The Awakening: Bahamas’ Great Exuma

Emerald Bay GC on Great Exuma. Copyright Donnelle Oxley

Emerald Reef GC on Great Exuma. Copyright Donnelle Oxley

There are more than 700 sleepy little islands and cays collectively known as the “Out Islands” of the Bahamas. The “In” islands (though they do not call themselves that) are New Providence Island (Nassau, Paradise Island) and Grand Bahama Island (Freeport). These mega-islands never sleep, and the tourist traffic is constant year-round.

The island of Great Exuma is one of the Bahamas’ Out Islands, but is decidedly in vogue, with the Sandals Emerald Bay Resort (formerly the Four Seasons Emerald Bay Resort) and the Emerald Reef Golf Course. The word “Exuma,” spoken in circles of affluent people who travel, garners instant recognition. It is synonymous with great golf and great comfort in an intimate island setting.

But don’t expect any pampering on the course. Oh, you’ll get a couple of crying towels in your golf cart, an ice-filled cooler for beverages, and a sharp pencil to record all those bogeys. But no sympathy. Everybody’s in the same boat when the wind is up, which is most of the time. But it’s exquisite torture, because a shot at this beauty would be worth swimming to Great Exuma.

Speaking of boats and swimming, architect Greg Norman arrived at Great Exuma on his $70 million yacht, Aussie Rules, a couple of days before the official course opening in 2003. The early arrival meant that Norman and his guests, including former U.S. Amateur Champion Hank Kuehne, could enjoy the local scuba diving and fishing. The 228-foot “Great White Yacht” was the prototype for boats sold by Norman Expedition Yachts.

Greg Norman at Emerald Reef GC. Copyright Donnelle Oxley

Greg Norman at Emerald Reef GC. Copyright Donnelle Oxley

The Shark showed up looking fit and lean for the opening of his latest creation, and remarked that the 7,001-yard Emerald Bay “is going to be my favorite place to play day-in and day-out. The back nine is scenically wonderful, but I love playing the front nine; there are so many great holes out there. I think we’ve achieved a great balance in the golf experience we can offer here.”

Norman and his design crew have been back since the reopening of the resort as a Sandals property, to spruce up the course and return it to its original design.  Anyone seeing the course for the first time has to be impressed.  Holes 11 through 16 follow the edge of a dramatic peninsula buffeted by wind and sea spray and are incredibly scenic as well as being good skill tests.

The wind is onshore for the 12th hole, making it difficult to find the narrow landing area. On the second shot, the wind’s goal is to deposit your ball in the long, right-side waste bunker. Next is an innocent-looking par 3, where the wind can force you to hit seaward and hope the ball blows back onto the tiered green.

Hole 14 tees off over a rocky, foaming chasm to a blind, uphill fairway. Just over the hill a waste bunker lurks all along the left side. The bunker contains not only sand, but piles of rock. During one storm the bunker was washed away, so these bulwarks seem to be the answer — unless you happen to land behind one of them with a long sand shot to the sloped and tiered green.Hole #16 at Exuma.
Holes 15 and 16 run between the sea and massive sand and waste bunkers. Fifteen, a 572-yard par 5 (the second handicap), is a beautiful driving hole with great views along the coast toward the resort. Long-hitter Hank Kuehne got on in two, but Norman played it safe, respecting the minefield of bunkers he created around the green.

Emerald Bay GC on Great Exuma.  Copyright Donnelle Oxley

Emerald Reef GC on Great Exuma. Copyright Donnelle Oxley

Sixteen, a par 4, is not especially long, but it is well bunkered on the left and across the front of a diagonal green sloping toward the water.

If possible, play the back nine first so that you can see what all the fuss is about. You’ll be more prepared for the nuances of the front nine, and you’ll avoid the blinding late-day sun on holes 15 and 16.

A subtle test awaits among the lakes and rock outcroppings of the front side, and Norman’s liking for this nine, even though it is not bordered by crashing waves, is understandable. Winding through lakes, marshes and rock outcroppings, the front nine has many holes that call for caution on the drive and a delicate touch to carry the greens. Few offer a run-up option. It’s a place to think, hold up and play smart.

Hole five earns its number one ranking with a full-length waste bunker on one side and a central nest of deep bunkers a few yards out from a long, narrow green. Six is an island par 3 that is fun, but inhospitable in the wind.

Playing Emerald Reef on a windy day is humbling, but the resort is designed to restore your well-being. Pastel guest villas hug a mile-long crescent of powdery beach. The sea is an incredible shade of turquoise. In all the right places you’ll find lounge chairs, umbrellas, flowers, and friendly waiters. The spa offers exotic treatments in the hands of gentle experts, and the dining experience is flawless.

Greg Norman hitting at Emerald Bay GC on Great Exuma. Copyright Donnelle Oxley

Greg Norman hitting at Emerald Reef GC on Great Exuma. Copyright Donnelle Oxley

Great Exuma, 40 minutes south of Nassau and about two hours from Miami, is the largest of 365 small islands in the Exumas archipelago. The area has always been famous for its diving and fishing. Obviously, Sandals is now THE place to stay. The spacious beachfront villas, only a few steps from the water, are the ultimate in style, comfort and convenience. All needs are fulfilled. The poolside grill is perfect for lunch or a casual dinner. The conch salad and other fresh seafood dishes are particularly good. In the main resortl building, the dining offers a more formal Bahamian ambiance aided by views of the main pool and beach.  If you find yourself in George Town at meal time, try the Peace & Plenty Hotel for local favorites.

Within 60 minutes of the resort is a bridge linking Great Exuma to Little Exuma, where you’ll find remnants of the settlement days, including the Hermitage Plantation, the last surviving example of the settlers’ estates. Within 30 minutes of the resort is George Town, the Exumas capital, where you’ll find historic buildings, distinctive inns, some homey local bars, and the straw market. To the south is Rolle Town, with its small, brightly painted houses and 18th-century cemetery.

If you (like Norman) enjoy diving and bone-fishing, have the concierge make arrangements for excursions with the local experts.

Sandals Emerald Bay Resort, Great Exuma, Bahamas.

About Dale Leatherman

In the course of her life she has exercised racehorses at New York’s Belmont Park, showed jumping horses on the A Circuit, driven a race car with the late Paul Newman and played the world’s most famous golf courses.