Exuma, Bahamas: Not so eco-friendly mass tourism

Over the three day Martin Luther King Jr. MLK Weekend in January 2020 my friend and I ventured to Exuma Island in the Bahamas.

This was my first time in the Bahamas. Exuma is home to the famed swimming pigs, excellent dive sites, and unfortunately, the now infamous Fyre Festival debacle. I was excited as I had never been to the archipelago nation known for its beautiful beaches and turquoise clear waters. “Swimming” with pigs was also something I had wanted to do, despite knowing how touristy it was and how stupid tourists have been known to kill the pigs by feeding them things they arent supposed to feed them. The beaches and waters lived up the the fame. The pigs, are unique and ultimately still worth checking out, but the other parts of the group tours that take you to the outlying islands and beaches I was less than impressed by, again, even knowing the type of mass tourism I signed up and paid for. Finally, the Bahamas is no different than most Caribbean islands, expensive but doesnt come with the value. But usually the islands come with friendly and laid back locals and most often deliciously fresh seafood and Afro-Caribbean spices and influences in the food and beverage culture.

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At the end of the day, I was glad I experienced the really random but cool swimming pigs. However, I am unlikely to return to Exuma. I may visit Paradise Island only to check out the Atlantis Resort. The country and island has so much potential. Its home to some of the most beautiful waters and marine life in the world. Bahamians are a truly friendly, colorful and fun group of people who deserve so much more than the disaster Exuma was subjected to with Fyre Festival. Ultimately it caters too much to mass tourism and from what I witnessed and experienced, there is not much care for conservation or eco-friendly practices when there should be given what there is to protect (detailed in itinerary below), but the thing that completely solidified my opinions was when at one point during our full-day tour, a local fisherman grabbed a poor sea turtle known as the village pet by the shell and force fed it conch for it to put on a show for us, as a scuba diver who was taught to never touch marine life, this disgusted me. Further, it has unfortunately become an overpriced convenient getaway for Americans, especially the ultra-wealthy (mostly wish I too had an amazing private island and villas and yacht).

 

Itinerary

Day 1:

  • Landed in Exuma around 1PM. Cleared the tiny customs and immigration area where they are quite strict with phone use and bringing in flora and fauna (agricultural products), which gave me false hope of their conservation mindset.
  • Taxi drivers and locals alike wait outside for people to come out. It seems everyone know each other, which is exactly the kind of culture that exists in the Bahamas I think. We informed the main taxi coordinator we needed a taxi to our hotel and followed our wonderful driver to her car.
  • In true Bahamian spirit our driver chatted us up and welcomed us to the island and gave us some recommendations on food and activities and the lay of the land.
  • 20 minutes later we arrived at the Peace and Plenty Resort, which between some of the logistics of how things are run at the hotel and the price and the extra resort fee, was not exactly worth it unless you’re trip involves nothing but laying on the beach. To be fair a lot of the inconveniences we experienced were circumstantial and partly due to unfortunate luck. What is very discouraging, is that this is one of the most affordable options in Exuma. Below is my review on Tripadvisor:
    • Positives: Great location in Georgetown. Nice views. Solid drinks. Private beach in Stocking Island is fantastic, if their complimentary shuttle is working. Fantastic bedding.
      For the best experience and value for money, book their new villas on Stocking Island, yes it requires you to take the shuttle, or i suppose if its not operating to pay $15/RT to take a public one, but its right on the beautiful private beach and given that its near the same rate as a regular room on the mainland, just offers that much more value.
      We got there and the shuttle to their private beach was not running because it was too windy, yet the public taxi at $15/RT was operational, so we took that and guess what, not rough at all. I understand safety is first, but unless its really your first time at sea, most people coming to the Caribbean have probably been on rougher waters. The public shuttle takes you to Chat N Chill, a fantastic local spot for food and relaxing vibes and nice beach. But to get to the hotel’s private beach you either wait for low tide to walk along the rocks or you swim along the rocks. Not ideal, the receptionist said the Elvis Water Taxi could drop us off at the beach, but upon taking the shuttle on our last day, I dont believe this is the case as, according to the captain, the beach no longer allows boats to dock right on it. Further, it was not made known to us at arrival that taking the shuttle requires us to “pre-book” and get “tickets” at the front desk v. simply wait at the dock. I understand if this is a measure to ensure it doesnt overcrowd, but either make it clear or just execute a first come first serve. After all, our room was closer to the dock than the reception. Further, you will be told it operates every hours to and from. No, it operates on the hour from the mainland, and every half hour from Stocking Island, we had limited time and thought we could at least enjoy the beach for an hour before our departure but it turned out we could only walk along the beach for a few minutes and hop right back on the boat.
      First night, the TV remote didnt work, and a towel rack all about fell off the wall. Thankfully they were apologetic about it and fixed it very quickly the next day. We also noticed light fixtures on the dock and around the hotel falling apart as well, and lots of maintenance work happening.
      Rooms are actually quite nice with excellent bedding and pillows, some of the best in the region for small boutique hotels.
      The indoor bar is great, well designed and historic!
      The boat shuttle operator and Doc, the main door man, were the best staff we encountered, so friendly, engaging and proactive.
      Private beach staff did not greet or us or engage with us, even though we only stopped by for a quick moment to check it out.
      Reception staff were friendly, but upon checking out did not even ask how our stay was or how our time in Exuma was, nor did they thank us for staying.
      Like almost all the Caribbean, high or low season, non-all-inclusive hotels are expensive and just always provide minimal value, mediocre and cheap quality amenities but you pay for the views and nice beaches that many offer just like here.
      If I did return to Exuma, I would give this place another chance but book a room on Stocking Island and be more prepared regarding the boat shuttle.

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  • After settling in and enjoying our welcome cocktail, we prepared to head out. As mentioned in my review above, the resort’s complimentary shuttle was not in operation due to high winds. We then walked 5 minutes to the dock next door and paid for a USD$15 roundtrip water taxi with Elvis’ Water Taxi across the channel to Chat N’ Chill, one of Exuma’s most famous bar and grills, on Stocking Island. Evlis’ doesnt seem to operate on a set schedule per se, but nonetheless they were on time in picking us up from Chat N Chill.

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  • A short 10 minute and less than bumpy ride later we were docked and on the sandy shores of Stocking Island. We first hit up Chat N Chill, which really lives by that name. Ordered us some Kalik Bahamian beer, Conch burger, and rice n peas. Music blaring, people hanging out, playing beach volleyball, waiting for their meals and orders to be called over the PA system. It was truly a place to chat and chill, or just chill. With a partly cloudy sky, when the sun shined it was hot, when the clouds came it was windy and chilly. The water itself as a bit chilly as well. After a few minutes our orders were ready and we had our late lunch.

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  • Afterwards, we walked around. There was a fleet of seaplanes, including ones built at home, that flew into the harbor/beach, this was really cool. We then tried to see if we could walk from Chat N Chill to Peace and Plenty’s private beach, given the high tide, it was not possible unless we swam along the rocks. During low tide, it is possible to walk to and from, but there is no land access as there is a private property between Peace and Plenty and Chat N Chill. Nonetheless we found a very nice quiet corner of the beach and ended up napping on the rocks.

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  • As the sun began to set, Elvis’ water taxi came over for the last shuttle of the day from Chat N Chill back to the main dock in Georgetown, the capital, where Peace and Plenty is located.
  • Then it was time for dinner. Based on my research and asking around, including our taxi driver’s recommendation, we wanted to try Shirley’s Seafood located amongst the Fish Fry Shacks, a seaside area of container ship shacks serving up fresh local food and cocktails/beer. It was a 20 minute walk from the hotel along the main road with no street lights for most of it. Though generally safe, not recommended for solo travelers of any gender. Unfortunately Shirley’s was closed for a period of time. Nonetheless a few other shacks were open for business includng Charlie’s , which was the next on the recommended list. You order first, and its cash only, as are most places in the area, and sit down. The bar is separate. I ordered my first local cocktail, Goombay Smash:Coconut rum, dirty rum, apricot liquor and pineapple juice. The food took forever. We personally did not mind as much as we were also on island time and had nowhere else to be, but another couple who joined afterwards got so fed up, they got up and left after waiting for 30 minutes. Finally, our food came out. I had Fried conch, rice n peace, cole slaw and fried plantains. Originally I ordered Cracked Lobster but they ran out…even though we were the first to order. We ended the meal with a classic Bahamian dessert, the Guava Duff.

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  • We walked back to the hotel after grabbing take out quesadillas from another shack to have as breakfast the next morning. Since our rate didnt include breakfast, Sundays most things open late or are closed and we had an early start to the day with out full day tour.
  • We topped off the night with some cocktails from the Hotel’s historic bar.

 

Day 2

  • We woke up bright and early to have our breakfast and to get geared up for our full day tour with Coastline Adventures. The only tour company that had any space available for full or half day group tours to see the pigs. They were super responsive to email which was great. Unfortunately you are limited in your options to see the pigs. Either pay for a private tour or boat to take you out there just for the pigs, or suck it up and join a big group tour, full day or half day options. Given the limited options and the minimal price difference between the full and half-day tours, we opted for the full-day tour which mean eating into time that could’ve been spent on the beach, but the pigs were calling.
  • At 8AM, Coastline Adventures came by the hotel to pick us up in their own vehicle. We picked up others along the way before making our way to the northern tip of Great Exuma. The dock is where almost all tours and companies depart from.
  • You pay first before getting on the boat, cash is preferred as it is cheaper. It was $235.20/per person with credit card for us, not inclusive of lunch or the USD$10 in cash paid for access to the Compass Cay island Nurse Shark swimming experience.
  • Once boarded, all without lifevests, we headed out to sea. On the way, one of the staff free dived into the water to hunt for fresh conch that the staff would chop up to make fresh conch salad as a snack for us. All beverages, including beer and cocktails were complimentary.
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Conch
  • The first stop was Thunderball Grotto cave, where they filmed 007 Thunderball. This place was quite cool. I would love to return here to scuba in and around it, as it appeared there was quite a rich reef on the other side of the cave. They let us swim in and out in our own time but did not explain much beyond the cave’s use as a 007 filming location.

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  • Next up was The famous Exuma Pigs at Big Major Cay. There are many theories as to why they are here, some say from shipwrecked ships, some say from smugglers who couldnt take them, some say government just put them there for tourism. Before hopping off to go swim and feed the pigs, you are given bread. Funnily enough an article I read about the increasingly problems with tourism and the pigs is that they arent exactly supposed to eat bread, but when asked, the guides said its fine and thats what they are used to eating. Every other boat that arrived did the same. There was also no real oversight in terms of stopping tourists from randomly feeding the pigs anything else. I will say, it is rather cool, random and unique to see this pigs swimming about the sea. Worth it? For me, yes, both in terms of the money I spent and dealing with the mass touristic way of having to see them. It was extremely frustrating to see others carry/lift-up baby pigs to take pictures despite the pigs screaming in protest and fear, anything for the gram I guess. The tour operators did nothing to stop or warn about this and that annoyed me. What was neat was that the pigs really can swim and arent afraid of the water!

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  • After befriending a gentle adult pig who was off on his own, thankfully brought me away from the general crowd, it was time to hop back on the boat to take us to our next stop. As we got on, I saw the staff chopping up the Conch and ingredients to make the conch salad, this was neat and indeed quite fresh!

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  • Our boat then sped over to a sandbar nearby where we would get off, walk around and enjoy a bowl of fresh conch salad. This part of the tour was quite neat. We got the experience the beautiful waters and soft fine sands of the Bahamas without anyone else around us. This stop was peaceful and relaxing and was out small moment of real Bahamian relaxation on the tour. Its interesting to note that the tour operators definitely coordinate and ensure that not more than at most 2 boatloads of people are in one stopping point at any given time. This part I appreciate.

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  • Next stop was Compass Cay, where we paid of USD$10 in cash per person landing fee. We docked next to quite a few fancy yachts as their patrons enjoyed lunch on the docks here. We came here to climb into the shallow waters of the harbor to be amongst a school of Nurse sharks. There for the people’s petting pleasures. With a couple of guides flipping the sharks over so people could pet the stomachs. I went in, but did not pet, if one swam by and a fin touched me, I let it be. Nurse sharks are gentle chill sharks of the open water, very friendly and harmless.

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  • After parting with the sharks and the dreamy yachts we set sail back across the cays and private islands and mansions towards the island where lunch would be. Lunch was USD$25/person for a buffet, drinks not inclusive. The food was actually half decent! Especially the BBQ ribs!

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  • Full and happy, we boarded again. We then made a quick stop at an inhabited island. Where there was a chance to “swim” and “pet” a sea turtle. This was the part I had big problems with. A fisherman who claimed the sea turtle was his “pet” banged on a pan or something to make noise in the water to attract the sea turtle to come over. He then cracked open a fresh conch and chopped it up to feed to the turtle. While the theatrics of this was already annoying, what came next was what really made me mad. As members of the group were in the water, they were allowed to pet and touch the sea turtle (something that is known to be harmful to wild sea turtle shells). Further, in order to have the turtle swim in a set pattern and cooperate, the village man grabbed and yanked on the poor turtle’s shell from behind its head to change it direction, he also lifted it up to feed it more conch. The turtle wanted the conch, as I am sure it is used to being fed by now. But this circus of a display of one of my favorite marine animals was bothersome. And the fact that no one seemed bothered by it, and that the tour company would allow for it, and that a local, who should know better, would allow for it all left me with questions and concerns. Taking tourism money and opportunities is fine, but one should do it sustainably and smartly, use this as an opportunity to promote sustainability, conservation, if the turtle doesnt show up, its fine, some idiots may demand their money back but you may be able to educate and change another one.
  • Next up was hopping around to see some celebrity islands and their homes that dot the Exuma Cays, including David Copperfield’s multiple islands and homes, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s island, and the coolest home belonging to John Fry, founder of Fry’s electronics, island and house, with large parts of it underground, looking like a 007 villain’s lair. We also stopped along the way to see a war plane wreck in the ocean.
  • Final stop of the day was Cages Island, where we would spot some Iguanas. Before getting off we were offered cabbage to feed. I politely declined and hopped off. Once again, no oversight into the petting/ grabbing/ intimidating of the wildlife. What was cool was to be able to get up close with the super chill and cool lizards, who were mostly minding their own business and sun tanning.

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  • After hopping back on, we were on our way back to shore. We hopped into our designated transports and were whisked back to our hotels.
  • We arrived back and freshened up before enjoying a sunset goombay smash from the hotel bar.
  • When it came time for dinner, google maps indicated that most places were closed on Sunday nights. We decided to check with the reception at the hotel for any recommendations for a local bite to eat. She did not seem to have any up her sleeve and simply said we can just walk around and try. Thanks.
  • Since our first night, I had been on a mission to find the national drink: Sky Juice: coconut water, condensed milk, gin. According to the bartender from Chat N Chill who hangs out at Peace and Plenty after his bar closes, informed us that it requires fresh coconut juice which at the time was not exactly in season and sometimes harder to find, as such Sky Juice is often reserved for festivals/ special occasions and not a common item at bars. Anyways, we walked down down the street from the hotel and found a shack called Sonia’s, which came recommended online and highly rated on google. Next to Sonia’s is another shack that is a bar, and long and behold they had Sky Juice! The drink is deliciously sweet, tropical and boozy all at once.

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  • We ordered our food directly from Sonia herself. Garlic Shrimp, Chicken Curry, Conch Fritters were ordered and we had it with another round of Sky Juice. It was delicious and fun to eat outdoors under a tree near the harbor with the sea breeze in the dimly lit outdoor space next to Sonia’s kitchen. After this, we grabbed a Sky Juice to go and returned to the hotel and called it a night.

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Day 3

  • After waking up, we walked to have Bahamian breakfast at Eddie’s Edgemwater in Georgetown. We ordered Grits, scrambled egg and either corned beef or turkey/pork sausage. Afterwards I popped into Driftwood Cafe across from the hotel to pick up some coffee and Pineapple bread pudding.

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  • The hotel’s shuttle boat to the Stocking Island started at 10AM. So we prepared to get going for that and learned about the various processes involved with using this service as mentioned above. Nonetheless we hopped on and away we went. The boat tender informed us that they used to dock right on the beach but regulations changed and now they have to go around and into the lagoon in the back. Once you dock, you head over the hill and past the various villas that make up this part of the resort, which is so much more worth the money than the mainland rooms, and they cost about the same. The private beach and beach club is quite nice. Very secluded, the sand white and soft, water is clean and clear. The staff not so great. After a quick stroll and soaking in of the environment we headed back to the lagoon dock to wait for the shuttle that was picking up folks from the resort next door, also operated by Peace and Plenty. at around 10:50 we set sail for the mainland again.

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  • Our taxi then arrived at around 11:30AM to take us to the airport from our 2PM departure.
  • Exuma Airport is cramped and tiny. I tried imagining all the souls of Fyre Festival cramped into this space when things began falling apart and simply could not. There is not much to do and security and passport is rather fast, so no need to arrive terribly early. But dont get too lost in Island Time either!

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  • Soon we were airborne and I had a great view of Exuma, Georgetown and Stocking Island and the beautiful waters.

 

I said I am not sure I’d return to Exuma or the Bahamas. The thing is, I think I still would give it another chance, if anything for the diving which I hear is fantastic. And next time, now that I know, despite some minor inconveniences in logistics, I would stay in the villas of Peace and Plenty on Stocking Island.

 

Best,

TheGastronomicTraveler

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