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Exuma's Big Major Cay is famous for its swimming wild pigs.

Howie Sonnenschein

What was it about the ocean swings that lured me down to Exuma? I’d seen them in so many online posts and travelbrags about the Bahamian island. The swings are simple – a wooden seat suspended over blue-green water with salt-stained ropes tied to some rickety two-by-fours – but my God, they sent out a siren call as strong as thirst.

Exuma is a magnet for those who want to revel in their beach fantasies online. It’s awash in blinding white sand that sifts through your toes like icing sugar. Its beaches are lapped by water so ethereal (#nofilter) that people tie themselves in knots trying to describe the colour (“unforgettable” comes close). The infamous Frye Festival was a disastrous fraud, but it also put Exuma on the map with its promo videos of pretty young things playing with the area’s swimming pigs, lazing on those ocean swings and frolicking in blow-your-mind beach scenes. For every uninhabited cay and sandbar off its shores there are others with beach bars and small hotels that shelter visitors from the storms of this world. If you need a name for your escape fantasy – it’s Exuma.

Once you’ve arrived, though, it’s not always an easy island to love: the lack of public transit (you must rent a car or shell out for pricey taxis), the lack of recycling (plastic water bottles are everywhere) and – outside the 176-square-mile Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park – the missteps in wildlife protection can all be off-putting. What will charm you are the people of this island and of its 365 cays. If Exuma’s beaches (and pigs and ocean swings) caught your attention, it’s the locals who will endear you to the place.

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Exuma was untouched by the September, 2019, hurricane that ravaged two of the country’s northern islands. And during the drive to our resort, my travel companion and I noticed quickly that the island is not overdeveloped. We passed rustic homes, small hotels and smaller restaurants on our way to Grand Isle Resort on Emerald Bay. Our driver explained that much of the beachfront is owned by locals. Many have received generational land ownership stemming from postslavery grants, and it must be kept in the family.

The beaches of Exuma are awash in blinding white sand, surrounded by etheral ocean waters.

Bahamas Tourism

Emerald Bay takes my breath away – the water actually glimmers like its namesake gemstone. Our villa is as sleek as any high-end home (a Sub-Zero fridge chills our beer and a glass-topped range boils our kettle) but we’ll take our meals poolside at the lively restaurant, and spend one day at Grand Isle’s sleek new beach club, 23 North (adult-only infinity pool, cabanas, Bahamian-inspired fine dining – you get the picture). Farther down Grand Isle’s beach I spot ocean swings! And beach hammocks! Technically, they belong to the enormous Sandals resort next door, but Bahamas beaches are public, so I wander down one quiet morning to try them out. I jump on and start pumping my legs, letting my feet skim the surf. Eventually, a security guard starts heading my way so I move on. Later, I will frolic to my heart’s content and pose for many silly photos on the swings at remote Coco Plum Beach. I need to imprint this in my mind so I can draw on the memory in the long winter ahead.

When I meet a Bahamanian who’s lived through a Canadian winter, she nods in understanding. Dorcas Shuttleworth is one of hundreds of locals who volunteer with the Bahamas’s People-to-People program. She’s happy to hang out with visitors and talk about her country. She joined when the program launched in 1975. “I like meeting people, and letting them know about our life here,” the retired teacher says. Incredibly, this service is free.

The ocean swings offer a great setting for goofy beach photos.

Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail

Dorcas and her good friend Mae invite me and my good friend Mary Lynn into Dorcas’s bright seaside home. Officially, it is to teach us how to make a favourite local dish – peas ‘n’ rice – but unofficially it is a commercial-free connection to the culture. We chat on her porch and, when she notices the ocean breeze does little to cool me down, Dorcas brings out sliced watermelon, grown in her garden. When we move into the kitchen, Mary Lynn chops and sautes and stirs, while I make notes about the recipe Mae holds in her head. When it’s time to season the dish – Dorcas takes me on a tour through her enormous garden. Thyme, mint, rosemary – the herbs grow chest high and the scents are heady as we brush past.

As the four of us chatter over steaming plates of peas 'n’ rice, Dorcas and Mae suggest we visit the sea turtles that hang out by the pier down the road. Then insist on driving ahead of our rental car so we won’t miss the Hooper’s Bay beach entrance – and absolutely refuse our offer to pay for the ingredients of our meal. (Later that month, when I meet the Bahamian Minister of Tourism, Dionisio D’Aguilar, in Toronto, he is not surprised to hear this story. “We are a deeply proud people,” he says, puffing up his chest a little, “and want to show off all we can about what it means to be Bahamian.”)

At Hooper’s Bay, we wander yet another paradisaical beach and wade into the warm waters. The sea turtles show up and we are stunned at how close they come. I grab my camera and start shooting. Then a small tour boat cuts its engine off the end of the pier. It’s not long before our new turtle friends turn tail and head out to the food being tossed off the boat, as the captain’s guests jump in the water to begin their own private turtle moment. Deserted, we stand in the surf with mouths agape – hadn’t we just read the government’s “Don’t feed the turtles” sign attached to the pier?

T.R.Todd

The pigs of Big Major Cay know that the presence of tourists likely means a free lunch.

Bahamas Tourism

But it’s hard to keep your nose out of joint for long in paradise. And hadn’t we just fed those wild, swimming pigs that Exuma is also famous for? The day before, after a glorious 90-minute, 600 horsepower boat ride through gin-clear waters, we arrived at Big Major Cay. Several large hogs, little legs pumping against the current, swam out to meet us: They knew where to find a free lunch. I jumped off the back of our boat and waded up to the beach to get a closer look at the younger, less aggressive pigs, who – when the beach isn’t full of tourists – live alone on this cay. As more boats arrived it became a porcine bacchanalia. Bread and carrots were snatched out of human hands, piglets squealed in protest when picked up, hogs bigger than the young children they were chasing searched for more food – and weren’t afraid to nip at a few bums hanging out of bathing suits. The shoreline eventually turned into a pig latrine, so I made my way back to the boat to watch the spectacle. At least six boats were unloading people.

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Those swimming pigs – made famous on Instagram, and stars of their own short film and hardcover book – have drawn thousands to Exuma. They are (pardon the mixed metaphor) a cash cow for tour operators trying to make a living. It feels exploitative (should we really be feeding wild animals?) but the experience was, conflictingly, also fun.

On our last night, Mary Lynn and I find ourselves at Porgies, a ramshackle bar among the Fish Fry shacks outside Georgetown. We’d come in to sample “the coldest beer in Exuma,” according to our guide.

We raised our bottles of Kalik in a toast. “Where are you from?” asked the man beside us, already several drinks into his evening.

He shook his head when he heard, then regaled us with stories of his island. Another proud Bahamian. “You’re in paradise now,” he said, arms opened wide.

It was hard to argue.

The writer was a guest of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. It did not review or approve the story.

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Your turn

Grand Isle Resort & Spa is a 20-minute drive from the airport.

Bahamas Tourism/Handout

Air Canada Vacations flies direct to Georgetown, Exuma from Toronto every Saturday, from November to May.

  • Before you go: Sign up for the free People-to-People experience through the Bahamas tourism website or local island offices.
  • Grand Isle Resort & Spa is a gated resort in Rokers Point on Emerald Bay Beach, about a 20-minute drive from the airport; one- to four-bedroom villas start at US$400 a night. Grocery delivery is available, and the resort offers customized boat tours and fishing trips. Book at least one dinner at the resort’s new luxe beach club 23 North. The Bahamian inspired fine dining is enticing and, design-wise, there is nothing like it on the island.
  • Little is open on Sundays, so head to Chat ’n’ Chill – a beach shack famous for its spit-roasted pig dinner. A short water taxi ride from the Georgetown dock drops you off at Stocking Island, where they take their chill seriously: Eat, drink and find a hammock or beach swing to mellow out in. Outside the conch hut, wild stingrays slurp conch bits from your hand.
  • Many businesses are cash only, but bring U.S. money, it’s used on par with Bahamian dollars. A 12-per-cent VAT is added to all purchases, and most restaurants include a 10-per-cent tip on the bill.

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect month for Hurricane Dorian. This version has been corrected.

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