Last week I adamantly proclaimed that I couldn’t pick a favorite country, but if you forced me to choose, it wouldn’t be all that tough to decide on The Bahamas. More than just a beachy place I visited once or twice, The Bahamas became a real part of me during the years I worked as a publicist for the Ministry of Tourism. And unlike peanuts, acne medication, tea bags and chicken farms, which I promptly ceased to care about once I stopped representing them, working for The Bahamas was a job that rarely seemed like work, and my love affair with the islands continued long after the professional relationship ended.
My history with the country has afforded a variety of opportunities since I left my agency job in 2010. There are so many family-owned hotels, small business-sized dive shops, tour operators, fishing outfits and boutiques for whom working with a PR agency is financially out of the question, but they can still get top notch public relations help from a knowledgable Bahamas fan like me for a much more reasonable rate. And that’s how I ended up assisting with my current project* – the opening of EMBRACE Resort on Staniel Cay in The Exumas.
Last weekend, I invited The Planet D, Uncommon Caribbean, Green Global Travel and Charlotte Magazine to join me for a preview of the resort which is scheduled to open in 2013, and we had a wonderful time experiencing all the quirks that make Staniel Cay one of the most fun, beautiful and as-yet-unspoiled spots in The Bahamas.
Once you see the pictures, you probably won’t need much verbal convincing to visit, but here are the 5 words you need to know before making your way to this island paradise!
One of the biggest challenges The Bahamas faces is overcoming the perception that the cruise ports are all the country has to offer. In a country with 700 islands – that seems a bit shortsighted, right? While bustling Nassau & Freeport have their own special characteristics, in my opinion, you haven’t been to The Bahamas until you’ve visited the Out Islands.
There’s more to say about the individual Out Islands than I have room for in one post, so I’ll just tell you about The Exumas, an archipelago of 365 islands and cays in the central Bahamas. Home to the private hideaways of Johnny Depp, Oprah, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill & Tim McGraw, David Copperfield and many other celebs, The Exumas are coveted by many, but visited by relatively few in comparison to other spots in The Bahamas.
Staniel Cay is one of the 365 islands in the chain, and it has boat slips and a small airstrip so you can charter your way there by sea or plane. Staniel Cay is the perfect home base for anyone hoping to explore the Land & Sea Park, a protected region perfect for scuba diving and snorkeling, or for quick trips to see the famous swimming pigs, Thunderball Grotto or the rare Bahamian rock iguana.
Until recently, there weren’t many options for accommodations or restaurants on Staniel Cay, just a handful of rooms and even fewer places to grab a snack. Which leads me to….
Nicole Ferguson has long been the unofficial island concierge on Staniel Cay. She’s the gal you see if you need a golf cart, snorkeling adventure, swimming pig tips, romantic picnic lunch or heck, she can even plan your island wedding. (Might be calling you next year about this, Nikki!) In the middle of all her years of localized expertise, she’s also designing and funding the island’s first property with a focus on sustainable tourism – EMBRACE Resort, consisting of seven beautiful villas, a restaurant, spa, gym, meeting space and pool.
As you can imagine, it’s not always easy being an entrepreneur on a tiny island where everything has always been done a certain way, and that’s one of the reasons I think Nikki is one of the smartest, coolest, most daring women in The Bahamas.
From the beginning, Nikki and her daughter Natajia have ensured that EMBRACE is constructed with the most sustainable practices possible. That’s not to say EMBRACE is a crunchy eco-resort. There are no solar panels or composting toilets. But Nikki has taken her love of The Bahamas to the next level, spending extra during the construction process to ensure the natural environment is impacted as little as possible. She’s a Bahamian who truly cares about what will be left of the country for future generations of locals and visitors, and unfortunately her passion for sustainable tourism is all too rare.
Now hear this: I’m not one of those folks who’s going to demand that we all eat organic lettuce and live in air conditioning-free huts in the name of ecotourism. That’s just cray. But, and this is important, as travelers, we owe it to the places we visit and to the travelers coming after us to leave everything in better shape than we left it, to improve what we can and to choose to travel with tour operators who respect the rules (like fishing seasons & limits) of the destination.
Thunderball Grotto just off Staniel Cay is a great example of a fantastic attraction that may not outlast another generation of visitors. It’s an incredibly special natural place, a limestone cave carved by the sea that you can swim in and out of. It was also the site of filming for James Bond’s 1964 flick, Thunderball.
My first visit to the grotto took place 6 years ago and there was no one else inside except my little group. Last week, I saw somewhere between 50 and 100 people experiencing it during the slack tide. The surge in popularity isn’t such a bad thing, however – with no oversight, no rules and no concern for the future of the site, people are trampling the coral, breaking the rocks and messing up the whole place. I fear without some interference, Thunderball Grotto is not going to survive many more seasons of tourists.
Sigh. I have a bigger rant brewing about sustainability in The Bahamas, but I’ll save it for another time. Suffice it to say without the strong voices of concerned locals like Nikki, Staniel Cay and The Exumas face a real scary problem – entitled, smash & grab tourists!
Kalik, kalik, kalik, kalik. Say it a few times in a row and you might notice the name of this local brew sounds a lot like the clunky clank of the cowbell – one of the most recognizable instruments used in The Bahamas’ most famous cultural celebration, Junkanoo.
I’m not a big drinker, but I definitely like to get my Kalik on when I land in The Bahamas. It’s arguably THE national beer, though you also should try Sands & Strong Back… before moving on to other local beverages, like the Bahama Mama, Yellowbird, Goombay Smash, Gully Wash, etc. Need I go on?
Or blue, teal, aqua, cerulean, azul, jade, emerald, beryl, cobalt, indigo, sapphire…
There’s no water in the world as beautiful as The Bahamas. Astronauts have remarked on its beauty from space. Scuba divers report consistent visibility up to 200 feet. You’ll struggle to find the words to capture its beauty – is it Gatorade blue? A mix of Crayolas?
Whatever it is, I guarantee you want to get some for yourself. The short flight from Nassau to the Staniel Cay airstrip is breathtaking on a clear day, and affords you the opportunity to figure out just how to describe the swirls of color you see below.
Isn’t it funny that I’ve traveled all around the world, and the country closest to the place where I grew up turns out to be one of the best? Honest to goodness, I’d get married here, I’d honeymoon here and I’d even consider living here if I could find a way to make it work.
There’s much more Bahamas goodness to come. For now, I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick look at Staniel Cay in 5 words – Out, Embrace, Sustainability, Kalik and Turquoise.
Have you ever visited The Bahamas, The Exumas or Staniel Cay in particular? How would you describe it?
*The challenge for me is presenting The Bahamas from a traveler’s perspective, and not overwhelming you with every detail I happen to know about every island, every beach shack, every rum drink and every variation of conch. If I get a little promotion-y or press release-y, feel free to cyber smack me. I won’t be mad!