Navigating between remoter parts of the Out Islands chain still requires travel by public ferry, mail boat, or fishing vessel with a captain willing to accept cash on the side when the marlin aren’t biting. Landing from Fort Lauderdale at the airstrip on Staniel Cay, I stand under the shade of the Cessna Grand Caravan’s wing as the Watermakers Air pilot unloads bales of iceberg lettuce from the hold. Eventually I’m met by Nikki Ferguson, who runs a gift shop near the Staniel Cay Yacht Club. “Hot enough?” she asks, as I climb aboard her two-seater golf cart. “It’s already a two-cup-of-ice day.” To prove her point, she steers with one manicured hand while holding two Styrofoam cups in the other, crunching on frozen slush as we bounce over a speed bump and around several salt ponds on the way to the hotel. Next to a dockside fish clean-and-grill station conveniently positioned where harmless reef sharks circle for scraps, this marina is the jumping-off point for exploring the northern half of the Exumas and, as the name implies, a favorite anchorage for mariners. She drops me at the Yacht Club and whizzes away after topping off her cups with more ice. Inside, an impressive collection of nautical memorabilia hangs from the rafters and palm-mat walls. Lifesavers, signal lamps, and teak stern plaques from passing boats called Sea Tramp and Floating Interest are interspersed with faded photographs of the film crew for Thunderball, the James Bond movie shot here in 1965. The nine pastel cottages at Staniel Cay Yacht Club are simple—queen bed; shower; wicker furniture—with covered decks on a conch shell–strewn shoreline. Each has a private dock where a small motorboat is tied for guests who want to seek out their own sandbars.
As the tide drops, I borrow one of Ferguson’s golf carts and traverse the Atlantic side of the cay, braking to let iridescent blue lizards scurry across the scorched asphalt paths. The next day, I order conch fritters for lunch in the hotel’s restaurant and pass the afternoon counting yacht flags (my father’s wind-tattered one still hangs there) until a boat comes to take me to Royal Plantation, on 50-acre Fowl Cay, less than two miles away through back channels. This island resort, with six expansive villas and two deserted beaches, is quite a departure from Staniel Cay. My one-bedroom cottage, Lindon House, has a stone patio with white rockers shaded by palmettos and an oversize kitchen where one of the staff cooks breakfast to order. It’s the sort of place I could easily spend day after day lazing in the rope hammock with a trashy novel or snorkeling between cays where starfish and sand dollars swim in water clear as glass.
The next morning I head to Harbour Island, off the northeastern tip of Eleuthera. Captain John “Ollie” McKenzie, a bonefishing guide from Baraterre, on Great Exuma, picks me up for a cruise south along the calmer southwestern side of the Exumas chain in his center-console boat. He roars across shallow flats that shift in hue from gin to indigo, past the secluded, five-bungalow, $37,500-a-night private island of Musha Cay (owned by magician David Copperfield) and Depp’s equally private lair. We talk about where to find the best peas-and-rice (at Charlie’s, in George Town, on Great Exuma), a favorite Bahamian accompaniment to fried-fish dinners. We dock at George Town, and I connect by small plane to Harbour Island. In sharp contrast to the raffish Exumas, this manicured enclave attracts a smartly dressed crowd that spends its time browsing through galleries and attending cocktail parties in rented villas. As I tote my bag for a quick walk along Bay Street from Government Dock, British designer India Hicks whizzes by on her golf cart. The lanes are shaded by mature fig and frangipani trees. White picket fences front gingerbread cottages painted baby pink and aquamarine. Cicadas rattle like castanets as the noonday heat rises. I check in to the Landing, a set of three colonial plantation–style town houses. Ceiling fans whirl on the front porches; a pool is tucked in a grove of palm trees out back. Mahogany antiques and four-poster beds dominate the small quarters that are decorated with vintage lithographs of the tropics. My second-floor room—named Poinciana—has French doors leading to a private balcony with white deck chairs positioned to catch the sunset. I quickly discover that social life in Dunmore Town centers around cocktail hour at the Landing’s elegant bar. The bartenders, T. J. and Honey, immediately steer me to the best backyard barbecue (Brian’s Takeout) and a grocery on Pitt Street that sells Miss Patricia’s locally bottled hot sauce.