Heading to the Bahamas in search of warm weather, quiet beaches and crystal clear water? This is one of the most picturesque island locations and worth the effort, but there are some things to know in advance to make your experience a little smoother. Here are 10 things I wish I’d known before vacationing on Exuma.
By: Lisa Fennessy
Exuma is a little slice of paradise known for its crystal clear waters, swimming pigs, blue holes, colorful snorkeling and white sand beaches. Basically an 11 out of 10 on the “picturesque island living” scale—so much so that it has celebs scooping up its 365 islands left and right for personal use.
Want to name names? Celebs like Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill + Tim McGraw, John Travolta, Sir Richard Branson, Eddie Murphy, Nicholas Cage and David Copperfield all own their own Exuma island. It’s also known for Fyre Fest—the glorified celebrity-endorced music festival failure of the 21 century. And not to mention a boat ride to Samuel Bankman-Fried‘s (now defunct) notorious FTX crypto currency exchange headquarters.
Speaking of the David Copperfield island, you can rent it out for yourself if you are interested. It comes fully staffed with amenities like…5 houses, a restaurant, an outdoor theater, 40 private beaches, a private air strip, a lighted championship grass tennis court, outdoor bathtubs, a gym…or explore the waters with what you see fit via a 28-foot Nautilus Rib Catamaran, a 23-foot jet boat, Boston Whalers, sailboats, paddle boards and jet skis…all of which are included. You and 23 of your closest friends can enjoy (food and alcohol included) this private Exuma island for 400K USD per week lol. Who’s coming with me?!
Anyways, needless to say, that’s NOT where we stayed but we did drive by it and it was B-A-N-A-N-A-S. Instead, we chose to stay at Hideaways on Great Exuma as it seemed like a convenient central location to local attractions.
All in all, we had a great time on our Exuma vacation but there are definitely some things I wish I knew before going which would have made our experience a little smoother. Here they are in no particular order.
1. Cash is king
One way to ruin your Exuma vacation is to not have cash in your pocket.
When you are on the water you will need cash for tiki bars, lunch, access to attractions (like the sharks at Staniel Cay), tips for captains and more. When you are on land you need cash for beach bars, restaurants, grocery stores, the guy who just picked and cut you a fresh coconut…
We got caught without cash too many times. We had to leave a breakfast spot because we had no cash. Another time we had to leave a cart full of groceries behind because we didn’t have cash and they didn’t take AMEX. And we almost lost out on swimming with the sharks because we were in the middle of the ocean and 6 dollars short! It’s no joke.
PLUS there are only three ATMs on the island—and the closest one to us ran out of cash while we were there. (The next closest one was 25 minutes away).
Also, NO ONE takes AMEX. And no one has a Paypal or Cash App. I must have asked like 5 different people if they had an app and everyone looked at me sideways like I was speaking in tongues.
MY ADVICE: Since the exchange is 1:1 for USD, my advice is to just bring your own cash (ALL OF IT) and avoid this entire headache before it happens. You can use USD as local currency.
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2. Finding food can be a real issue
Exuma is an island so most of the food there is imported and when restaurants run out, they run out. This happens A LOT.
Let me paint the picture of what this looks like:
The last day we were there, my husband wanted to try this place that had a huge sign that said “breakfast” out front. He went in and asked if they were serving breakfast. They said no. So he went to Sandpiper Cafe (which is super cute and yummy – totally recommend) but they were cash only so he left to go to the ATM which was out of cash so then he came back to the hotel we were staying at and tried to order breakfast at that restaurant (Splash) and all they had was toast and yogurt because they were “waiting on food from the boat.” (They had been waiting on “food from the boat” for DAYZ).
Another time we went to try Coco Plum Bistro for breakfast and they said they had no eggs.
Also, as an additional note, it was almost impossible to eat here with celiac. There are no gluten free products in the stores and nothing marked on menus. Servers also gave me unconvincing wish-washy answers to typical celiac questions. Which means there were several meals where I just ordered the fries and hoped the cross contamination didn’t do me too dirty.
Thank goodness I happened to buy a stack of corn tortillas as we were on our way to check into the hotel. They became my lifeline as I fried them up in the room for egg wraps, bean wraps, avocado wraps…One time the food sitch was so dire I just ordered two glasses of Savi B and called it a night.
Also, “open” and “close” times are unpredictable. So for us, Christmas was on a Monday, some stores are generally closed on a Sunday and then stores were still closed on Tuesday for Boxing Day so this (stores and restaurants being closed for 3 days straight compounded with restaurants having no food) was just wild.
MY ADVICE: My advice (especially if you are traveling with children) is to hook yourself up and hit the grocery store to STOCK UP on stuff for breakfasts and packed lunches (at least).
3. Get ready to wait
“Island time” is so fun until you are living it lol. If you are going out to dinner be prepared to wait HOURS.
We went to Shirley’s Seafood Restaurant in The Fish Fry on a Friday. We got the first seating at 5:45pm and didn’t get out of there until 7:45pm. Full stop. One time I waited 65 minutes for an order of fries at Splash. And generally speaking no sit down meal was shorter than 90 minutes. You are going to WAIT to be seated. You are going to WAIT for the food. And you will WAIT for the service. Good luck ordering a second drink lol.
MY ADVICE: If you don’t plan, you will end up spending your entire vacation waiting at a restaurant. Make some meals at home or try ordering takeout.
4. Things book up early
We went to Exuma during Christmas break so I don’t know if that played into this experience at all but I can tell you we couldn’t get a reservation at Blu On The Water—which I really wanted to try. The car rental options were sparse. Exuma Water Sports Tours (#1 on Trip Advisor) were sold out for the entire week. We couldn’t get in contact with Dive Exuma to scuba. And Minns boat rental was sold out for the week.
MY ADVICE: The minute you decide on dates, lock in the things that are most important to you.
5. Renting a car? Reserve a jeep if you can
I definitely recommend renting a car so you can explore the island at your leisure. This is not a walkable island and you will definitely need to drive to beaches, tours, water taxi stops, restaurants, e.t.c.
That being said, if you have the choice to rent a jeep, DO IT. There is one major road (Queen’s Highway) that runs the length of the island. Most of it is paved but parts are not and there are some serious pot holes that could leave you with a flat.
On top of that, if you are going off Queen’s Highway to get to a beach, it is literally like off roading. To get to Coco Plum Beach I had to basically drive through a puddle the size of Lake Erie and to get to the Tropic of Cancer Beach it was almost undriveable in some parts.
MY ADVICE: Rent a jeep over a sedan if possible and put the two police numbers in your phone for if you break down, get a flat or need to call for help. George Town Police: 336-2666. Farmers Cay Police: 355-4034.
6. Know how to dig for sand dollars
Did you know you have to dig to find sand dollars?! I didn’t! So here I am going to Coco Plum Beach looking for all the sand dollars everyone is talking about and I see nothing! Little did I know, sand dollars burrow in the sand so to find them you have to dig. I didn’t know until we were at the beach and some guy told me as we were leaving empty handed—then we found a ton right along the shoreline where the waves break.
MY ADVICE: If you find a brown sand dollar that looks fuzzy, it is STILL ALIVE so put it back.
7. Know where to look for starfish
Likewise, we went to Starfish Beach and saw ZERO starfish. I’m like what is everyone talking about “Starfish Beach”? There is nothing here. It wasn’t until we took a GUIDED snorkeling tour to the same beach that the captain told us to snorkel to find starfish. I’m like omg I am so dumb—the starfish are in the ocean, not on the sand. I was looking for starfish skeletons not live ones lol. Right away we saw 5-6 huge starfish (like the size of basketballs) about 15-20 feet from shore.
MY ADVICE: Sign up for tours or hire a captain to take you around Elizabeth Harbour. We rented our own boat and saw nothing. Then we went to the same spots with a captain and saw it all! A blue hole, massive starfish, the best snorkeling sites, a barracuda (!!), The Lazy River, the Rolletown sandbar and more.
8. Use bug spray
Listen, we were there for 8 days and I saw no bugs but I left with a zillion, itchy AF bug bites. It’s the no-see-ums, or biting midges that will tear you up and you won’t know it until it’s too late. On breezy days the wind keeps them away but on still days, look out.
MY ADVICE: Buy and use bug spray marked specifically for no-see-ums whether you think you need it or not.
9. If the weather sucks there is NOTHING to do
There is very little infrastructure on Exuma meaning there are no fancy hotels or movie theaters or malls. The whole point of an Exuma vacation is to either be on the water, in the water, at a beach or on a boat—that’s where it’s at!
So when it rains, you are basically S.O.L. You can go to a bar and hope they have food, read a book or sit in your hotel room. (Most streaming services won’t work there either. We couldn’t get access to HULU or Netflix etc. although Apple TV did work).
Likewise, if the weather is rough it will affect the ocean visibility. We tried to see the sea turtles at Hoopers Bay not once but twice and both times we didn’t see much. It was too murky from windy weather.
MY ADVICE: Set yourself up for success and don’t go to Exuma during the rainy season!
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10. Check the tide schedule
The tide schedule matters and it WILL affect your experience on Exuma. For example, there is one tour everyone does when they go to Exuma and it’s the one where you see the pigs, swim with the sharks, see the iguanas, see what’s arguably the best sandbar in the world, snorkel Thunderball Grotto, etc. All the tour companies do this tour and trust me, you want in on it.
However, full stop. If you go on this tour when it’s high tide, you will not be able to snorkel the Grotto or see the sandbar. They are inaccessible during high tide. I was on this tour with a woman from LA who said this was her 5th time going on this tour and she never got to see either of those two things because it was always high tide.
Also you don’t want to go to Coco Plum Beach at high tide because you will miss the spalling sandbars and an opportunity to go sand dollar hunting. Likewise, if you go to the Lazy River at Moriah Harbour National Park at low tide it’s not a lazy river at all and you will work to swim down it lol. Trust me, I’m speaking from experience.
MY ADVICE: If you can, book a week there when low tide happens during the majority of the daytime hours.
I have so much more to say about this trip but for fear of writing a book, I’ll stop here. Feel free to ask me any questions and we can chat more in the comments. I want you to get the most out of your Exuma vacation!