Going Hog Wild on Staniel Cay
27.07.2012 - 30.07.2012
It all started with an article in one of Matt’s pilot magazines. It caught my eye with a catchy title about “BEST DESTINATIONS FOR PRIVATE PILOTS” accompanied by photos of incredibly delicious turquoise water and tall palm trees. I started reading about miles of deserted beaches, water in more shades of blue than my eyes could register, restaurants overflowing with lobster……and then there was a photo of a swimming pig.
Yes. Porky Pig was paddling through the beautiful Caribbean waters.
I thought this article was about the tropics, not the tropigs. I mean, was this the Bahamas or was this Boara Boara? No way, I thought. It had to be hogwash. This would give a whole new meaning to “salt pork.” Seriously, this had to be a pigment of someone’s imagination. But what if it was true? Could there really be beach Babes? What if there really were fabulous swimming island pigs? I’d be as happy as a pig in mud. I’d squeal with delight. I’d give my left hoof to see them. Just imagine the pigtures I could take!
I decided to jump in, whole hog.
“We’re going to see the swimming pigs for my birthday,” I announced.
And that is how we ended up on Staniel Cay.
Any pilot who knows the Bahamas will tell you the most spectacular flight in the islands is the one down the Exuma chain.
Pronounced Ex-U-mas not EX-u-mas (which sounds like a nasty skin rash), the Exumas are a 120 mile long chain of 365 tiny islands in the Bahamas…each one enticing you to become a castaway. Strong currents between the shallow waters to the west and the deep Exuma sound to the east have molded the sea floor and created swirling channels of deep blue that twist and dance their way through shallow sand bars in every shade of turquoise imaginable. What you see from above are countless shades of blue, green, indigo, aqua, and turquoise waters as they drift over sand shallows and into narrow ocean cuts. The water is broken by vivid green islands fringed with endless white sand beaches and delicate coves speckled with white boats. The colors are striking and the appearance of the island chain from the air is like a beautiful necklace draped delicately across the ocean floor.
Some of these tiny islands are inhabited, but most are not. For those that are inhabited, it is a term applied very loosely. It typically refers to populations in the double digits, a marina, one restaurant, and less than a handful of cottages for visitors. The Exumas are truly a place to get away from it all.
Midway through the Exuma island chain is Staniel Cay. Staniel Cay is a 2.5 mile islet with a population that hovers around 80 on a good day. With no hotels, a single resort that has only a dozen cottages, and only 2 small airlines that fly puddle jumpers in from Nassau….this isn’t an easy destination to get to unless you have a boat or your own plane. That’s why visitors are few, making it an incredibly private paradise.
If you do have a plane, you are in luck. Staniel Cay boasts one of the few airstrips in the Exumas.
You will notice I used the word “airstrip” and did not use the word “airport.” That’s because all you will find on this tiny speck of land is a relatively short 3,000 foot runway with a severe crosswind that probably should have been repaved about 15 years ago. There are no tie downs and parking is just off a gravel area beside the airstrip that you have to hand pull your plane into once you have landed. You have to watch for errant roosters as you touch down and you can’t help but wonder how many hermit crabs you are crushing beneath your wheels. There are no facilities and the closest thing to a weather station is the tattered and sun faded wind sock that hangs about halfway down the runway.
Welcome to Staniel Cay.
As we stood on the cracked and faded airstrip surrounded on 3 sides by water, I spotted the sign I was looking for: 3Ns Vacations. Nikki Ferguson was my “go to gal” for everything we needed for our visit to Staniel Cay. With a happy pink building next to the airstrip, she can provide any service that you need for your stay. She had left us a golf cart with the keys inside, left a boat tied up to the dock below our cottage, provisioned our house with groceries before our arrival, and even had someone bake and deliver a birthday cake. I already loved Nikki and I had never met her.
All we had to do was land, load up our cart and find the Beach Shack.
The most common lodging for visitors to Staniel Cay are the 12 colorful cottages at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club. The cottages are basic, but adequate, and are one of the few options for staying on the island. Hoping for something a little more roomy, I had checked my options on VRBO and found the Beach Shack.
The Beach Shack is a 2 bedroom rental cottage in a building that housed the former Happy People Marina. It was roomy, adorably furnished, loaded with amenities, and had the most outstanding view off the deck of the crazy shades of blue that are the distinguishing feature of the Exuma islands. What remains of the Happy People dock is still below the house, and while it has taken a beating from several storms, it was still good enough to tie up our boat and give us quick and easy access to the water.
The best part was that the Beach Shack was pet friendly, and for the first time ever, we had decided to bring “the girls” to the Bahamas. Let me introduce you to my children:
They were excited to be along for the ride.
By noon we were settled into the house, had everything unpacked, and were off in search of lunch.
On an island so small that “town” consists of a post office, a blue store, and a pink store, the Staniel Cay Yacht Club is the social center. It houses the primary restaurant on the island and initiation to the island takes place at its polished wooden bar. Feeling lucky to be in such an amazing place, we toasted our good fortune with rum punches. Those were followed by conch bites and an amazing lobster salad.
Because it was already afternoon, we made it a land based day and decided to tour the entire island after lunch. We set off with our map. You know you are about to fall off the edge of the world when the official maps of the place are homemade:
We travelled all the roads and saw all of the sights.
That took 20 minutes.
I told you this place was small.
We headed to Ho Tai Cay beach to cool off. This tiny beach is hidden down a dirt road that is obscured by brush on the far side of the air strip. After driving in circles around the airstrip, one of us finally spotted the path and we bumped and bounced our way to one of the most interesting beaches I have ever seen.
The water was shallow and clear and a maze of rock walls stretched out into the sea. The water itself was a thin channel running up the center of the island. There was a scattering of colorfully painted wooden picnic tables and an old rope swing. It was the perfect place to cool off.
Before heading back to the house, our friends wanted to grab a case of Kalik, the beer of the Bahamas. We went in seach of the famed Blue Store and Pink Store.
We found the Blue Store first. They did not sell beer. As I looked around the store, I realized that I had made a good decision by asking Nikki to buy our provisions elsewhere and pre-stock the house. The little store was somewhat bereft with an odd assortment of things that gave one the impression that they pretty much took what they could get and that if you did your shopping on the tail end of their supply run, you might not find much. This place was more suited for emergency supplies than for actual grocery buying.
I had visions of what my shopping experience would have been like had I foolishly waited, thinking I could buy all of our provisions on Staniel once we arrived. I’d be like someone on one of those grocery shopping shows, throwing random items into my basket as I fought the person next to me for the last box of microwave popcorn. Hey! This dented can of beets looks good! It would go nicely with this cube steak with the freezer burn that I found in the back floor cooler. Oh, look….prunes and a gallon jug of Gallo…grab those!
I sighed with relief as we exited the Blue Store and I thought of my cabinets at the Beach Shack, filled with kettle chips and baguettes, fresh limes and an ice cold pineapple just waiting to be sliced. Whew.
However, we were in search of beer. There was still the Pink Store, so we walked the 30 feet to its front door. It was a lot like the Blue Store, only the offerings were different. Still odd and limited, but different. Here, one could get extra virgin olive oil, a handmade basket, and a frozen pizza.
With a case of Kalik in hand, we made our way back to the Beach Shack.
On Staniel Cay, life moves slower than a hermit crab. That’s why you have to put your order in at the bar by 5:00 p.m. for the 7:00 p.m. dinner if you want to eat at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club. We had only seen 2 other restaurants on the island and it wasn’t clear if they were very good or if they were even open, so we stuck with what we knew. We had perused the menu and put in our orders at lunch.
We showed up at 7:00 p.m. and found that proper protocol was to grab a cocktail at the bar and then stroll around the docks watching them feed the nurse sharks until you hear the dinner bell. When the dinner bell rings, you are allowed inside and the meal you ordered at lunch is brought to you.
This sign just inside the door should have been a clue.
The dinner bell was rung at 7:45. We were served our food at 9:45. I am still asking myself why, when they had known for over 6 hours exactly when I was coming and exactly what I was going to have, it took 2 hours to get my meal.
Life moves slower than a hermit crab stuck in peanut butter with a seagull on it’s back on Staniel Cay.
We simply drank more rum punch.
I was seriously contemplating trying to run back to the Blue Store to grab that dented can of beets when our food was finally served. By this time, I was delirious with hunger (and/or rum punch, it’s still unclear). We were served a soup of the day, salad of the day, our entrée choice (LOBSTER!!), and the dessert of the day. The food was good, even if it was slower than molasses running uphill in January and a bit overpriced.
With only one restaurant to choose from, it made our options somewhat limited. We knew we’d probably be eating there again. As we carted back to the Beach Shack, I found myself daydreaming about that freezer burned steak…….
Boat rentals aren’t as fancy on Staniel Cay as they are in Abaco, but Nikki had hooked us up with a very decent 17 foot Boston Whaler that would serve us well. It had a bimini top for shade and nice seats. We couldn’t complain. We piled in and headed into the wild blue yonder.
I had flown 804 miles to see swimming pigs and I couldn’t wait. I slathered on the suntain oinkment and was ready for my big adventure (eventually the pig puns will stop…but I am not yet emotionally ready).
The cays in the Exumas are more plentiful, much smaller, and much closer together than what we were accustomed to in the Abacos. This made for AMAZING boating. Every 5 minutes, you were at another island with something amazing to be seen. Deserted islands were plentiful, sandbars popped up out of nowhere at every turn, and beaches were scattered everywhere. While boating charts are advisable, they really only give you a big overview and give you the lay of the water, so to speak. The primary navigation in the Exumas is good old eyeball navigation. You literally “read the water,” recognizing that water color is indicative of depth and obstructions.
“Blue, blue, go on through….green, green, it might get lean….brown, brown, you’ll run aground…..white, white, it ain’t alright!” Blue water is safe. Green water can be okay, but the lighter it is, the shallower it might be. Brown usually means rocks or coral. White means you are about to run up on the sandy bottom!
Our first stop was at Bitter Guana Cay. Bitter Guana is uninhabited. By humans, that is. What you will find here is an endangered species of marine iguana. The Exumas Iguana is one of the rarest in the Caribbean. They are herbivores and as soon as you land your boat on the beach, they come charging out to see what sort of munchies you might have.
These guys were HUGE. They looked like prehistoric beasts and it was a little unnerving having them charging down the beach as fast as those little legs would go. To feed them, you should only feed them what is natural to them: lettuce, fruits, vegetables. Don’t go throwing a Dorito or half a Twinkie at them. You also need to place the food on a stick because if you throw it in the sand, they will ingest the sand.
We were so enamored with the giant lizards that we almost failed to notice how gorgeous the beach was. These iguanas enjoy an absolutely beautiful slice of real estate. We decided to stay a while and lounged in the cool water.
But eventually, the lure of the pigs was too strong. Sooooo-eeeeee! We had to go find those pigs!
Big Major Spot is just a few minutes by boat from Staniel Cay. Like Bitter Guana, its only inhabitants are of the 4 legged variety. Big Major is easy to find because it has one of the best anchorages for large boats and you can see the mega yachts piled up in the bay from a mile away.
We cruised past the yachts and made our way toward Pig Beach. The pigs don’t even wait for you to get close before they start paddling out to your boat. It was HILARIOUS. All you could see were two big ears and a snout moving toward you.
I have never seen anything so funny in my entire life. THESE PIGS WERE SWIMMING TO OUR BOAT!!!!
For me, it was love at first sight.
When they got to the boat, they simply circled it…begging for food like a bunch of big dogs. You could tell the swimming made them tired, because they would put their hooves on the side of the boat and rest if you let them. They never tried to climb in, I think they just didn’t want to keep pig-paddling.
We discovered the kindest thing to do was to wade in where the pigs could just stand in the water and look at you with their big sad pig eyes….god forbid they actually have to exercise to get more food.
The pig party was delightful. No one was charged by a pig. No pigs got unruly. No one got a pig bite. The pigs were demanding, but polite. They would stand at your feet with their big mouths open. If you told them “No Pig!” they would move away and find some other sucker who still had some snacks.
As a new boat arrived and the pigs started paddling over to it, we decided it was time to go. We’d had our fun and now it was time for lunch.
We stopped at Sampson Cay and paid a visit to their Yacht Club store to stock up on some rum that we decided our lunch was missing. They have a very nice store with a very good selection of grocery items (as in…it was well stocked with good provisions that did not include dusty cans of hominy or bags of dried beans….).
We grabbed a bottle of mango rum and boated off in search of the perfect pre-lunch cocktail spot.
We saw a great looking beach on a deserted cay but then noticed there was already a little boat bobbing happily near the shore. In the Exumas, deserted beaches are so plentiful that local etiquette protects the privacy of whoever gets there first. It would be rude to crash someone else’s private beach party when you know that the next strand over will be all yours.
We motored on and found a picture perfect crescent of beach with a long sandbar near Twin Cays. We anchored and looked around. Not a soul in sight….a long stretch of sugar sand….and the most perfect clear water I had ever seen.
On every beach we visited while in the Exumas, I was the first to lay down my footprints. No one else had been and the beach was virgin and pristine. Every beach was OUR beach. We never had to share with anyone. It felt absolutely decadent.
We turned on the tunes, poured the rum punch, and had our very own desert island moment.
When we got hungry, we decided to head off toward Pipe Cay to find a lunch spot.
As we motored slowly through water that looked like it couldn’t possibly be more than 3 feet deep, we saw a series of perfect little sandbars, just sitting as happy as you please in the middle of the water. It was perfect.
We anchored between two sandbars, poured some more rum punch, and pulled out our lunch.
I hesitated for a minute....looking at the thick piece of bacon on my sandwich...."I'm sorry," I whispered to it, before taking a huge bite.
We enjoyed a couple of hours of post-lunch beach bliss before setting off for Compass Cay.
Compass Cay is home to a bevy of nurse sharks that have been tamed by years of hand feeding. For an $8 per person docking fee, you can jump in and swim with the sharks.
I loved the idea because, although nurse sharks are quite docile, they still look like predators. There is a definite thrill in being in the midst of them.
There are also an abundance of other fish hanging quietly around the dock pilings – bonefish, snapper, grouper, and tiny sergeant majors were everywhere.
I snorkeled with the sharks until my fingers pruned and I had a mask face.
I pulled up onto their slightly submerged dock to take off my mask and couldn’t help but scream as something huge came up from the water and shoved me from behind. Before I knew it, I had a nurse shark IN MY LAP. As it lay there staring at me and I held my breath staring at it…another one shoved itself up beside me and then a third shoved up on my other side.
I looked up at the dock helplessly and was told, “They like to be pet.”
Swimming with the sharks is one thing, but petting the sharks? You have got to be kidding me.
Sure enough, if you stroke their backs they lie still like giant wet puppies. Their skin looked like a mosaic of shiny little pebbles and it felt like wet sandpaper. It was amazing.
The only rules were, “Don’t feed them in the water. Don’t stick your hand in their mouth. Don’t grab their tail.”
Oh, darn. I was SO wanting to stick my hand in its mouth.
We enjoyed the colorful Compass Cay marina, littered with all sorts of nautical nonsense painted happily on pieces of driftwood, before agreeing it was time to call it a day and head back.
As the sun began to dip lower in the sky, we motored back to Staniel Cay to clean up for dinner.
Despite the incredible 2 hour wait the night before, we still didn’t see anything else open, so we had dutifully put in our orders that morning for the night’s dinner.
I will say that the wait time was significantly less on the second night. I think we waited about 20 minutes before our food arrived. The restaurant wasn’t very busy. We had the soup, the salad, and I had opted for the ribs. They were seriously good. There were slices of gingerbread cake for dessert.
The day had been amazing. Giant lizards. Swimming pigs. Lap sharks. Miles of deserted beaches. The most beautiful water I had ever seen.
In just 36 hours, this place had blown my mind.
It’s my birthday!!!!!
And I couldn’t imagine a better place to be.
Unless it was on that 4 story yacht with the helicopter on top that we saw near Pig Beach.
We started off the morning by taking the girls to Ocean Beach, a long beach on Staniel Cay bordered by high dunes and cliffs, making it a great place to let them run free.
This, my friends, is what pure, unbridled dog joy looks like:
We let the girls run and roll and swim until they were nothing more than two little sand balls.
After we hosed them off and chased them around the deck with a blow dryer, we left the girls to nap at the Beach Shack while we headed out on the boat.
First up? Thunderball Grotto.
The grotto is just offshore, fairly close to the Staniel Cay Yacht Club. It is a partially underwater cavern with several openings at the top that create natural sky lights. It was used in the James Bond movie, Thunderball ….in case that was not obvious from the name.
It is best to visit at low tide to avoid having to swim underwater to find the opening. At low tide, you can simply snorkel through the opening. The current is very strong and the swimming was a little tough, but once inside, it was amazing. Light beamed down from the openings in the roof of the cave, illuminating the crystal clear water below. Tropical fish darted in and out of the light – sergeant majors, parrot fish, queen angelfish, blue chromis. It was breathtaking.
After the grotto it was time for PIGS!!!!
I just couldn’t get enough of those pigs.
These have to be the happiest pigs on earth. Really. They are simply in hog heaven.
Seriously, I am trying to stop with the pig puns…but I just can’t help myself. Really. It’s snout my fault.
Ok, really. I’m done. I’m done.
Th-th-that’s all f-f-folks!
We tried to find another good spot for a snorkel, but the currents seemed pretty strong everywhere we tried, so we thought better of it and instead set off in search of another perfect beach.
We found it at Sandy Cay.
With a beautiful beach and sandbar all to ourselves, we spent hours doing a whole lot of nothing. We drifted on the water and walked through the shallows feeling for shells with our feet. We stretched out on the sandbar and let our toes dangle in the water’s edge while the sun breathed warmly on our salty faces. We walked the beach, tossing crumbs the gulls and listening to their laughter as the wind carried it away.
It was the best kind of day.
We had inquired with some locals about where else we might be able to find dinner and they directed us to Taste and Sea, a little waterfront place practically next door to the Beach Shack.
We stretched out lazily on the porch watching the sun set and sipping Bahama Mamas.
The food was GOOD and about half the price of the Yacht Club. We had conch bits and cracked lobster with crispy fries and a fresh salad. Cracked lobster is my favorite lobster. Why? Because it is FRIED. Any good southern girl will tell you that everything tastes better when it’s fried.
As the golden half-light of the sunset danced on the water, it felt like a perfect end to a perfect day.
Matt has said that I am like a little kid who has just eaten a big handful of cookies, but has to stick her hand deep in the cookie jar in search of just one more, and more often than not, my hand gets stuck, forcing a crew of firemen, a sledgehammer, the National Guard, and some Crisco to set me free.
That was a perfect description of what led to the events of our final morning.
I woke up early.
Because the Beach Shack enjoys the sunset every evening, I had not seen one sunrise since we had landed on Staniel Cay. To catch the sunrise, you had to head back over to the other side, to Ocean Beach.
I asked my girlfriend if she wanted to go see the sunrise with me. I mean, we were up, we were waiting for the guys to wake up, why not go? We had nothing else to do.
We grabbed our coffee and set off.
The Ocean Beach access is only about a 5 minute cart ride along very civilized roads. The problem is that once you get to the access, you have to ride an excruciatingly long time down a rutted dirt and sand path that is so absurdly narrow that you are forced to slide to the center of the cart, hugging the person sharing the seat with you and burying your face in the other person’s armpit so that you can avoid being covered with spider webs and pummeled to death by seagrape branches.
As we bumped our way down the path, most of the hot coffee that was in my cup proceeded to spill down my now sticky legs. Let me rephrase that. My now hot and sticky legs.
After what seemed an eternity, we reached the “parking area.” The parking area is a wide spot of extremely loose, soft sand.
Extremely. Loose. Soft. Sand.
The golf cart hit that sand and I, being the brain child that I am, floored it thinking I could power my way through to the other side. All I managed to do was get the cart stuck and completely bury the passenger side wheels in the sand.
My friend and I might have a combined weight that barely tops 200 lbs and our arms look like breadsticks. We are also weaker than a pair of hamsters.
We were about an hour’s walk from the cottage and at least a 30 minute walk from the main road. Even if we walked back to the main road, exactly who would be driving by at 5:30 in the morning on a road where a traffic jam could be described as 3 cars a day?
As we fretted and paced and considered our dilemma, I did my best Scarlett O’Hara and declared, “We won’t think about this now. We will go watch the sunrise and think about this later!”
And watch the sunrise we did.
It was during this glorious sunrise that I realized the cup of coffee I had managed to drink earlier was now insisting upon an immediate exit from my person. Those of you who drink coffee know exactly what I mean. Coffee has a demanding effect on the body.
The situation was dire. I had to think. As I paced nervously up and down the beach, sweat beading up on my brow and my insides partying like it was 1999, I saw a board that had washed up on the shore, tangled in a pile of dry seaweed.
“Grab all the boards that you can find and bring them up to the cart,” I shouted. I was so excited. I had an idea and I just KNEW this was going to work!
First, we dug out the errant wheels. We dug until our poor little hands were filthy and scratched up from the sand. When we got to hard packed sand, I told Teresa that we were going to push the cart up and slide the boards underneath the wheels so that they could get traction on the stuck side.
We were giddy. We had this licked. Grinning like idiots, we got up, brushed the sand off our now crusty and abraded knees, and pushed.
Absolutely nothing. The cart didn’t budge an inch.
Seriously…what did I think? That the cart was as light as a feather and we were just going to magically lift a 700 pound golf cart…like a mother on an adrenaline high that is trying to lift an SUV off her kid? Really?
Yes. That is really what I thought.
We sighed as we slumped down beside the cart, dejected.
I think Teresa reached her breaking point right about then. She jumped up and started shoving the cart.
“Stupid cart!!” she screamed as she rocked it back and forth…..”You stupid, stupid golf cart!” …..and then I saw the wheel lift.
“Keep rocking it!” I screamed. Because the cart was sitting at an angle, she was able to get just enough momentum from the rocking to lift the wheels enough for me to shove the boards underneath.
It took a while, but we rocked and lifted, shoved and dug, and after about 10 minutes, we had the boards securely under the wheels.
“Let’s give this a try,” I said as I looked at her, her eyes closed, her fingers crossed tightly.
I pressed the gas.
The cart lurched forward about 2 feet.
And proceeded to bury itself in the sand again.
We nearly cried. We were exhausted. We were hot. Our knees and hands hurt. I had a squirrel running through my abdomen. And the cart was still stuck.
“We did it once,” I said to her. “We can do it again. And again. And again. As many times as it takes to get this darn cart to that firm spot over there.”
We did it four times to be exact.
But we were finally FREE!!!!
As we drove back to the house, I welcomed the growing pain in my arms and back, I welcomed every slap of the seagrape trees as we scraped along the little path, I even welcomed the giant spider web that became ensnared in my hair.
Why? Because it sure as hell beat having to walk an hour back to the house to see that look on Matt’s face that I know so well. That look that says, “You did WHAT?”
We got back to the house and collapsed in the air conditioning. After a good shower and some breakfast, it was all just a very bad, distant memory. It didn’t seem so bad.
Besides, I really like to go out in a dramatic fashion.
And I really, really like to get the last cookie.
The last cookie, the one you aren’t supposed to get……somehow it always tastes the sweetest.