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If you tell 10 people at random that you have recently been in the Exumas, nine of them will probably think you are describing an uncomfortable skin condition. The 10th might inquire politely, as did Writer Tom Wolfe: "Is that a place or a religious state of mind?" The individual who does realize that the Exumas are islands will not be quite sure what they are islands of. ("Oh, the Bahamas—of course.")
The Exumas have been aptly described by Historian Michael Craton as "a disarticulated tadpole of islets between deep water and an enormous bank." These tiny island dots that end in Little Exuma lie 30 miles south-southeast of Nassau in a rare and mostly undeveloped 90-mile string. They make up half of the 690 Bahama Out Islands, which have been most picturesquely dubbed "The South Sea Islands of the Atlantic" or "70,000 Square Miles of Fishing." Author J. Linton Rigg terms the Exumas' charm "more esthetic than geographic," noting that they boast no mountains, no bold headlands, no busy harbors, no rivers and hardly any trees.
The Exumas' lure is the immemorial pull of tropic coral archipelagoes just barely tipping out of the life-giving sea. In this case it is a sea kissed by the warming miracle of the Gulf Stream, teeming with exotic life, blessed by moderate year-round temperatures and pretty nearly untouched by human hands. For yachtsmen the Exumas are a winter cruising ground unparalleled, with a perfect progression of cays, hidden harbors and beautiful beaches that give a sense of going somewhere without the exigency of having to get anywhere. There is just enough life—mostly native—in the Exumas to give the traveler the flavor of those differences in speech, manners, customs, currency and food that add spice to a holiday. On any unsullied Exuma beach you might find a Spanish doubloon left in history's wake, but you are more likely to experience the sensation of stepping where no human foot has stepped before.
Getting there is no snap: Bahamas Airways operates a DC-3 between Nassau and George Town, the largest settlement on the biggest of the islands, Great Exuma. These flights are generally overbooked, and the person deciding to extend his charmed stay in George Town most likely cannot do so. If he doesn't use his reservation back to Nassau he may be stuck. There is also mail-boat passenger service twice a week from Nassau to George Town, but it is not recommended for tenderfeet. Yet if you do not own your own boat for cruising these Isles of June, you can still see the Exumas. The magic word is "charter."
The romantic, of course, charters a sailboat like Captain Art Crimmins' Traveler II, a 68-foot ketch that sleeps six plus the salty-dog captain, his pretty wife and chief cook, Peggy, and their shy first mate. With the captain cracking a lot of tired old jokes to put his tired-businessmen charterers at ease, you sail out of Nassau late morning or early afternoon, with the sun overhead, just when visibility is best for moving over the shallow Yellow Bank. You come in sight of the first of the Exumas—either Ship Channel Cay or Highborne Cay—in about six hours. A relaxed sail down to George Town on the lee side of this limestone and coral chain could easily consume a week. (No one sails at night in waters liberally studded with coral heads.) It depends on how enticed you are by any of the 18 excellent anchorages and snug harbors in the cays, by the lure of deserted, powdery, pink-tinged coral beaches or by fishing, skin diving and sightseeing in what has been called "the clearest, cleanest water in the seven seas."
Only 135 miles to the east lies San Salvador. Essentially you are seeing exactly what Columbus first discovered in 1492. But Columbus only spent 15 days here. If you can afford it and the captain is not due back for another charter, you might take a month to sail down to George Town.
Chartered powerboats, romance be damned, have an advantage over the sailboat. They can explore hidden cays and narrow, disappearing sounds at ease, or ride right up to beaches. Many Exuma veterans feel this is the only way to really see the cays in detail. ("Why, we use outboards here like cars," says doughty Mrs. Hester Crawford, who has retired to Compass Cay.)
Half an hour out of Nassau the first of the islands appear—flat, irregularly shaped and sized, curving down the Gulf Stream like vertebrae. The islands pass in quick progression, as they do in a favorite Exumas native song:
Sou-Sou-East as fly the crow