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Home is where the Anchor Is…Sailing the Exumas Day 3

The Day All Hell Broke Loose

Day Three Itinerary: Stocking Island to Rat Cay (23 miles)

It was our first morning on the boat. We were all excited about getting underway.

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Unfortunately, we hit our first snag of the day early. Apparently, the cruising permit for the boat had expired and we didn't have a new one yet. We couldn’t leave Elizabeth Harbor without it.

While we were waiting, Teresa twisted her ankle. I blame myself. I had talked her out of her comfortable, familiar, strappy, hiking sandals and convinced her to buy a pair of flip flops. Apparently, it is not a good idea to wear flip flops for the first time at the age of 58, particularly when your first experience with the flip flops is on a slick, wet, perpetually moving surface. We iced her ankle down and continued to wait.

Snag #3 came when we realized the air conditioning was not working on one side of the boat.

The guy finally showed up with the permit, but by then, we needed the a/c fixed, so he spent the next hour fixing the air conditioner. And while he was at it, we asked him to see if he could get the fan in John & Teresa's cabin working.

It was finally time to go. (He was probably really happy to see us leave).

We would sail on the rough outside passage for about 20 miles, then we would take a narrow, current and rock filled cut to the inside passage, where we would spend the remainder of our trip.

Keith and Sydney were used to sailing the Virgin Islands and this was their first experience in the shallow waters of the Bahamas, where eyeball navigation is more necessary than a fancy GPS. John & Teresa had never been on a sailboat for more than a day trip. Matt and I know about power boats, but not sailboats. We were all a little nervous.

“Anyone who has sailed the Exumas chain in the Bahamas knows about cuts….the cuts tend to be rather narrow, so the amount of water flowing through a cut can be quite impressive….add a little wind opposing the current flow and you can very quickly develop 6 to 7 foot seas in a very confused state combined with a vicious current making for a dangerous situation with land on both sides of you.”

We all took a deep breath, battened down the hatches (literally), secured anything loose, emptied the toilets, and strapped an ice bag to Teresa’s ankle.

This day was already a doozy and we hadn’t even made it out of the harbor yet.

The morning started off great. We cruised along the length of Great Exuma and the water was fairly calm. We lounged. We listened to music. We napped (because some of us hadn't slept well the night before...ahem).

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Snag #4 came in the form of this ominous tornado looking cloud that brought with it torrential rain that lasted just long enough to get everything good and wet and make the waves really big.

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We were starting to worry that this day was not going well, but then there was this beautiful rainbow. Maybe all our bad luck had been frontloaded and the rest of the day was going to be a breeze. (And maybe a dingy filled with singing gnomes was going to show up with a pot of gold. Yeah. Right.)

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We continued on until we were at what we believed to be the correct cut. We were already testy because of all the mishaps that had occurred that morning, and knowing how treacherous the cuts could be, we were extremely on edge.

As we made our way toward the cut, we began to get pummeled by 7-10 foot waves. That’s when the rope to the jib came loose.

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Did you know the term “three sheets to the wind” refers to a boat whose sheets have come loose? That should give you a visual of what was happening to us at that point, in 10 foot waves and strong currents with our sail flapping uncontrollably and the boat meandering at the mercy of the waves.

We couldn’t go into the cut. We couldn’t keep sailing past it. We couldn’t just sit still. So we started going in circles while the guys tried to catch and contain the jib.

Do you know what happens when a boat goes in circles in 10 foot waves? 10 foot waves wash over the boat sideways.

Unfortunately, when Teresa (and her purple foot) had “battened down the hatches” in her room, she didn’t latch the giant hatch over her bed properly.

As we sat up top, clutching anything that looked stable with white knuckles and trying not to cry or vomit, water was POURING into her cabin and flooding her bed.

It was about this time that I heard a loud “BANG!” in my cabin, so I ran (rocking and swaying like a mad woman) down to see what was going on. The hatch in my head had popped and water was pouring into my bathroom. The floor was completely flooded and was about to overflow onto the wood floors of my cabin. I did the only thing I could, I braced myself inside the shower as the boat rocked violently back and forth, and depressed the drain button.

Do you have any idea how long it takes to drain the water from a boat shower? It is agonizingly slow. Worse than the toilet. The best part is that you have to continue to hold the button down until it is completely drained. This took about 6 minutes.

By the time I got back up to the salon, Teresa had discovered her flooded cabin. She managed to re-latch her hatch, but the damage was already done. Her bedding and mattress were saturated and there was about 3 inches of water in the storage area under the bed.

“Leave it,” I said. “There’s nothing we can do about it right now.” She looked miserable.

The guys had gotten the sail secured and we were headed back into the cut. The narrow passage between the rocks literally seemed smaller than the boat. The currents were insane. The water was rough and we were all rattled.

Waves started pitching over the boat again. We heard a lot of commotion up at the helm. That’s when Keith jumped down, hit the deck that was now covered with slick salt water, and fell on his face. Literally landed right on his face. He jumped up, eye bleeding, grabbed a chart book and ran back up to the helm.

You know how, when someone falls, you don't know whether to laugh or pretend to be concerned? Well. It wasn't like that. We were HORRIFIED. Blood was pouring down the side of his face and we were pretty sure he had lacerated his brain and his eye was going to fall out. Sydney, Teresa, and I stared at each other wide-eyed.

We crept through the cut and came out the other side unscathed. The water was calm, the sky blue. It was as though the world on the other side of that cut didn’t even exist.

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Everyone was shaken and unhappy. Teresa’s foot was swollen. Keith’s eye was turning blue and he was bleeding. One of the cabins was completely soaked. That’s when I got the great idea to make lunch.

Yes. I am an idiot. I'm that person that thinks a ham sandwich can cure cancer. "You just lost both of your feet in a car accident? I'm sorry. Here. Have a cupcake."

Food makes everyone happy, right? We were through the cut, we were in calm water, the bad stuff was over. As we made our way to our anchorage, I would surprise everyone by having a lunch spread ready by the time we stopped the boat.

I started making a fruit platter. When that was done, I cut up cheese and salami and put it on another platter with an assortment of crackers. I was smiling and patting myself on the back when I felt the boat make a 180 turn.

“Wha…..?????”

“We’re at the wrong cut,” I heard Matt say. “We have to go back out.”

Teresa started to cry. Sydney put her head in her hands.

I braced myself in a corner, holding a platter of meat and cheese in one hand and a platter of fruit in the other so they wouldn’t pitch over when the waves hit us again. Stupid cheese. Stupid crackers. I hated them. I wanted to throw them overboard.

Apparently, I suffered from premature mastication.

I held those damn platters for 20 minutes until we found ourselves at the correct cut and were safely on the inside passage at Rat Cay. It was remarkable how beautiful the world was on this side of the cut.

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We found a safe anchorage at Pigeon Cay and stopped to assess the damage.

John and Teresa’s bed was soaked. Keith had a black eye. Teresa had a sprained ankle. The davit clip that held the dingy up out of the water had broken and the dingy dangled sadly from one hook. We looked like a Chinese laundry boat with John & Teresa’s mattress, pillows and bedding strapped to every available surface.

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It had been a day.

We ate our smoked salmon wraps in silence, happy to be alive.

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Everyone spent the afternoon doing what made them happy. That meant Matt and I took the dingy over to a nearby deserted beach with rum punches.

It’s amazing how easily an hour on a deserted beach with a rum punch can completely wipe away a bad morning.

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As we pulled up to Island Girl, she looked more like a Haitian refugee boat than a cruising yacht, loaded down with wet blankets and foam mattress pads, but she was ours and she had brought us safely through the cut. Twice. She was family.

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As the sun began to set on our first eventful day, we fired up the grill and made burgers and hot dogs. You think God could have thrown us a mercy pass at this point, but no. It just couldn't be that easy. As with everything on a boat, nothing is “quite right.” The grill had two speeds: raw or on fire. It was more like cooking on a campfire than a grill.

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We couldn’t find a metal spatula for the grill, so I had to use a pie server. The fact that the grill was on fire and the pie server was only about 5 inches long made this quite a challenge. It was also tilted at an angle and there was no lip or edge, so I lost a few hot dogs that just rolled off into the water. That meant I had to hold them onto the grill with my 5 inch pie server.

And we never had found those hot dog buns, so we had “hot dog baguettes.”

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But with a bottle of wine, good friends, and a beautiful sunset at sea….it was all good.

It was a rough start, but we knew there would be a learning curve. We just knew tomorrow would be better.

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Posted by vicki_h 05:58 Archived in Bahamas Tagged island tropical bahamas exumas george_town staniel_cay great_exuma Comments (2)

Home is where the Anchor Is…Sailing the Exumas Day 2

How to Provision a Boat and Get Diarrhea All in One Day

Day Two Itinerary: Sailing from Elizabeth Harbor, Great Exuma to Stocking Island (1/2 Mile)

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We had tricky logistics for the morning. The grocery store closed at 11:00 a.m. Our sailing charter didn’t start until noon. Our sailing friends from Canada arrived at 2:00 p.m.

So, we decided to just make a trip to the beach because thinking about all of those logistics made our head hurt.

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We headed to the grocery store at 10:00 a.m. The plan was to get all the provisioning done by 11:00 and beg the young couple cleaning the boat to let us go ahead and put our food away even though it was an hour before our charter started.

If begging didn't work, Plan B was to bribe them with our $300 box of liquor. If we had to go to Plan C, we were going to need some duct tape and a plunger, so we hoped we didn't have to go to Plan C.

I have shopped in a small Bahamian grocery store before, so I am not unaccustomed to the rather odd, sometimes random, and always limited selections that you encounter there. However, I had never provisioned a boat for 7 days for 6 adults, knowing there would be very limited opportunities to pick up any additional provisions during the trip (because the only thing you could find on the smaller cays is the equivalent of a small town gas station mini-market where you might be able to score a pack of crackers and a can of soda if you are lucky).

Lessons for provisioning a boat in the Bahamas:

• If you don’t eat it at home, you won’t eat it on a boat. Just because you’re on a boat doesn’t mean you have to resort to lots of dried beans, tomato paste, and sardines. Unless you are sailing to Africa, you can probably stick to your normal diet.

• You can never have too much alcohol. 12 bottles of liquor, 1 bottle of champagne, 2 cases of beer, and 4 bottles of wine may sound like a ridiculous amount of alcohol for 6 people to get through in just seven days, but it’s amazing what you can accomplish with a little focus and determination.

• Be patient because nothing in the store will be where it should be. For example, at the Exuma Market, I found the toothpaste with the rat poison. The pizza crusts were with the salsa and chips, not with the Italian foods. And hot dog buns? Well. I never did find the hot dog buns. Probably because the hot dog buns were not with the bread, but were actually with the lighter fluid, and I didn’t think to look there.

• Be flexible. So you wanted Doritos. Bob’s Cheesy Nacho Strips are probably just as good. Want Sprite? You may have to settle for Club Soda and a box of Splenda. The important thing to remember is that there is no food you can’t live without for a week. Especially if you have 17 bottles of liquor and 2 cases of beer.

• Expect things to cost more. That $2.99 box of cereal you buy at home is going to cost you at least 3 times that in the Bahamas. I find that one tends to question one's actual NEED for Oreos when those Oreos cost $11.25.

• Be aware of your space limitations. A week’s worth of food for 6 adults has to fit in a space the size of your high school gym locker. And, after about 3 days it will smell the same. However, despite space limitations, you can never have too much water, ice, zip-loc bags, or toilet paper. Tie them with rope and wear them as a hat if you have to.

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We pushed 3 grocery carts across the rutted, pocked, potholed pavement to the boat. Not only did the kind couple cleaning the boat let us go ahead and load up an hour early, they helped us put things away!

We didn't need that duct tape after all.

We were finally introduced to Island Girl, our home for the next week. While the outdoor and common spaces were AWESOMELY HUGE for a boat, the cabins left me with heart palpitations. It wasn’t my first time on a sailboat, however, and I knew to expect my bedroom to be exactly the size of my (very small) bed with a shoe box sized locker to put all of my things in and a bathroom (head) that could cause the hardiest individual to become claustrophobic in an instant.

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We had the boat provisioned and our things put away by 11:00 a.m. and we weren’t expecting Sydney and Keith until 2:00, so we grabbed a taxi to the Fish Fry, a tangle of colorful one-room shacks located on the shore a couple of miles from George Town. It’s beyond casual and most of the places don’t seem to have regular hours but open when it’s convenient or they simply have nothing else to do.

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Roland, our taxi driver, had recommended Shirley’s. Soon enough, we found her bright yellow building with the doors open, welcoming us inside with the smell of fresh fried seafood. Her menu was simple, featuring local seafoods, curries, and BBQ.

Matt and I ordered the conch fritters, cracked lobster and the coconut grouper to share. I’m not sure what we enjoyed most – the friendly service, the fresh food, the rum punch, or the delicious breeze blowing in off the ocean.

Shirley’s was a HIT.

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It was about 1:30, so it was time to make our way back to the Exuma Yacht Club to wait for Keith & Sydney to arrive.

The term “Yacht Club” is loosely applied on Great Exuma.

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We were surprised to find our friends already on board when we arrived back at Island Girl. After a short briefing, we were ready to set sail.

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Because it was late in the day, our plans were not ambitious. We’d make the ½ mile trip across Elizabeth Harbor to Stocking Island, home of Volleyball Beach and the Chat n’Chill. The short ride across the harbor was beautiful and we all started to get really excited about the week ahead.

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We managed to get there for the tail end of the Chat n’Chill’s Sunday BBQ. Dinner was complete with a Goombay Smash with a Splash and a dog named Butter that would let you throw his coconut.

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We went to be that night full of BBQ, rum, and the hope and promise of our first day at sea.

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Unfortunately for me, I was also full of something else.

Do you know where tap water comes from on a sailboat? Unfortunately, it is not sweet flower dew brought down by fairies. Ask 100 sailors if they drink the water from their holding tanks and I guarantee that at least 99 of them will say “no.” The water looks bad, smells bad, and tastes bad. That’s because it’s likely contaminated with dirt, rust flakes, paint chips, bacteria, cysts, or chemicals. You don’t know where the water in the tank comes from.

It could come from anywhere. You also don’t know how long it’s been since that tank was cleaned. Water tanks that haven’t been cleaned in a while have a thick layer of crud in the bottom and deposits of icky in the PVC lines.

I knew it the instant I did it. I was innocently brushing my teeth when I realized I hadn’t gotten a glass of water from the “clean water jugs” up in the salon. I was already undressed and really didn’t want to put on clothes and schlep back upstairs, so I used the water from the tap.

It was just like the scene in Sex and the City when Charlotte drinks the water in Mexico. I knew my mistake the second I swallowed some of the tank water. I could already imagine the bacteria coursing through my digestive tract, planning to take up residence in some cozy corner of my abdomen, waiting to burst out of me like that thing from ALIEN.

It was about 3:00 am when it hit me. I tried to creep into the head, but there is simply no way to be discreet or quiet on a boat. Your toilet is about 10 feet from the next cabin's bed, separated by a thin wall of fiberglass.

Sound carries.

And smell travels.

Odors are made of gas molecules. Gas molecules are in continual motion. They travel as fast as a bullet. Humid air (like the air in a boat, for example) traps smells and causes them to linger even longer than normal. Small, enclosed areas (like a boat, for example) limit the amount of dilution possible, which further intensifies the smell.

I mean, it’s like a sailboat cabin is the “Perfect Storm” of the olfactory universe. When an odor is released, the small enclosed area and thick, humid air allow the odor to remain in a smellable concentration for an eternity. And privacy? On a boat? Forget about it.

You have no choice but to flush.

Even if it is 3:00 a.m. and the flush is loud enough to wake up the people on the next boat.

Because a boat head doesn't flush like a household toilet. The flush is excruciatingly slow and it is deafeningly loud. You have to hold the button down for about 10 seconds to get a good, clean bowl. It sounds like an 18 wheeler running through a cement wall.

I know there was nothing to be ashamed of. Diarrhea happens to everyone….nuns, princesses, grandmothers…even the Queen gets diarrhea. But I still tried to be discreet.

By my 7th visit to the head, I didn't give a damn about being quiet anymore. In fact, some passive aggressive part of me wanted to take an eye dropper and pour tank water into each of their sleeping mouths so that they too could experience the midnight joy of having their guts turned into molten lava.

Ka-whooooooosh-whooooosh-whooooooooooossssshhhhh (one one thousand.....two one thousand...) kaaaaa-wwwhhooooosssh (three one thousand)….

Oh what a night.

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Posted by vicki_h 06:08 Archived in Bahamas Tagged island tropical bahamas exumas george_town staniel_cay great_exuma Comments (0)

Home is where the Anchor Is…Sailing the Exumas Day 1

Relaxing, self-indulgent, easy….those are typically the last 3 words I think of when planning a vacation. Those words are for vacationers. Not me.

Vacationers come home with big smiles, clean clothes, and shiny trinkets purchased at junk stores that still have the “Made in China” stickers affixed. Vacationers come home with good hair and pedicures that are still as fresh as the day they left the spa a week before. Vacationers bounce back into work with a photo album full of glossy pictures, ready for their 8:00 a.m. meeting without missing a beat.

But vacationers come home with nothing they didn’t have before they left, except maybe a tan and a good night’s sleep.

Travelers come home completely exhausted, with their last pair of underwear inside out because they ran out of clean ones the day their flight home was cancelled due to hurricane force winds. Travelers come home with no money, dirty shoes, and the closest thing to a souvenir is the paper wrist band still attached to their arm from the all night beach party they left to run to the airport. Travelers come home with sunbleached hair, chipped toenails, blisters, and a slight case of food poisoning from eating that fish the local guy grilled on the sidewalk.

Travelers come home with a renewed sense of who they are, a feeling of accomplishment, and an awareness of the world they didn’t have a week before.

I rarely vacation.

I travel.

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Day One: Flying into Great Exuma – The Necklace of the Bahamas

I have heard the Exuma island chain, made up of some 365 cays stretching for 100 miles, referred to as a necklace of sparking jewels. It appears like glittering emeralds and pearls scattered across a turquoise sea filled with forgotten hideaways, protected harbors, and deserted beaches.

Viewed from the air, it was dazzling.

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We made an uneventful landing and were in a taxi within minutes, headed to Augusta Bay to spend a night while waiting for our Canadian friends, Keith and Sydney, to arrive.

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Augusta Bay is a small boutique hotel that sits on a private beach just steps from shallow turquoise water. It was clean and quiet, and, with the exception of the shiny black comforter in my room which had a slightly 1970s-porn quality about it, we loved it.

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We had loads of sunshine and nothing to do but kill time, so Matt and I walked down the beach, which was dotted with small hotels. When we reached the end of the hotels, we found a pretty little beach on the other side of a small rise.

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If we had stopped there, we would have been happy. It had beautiful water, swaying palm trees, and what gets my vote for "most interesting snack bar."

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But we kept walking to see what was farther down the beach.

That’s when we found Jolly Hall Beach. We were greeted with a fine curve of soft, white sand shaded by casuarina trees and bordered by clear, shallow water of the most brilliant turquoise.

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It was, without a doubt, one of the finest beaches I have ever been to.

And we were alone.

THIS is why I love the Bahamas.

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That afternoon, we decided to head into George Town. I’m not sure what I expected, but considering it was the capital on one of the larger islands in the Bahamas, the largest city in a 100-mile island chain, and home to an international airport…… I expected more.

The guys decided to stop for a beer while Teresa and I strolled through the shops.

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Teresa and I were finished in approximately 8 minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, it was sweet. It was quaint. It was friendly……But it was so SMALL.

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More a village than a city, George Town is a smattering of shops and eateries on one street that circles a small lake. It takes longer to walk through the average Super Target than it does to walk around George Town. I’m pretty sure my first apartment was bigger than George Town. And the widely touted "straw market" reminded me more of the Bean Station Flea Market than a craft market, well.....minus the boiled peanuts, discount cigarettes, and bootleg copies of Hank Williams, Sr.

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Unfortunately, we had expected ……more….so we had asked our taxi not to pick us up for 2 hours. Sure, we could have just called another taxi. Except that we had just purchased all the liquor for the trip and put it in that taxi’s trunk.

Oh dear.

We did the only thing we could do with 2 hours to kill.

We headed for the bar.

We found a waterfront view and cold goombay smashes at the Club Peace & Plenty. There are harder ways to spend a couple of hours.

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We were pretty sure that with $300 worth of free liquor in his trunk, we’d never really see Vencil again, but he showed up, exactly 2 hours later.

We had him drop us off at Catch a Fire, a restaurant that has the best sunset view on Great Exuma.

And yes, we left all that liquor in his trunk again. We are a very trusting bunch.

Catch a Fire was fantastic. All Balinese teak furniture, tiki torches, and bougainvillea….right at the edge of the water, with a sunset view.

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Although, they seemed to run out of signs when it came to the men's room. This either means "Men's Room," or it means "Women who do not wear skirts are men." I'm still not 100% sure.

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They also had Bahama Obama. At least that’s what he told us his name was. I think he was a little more Bahama Flavor Flav. He was the self-proclaimed Fun Meister of Catch a Fire and he tried to make dancers out of me and Teresa.

He failed.

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30 minutes past the time we told Vencil to pick us up he still hadn’t shown. We were sure he had decided the $300 worth of liquor in his trunk was worth more than the $30 cab fare we owed him and was probably hosting a party somewhere on the other side of the island waiting for Bahama Obama to show up. Just as we were about to give up, he came rushing into the parking lot, apologizing because he’d started watching the basketball game and forgot about us.

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What he lacked in punctuality he made up for in honesty.

We bid good-night to Catch a Fire, Bahama Obama, and the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree and called it a night.

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Posted by vicki_h 12:26 Archived in Bahamas Tagged island tropical bahamas exumas george_town staniel_cay great_exuma Comments (0)

In the bahamas, pigs don't fly...but they might swim.

Going Hog Wild on Staniel Cay

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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.

Swimming pigs?

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.

Day One:

Any pilot who knows the Bahamas will tell you the most spectacular flight in the islands is the one down the Exuma chain.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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If you do have a plane, you are in luck. Staniel Cay boasts one of the few airstrips in the Exumas.

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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.

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Welcome to Staniel Cay.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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:

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We travelled all the roads and saw all of the sights.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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And beer.

With a case of Kalik in hand, we made our way back to the Beach Shack.

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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.

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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.

Eventually.

This sign just inside the door should have been a clue.

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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.

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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…….

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Day Two:

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.

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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).

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I have never seen anything so funny in my entire life. THESE PIGS WERE SWIMMING TO OUR BOAT!!!!

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For me, it was love at first sight.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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….).

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We grabbed a bottle of mango rum and boated off in search of the perfect pre-lunch cocktail spot.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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We turned on the tunes, poured the rum punch, and had our very own desert island moment.

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When we got hungry, we decided to head off toward Pipe Cay to find a lunch spot.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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There are also an abundance of other fish hanging quietly around the dock pilings – bonefish, snapper, grouper, and tiny sergeant majors were everywhere.

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I snorkeled with the sharks until my fingers pruned and I had a mask face.

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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.

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I looked up at the dock helplessly and was told, “They like to be pet.”

Seriously?

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.

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The only rules were, “Don’t feed them in the water. Don’t stick your hand in their mouth. Don’t grab their tail.”

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Oh, darn. I was SO wanting to stick my hand in its mouth.

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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.

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As the sun began to dip lower in the sky, we motored back to Staniel Cay to clean up for dinner.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Day Three:

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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:

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We let the girls run and roll and swim until they were nothing more than two little sand balls.

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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.

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First up? Thunderball Grotto.

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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.

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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.

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After the grotto it was time for PIGS!!!!

I just couldn’t get enough of those pigs.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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We stretched out lazily on the porch watching the sun set and sipping Bahama Mamas.

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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.

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As the golden half-light of the sunset danced on the water, it felt like a perfect end to a perfect day.

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Day Four:

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.

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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.

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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.

Oh dear.

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?

Oh dear.

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.

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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.

Oh dear.

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.

Ah ha!

“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.

Oh dear.

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!!!!

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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.

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Posted by vicki_h 08:45 Archived in Bahamas Tagged bahamas exumas staniel_cay Comments (2)

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