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The Awakening: Bahamas' Great Exuma

Dale LeathermanBy Dale Leatherman,

GREAT EXUMA, Bahamas -- 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 it is decidedly in vogue now, ever since the opening in November 2003 of the Four Seasons Great Exuma at Emerald Bay. The whole name is a mouthful -- and is becoming less necessary all the time. 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.

As you'd expect, there's lots of pampering at the Four Seasons, but don't expect it on the resort's Emerald Bay Golf 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 January 10. 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" is the prototype for boats to be sold by Norman Expedition Yachts.

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 did not wear his trademark white hat, in deference to the wind, but there was no doubt who he was when he teed off on the 10th hole. Trailed by a gallery of resort guests and property owners, he and Kuehne had a fun round on the back nine with alternating pairs of golf writers and photographers. Norman was wired, so his answers to questions from writers and spectators were broadcast to all.

Followers seeing the course for the first time were impressed beyond all expectation. 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. Then, achieving par is heroic.

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 a recent 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.

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 Keuhne got on in two, but Norman played it safe, respecting the minefield of bunkers he created around the green.

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 three that is fun, but inhospitable in the wind.

Playing Emerald Bay 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.


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. Norman told me about the great diving experience he had the day before the course opening, and we heard several resort guests raving about the bone-fishing.

Where to stay

Obviously, the Four Seasons is 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.

Where to dine

The poolside Sea Breeze Grill is perfect for lunch or a casual dinner. The conch salad and other fresh seafood dishes are particular treats. In the main hotel, Il Cielo offers a more formal Bahamian ambiance aided by views of the main pool and beach. The cuisine is Italian, with fresh seafood specialties. If you find yourself in George Town at meal time, try the Peace & Plenty Hotel for local favorites.

Off course

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. On the property is the Cotton House, the oldest building on the island, built in the 1780s. Visit Gloria Patience, the "Shark Lady" (no relation to Norman) of the Exumas, who has a collection of sea "treasures" in her small house/museum.

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.

Fast Fact

The Bahamas, more than 700 islands spread over 100,000 square miles, is not part of the Caribbean. It is completely surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean.

Dale Leatherman is a full-time freelance travel writer specializing in golf and adventure travel. For nearly 20 years her "beat" has been the Caribbean, where she can combine golf, scuba diving and other sports. She has also written about golf in Wales, Scotland, Australia, Costa Rica, Canada and the U.S., particularly the Mid-Atlantic region.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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