Three remote yet civilized destinations where the waters are clear and the reefs are colorful
Millions of people snorkel in tropical waters each year, and there are hundreds of charter boats that gather groups from hotels and cruise ships for an hour or two of supervised water time on an often-visited reef. If this isn’t your idea of a snorkeling adventure, you need to set your sights farther afield. In the Bahamas, this means leaving the busy tourism centers of Nassau and Freeport behind, and heading for the Out Islands, where small beach lodges replace high rise resorts, unspoiled beaches stretch for miles, and only a fortunate few visit the coral reefs that line island shores. If you are looking to discover the best underwater scenery in the Bahamas, here are three of the best Out Island resorts to base your explorations.
Staniel Cay Yacht Club, Exumas
Stretching more than 100 miles through the center of the Bahamas, the Exumas are a chain of small islands and sand flats that line up along deep blue waters to the east. Seen from above, they resemble an emerald and ivory necklace. One of the crown jewels of this string is Staniel Cay, which is home to one of the few significant villages in the Exumas, along with the Staniel Cay Yacht Club. Since the 1950s, this low-key resort and marina has attracted in-the-know travelers, including a laundry list of A-listers who come for small island privacy and the luxury of anonymity. The big draw is ambiance rather than amenities, as the club’s 14 waterfront bungalows are designed for comfort rather than show. Expected creature comforts such as air conditioning, premium bedding and waterfront verandahs are provided, but it is the views rather than the décor that is the focus. All bungalows are just a short walk from the dining room and clubhouse, where patrons and locals rub shoulders and swap stories with visiting yachtsmen. Guests who opt for the amenities package can enjoy three meals a day, access to a 17ft skiff, snorkeling gear, bicycles, ocean kayaks and paddleboards. The island is served by one of the few airports in the region, and there are direct flights from the U.S. mainland.
With water all around, there is no shortage of premier snorkeling sites within a short boat ride of Staniel Cay. Some of the best reefs lie within the boundaries of the Exuma Land and Sea Park. The Club can provide a local guide for snorkeling excursions, including trips to the Exuma’s most famous snorkeling spot, Thunderball Grotto. This partially flooded cave was featured in the namesake James Bond film, and it is both easy and safe to explore with mask and snorkel. This trip is often combined with a visit to the swimming pigs of Big Major Cay for a chance with an in-water selfie with these famous aquatic swine. Other unexpected snorkeling adventures can include a trip to the starfish reserve and a hunt for queen conch, which the guide may later transform into a delicious dish of conch salad.
Fernandez Bay Village, Cat Island
The Armbrister family has dedicated more than four decades to creating this idyllic beachfront retreat, but their ties to Cat Island go much deeper. Five generations have passed since British Loyalist John Armbrister settled on this quiet island, and save for electricity and a handful of cars, little has changed in the centuries since. Cat Island is still a place where you can walk deserted beaches by starlight, and the island’s entire population wouldn’t more than half fill a small cruise ship. This is the setting for Fernandez Bay Village, an intimate collection of seven stone walled cottages and five spacious villas facing a mile of private beach on the island’s calm western shore. At the center of the village, the vaulted thatch roof of the open-air clubhouse is the focal point for meals and social activity, which often spills out onto the adjacent waterfront patio and the tiki bar. The resort is home to the island’s best restaurant, and the dining room and bar are a favorite with passing yachtsmen. Guests can choose between cozy cottages or a villa that includes a kitchen and living areas that open to ocean views.
With the pristine waters of Fernandez Bay literally in their front yard, guests have immediate access to exceptional snorkeling just steps away. The sand and grass flats immediately in front of the resort provide a relaxing environment for youngsters and novices to perfect their snorkeling skills. A but farther out, the rock outcropping known as Dry Head is surrounded by a shallow reef covered in sea fans and colorful corals. A number of additional reefs are just a short boat ride away, and the Fernandez Bay staff can arrange for transportation, or provide directions. One of the most intriguing sites in the area isn’t a reef, but instead an inland body of water known as the Boiling Hole, which is a submerged sinkhole that opens into a labyrinth of water-filled passages. In addition to snorkeling, guests can arrange for diving and fishing trips, or take a paddleboard or kayak into the shallow creek at the southern end of Fernandez Bay for a peaceful, quiet trip through twisting and turning waterways that are a nursery for baby sharks, manta rays and other small fish.
Small Hope Bay, Andros
Andros Island lies less than 30 miles to the east of the mega resorts of Nassau and Paradise Island, but it is a world away. Wild and sparsely settled, it is a land of pine forests and expansive networks of mangrove-lined creeks, flanked to the east by the world’s third longest barrier reef. In the heart of this natural landscape is Small Hope Bay, a collection of cottages created by the Birch family, who transformed native coral rock and pine timbers into an elegantly simple but quite civilized respite from the world beyond. It is a destination that has drawn world leaders, famous artists and average travelers, who prize it not only for what is offered, but also what is excluded. There are no televisions, newspapers or Internet feeds to intrude on days devoted to fishing, diving, snorkeling, exploring the natural surroundings or simply relaxing on an island that is as close to deserted as one can find in the 21st century. Each cottage sits on the edge of a white-sand beach, with barefoot-friendly pathways that lead to the dining room and it’s adjacent waterfront terrace. Small Hope operates as a fully inclusive property, with all meals, drinks, activities and services covered in the daily rate. Leaving guests with no other decisions to make other than “what shall we do today.”
Snorkelers will find tropical fish and corals just yards from the beach at Small Hope Bay, and there are miles of shallow reefs extending to the north and south. The resort provides daily boat trips to a variety of sites along the Andros Barrier Reef, as well as overland trips to swim and snorkel in the freshwater blue holes that pockmark the Andros landscape. The reefs will delight veteran snorkelers, but Small Hope is also an ideal destination for first-time snorkelers, as the staff provides complimentary instruction in the basics of snorkeling, as well as introduction to diving experiences. One of the most exciting adventures available to both divers and snorkelers is the resort’s famous Shark Observation Experience, which allows participants to observe gatherings of reef and nurse sharks in clear water. Fishermen flock to Small Hope to stalk elusive bonefish on the island’s extensive sand flats, or head into the deep waters of the Tongue of the Ocean for trophy game fish. Guests can also use kayaks and paddleboards to explore the miles of creeks and bays that surround the resort, or put on walking shoes for a guided nature walk or birding tour.