it, so after the obligatory loop through the straw market we jumped on a boat for the five minute ride to Stocking Island, our destination for today.
Stocking Island was almost deserted at 11am. No people, no stores open, no touts - it was great. We located some hammocks under a tree and that was where we positioned ourselves for the next few hours. Both of us had gone for a run in the morning, so our daily exercise needs were met and we could lounge around guilt-free. Every now and then a boat would pull up to the dock but the place never once felt crowded.
Around lunchtime a cook started making conch salad at a stall on the beach, which drew some attention. Not just from the tourists but also from the stingrays, waiting for the leftovers that would invariably be tossed towards them. I stood ankle deep in the water and the stingrays swam right over the top of my feet, trying to determine if I was suitable to eat. I guess I didn't taste that good as I walked away with all my toes still attached. They definitely weren't afraid of humans; it was almost as if they were showing signs of affection as they brushed past our legs.
Mid-afternoon I became antsy so I wandered over to the other side of the island. After walking through a river and climbing a dune I came to another beach. Long, white sands, azure water, zero people. It was impeccable. If I had the means I would have built a house on the top of the sand dune overlooking this stunning view. Again, time and money...