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Exuma: Island-hopping in the Bahamas

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    Chat ‘N’ Chill bar and grill on Stocking Island is the epitome of the colorful, ramshackle beach and yachter bars you find throughout the Bahamas. (Chat ‘N’ Chill)

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    Sandals resort on Great Exuma Island enfolds you in the lap of luxury. (Sandals Report)

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    Musha Cay, seen here, houses an over-the-top luxury resort owned by famed magician, David Copperfield. (Musha Cay)

An island a day keeps the therapist away, I discovered in Exuma, an archipelago of 365 named islands and cays in the southern Bahamas.

Whereas my workaday schedule does not allow me the luxury of visiting one cay a day for an entire year, I must have racked up seeing a good half of them on a recent four-day mission.

It began on Great Exuma Island, home to an international airport, capital George Town, and three-year-old Sandals Emerald Bay, which artfully remastered the original Four Seasons built there in 2003.

Sandals and George Town present opposite end of the spectrum Great Exuma experiences in more ways than geographic. Whereas Sandals, 10 minutes north of the centrally located airport, sequesters you in luxury and pampering, George Town and its inns, about 20 minutes in the other direction, plunge you full immersion into the center of local life.

Free of traffic lights, the easily walkable village feeds you in restaurants that adhere to true Bahamian staples such as cracked (pounded and fried) conch, fresh grouper, steaming johnnycake, and spiny lobster. The historic Club Peace & Plenty accommodates you with British class between downtown and the marvelous beaches of Stocking Island.

Besides its beach, Stocking Island is best known by boaters for its Chat ‘N’ Chill bar and grill – the epitome of the colorful, ramshackle beach and yachter bars you find throughout the Bahamas. We met with owners Kwanza and Kenneth "KB," both as colorful as their establishment and warm as its beach, over a cold Kalik local beer.

Conch man A.J. chopped up a fresh bowl of conch salad, a ceviche-like delight. We fed gargantuan sting rays leftover bits of the conch, toasted the sunset, and headed back to the main island via a government ferry that runs regular service to the island.

Two islands down, 363 to go! Actually, I had already visited Little Exuma a few years back. Connected by a narrow bridge to Great Exuma’s south end, the time-stilled island is worth the drive to step over to the Tropic of Cancer and chew on actor Johnny Depp’s favorite conch fritters at Santana’s Grill. Depp indulged often during "Pirates of the Caribbean" filming, I’m told. He now owns an island of his own among the long string of cays north of Great Exuma.

We didn’t see Depp or his quiet eco-hideaway during our island-hopping boat excursion this time around. But we did see David Copperfield. Or was that just an illusion?

The famed magician owns the entire Musha Cay, now an over-the-top luxury resort where a roll call of gold-plated celebs have come to escape. His home is front and center, easily visible from the water, and that’s where we spotted him on the porch in a white robe. At least it looked like him from a distance through camera zooms, with jet black hair and slim physique. And so the 10 of us guests aboard agreed to agree that it indeed was he.

The mermaid lying next to a piano at the bottom of the sea was definitely not an illusion. Neither were the swimming pigs, friendly sharks, or endangered iguanas we encountered out there. We didn’t see James Bond, but we dived  through a cave opening to be flurried by tropical fish and become part of the scenery at a filming site from "Thunderball."

All of this true magic took place on an 8.5-hour tour aboard the 007 Thunderball Safari out of the north-end Great Exuma town of Barraterre. Native Bahamians Ray Lightbourne and son Justin know these waters and cays inside and out. Ray’s father, in fact, played one of the bad guys in "Thunderball," and Ray got to watch the filming. It takes some tricky maneuvering to get in and out of the cave, but the Lightbournes are expert sportsmen and teachers.

It was only one highlight of an adventure-filled trip. Other operators do similar tours, but you probably won’t see the underwater metal mermaid sculpture that Copperfield had commissioned. Nor will you see other secret, hard-to-find spots such as a surreal sandbar in the middle of the sea.

“People come to Exuma for an intimate experience,” said Justin. “That’s why we limit it to 10 guests, so we can get around to talk and know everyone personally.” The pair told stories about the various islands as we whipped past, stopping in front of some for a better look and pictures.

Our first deboarding at White Point took us to one of a gazillion incredible beaches with waters in 50 shades of blue. Here we climbed a tall dune, ate sweet Exuma pineapple, and took picture after picture to try to capture the water’s evanescent beauty.

We fed grapes on a stick to the Bahamian rock iguanas on Great Guana Cay. We ogled the private island home of country musicians Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. We swam with wild pigs at Big Majors Cay and nurse sharks and bonefish at funky Compass Cay.  At Staniel Cay, we relished Goombay Smash rum punches and blackened grouper at the eponymous yacht club’s salty restaurant.

We marveled at every turn: yet another gorgeous green island with deserted white sand beaches in a sea of jewels. Sixty-five miles from Barraterre, and we still were only two-thirds the way up the 90-mile stretch of cays that reaches clear to Nassau’s doorstep and beyond.

At the last stop, we devoured moist rum cake that Ray’s wife had made fresh, then headed for a flash ride back to the dock as the sun set on yet another perfect island experience that could surely cure any ailment of the spirit.