Hidden Treasure

As we come down out of the clouds and the islands of the Bahamas stretch out beneath us, window shades go up and our necks strain to look out the windows of our airplane. Cara and I are flying over Grand Bahama, then New Providence, the big island of Andros to our right, and then the Cays of Exuma are stretched out in a line ahead of us. It looks like a painter's palette down there, strokes of cream-coloured sand bars and crystal blue water punctuated with the dark, lush green of the inner islands. I know I’m not alone in the excitement I’m feeling. My clothes feel too heavy. My head, lighter. My life from four hours ago in cold, wet Toronto begins to feel like an archaic mainland memory, sluggish and grey. Our wide eyes take it in from above, and I can’t wait to walk out onto the tarmac and feel Exuma all around me.

After securing what looked like the last rental car available, we’re on the road to Emerald Bay and Grand Isle Resort & Spa. Three planes had arrived at the airport around the same time and the taxis couldn’t keep up with the mob of pasty, blinking tourists waving clenched maps and guide books at them.

The road, or highway—Queen’s Highway, to be specific—is basically the one artery that goes from Barreterre in the north down to Williams Town in the south. There are a few thicker parts to Exuma that require some side roads, but for most intents and purposes you can find it on Queen's Highway.

We check in and get situated in our villa. I’ve been in this one before but it seems new all over again, especially when you’re traveling with someone who hasn't been here before. As lovely and well-appointed as it is, it’s a pit stop for now. The beach beckons. I won’t feel as though I’ve actually arrived until I feel sand on my bare feet. We stop for a Goombay Smash at the poolside bar/restaurant, Palapas (it’s a potent cocktail of rum, coconut rum, and pineapple juice), and we meander down the stairs to the ocean.

This is my usual check-in-to-Exuma routine. I let out a breath I feel like I’ve been holding since I was here last. The primordial presence of the Atlantic Ocean. The tide is coming in, the sun and the drink are going down. Watching Cara’s reaction to the place, I’m reminded of my first stay here five years ago and what this place has shown me since. What opened my eyes then, and what has continued to shape my view of Exuma, lies just below the surface.

It’s difficult to sleep in here. The island wakes up early; the sun pops up around 6:30 every day, the birds start singing in the coconut palms that sway gently in the morning breeze. Go down to the beach at this time and you may find a tractor dragging a huge rake over the sand, tidying up the place for guests. More often than not it’ll just be a few travellers; a couple walking hand-in-hand at the water’s edge; someone meditating, eyes closed and cross-legged, the faintest hint of a smile on their face, betraying their quest for emptiness.

It was at this time, in 2012, I tried snorkeling for the first time. Yup, forty years old and had never done it. I somehow thought it was for people that failed scuba class, or they handed out water wings with the flippers and goggles. After a few clownish steps into the surf and an elegant face-plant into the water, I rearranged my gear, spat out some salt water and cruised out to the few rock outcroppings that make up the bits of reef here.

Being a country boy, the forests around where I grew up are some of my favourite places to be. The sensation I felt as I floated through this new landscape just a few metres from shore was like flying through an underwater forest filled with creatures from outer space. Have you ever seen one of those YouTube videos where someone films a person getting glasses that allow them to see colours for the first time, or popping a hearing aid in and hearing a parent's voice for the first time? That’s what snorkeling felt like for me. It felt miraculous. A wonder to behold. And the best part? Even though I knew that millions of people had done what I had just done, I felt as though I had discovered this personally. With mediocre effort and a bit of a clumsy start, I had stumbled upon a hidden beauty.

Although not as aesthetically powerful, I came to view my many experiences on Exuma in a similar way. I realize that the urchins, puffer fish, barracuda, and coral had been there all along, but my sense of discovery was a strong one, and it continues. I think it permeates everything and everyone here. It’s like the place and the people have a secret, a story to tell, a buried treasure, and it’s up to you to find it.

It was with spirit that Cara and I ventured out onto Exuma, armed with a microphone and a call to adventure.

Exuma isn’t tied up in a bow. It’s not on display for tourists as some of the busier islands of the Bahamas are. 

There’s no McDonald’s or Burger King.

The largest tourist market is the Straw Market in downtown George Town, and it consists of small booths operated by local women who sell woven straw baskets and sun hats, crafts made from shells, the odd t-shirt.

Being on Exuma is more like going to cottage country—the town's a place to gear up before an adventure and relate stories after.

People here are more interested in giving you an experience than selling you a trinket. It’s all about the people you meet, and where the day takes you.

Later in the show, we’ll take you over to Chat ’n’ Chill, a must-see beach bar and restaurant across the George Town Harbour where we’ll hear Chef Ronaldo make his World Famous Conch Salad.

But first, a taxi driver named Roland was a gem of a source. After a night at Catch a Fire, a restaurant and tiki bar on the south shore of Exuma, Roland drove us home and told us a bit about the history of the Cay as we rattled and bumped along the dark road.

[00:06:16] Interview with Roland begins.