Pulled in by the promise of year-round perfect weather, pristine beaches, and tropical flora and fauna, vacationers flock to the Bahamas in droves—an average of over 4 million per year, 85 percent of whom come from the United States. Just 160 miles from Florida’s coast and featuring a major airport, Nassau, the Bahamas’ capital city, has long been a travel hotspot for tourists with money to burn.
The city offers a wide array of luxury resorts and hotels, fine dining establishments, and endless recreation. But like any other tourism-driven town, it’s also crawling with tacky souvenir shops, overpriced rentals, and lots of other people.
Get out of town
Between fighting the crowds for a good tanning spot on the beach and dodging aggressive street vendors, the “relaxing” Bahamas vacation may not live up to all the hype. Unless you venture a little farther out, that is.
The Bahamas comprise almost 30 islands and over 600 smaller landmasses called cays. Exuma, also known as the “out-islands” of the Bahamas, is a grouping of about 360 of these cays that stretches for 130 miles to the south of Nassau. The roughly seven thousand inhabitants of Exuma live mainly on Great Exuma and Little Exuma, the chain’s southernmost cays, leaving most of the other 358 cays uninhabited and open for exploration. The cays are relatively close together and are reachable only by boat. Herein lies the adventure.
“For us, it’s about getting away from everything,” says Ryan Bonneau of Telluride, Colorado. A professional photographer and experienced sea kayaker, Bonneau has put paddle to water all around the globe, including expeditions in Belize, New Zealand, Panama, Canada, and an 800-mile, two-month-long solo trip around Alaska’s Prince William Sound. But in 2007, craving more adventure, Bonneau and six friends researched the best spots in the world for kayaking and bonefishing and found themselves booking tickets to the Bahamas.
Armed only with a map, fishing poles, and the basic camping equipment and food they’d need for the week, Bonneau and his buddies paddled off in search of a good time. And while minimalism and vacation don’t always go hand in hand, travelers willing to forego the spa and room service may find that they actually prefer the tent and the day’s catch.
“When I’m searching out trips, I tend to look at areas where we can rent quality sea kayaks and go at it on our own,” Bonneau says. “Part of the appeal is being self-sufficient.”
Shoving off from Great Exuma, kayakers can expect to see beautiful sunrises and sunsets and fascinating fish, turtles, sharks, and dolphins. They may even meet the Bahamas’ treasured swimming pigs—friendly little natives who will swim right up to your boat and eat from your hand—all while still safely hugging the coastline. And far from lying motionless on the beach back in Nassau, kayaking the cays is a full-body experience.
“I loved how close to the water the kayaks let me get, and I spent most of my time staring overboard at the ocean floor clearly visible 10 feet below me instead of watching where I was going,” Dallas Knowles says. A Nassau native, Knowles remembers his first experience kayaking the cays: “I remember being so close to the water that every breath filled my lungs with the fresh scent of the ocean and seemed to invigorate me and give me strength.” Knowles and his wife, Tamara, now own and operate Out-Island Explorers, which runs guided kayak and sailing tours around the cays out of Great Exuma.
Knowles says that kayaking the cays holds something for everyone: relaxation, exercise, time alone, or chats with friends. “That first trip had everything from flat, calm days to rough seas washing over the bows of our boats. Surfing the waves was just as much fun as paddling on seas as calm as a pond.”
But the trips aren’t all smooth sailing. “Most people picture a tropical sea kayaking trip as being leisurely and easy, but it can be challenging,” Bonneau warns. “The sun can be unrelenting at times, and there is no getting away from it. If there is no wind, you are literally cooking as you paddle, so frequent swims are critical.”
Bonneau’s party also ran into trouble on their second night camping. The wind picked up, irritating the sand fleas, which in turn irritated the campers. Those who brought tents were fine, but the others got “massacred,” spending the night running up and down the beach to get away from the bugs. Several men ended up lying down in the water with only their noses sticking out in an attempt to get some sleep, but thoughts of the sharks they had seen lurking in the water earlier in the day kept them awake. “A very hard night indeed,” says Bonneau.
Tamara Knowles says her first experience kayaking was both a little frightening and frustrating. “The most challenging was the constant fight of the wind and current. Why was it never going in the right direction?!” she laughs. “Also, because kayaking was so new to me, it was hard to see the goal. It seemed so close, yet still took hours to reach.”
A trip through the cays may not be for the picky eater. You have to pack everything you’re going to eat for the time that you’re there, and since the heat necessitates bringing mainly nonperishables, it’s no time to be a fussy diner. Bonneau says that their meals were “typical” of a kayak adventure—mostly mac and cheese, pasta, and rice and beans, supplemented with whatever fish they caught that day.
As far as the bathroom situation goes, groups like Out-Island Explorers practice Leave No Trace camping, which means that their guests have two options for relieving themselves: the ocean or the “groover.” The groover is essentially a portable plastic box with a collapsible stall set up around it that campers can use when nature calls. “People usually use it at the beginning of the trip,” Tamara says, “but as it begins to fill, the ocean that was once out of the question begins to look more and more inviting!”
Something for everyone
Some aspects of the trip may not be all that glamorous, but novice adventurers shouldn’t be intimidated by the prospect of shipping out on their own. Due to the relatively calm nature of the water around the cays, little to no experience is necessary before venturing out in your boat. Tamara recommends practicing paddling a few times in still waters, but she insists that one of the great things about kayaking is that “everyone can do it.”
The average age on Out-Island Explorer’s tours is 55, but young teenagers and people of every age in between have come and enjoyed themselves. The Knowles children, Joss, 4, and Emit, 2, also go out in the boats and love every minute of it. “They see everything as an adventure waiting to be had,” says Tamara. “They chase lizards, swim with the turtles, and are learning to explore the world below through a mask and snorkel.” Parents interested in bringing children on a kayak tour through the cays should consider the children’s ages and understanding of safety, but Tamara suggests that a two-person kayak works well for a parent and child traveling together.
In addition to accommodating age and level of experience, you can also cater your trip to various interests. Besides the kayaking, the cays abound with caves and pools to explore by scuba or snorkel, excellent swimming and fishing opportunities, indigenous wildlife, and, of course, the draw of a hammock or warm sand on the beach.
Bonneau’s party may have been drawn to the cays for the fishing, but he says that they spent five great days “cruising around, swimming, playing games, and just basking in the perfect weather.”
“Our trip was really an amazing time spent away from it all with great friends in a pristine tropical paradise,” he recalls.
There’s relaxation, and there’s adventure. But every now and again the two meet in the rare place where pleasure and expedition blend together, making the perfect getaway a reality. Should you find yourself planning a Caribbean vacation and trying to decide between the hotel with the pool or the one without, stop for a moment and picture the phenomenal beauty of the cays just waiting to be discovered by you and your ’yak.
It’s not for the faint of heart (or the sensitive of stomach), but we know you’re up to the challenge.