Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park

Top choice in The Exumas

Founded as the world's first land-and-sea reserve in 1958, this stunning 283-sq-kilometer expanse of reef, cay and sea is world-famous among divers. One of the jewels of the Bahamas, the reserve protects the second largest barrier reef in the Western hemisphere, after the Mesoamerican Reef in Central America, ensuring prolific marine fauna below the water and plentiful land-based life on shore. Unfortunately (or fortunately, in conservation terms) it's only accessible by private boat or charter, so getting here can be costly, but most visitors agree it's worth the expense for the spectacular natural environment.

Boy interacting with ray
Meeting the locals on the Exuma cays ©PJPhoto69 / Getty Images

Who to do in Exuma Land & Sea Park

Most people who make their way to this idyllic Marine Protected Area are drawn by the wildlife. The reserve is run according to strict No Take principles, meaning nothing can be taken away from, or left on the islands, preserving a pristine natural ecosystem for an amazing variety of marine life, abundant birdlife, and some interesting critters on land. Keep an eye out for rare Bahamian rock iguanas, rodent-like hutias, and stromatolites, created by blue-green algae that have been alive for more than 2000 years.

The most thrilling part of Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park is under the water, so you'll need to bring your own snorkeling or diving gear (and your own boat) or arrange a boat trip in either Nassau or George Town, the tiny capital of Great Exuma, the largest cay in the Exuma group. Several operators offer diving and snorkelling day-trips in and around the marine reserve, including Dive Exuma in George Town. You can also come on all-inclusive, week-long diving trips that hopscotch around the park's top dive sites.

Reef shark
A close encounter with a Caribbean Reef Shark ©Shutterstock / Scott MC

Commonly seen marine species include angelfish, eagle rays, reef sharks, Nassau grouper, porcupine fish, clown fish, lobsters and turtles, though there's a chance of spotting bull sharks and other larger critters at several locations in the park. Another perk for divers is the collection of 'blue holes' formed by collapsed undersea sinkholes, which lie dotted around the islands, with several close to Stocking Island. However, the most famous site is Thunderball Grotto, a shallow network of caves and tunnels that will be forever linked to the eponymous 1965 James Bond film.

There are also some charismatic non-native animals who have made a name for themselves at Exuma. While divers are off swimming with sharks elsewhere in the Bahamas, visitors to the Exumas swim with... well, pigs. The feral hogs on uninhabited Major Cay have been living here for well over a decade, and they routinely swim out from the shore in search of food, usually provided by visiting day trippers (if you participate, don't get too close, and use natural plant-based food).

Exuma's famous pigs
Is is a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's Aquapig! ©BlueOrange Studio / Shutterstock

Getting to Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park

There are several ways to reach this stunning natural playground, though costly flights and boat fares are an unavoidable part of getting around in the Bahamas. Some high fliers come with their own boats, but ordinary folks usually visit on live-aboard dive trips or day-trips by chartered boat from Nassau, or Great Exuma, the sleepy, 37-mile-long cay at the south end of the Exuma archipelago. While you may not save much money, there are definite advantages to coming via Great Exuma, not least the chance to glimpse Bahamian life away from the main islands.

Great Exuma is about 135 miles southeast of Nassau and the island's garden shed-sized Exuma International Airport receives regular flights from Nassau, Rock Sound, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. It's a short cab ride from the airport to George Town, the island's diminutive capital, with its scattering of low-rise, pastel-colored buildings. There are a couple of boat trip and dive operators based at the town jetty, and you can find budget accommodation at the motel-style Marshall's Guest House, or posher rooms (and good Italian food) at Club Peace & Plenty.

Sunning on Tropic of Cancer beach
Basking in the sun on Tropic of Cancer beach, Little Exuma ©Julie Zoney / Getty Images

The beaches around George Town are no great shakes, but water taxi operators can zip you over to Stocking Island, the gorgeous sand-edged islet to the north of Great Exuma. Bank on around BS$20 for a return trip – just tell the boatman when and where to pick you up. There are beach bars and resort restaurants dotted along the long, lovely beach that traces the north shore, but with the low, scrubby Bahamian vegetation, there's not much shade – slap on the sunscreen. Alternatively, take a taxi to languorous Tropic of Cancer Beach in Moore Hill on neighboring (and linked) Little Exuma.

If you have your own boat, it's a different story; mooring fees inside Exuma Land and Sea Park are moderate (from BS$25) and you can kayak and camp on the Hawksbill, Warderick Wells and O’Briens cays inside the reserve if you pay BS$250 for a permit, plus a B$25 daily fee. Make arrangements at the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park Headquarters on Warderick Wells Cay. If you don't have your own boat, Out Islands Explorers in George Town offers sailing trips, guided kayak trips, and kayak rentals.