- The Washington Times - Friday, December 15, 2006

GEORGE TOWN, Great Exuma, Bahamas — It takes about a week to become a local here on Exuma.

Our first night, we head to the manager’s cocktail reception at the pink limestone Club Peace & Plenty, which has housed island guests for half a century.

The following week, when we make our way to the waterfront, poolside Reef Bar expertly manned by Doc, we hear someone call out: “Hey, there’s Kathy and Fletcher.” We grin in reply.

We quickly discover that this small island has a rhythm that revolves around the resorts and restaurants.

There’s Friday night at P&P;, as it’s called. Also on Fridays, many head to Eddie Edgewater’s for ribs, followed by late night at the Two Turtles Inn bar.

Saturdays is karaoke at Palm Bay Beach Resort — unless it’s summer. Then Saturday nights are reserved for Junkanoo Festival at Fish Fry, an event site that’s a roadside collection of shacks serving up fresh conch salad, conch fritters, ice-cold Kalik (Bahamian beer), plenty of music and local culture.

Sundays, boaters and tourists alike line up for the pig roast at Stocking Island’s Chat ‘n’ Chill just across from Exuma’s main harbor. With its open-air bar, outdoor grill, volleyball beach and waterside conch-salad shack, the place feels destined to become a Jimmy Buffett song. More Kaliks await, along with the ribs, chicken, peas and rice and more. (Try the cinnamon-spiced carrots.)

Chat ‘n’ Chill is the brainchild of Kenneth “K.B.” Bowe, who recognized a trend: baby boomers ready to chuck the 9-to-5 for the boating life to see and discover the world.

As many as 600 boats winter here. Nearly all their inhabitants would discourage us from telling the rest of the world about Great Exuma and neighboring Little Exuma, a largely unknown Eden in a Caribbean becoming ever more developed.

“Exuma is the most beautiful place on this Earth, and the people need to come and see it,” Granville Ferguson tells us when we return our rental car. “The beaches are so beautiful; the people are nice.” With a full-time population of 3,500 in about 20 villages, Great Exuma remains gloriously undiscovered about 300 miles southeast of the Florida coast. The island is 47 miles long and about 4-1/2 miles across at its widest point.

It’s part of the Exumas, a chain of 365 unspoiled islands and cays (pronounced keys) that run more than 100 miles south from Nassau to the edge of the West Indies. Great Exuma is the largest.

Most of the locals, and especially the business people, seem to welcome recent development and accompanying jobs, especially the new Four Seasons Resort Great Exuma at Emerald Bay with its stunning grounds and exquisite accommodations, 18-hole Greg Norman golf course, tennis center, the adjacent Emerald Bay Casino and a 200-slip marina with shopping center to come.

Four Seasons’ next-door neighbor is the also elegant Grand Isle Resort & Spa, formerly Grand Isle Villas, with handsome decor inside and lush plantings outside, plus the tall, thatched Pallappa bar beside an infinity pool overlooking Emerald Bay Beach, shared with Four Seasons.

Just down the road past the main settlement of George Town sits another magnificent property, the impeccably styled February Point Resort Estates, touted by the Wall Street Journal as “one of the five hottest properties in the Caribbean.”

Island buzz continues over the promised 600 jobs at the $240-million Crab Cay, a 160-acre island in the middle of Elizabeth Harbour scheduled to house villa homes, a high-end hotel and another supermarina but delayed from its originally planned 2006 opening. There are rumors, too, of a large resort going in at Little Exuma to the south.

We run into one of those resort newcomers later in the week as we enjoy a dinner of lobster linguine and creamy conch chowder at Palm Bay Beach Club’s Splash restaurant. Matt Marco, general manager of February Point, invites us to come have a look.

Wisely, he suggests that we experience Exuma at its best: from the water. He loads us in his Twin Vee Power Cat, then whizzes past the Crab Cay site to some of the clearest, bluest water we’ve seen anywhere in the world.

“I never even drove a boat until three years ago,” he says. “Now I go by boat to the market to shop and to four or five restaurants. It’s a really nice island lifestyle.” He points out an underwater cave, noting that it is a favorite of his for snorkeling.

As he motors alongside a rocky shoreline, he reaches for his cell phone and dials: “Oh, good, you’re there today, Blackbeard. We’re coming up on your cave now if you’d like to come out and say hello.” We reach a craggy indentation in the rock and sit idling. Within seconds, a bearded goat trots out to greet us.

“We feed him,” Mr. Marco explains, “so now when he hears the motor, he comes out. He loves Famous Amos cookies.” Next, Mr. Marco drops us in inches-deep aquamarine water that leads to a barely exposed long, low sandbar. He then maneuvers the boat a few hundred yards away, shuts off the engine and makes a cell-phone call, leaving us in solitude.

The sun is bright overhead as we walk hand in hand in Great Exuma’s simply jaw-dropping waters, the multiblue hues reminiscent of the best beaches in the South Pacific. In fact, several guidebooks boast that Great Exuma’s amazing sea colors may be the prettiest in all of the 700 islands of the Bahamas.

We pick up a starfish close to the size of a basketball and examine it before gently returning it to the warm water. We’re stunned to see that the bottoms of the clouds overhead are tinted turquoise from the reflection of the water below.

Capt. Jerry Lewless, a native of Little Exuma and dock master at February Point’s marina, suggests we watch how Exuma’s waters change throughout the day.

“The most important thing about Exuma, and our treasure in Exuma, is the water, the beaches, the weather, the cloud formations. Everywhere you look, there’s a different color in Exuma.

“The main reason this island is so special,” he says, regaling us with his storytelling charms, “is that the Lord needed a vacation spot. He put the Bahamas here, and he put Exuma here for him because when you’re here in Exuma, you’re in heaven already.

“If you really want to see the prettiest beaches in all Exuma, Great and Little, you have to go by boat. When you leave out of George Town going toward Four Seasons, you’re going to go by mile after mile of beautiful beaches.”

Mr. Lewless is son of the Shark Lady of Little Exuma, so named for catching sharks with a hand line. Her home still stands as a small museum. Her son continues his storytelling by recounting when his mother’s all-female crew won a boat race by exposing their bosoms, thus catching the male racers off guard.

Capt. Jerry takes some credit for “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” choosing Exuma filming sites for the second and soon-to-be third in the film series. He took one of the movie executives out for a boat ride.

“He was staying at the Four Seasons with his family. I took him and his wife and daughter out. It was so beautiful, he asked me to take him out the next day. I took them to Sandy Cay. He said, ‘Jerry, I gotta get “Pirates of the Caribbean” down here to film.’ ”

Much later, Capt. Jerry was taking another family out for a boat ride and stopped at a local beach. “We pulled, up and Johnny Depp was about 300 feet away from us sword-fighting up on the beach.”

Mr. Depp bought a private island near Great Exuma, and it seems he’s going to have some other famous neighbors: Husband-wife country superstars Tim McGraw and Faith Hill have bought a nearby island, and magician David Copperfield purchased the very upper-echelon Musha Cay resort not far away; it now is called Musha Cay at Copperfield Bay.

Great Exuma guests can eat like superstars at Four Seasons’ Il Cielo, where the chef infuses Caribbean flair into his Italian-inspired creations. The blueberry-and-wild-mushroom risotto draws raves. Among offerings at the Four Seasons’ casual oceanfront Ting’m (named for a local expression for “something”) are lobster poppers and a lobster-and-conch burger.

For another island-style lunch, venture to nearby Coco Plum, a small beachside establishment. The house specialty drink is delivered with a waiver that the establishment will not be responsible for what you do or cannot do after imbibing.

As we wade into more gorgeously clear, waist-deep water, we drink in not only the concoction, but the surrounding nature. The only other swimmers are the owners’ two young sons, one of whom is taking cooking classes at the public school. That’s good because when we taste the coconut shrimp, we agree that the next generation should be prepared to carry on.

The casual Cheater’s is the restaurant most often cited by locals when visitors ask for dinner suggestions. With their Bahamian accent, though, we thought they were saying “Cheetah’s.” Regardless, the fish is always fresh.

Guests at Grand Isle Resort can sample wonderful local cuisine at a stylish oceanfront spot — your own private villa. The chef comes to you.

Chef Ivor Rolle and assistant Joanes La France did not disappoint.

Rolle, by the way, is a widely shared local name.

Insight Guides Bahamas explains that the British crown granted Englishman Denys Rolle 7,000 acres here in the late 18th century. “He brought enslaved Africans and cotton seeds to the island and set to work building up the five plantations. Rolle Town and Rolleville were the first; Mount Thompson, Steventon and Ramsey followed. His son, Lord John Rolle, followed in his footsteps, and by the time of the emancipation in 1834, he had some 325 enslaved men and women working on Great Exuma. Legend has it that when cotton proved to be a dismal financial failure and the prospect of emancipation loomed, Lord Rolle generously deeded all his lands to the enslaved people working his plantation. Following the custom of the day, they adopted their master’s surname.”

The shared, or generational, land from so many years ago has led to a modern-day dilemma, especially with ever-increasing property values. Because the land was deeded to a group, it can be difficult to obtain clear title, and some of it cannot be owned by outsiders.

Mr. Rolle, the chef, talks a bit about his heritage as we enjoy his lobster-corn chowder and Caesar salad.

“We understand the difference between service and servitude,” he says succinctly, “and we know what we’ve got here.” Then talk turns to the satisfying entree, a mixed grill of fresh grouper in tomato, parsley and lemon butter plus grilled rack of lamb with Bacardi guava sauce.

“Mint is old school,” Mr. Rolle says. “This is the new Caribbean, Bahamian way.” Another local-style meal awaits on Little Exuma to the south past Rolle Town and across the one-lane bridge to the Ferry community (so named for the once-local ferry stop).

Santana’s Grill is a treasure of a roadside spot, an oceanaire shack dutifully attended by proprietress Denise “Dee” Rolle Styles. She tells us it was the “Pirates” film crew that installed the long wooden ramp down to the beach beside her spot.

“You met him?” we ask, meaning Mr. Depp. She pulls a brown photo album from behind the bar. There in the top sleeve on the first page is a picture of her and the actor, both smiling.

“Oh, yes,” she says coyly. “He’s cool. Cool. Cool. Cool.”

As we sip rum punches, we hear more about the idyllic island nearby, Sandy Cay, where many “Pirates” scenes were filmed. To reach it, the crew brought equipment here and launched by boat, thus adding the walkway.

Ms. Styles is best known for her island creations of cracked conch (tenderized with a mallet, then fried) and cracked lobster (fried with onions). She proudly proclaims it was mentioned in the New York Times. “He liked it,” she says of the writer.

Next door is Mom’s Bakery, run by Ms. Styles’ mother, who makes regular runs to the George Town public square to sell her popular fresh bread.

Santana’s is down the road from one of Little Exuma’s greatest treasures: Tropic of Cancer beach, so named for its latitudinal position.

We explore this true paradise with Nyoka Deveaux of the tourist office, who shows us that someone has drawn a line on the small public-access boardwalk declaring it the Tropic of Cancer latitude. The Tropic of Cancer is an imaginary line, but this beach is at or near 23.5 degrees latitude north, where the sun is directly overhead at noon on the summer solstice.

Ms. Deveaux reports that this new access walkway was built by, yes, the “Pirates” film crew.

It turns out that she is another local who rubbed shoulders with Mr. Depp. “Oh, yes, I got to meet him at the airport and escort him. He was very nice.”

On the beach, yet more of that stunning blue water mesmerizes us.

The half-moon stretch is empty except for a couple walking in the distance. When they reach us, we strike up a conversation.

Ann and Andy Perry concur that Tropic of Cancer is one of the prettiest beaches they’ve ever found, which is why they built their beach bungalow, Turtle Rock House, at water’s edge here. They rent it out when not enjoying it themselves and invite us to check it out.

We love the view from the spacious deck, its corner post sporting colorful directional signs made by guests from driftwood. The sign’s fingers point toward some of the beaches in the Perrys’ home state of Florida. None, we’d venture to guess, can rival this one.

In just a few days, it will be the Perrys who call out our names over at the Peace & Plenty bar, as if we are, indeed, locals.

Yacht, dive, snorkel, fish at Great Exuma

For more information about Great Exuma, visit www.bahamas.com. Great Exuma International Airport is served by daily flights from Miami (American Eagle, 800/433-7300), Fort Lauderdale (Lynx, 888/596-9247) and Nassau (Bahamasair, 800/222-4262).

A car rental is a necessity and can be arranged for about $75 a day or $440 for the week at Airport Car Rental; visit www.exumacarrental.com.

Great Exuma is popular year-round for yachting, diving, snorkeling and bonefishing. The island’s largest yearly event is the National Family Island Regatta held the last week in April for more than 50 years. All boats in the competition must have been made in the Bahamas.

You may have seen Exuma in the 2005 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and on the 2007 Miami Dolphin Cheerleaders calendar, shot on nearby beaches.

Island accommodations include:

• Four Seasons Resort Great Exuma at Emerald Bay, 140 oversized guest rooms and 43 suites; www.fourseasons.com/greatexuma.

• Palm Bay Beach Club’s 42 beachside cottages and hillside villas, popular with families. Locals and visitors alike gather at the casual, screened Splash restaurant; www.palmbaybeachclub.com.

• Club Peace & Plenty, 35 rooms overlooking Elizabeth Harbour, with a free water shuttle to Stocking Island; Peace & Plenty Hotel with 16 rooms; plus Peace & Plenty Bonefishing Lodge. Visit www.peaceandplenty.com.

Villa rentals (with groceries already stocked upon arrival) also are popular housing choices. Among them: Grand Isle Resort & Spa, www.grandisleresort.com; February Point, www.februarypoint.com; and the 35,000-square-foot Ellie Mae Villa, www.elliemaevilla.com, one to five rooms for one to 10 persons.

For a getaway on Little Exuma, the oceanfront Turtle Rock House on Tropic of Cancer Beach rents for $500 per night or $2,500 for a week for eight to 10 persons (three bedrooms, two baths). Visit www.vrbo.com/81288.

Some visitors choose to explore the many cays strung throughout Exuma by houseboat. Rentals are available at Bahama Houseboats in George Town; www.bahamahouseboats.

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