The Exuma Islands are a Bahamian archipelago of 365 islands (or cays), located approximately 35 miles southeast of Nassau – that means there is one to visit for every day of the year! Therefore, narrowing down a list of the best Exuma Bahamas Islands is not an easy feat, as there are so many to choose from.
Which cays to include in your itinerary largely depends on your budget and transport (some cays can only be visited by private aircraft or yacht), though there is a myriad of cay options to suit all needs and preferences.
The Top Bahamas Exuma Islands To Visit
This guide to the best islands of Exuma includes information on some of the most popular cays to visit and stay on, where to stay overnight if accommodation is available, how to get there and any other features that make the island special.
Great and Little Exuma are usually great starting points, but this guide will go further into some of the most world-renowned islands (Thunderball Grotto and swimming pigs, anyone?), as well as the lesser-known “best kept secrets” of Exuma, which receive far fewer tourists but often reap better rewards.
1. Great Exuma & Little Exuma
Many Exuma adventures start on Great Exuma, home to Exuma International Airport (GGT), which has links to the United States, Canada (seasonal only) as well as Nassau, the capital and largest city in the Bahamas.
As you may be able to tell by the name, Great Exuma is the largest of all the Exuma cays, stretching 37 miles in length and connected to Little Exuma by a small bridge. There are several places to stay on the island, with two of the most popular being Georgetown and Emerald Bay.
Georgetown – Exuma Islands
The “capital” of the Exuma Cays, Georgetown is an ideal place to base yourself for day trips to neighboring cays and for getting a taste of Bahamian life. Try the conch dishes at Fish Fry, hike or drive up to Mount Thompson, look out to the Three Sisters Rock Formation, and visit the Rolle Town Tombs.
Some of the best resorts to stay at include the three-star Peace and Plenty Resort, Augusta Bay, Hideaways at Palm Bay and Sapphire Garden Townhouses, though there are plenty of options available.
Emerald Bay – Exuma Islands
Further north on the east coast of Great Exuma is Emerald Bay, a crescent-shaped stretch of white, powdery sand and vivid green waters which give the bay its name. Two resorts worthy of note here are the Grand Isle Resort & Spa and Sandals Emerald Bay – the latter is known for its 18-hole championship golf course designed by Greg Norman.
2. Stocking Island
This long, narrow island can be found off the coast of Georgetown, a port on Great Exuma Island. The island is known for its beautiful beaches, great walking trails, plus good accommodation options and restaurants, including the Chat ‘N’ Chill bar/restaurant, which is located on the Spit sandbar and only accessible via boat. There are regular ferries from Georgetown.
In terms of snorkeling and diving, there are plenty of underwater discoveries to enjoy, including blue holes, coral reefs and underwater caves. On the Atlantic side of the island, there are also stromatolites, which are some of the oldest macro-fossils in the world.
Two of the best resorts to stay at are Saint Francis Resort, a relaxed three-star beachfront hotel with a restaurant; or Kahari Resort, which is an upscale four-star property. There are also Peace & Plenty Island Cottages, or you can stay on Great Exuma Island for a wider range of accommodation options.
3. Big Major Cay (Pig Beach)
One of the most famous and popular destinations to visit in the Bahamas is Big Major Cay, better known as Pig Beach for the stretch of sand that is home to the feral pigs, which naturally inhabit the island. Swimming pigs can be found on other Bahamian islands, but this is the most well-known and even featured on an episode of The Bachelor.
How the pigs ended up here remains a bit of a mystery. Some theories include pirates or sailors who left the pigs on land and planned to return to cook and eat them, but never did. Other rumors speculate that the pigs survived a shipwreck. Skeptics suggest that the pigs were introduced to the Bahamas in order to become a tourist attraction.
Big Major Cay is uninhabited by humans; only the 50-60 pigs, plus a few stray cats and goats are permanent residents. Therefore, there is no accommodation on the island and a visit here is a day trip. Tour operators on Nassau, Great Exuma and Staniel Cay all off private or shared trips to Pig Beach. From Nassau to Big Major Cay, the distance is 89 miles and the journey takes around two hours by speedboat.
4. Staniel Cay (& Thunderball Grotto)
Around 75 miles south of Nassau and only 250 miles southeast of the state of Florida, Staniel Cay is great for water sports and beach attractions, but is probably most famous for the Thunderball Grotto. The grotto is a limestone cave located on the west coast of the island, which was used as a set for the 1965 James Bond film Thunderball, then again for the 1983 Bond film Never Say Never Again. The grotto can be visited underwater or at low tide.
Snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing and kayaking are all popular activities to enjoy on Staniel Cay, and there are miles of coral reefs to explore. The waters offshore are clear and shallow, making these areas ideal for first-timers or beginners, though there are more advanced dive sites available too.
Staniel is also home to The Staniel Cay Yacht Club and there is an annual New Year’s regatta where yachtsmen compete in a race. In addition, there’s the Annual Staniel Cay Bonefish Tournament held in August. The island is home to a small population of around 120 permanent residents and a mix of cultural traditions. A small Bahamian village is located on the western shore.
You can fly directly into Staniel Cay Airport (TYM), a small airport with connections to Nassau or Fort Lauderdale (charters only). Alternatively, you can access the cay via boat, usually from Nassau.
There are a number of hotel and resorts to choose from on Staniel Cay. The best of the bunch is EMBRACE Resort, a three-star Bahamian villa property with an outdoor pool and a spa, run by three generations of women.
5. Compass Cay
Compass Cay is noted for its naturally-protected harbor, beach lodge and marine, population of docile nurse sharks and a labyrinth of mangroves. The opportunity to swim with the nurse sharks is what draws many visitors to Compass Cay.
Though the sharks are of course wild animals, they are mostly harmless unless provoked, acting more like bottom-feeding catfish. The sharks can grow up to 14 feet, though most reach around seven foot in length. If you prefer, there are wooden walkways around the marina where you can take photos, in case you’re not quite brave enough to jump into the water to meet the sharks in person!
To get to Compass Cay, you can take a water taxi from Staniel Cay by either taking a day trip from there or negotiating with a local fisherman at Staniel Cay Yacht Club.
If you’re looking to stay overnight on Compass Cay, there is Compass Cay Marina & Resort, which has five guesthouses all over the island, offering gorgeous views of beaches, the marina, Pipe Creek and Exuma Sound. Note that this is a self-service property, as there are no restaurants or grocery stores on the island, other than a souvenir shop selling snacks at the marina.
6. Norman’s Cay
Norman’s Cay has a colorful history. Between 1978 and 1982, the island was used as the headquarters for Carlos Lehder’s drug-smuggling operation, as part of the Medellin Cartel, used as a base for smuggling cocaine into the United States. Lehder even built an airstrip for his private fleet of aircraft, though the airport is no longer used for commercial flights and only charter flights can land.
It was only in 1982 that marine biologist Richard E. Novak, who was also the island’s former dive master, successfully fought to liberate Norman’s Cay by involving US law enforcement and the Bahamian government, followed by Lehder’s arrest in 1987.
In more recent history, the island was also the original chosen location for the doomed “Fyre Festival,” organised by Billy McFarland. The arrangement was that the island could be used for the festival, as long as there was no connection made to the drug-fueled past. However, promotional footage for the festival, shot on Norman’s Cay, advertised the island as “once owned by Pablo Escobar,” leading the owners to cancel the arrangement.
The island has also been used as a set for the Johnny Depp film Blow, in which the actor played drug trafficker George Jung, and also as a set in the second episode of season 1 of Narcos.
Options for accommodation on Norman’s Cay include a few private retreats and bungalows, as well as MacDuff’s Cottages & Restaurant, which is comprised of three pastel villas (each villa can accommodate up to sex guests), two of which have ocean views.
7. Musha Cay
Musha Cay is a privately owned island, around 85 miles southeast of Nassau, owned by illusionist David Copperfield. There is a ultra-luxury resort located on the island, which consists of five homes that can accommodate up to 24 guests (minimum five-night stay), with rates starting from USD57,000 per night!
If you are staying at the resort, Musha Cay can be reached via a 20-minute flight or 45-minute boat ride from Georgetown, Great Exuma, as arranged by the resort.
8. Lee Stocking Island
Lee Stocking Island is an uninhabited cay 30 miles north of Georgetown and used to be home to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) marine research facility between 1984 and 2012. Then, the island was abandoned overnight when funding ran out and everyone left, leaving all equipment behind. Exploring the “ghost town” buildings is sure to remind you of the TV series Lost.
Lee Stocking Island can be visited by charter vessel, but there is no public transport that goes to the island, nor is there any infrastructure there. Also, be mindful not to confuse Lee Stocking Island with Stocking Island (mentioned above)!
9. Rose Island – The Exuma Islands
The 11-mile-long Rose Island is located just three miles east of Paradise Island and directly off New Providence Island. The isle was once home to a pineapple plantation, but has no formal infrastructure. There are a few beach bars and private homes.
Most visitors take day trips from Paradise Island to swim with the pigs here. Tours usually include meeting the swimming pigs, snorkeling, kayaking, or fishing, with lunch included.
10. Allen Cay
Allen Cay is a long, thin cay in the Northern Exuma islands best known for the endemic Allen’s Cay iguanas (cyclura cychlura inornata), a rare and endangered species of Bahamian rock iguana.
The reptiles are friendly and not at all dangerous, accepting food from visitors. Many visitors take a boat trip over from Nassau – around 37 miles away – to see the iguanas.
More Islands and Cays in Exuma, Bahamas
The list above includes a range of suggestions of Exuma cays to include in your Bahamas itinerary, but is by no means a definitive list of islands available to visit. Some others that nearly made the cut are Crab Cay, Great Guana Cay, Little Halls Pond Cay, Long Cay, Little Farmers Cay, White Cay, Allan Cay (not to be confused with Allen Cay, mentioned above), Leaf Cay, Highborne Cay, Shroud Cay and Warderick Wells Cay, among many others.
If you’ve been island-hopping around the Exuma islands and have some suggestions of cays to stop off at or tips and hacks for visiting them, then let us know in the comments below. Likewise, if you’re planning a Bahamas trip and found this guide to the best islands of Exuma useful, let us know and ask any questions you have in the comments.