Published January 11, 2013
Are you ready to vacation like a movie star?
First, you are whisked to your own private Bahamian island enclave in a five-seater plane.
After a short boat ride with a stop to feed the swimming pigs on a neighboring cay (yes, they really swim) you're greeted by a smiling staff that shows you to your airy villa with drop-dead gorgeous views of the water where lunch and drinks are waiting. The fridge and pantry are stocked with everything you could possibly want, or need, (including all varieties of alcohol) and if there is something the staff has forgotten, all you have to do is ask.
No, you're not dreaming. Welcome to Fowl Cay Resort in the famous Bahamian Exumas that boast more than 300 tiny islands. This is the most unique Caribbean all-inclusive resort that I've ever seen. Yet this island resort -- the maximum number of guests is 30 -- is owned by Sandals, which I learned, also owns private villas in Jamaica.
Yves Verhoustraete, who along with his wife Marta serves as general managers, explains that the founder of Sandals, Jamaican Gordon "Butch" Stewart, used to like to anchor his yacht here in the idyllic cove. When the American family who owned this island put it up for sale five years ago, he bought it to run a different kind of all-inclusive resort than Sandals or Beaches.
Different is an understatement -- and I have visited Sandals and Beaches resorts enough to be able to compare. I'm not kidding about the movie stars either. Johnny Depp owns one of the neighboring islands, Tyler Perry another -- and then there are the swimming pigs -- a dozen of them nearby at the tiny island of Big Major Cay.
On another island, we meet the biggest iguanas I've ever seen and when we go over to Compass Cay, we swim with docile nurse sharks. This is no organized tour. Owner Tucker Rolle explains he rescued two little ones from a grouper trap and now there are more than a dozen. He charges visitors $10 to get in the water with them and is famous for his burgers.
Our hardest decision is to decide what to do -- explore in our boat, go fishing, kayak, paddleboard, or just relax on the private beach with a book, before joining the other guests for cocktails and a three-course dinner at the Hill House. Our only decision there: meat or fish.
On another island, another day we eat a picnic lunch packed by the staff as we watch the biggest iguanas I've ever seen. Schools of fish swim all around us as we snorkel. (Read my trip diaries here.)
"My kids felt like they were in an unexplored tropical paradise...," said Dr. Brad Fau, a Columbus, Ohio pediatrician who recently vacationed here with his wife and five children to celebrate their 20th anniversary.
Who needs kids' programs when there' s tubing around a private cove, tennis, fishing off the dock and all the tropical virgin drinks that parents will allow whipped up by the bartender?
"We enjoyed NOT having scheduled kids' programs ... with the uniqueness of having your own boat to explore a new adventure every day," said Dr. Fau.
"You can be so spontaneous," said Valerie Hughes, here from suburban New York with her 12-year-old son. "You wake up and figure out what you want to do ... it's wonderful."
We found this suited the grown kids we took along too -- my son Matt and his girlfriend Emmie.
Of course, this doesn't come cheap. All-inclusive rates are typically about $1,700 a night for a four-person villa that includes the boat and even the gas. But anyone who has vacationed with kids at a luxury Caribbean or Hawaiian resort knows they could easily spend that much or more and not have this kind of experience. Just renting a boat could cost $400 a day. "Absolutely worth it," said Dr. Fau. "It is the memories and relationships that are incalculable when it comes to price..."
Hughes was back for her second visit. In fact, half the guests return within a year.
It's easy to see why.
First, there is the wonderful laid-back ambiance of the outer islands of the Bahamas -- easily reached from Florida or Nassau. I learned to scuba dive in the Abacos. (See why Travelzoo showcases them.)
There is an opportunity for all of these adventures without the heavy lifting they would usually entail. I loved not having to stock the villa, pack a picnic, wonder what we would cook for dinner or gas up or clean the boat. They gave us snorkeling and fishing gear for our stay -- no need to rent each time we wanted some. The staff even did our laundry.
"My wife and I felt -- even with the five kids -- that we could relax because they were catered to so well," said Dr. Fau. "We have never had such personal attention and likely never will again at any other resort."
Did I mention that each morning, freshly baked muffins and tropical fruits are brought to our villa where my husband Andy obligingly cooked up some eggs and bacon? (We didn't even have to do the dishes!)
The best part: wherever we go, we have the place virtually to ourselves; whether we're snorkeling, fishing or just hanging out on a tiny speck of an island. I've never experienced that -- not even when we were sailing ourselves around the British Virgin Islands.
On the other side of Compass Cay, we hiked down a lagoon to Rachel's Bubble Bath so named because the waves crash into the rock and pour into this little inlet, covering the water with bubbles. We picnic under a gazebo looking out at the clear warm water.
Earlier, Verhoustraete took us to one of the most idyllic snorkeling spots I've ever seen -- the Sea Aquarium in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park -- a national marine preserve created in 1958 that stretches for 176 square miles.
We swim with schools of sergeant major, grouper, parrot fish and yellow-tailed snapper -- fish that are yellow and silver, purple and blue.
"We felt like we were on an episode of "Fantasy Island," said Dr. Fau.