Staniel Cay: The Ultimate Guide To This Magical Island

carolien walking in the water

Our last pre-covid trip was to a magical place in the Exumas called Staniel Cay (pronounced “key” despite the spelling).  The Exumas are incredibly gorgeous, with that crystal clear turquoise water and white sand you think of when you think of “the Bahamas.”  It has among the most beautiful beaches and water I have ever seen across hundreds of beach trips over the years.  Staniel Cay also has a terrific hotel option mixed with convenient flights from Fort Lauderdale, so we picked this spot for a trip with our little one.  The place is so special that I am almost reluctant to let other people in on the magic!  It is easily one of our favorite trips, both as a family and as a couple.  


Where Is It

The Exumas are in the Bahamas and they are a chain of around 365 little islands called cays.  If you zoom in on the map of the Bahamas, they’re a chain of specks located to the southeast of Nassau.  They are very small little islands – the capital of the Exumas on the largest cay is called George Town and its population is <1500 people, to give you a sense.  We visited in early February and stayed for five days.  

Note that the private islands of Oprah, Faith Hill, Nicholas Cage, and Johnny Depp are all nearby.  And, if you feel inspired, Cave Cay is close by and for sale with a $60M price tag.  You can pop over on the boat to check it out.  


How To Get There

To reach Staniel Cay, there are direct flights from Fort Lauderdale’s FBO using a small plane company called Makers Air as well as a competitor called Staniel Air .  The planes are those small puddle jumpers that depart from private plane airports, but the prices are similar to normal commercial flights.  It is about an hour and a half flight, including a quick stop-off to clear all the passengers at customs in Andros.  

Once you arrive, the hotels on the island pick up the plane passengers and take them to their hotels.  Most of the “getting around” here is on the water, so you want access to a boat to explore.  Our hotel, Staniel Cay Yacht Club, included a small boat with the room as part of the package.  All of the hotels on the cay provide easy access to boat rentals both with and without guides.  Note that if you can drive a car, you can drive these boats pretty easily – they are easy-to-operate Boston Whalers.  We did all our exploring on our own without a guide because we had plenty of time and had to accommodate our little one’s nap schedule, so every day had a break for a couple of hours in the middle.  With less time, I might recommend getting a guide.  Part of the fun is just tooling around the boat and checking things out, but the guides can show you lots of interesting things that I am sure we missed.  There are actually a ton of special places that we heard about but did not visit – amazing snorkeling spots around thriving coral reefs, cool caves and hiking trails to check out, a downed plane wreck perfectly visible in the water, and several more places to visit with sea animals.   

You can also rent a golf cart easily and explore the island, which we did for a day when the water was too choppy to take out the boat.  There are some beautiful, totally hidden beaches on Staniel Cay itself.  The island is somewhat walkable but the town is very small.  


Why Go

First, you go to explore crystal clear, turquoise water with white sand beaches and sandbars in an incredibly lovely place with a relaxed pace of life.  It is stunningly beautiful everywhere you turn and easy to return home recharged.  Second, there are a lot of fun animal interaction opportunities within 20-30 minutes of boating from Staniel Cay.  We met the famous swimming pigs, snorkeled in some beautiful places, fed some nurse sharks, hiked near some iguanas, and saw some stingrays and sea turtles.   


For our little one, it was super fun for a couple of reasons.  First, the water is super shallow in many places and there are some gorgeous sandbars, so he delighted in walking around in the warm water.  Second, the animals and the swimming pigs, in particular, were a big hit.  He was so little at the time that it did not register how strange it was to have pigs swimming in the water, but he loved meeting the baby pigs.  Third, boats and golf carts are fun activities with kids.

When To Visit

The most popular time to visit is actually during the summer, although the high season runs from April-October.  Average daytime temperatures range from about 65 F in January to about 90 F in August.  

We had great weather when we visited in February.  It was around 75 every day, although Google suggests that we may have gotten lucky with particularly warm weather for the month.  The water temperatures range from 70-80F year-round, so it is always very pleasant.  


We Liked

The major thing we liked was just exploring, on both the boat and the golf cart.  The surroundings are gorgeous, the water and roads are easy to navigate, and there are beaches /islands/sandbars where you can easily pull up and explore.  Many things to explore are within 20-30 minutes.  With the exception of Pig Beach, there were not many if any people at most places we went.  There is something really cool about splashing around in shallow crystal clear turquoise water with no one else around.  It is visually stunning, our little one was delighted to crawl in the shallow water and play in the sand, and it feels very unique: it was as though we were in our own little version of Blue Lagoon.  The Pipe Cay sandbar is particularly worth mentioning as seeking out.  

The most family-friendly thing we did was check out Pig Beach.  The hotel gave us scraps for food and we went early in the morning before the tourist boats arrived, so it was not very crowded.  It is really fun to see the pigs swimming in the water.  There are dozens of them, many more than I anticipated, and they really love their food.  I was expecting the pigs to be a little more like dogs but they are definitely wild pigs with an appetite, so I know that feeding them is not exactly a tranquil experience.  They are all jostling to get some scraps and you can clearly see the pig winners and losers in the fight for food.  There was also a person on the beach who seemed to know all the pigs well and was scratching their ears and sharing their names – the pigs were really well-behaved around him and there were some adorable baby pigs he helped us to visit with our little one.  

We also checked out Thunderball Grotto.  This spot became famous because it is in two different James Bond movies: “Thunderball” and “Never Say Never.”  This is like snorkeling in a well-stocked, extremely colorful fishbowl, and the way the light filters through the water is really mesmerizing.  This was a brief excursion because it is not a baby-friendly trip, so we needed to use a sitter during naptime.  

For animal interactions, another fun thing to do was heading to Compass Marina to feed the nurse sharks.  The sharks come right up to the dock – you can pet them from the dock or swim with them, depending on your degree of comfort.  They are almost docile and surprisingly calm – we got in the water and, although our kiddo did not swim, we were completely comfortable having him pet the shark from the dock.

For beaches on Staniel Cay during our golf cart exploring, our favorite was by the end of the landing strip near the airport.  I have no idea what the name was, but everyone on the island will know.  It was super shallow for a long, long stretch with some interesting nooks and crannies to explore along the waterline, all with that same crystal clear turquoise water.  


Day Trips

There are a few other places that were recommended that we did not make it to: the Rocky Dundas, Norman Cay, and the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.  The Rocky Dundas are very close by, with great snorkeling inside a system of illuminated caves with stalagmites.  Norman Cay has a shipwreck that is supposed to be very cool to see.  The Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park are supposed to have even more excellent snorkeling and diving.  Surprisingly, we did not find an easily accessible diving company near Staniel Cay while we were there, but it may be because we visited during the off-season.   


Where To Eat

First, our hotel’s room rate included all food (not drinks) and it was excellent.  The head chef actually trained at a famous culinary institute and then worked under a highly respected chef before moving to the Bahamas.  Staniel’s Cay’s bar was also really fun – the bartenders are great and the place is sometimes quite a scene.  The Bahamas has a lot of yachties and Staniel Cay has space to dock so there was a really interesting and fun mix of people at the bar several nights we were there.    

On the island, there are not really other food options.  One other food-and-beverage-related thing to know about the island – it is remote, so food and drinks are not that cheap and it is worth picking up supplies.  There is a little shop next to the laundromat that sells bottled water and alcohol.  There’s also a local grocery store a little further away with some more food options.  My impression is that the other hotels on the island either have kitchens for people to cook at home or they eat at Staniel Cay during their trip.  

While exploring, you can also get burgers and beers at Compass Key Marina with the nurse sharks.  We did not come across many other food options – there are a lot fewer restaurant options than we expected, so we were thrilled that the food at Staniel Cay was so good.  Staniel Cay also includes a picnic basket and a cooler for guests to take lunch with them while exploring if they do not want to return to the hotel for lunchtime.  

Nearby (on the water), there is a luxury hotel called Fowl Cay Resort with six villas that start at $3K a night.  We did not visit given our kiddo’s night schedule, but we heard amazing things about the restaurant.  It is a reservation only if you are not staying at the hotel, you join them for cocktails and appetizers at 6:30 PM, then there is one dinner seating for an outstanding four-course meal with a spectacular sunset view.   


Where To Stay

As we mentioned, we stayed at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club and we have incredibly positive things to say about the hotel.  Rooms in the boat + food package run from $350-$700/night, including the boat and all meals for two people.  It is a collection of charming little villas on the water and each room comes with a little boat to tool around and explore.  It is very nice and it is a little bit rustic in a great way.  Many of the villas also have two floors, which offers some nice separation between parents and children.     

There is also another hotel called Embrace Resort ($150-$250/night) on the island as well as several amazing private villas at various price points available for rent around the island.  We have no particular recommendations to offer here, but Google appears to rate all of the options extremely strongly.  With this location, you cannot really go wrong.  


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