Luxury Hotels Travel Wellness & Spas

A reason to rush back to the Bahamas

How about this for a pool? It is what Butch Stewart added when he took over what was formerly Four Seasons Great Exuma Bahamas. What is now the truly beautiful Sandals Emerald Bay, Great Exuma, is a reason to rush back to the Bahamas. This is THE most gorgeous 500-acre, all-inclusive adult playground, with what seems like miles and miles of pristine beach (I know how lovely it all is, I was lucky enough to fly over the entire area in the helicopter that had been shooting for the Sandals corporate photo stock). Many come here to get married.

Yes, the eternal lifestyle queen of the USA, Martha Stewart, has linked up, professionally speaking, with Butch Stewart (no relation). Even if nuptials or renewing vows are not on your current agenda, it is worth checking the brochure online. Flutter of Romance, for instance, comes with a ceremony in the Martha Stewart all-white open-air gazebo on a manicured area of bright green lawn.

Pink highlights come through the bouquet, table linens to hold the silver-and-white Martha Stewart china, by Wedgwood, and pink butterflies, meticulously handmade from birds’ feathers, adorn place cards and the cake. And you are looking out over one of the few beautiful beaches in the entire region that is empty, apart from resort guests.

Beverly Maycock, wedding coordinator at Sandals Emerald Bay, Great Exuma, can do ceremonies for up to 200, and she can call in marriage officers to officiate. She has never been asked to provide the groom, or bride, but she can arrange a dress. Obviously at least the main participants will be lucky enough to stay in the resort (if kids are taking part in the wedding, they and their minders can get day-passes as Sandals Emerald Bay, Great Exuma, is strictly 18-or-over, and pairs-only).

Great Exuma is on the Tropic of Cancer, 300 miles south-east of Miami. At 40 by four miles, it is the largest of 365 islands stretching a total of 120 miles to form the Exuma Archipelago (the name Exuma is thought to come for ‘little pieces’. from the language of the now-extinct Lucayan Indians). Its George Town International Airport is now served regularly from Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Toronto and there are numerous Nassau and other intra-island connections.

Twelve minutes after leaving the airport you drive up to what looks like a giant plantation house, to be welcomed with moist towels and a cocktail of the house sparkling (Pol Clément Brut Blanc de Blancs) and cranberry juice. The lobby has a framed, lifelike blue Marlin, polished hardwood floors, and a central ceiling rising cathedral style, to support a two-level wrought-iron chandelier.

At the rear, a stone terrace looks down over a full-acre adult play-pool, with inset multi-person hot tubs, a swim-up bar and, also, plenty of space for actual swimming. Yellow and white-striped cabanas are occupied from breakfast-time onwards. Typically, new guests quickly unpack, head straight for this pool (or another, tranquility, pool), and then perhaps take a long walk on the beautiful white-sand beach.

There are 249 rooms and suites, mostly in seven three-floor orange and white blocks. All are ocean-facing, and looking east: smallest room size is 490 sq ft. The most desirable of the private pale blue and white detached villas, right by the beach, is the total-4,000 sq ft Royal Villa, available as one, two or three bedrooms. Two-floor suite 8102 is the center part of this villa.

You have polished hardwood floors, soft apricot or pistachio walls, and a variety of local art. There is a full kitchen, with an espresso machine (as in even base rooms), dining for eight, and, up 18 stairs, an office, a walk in closet and a huge marble bathroom, and the bedroom, with a terrace and loungers.

Down to the main floor, the rear opens to a courtyard large enough for dining and lounging, thence to a 20-foot private pool and, beyond 30 feet of low scrub, that beautiful beach. Nothing is scrimped, here – Butch Stewart goes for the best, with Molton Brown toiletries and Frette linens. You can opt for access to a shared concierge lounge, or for a room with butlers, summoned by dedicated mobile phones. Our butler quickly brought an extension cord, and helped get into what was to be excellent WiFi (charged extra, but only $49 a week).

The 17-room spa is also an additional charge, but if I had the time I would be there at least once a day. Red Lane is Sandals own group brand, and the two therapists I had, Dawn and Deanlyn, were truly outstanding – the Dermalogica facial felt more like a loving medical analysis than the usual shoving-on of creams.

Try a West Indian massage, with hot stones to symbolise the day-in-day-out weather that has enticed you to the Caribbean, and massage techniques that cleverly move, as if a wave gently breaking on the beach, down one arm and straight to that leg, and back up again. When you leave the spa, you are handed a card inviting you to share your thoughts on various interactive websites. (You can also spend, of course, in the attractive retail arcade, which has the island’s only duty-free store.)

You eat and drink for free, or so it seems, and there are so many choices – buffets in Bahama Bay, Italian in Il Cielo, English pub food in the Drunken Duck (a ‘real’ pub imported bit by bit from the old country), pizzas at Dino’s and, soon, a French fine dining restaurant. You can also opt for private dining back home, cost included, or, for a surcharge, have a romantic table set up elsewhere, say in Martha Stewart’s grotto.

My own favorite would probably be a cocktail in the busy-busy Drunken Duck, with its unpolished wood floors, tall-backed benches to create more-private seating areas, and stools up at the bar itself – over which hangs a ragamuffin collection of old cooking pots. There is a library corner, prominent television screens to please sports fans, and an adjacent games room has full size billiards, plus two small pool tables, and darts.

And then, though we loved the Italian, I would return again and again to Barefoot by the Sea, which is local, say a big pork chop with Bahamian seasonings, or design-your-own, choose a fish, how it is cooked and what it comes with (I went for a superbly-tasty local swordfish, with lemon butter on the side, and a green salad).

There is, like on all-inclusive cruise ships, a pay-for-better wine list, but who bothers when the house pour is not only the aforementioned Pol Clément but Beringer Stone Cellers’ Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio? Similarly, the included-liquor offers such labels as Absolut, Bombay Sapphire, and Dewar’s White Label.

Oh yes, there are also events every evening. Sunday is a lovers’ game show; Monday is a cocktail hosted by GM Jeremy Mutton and his charming assistant, Patrick Drake, with a welcome beach party after; Tuesday is an Asian buffet followed by a chocolate extravaganza; Wednesday sees a lunchtime beach regatta, a Bahamian dinner buffet and charity casino royale; Thursday is Mexican buffet followed by a talent show (staff and guests!); Friday hosts a street-vendors’ market, Junkanoo Street Rush and Saturday is seafood buffet night.

Some lie for hours around one of the pools, but we prefer more exercise. There are six championship tennis courts, and a 24-hour gym. Watersports, including scuba-diving for PADI-certified, are all included. The 18-hole, par-72 Greg Norman course (surcharge) winds its paspalum bentgrass fairways in and around the island, in all a 7,001-yard tally, and Greg Norman’s Sharkshack is the club house.

Since most stay at least a week, here at Sandals Emerald Bay, Great Exuma, it is a nice option to take a tour, say visiting the Butch Stewart-owned marina, or spending the day alone, just the two of you, on a private island that is also part of the Butch Stewart empire. Take a half-day tour of many islands, on a 26-ft Twin Vee Powercat. There is great deep sea, light-tackle and reef fishing. And, a unique concept, visit the swimming pigs at Pig Beach: yes, this is not a made up story, about a dozen pigs descended from feral ancestors have now, through many generations, learned to swim to pick up fruit and other food proffered by anyone who wants to feed them.

On the morning we left, we found, outside the door of 8102, the words Good Morning formed in red flowers, on the doormat. We looked at the green grass, the bright fuchsia bougainvillea, the white sand, the turquoise sea and we were loathe to leave. As Rory, from Jamaica, said, as he drove us back to the airport, this place is very special, and the beach is empty. It makes you smile.