General Aviation News

Staniel Cay: A little piece of paradise for pilots in the Bahamas
James Wynbrandt

Any pilot who knows the Bahamas will tell you the most spectacular flight in the islands is the one down the Exuma chain.

A string of islands 90-miles long starting 35 nautical miles southeast of Nassau, an overflight of the Exumas affords a view of hundreds of mostly uninhabited paradises (365 islands according to the official count) swirled in translucent shades of turquoise, each inciting dreams of becoming a castaway.

Most pilots passing this way are going to or from Georgetown, the most populated and popular of the Exumas, at the south end of the chain. But a few of the islands along the way have airports and accommodations. Among them, Staniel Cay makes a standout destination in its own right for three reasons: access, accommodations and activities.

Let’s start with access. Any pilot who knows the Bahamas will also tell you its airports sometimes seem as if their location was planned by the local taxi commission to assure drivers a comfortable living hauling visitors long distances between landing facilities and the towns they serve. So it’s a pleasure to land on Staniel Cay and find that accommodations are within walking distance of the 4,000-foot runway. Not that you’ll have to hoof it, because a golf cart will be dispatched to pick you up. There’s no immigration office at the airport, so having cleared customs at an airport of entry elsewhere, you’re free to come and go without getting your transire, or aircraft cruising permit, stamped.

One more thing old Bahama hands will tell you is that out-island lodgings can be on the funky side. That’s part of the charm, and price, of vacationing in out-of-the-way spots.

The Staniel Cay Yacht Club is a decided exception. Six cottages, each named for the tropical shade it’s painted in, line up against the water on the leeward side of the island. From the outside the cottages appear small, yet inside they’re surprisingly spacious and well appointed. The beds are big and firm, decked with throw covers and pillows. Tasteful and engaging artwork hangs on the walls. All cottages have a coffee maker, refrigerator and air conditioning.

Before heading off to a secluded beach, engaging in water sports or exploring the island, guests should stop at the yacht club’s main building, its rafters festooned with sailing pennants, where the bar, dining room and closet-sized office are located.

Around cocktail hour you’ll likely find proprietor David Hocher helping out behind the bar. David’s father, Joe, discovered the island on a vacation almost half a century ago. At the time, the property was a hunting lodge — white crown pigeons the game of choice — owned by a family from Nassau.

Joe bought the property with a partner and converted it into a marina in 1956. David grew up here, schooled by his mother until age 10, when he moved to Ft. Lauderdale. From there it was off to Princeton for college, then into a budding career as an investment banker in New York City. He returned to the island four years ago at age 29 to run the property full time. Today he’s the envy of his old buddies in the investment banking world. “This is home,” he says about the career switch. “I was lucky to have an option like this.”

Activities are centered around water and sand. Staniel Cay is in the midst of dozens of uninhabited islands with pristine, empty beaches. Sea kayaks can be rented, and so can 13- and 17-foot Boston Whalers with outboard motors ($95 and $235 per day respectively; half-day rentals also available). Snorkeling gear is available for sale in our gift shop.

Simple maps show where the best beaches, snorkeling spots, and other points of interest lie. Be aware, there are no communication devices provided with the boats. Make sure you’re provisioned accordingly and your general whereabouts known. Guides are available.

One of the local attractions is Thunderball Grotto, so named because portions of the James Bond flick “Thunderball” were filmed at the grotto, found in a small island just off the north end of Staniel Cay. You can swim into the cavernous grotto through an entranceway that is exposed at low tide and submerged at high.

Staniel Cay has great beaches of its own. For island exploration, a golf cart can tackle the crushed limestone roads that cut through the island’s scrub vegetation. Two-, four-, and six-person carts are available at full- and half-day rates. The Club Thunderball, a restaurant on a hill overlooking the eponymous grottoed islet just offshore, makes a worthwhile stop. One of the island’s nicest beaches is a short walk from here.

The island has fewer than 80 full-time residents, so you’re not likely to feel crowded no matter where you wander.

Since the airplane is so accessible, you can hop up the chain to Norman’s Cay, another wonderful Exumas destination, and have lunch at MacDuffs, whose waterfront cottages and bar and grill are literally yards from the 3,300-foot strip.

Go with a snorkeling excursion out to the half-submerged DC-3, a remnant of the days when Norman’s Cay served as the headquarters for the notorious Colombian narco-traficante Carlos Lederer.

The rates for cottages at the Yacht Club are $110-$135 per night based on season, double occupancy. Pilots receive a 20% discount on lodging. Joe, David’s father and a pilot himself, initiated the discount for members of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association years ago, and soon extended it to all pilots and their passengers.

Nowadays Joe is based in Ft. Lauderdale, but he still drops by, bringing in supplies in his Cherokee Six. For more information call 242-355-2024 or the U.S. office at 954-467-8920.

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