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I am going to let you in on a secret, my secret. Life was too stressful at the Harvard Business School, so I took an extended weekend, hopped on the plane, detoured in Miami, landed a rickety small plane (sat in the back for the least noise), and six hours later, landed on my secret getaway: Great Exuma, Bahamas.

Along with Little Exuma, the island forms the southern tip of the Exumas, a collection of 365 cays over 120 miles. Unlike the popular Bahamas destinations, Nassau and Paradise Island, with their underage, obnoxious spring-breakers, Great Exuma is a calmer, less-developed paradise. According to the Washington Post, the island is one of the “10 most desirable international locations.” While yachts frequent the island, cruise ships do not.

Even in high season, the island feels half-deserted because there too many cays and local beaches: it is so large that it is easy to carve out your own secret piece of heaven.

My secret piece of heaven is the sandbars, stretches of pure white sand in the middle of the harbor revealed during low tide. It is a gorgeous place: hidden sand dollars and starfishes abound, the whiteness of the sand almost blinding in the sunlight. The clear blue-green waters remind you that you are in the middle of the water, a water that increasingly rises until you realize your private island is being swallowed up. No matter how long you are there on the sandbars, it is not long enough. It soon disappears, sometimes reemerging as quickly as it goes, but even if appears close-by, the barrier between you and the sandbars is often too deep. It is a magical place: the sandbars come and go as they please, hardly-ever the same place as the day before.

One only finds the sandbars by chance; but one will have a very good chance if one charters a boat (at $450 for four hours or $750 for eight hours). My captain was Jerry Lewless. On his 26-feet-long Twin Vee Cat boat, Gloria, we visited the sandbars in between visits to the smaller Exuma islands. The itinerary was up to me. I declined snorkeling or fishing. Instead, I fed the eager fishes by the caves where the Pirate of the Caribbean movies were filmed, spied on the mansions on the private islands, called out for the ghost goat on a famously haunted and overgrown island, detoured to the outskirts of the Exumas, and then attempted to brave the rougher, unprotected ocean waters.

That was day one. Since the purpose of my trip was to de-stress, I spent most of my time at the Four Seasons. The Four Seasons is the only major development on the island. Located on one end of the island, with its own private mile-long beach along the crescent-shaped Emerald Bay, it is its own sanctuary. Although the hotel was almost fully-booked, most guests were on daytrips away from the resort. I would go out on the beach at nine or ten in the morning, where the attendant would pull my lounger close to the shore, set up my towels, and where I would nap, peacefully inhaling the salty sea air. No one would be there when I awoke, except the attendant, who would have my water glass filled and offer a cocktail (no thanks, that early in the morning).

The biggest decision for my day was where to spend my time. Should I remain along the unusual turquoise-green-colored water? There are kayaks, snorkel equipment and life vests at my disposal.never a wait. Or go golfing on the 18-hole course? Or play a game of tennis with a Peter Burwash International Pro? Or perhaps just go to the gym, which was strangely popular? (Strange, because it was indoors and pretty ordinary). Not being particularly athletic, my favorite options revolved around the two pools (three, counting the kids pool with the sprouting turtles) or the spa. I would decide after lunch. Ting’m was my favorite because its outdoor dining overlooked the beach. Along with the two other Four Seasons restaurants, most of the entrees featured American cuisine focusing on Bahamian-inspired seafood. Although not exactly a place for gourmands, the food proved satisfying: It is hard to go wrong with a fresh salad or burger, Caribbean-spiced or not. Similar and uninteresting, although delicious, the chocolate chip ice cream sandwich was the refreshing ending to the meal.

Then I tested out the pools. I am fickle and noncommittal; but wherever I went, the attendants greeted me by name. It was a Four Season signature. I found the non-quiet pool quieter than the other. The magazine selection was better, but everyone favored the quiet pool due to its yellow-and-white striped cabanas. I greedily took a full cabana: two chairs. My lounging was only interrupted by attendants filling my water glass or offering me ice pops, fruit skewers, and even rice krispie treats (by special request). I was sure by the end of my stay, they knew how much I loved food, but it was a service they provide gratis for everyone. Another perk was that one could have unlimited towels. (Lying on wet towels after a short dip in the pool is uncomfortable, and luckily, the management recognizes it.)

Another reason I found myself gravitating towards the cabanas was because, should I choose, I could plug-in my computer and check HBS email. Truthfully, I did that and even attempted to do some work. But with perfect 78-degree weather (when Boston was in a miserable 20-30 degrees), and all-I-can-eat-Johnny-cakes, I could not stay on the computer for long.

The only time I was not on the beach or by the pool was at the spa. The hotel had a gigantic, 32,000-square-feet spa and fitness center. Certain treatments, likes massages, could be performed in the private outdoor cabanas, but for mine, I chose to remain indoors. My masseuse was a delicate Thai woman, but the massage was firm and effective. I left the room blissful. Not hurrying to leave the spa complex, I walked downstairs to the woman’s lounge. Wearing an Egyptian cotton robe, I sipped tea overlooking the zen garden.

The party scene was almost nonexistent because many guests at the Four Seasons Great Exuma were celebrating honeymoons or anniversaries. The solution was to head to the center of the island to venture to local haunts. At night the fish fry shacks opened. For seven dollars the fish was salty-crispy on the outside, tender and fresh on the inside. Absolutely delicious! Alcohol was cheap, obviously much cheaper than at the hotel. The music was loud with an amped-up boombox mix of instantly-catchy Bahamian junkanoo, Turks and Caicos rake and scrape, and American hip hop. Occasionally, a local act occasionally performed on stage. Although not many tourists frequented the fish fry shacks, the locals were relatively friendly.

On Sundays, a mix of locals and tourists head to Chat N Chill’s pig roast ($19) on Stocking Island. The easiest solution was to hop on Chat N Chill’s own water taxi from Georgetown (the capital of Great Exuma), or splurge on the hotel’s $106 package, which included roundtrip transportation, a guided tour, and lunch. (If a pig roast is not for you, try the conch salad ($10), similar to boiled calamari except “crisper” and not as bland.) At the tiny booth at the end of the beach, the wait it always long, but worth it: the meat is succulent and tender, with a refreshing bite of tomato and lime juice. After your meal, relax along the 1000 foot beach, play a game of volleyball, visit the 90-feet sand dunes at the other end of the island, trek to the Beacon, Stocking Island’s highest point, or explore Jacques Cousteau’s underwater mystery cave. The island is one of the most active day spots in the Exumas. Truthfully, if you were looking for more excitement from the Bahamas, then you should have gone to Paradise Island instead.

Although the purpose of my trip was to relax, there are many activities. Boating is extremely popular because the north shore is sheltered from the open sea and the water is quite calm and shallow. It is a relatively easy place to learn how to navigate the waters. The postcard-perfect scenery and plentiful islands to explore are an added perk. Cave diving is also popular. The most popul
ar caves are Angelfish Blue Hole and Crab Cay Crevasse near Georgetown and the four mile Mystery Cave under Stocking Island. One rare feature of Exuma caves is that you will observe halocline at around 30 feet. Cave water is fresh because it is made of rainwater, but saltwater sits above; therefore one will see a blurring where the two waters meet. I suggest avoiding spending too much time in the capital, Georgetown, because it is extremely small, offers few attraction with the exception of the straw market, which simply an expensive tourist traps.

Great Exuma, with its tranquil waters, relaxed pace, and the Four Seasons’ commitment to quality, is the perfect place to recuperate from stress. General Manager Jim Kostecky knows how to take good care of a guest. After all, my trip made the impossible possible: it made me stop thinking about work for once, and enjoy the scenery.

February 25, 2008
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