Dolphins, stingrays, sharks, mantas – I have swum or dived with them all. But swimming pigs? Really? Yes, they exist, and you can take a boat trip out to the tiny coral cay where they live and swim with them, as I discovered on a recent Bahamian golfing trip.
I’m still smiling at the memory of paddling with the feral porkers in the clear, aquamarine Caribbean waters, trotters flailing, snouts above the waves, ears pricked up like hairy radar antennas and tails resembling curly little rudders. Magical.
Put there five years ago as piglets, they forage among the vegetation. But the sound of approaching boats and the prospect of titbits draws them down to the sandy beach, and as we moored all five trotted into the water and started swimming towards us.
We quickly joined them, offering them frankfurters and bread rolls until the treats ran out and they swam back to their island haven. On our half-day Ocean Safari tour from Exuma, we also visited idyllic, deserted beaches and got up close and personal with huge iguanas lazing on palm-fringed sands.
CARIBBEAN DIAMOND. When I last visited the Bahamas in the late 1990s, I did some exhilarating shark-feeding dives off Nassau. My only shark encounter this time was taking on the tough Sandals Emerald Reef course on Great Exuma created by Greg Norman, aka the Great White Shark.
Golfers who have not discovered the Bahamas are missing out on a true Caribbean diamond – a kaleidoscopic paradise of lush fairways and greens augmented by pink and white beaches, seas of myriad blue tints, vivid tropical plants and pastel-coloured buildings.
It’s a gem that has lost some lustre in recent years. Hurricanes and the economic downturn have led to the closure or mothballing of several courses and held back investment in some others. However, the future is very bright. A new Jack Nicklaus course is under construction as part of a huge resort project on Nassau’s Cable Beach, at least one closed facility is planned to reopen, and proposed developments include a PGA Village golf complex on Cat Island.
700 ISLANDS. There are 16 main islands in the Bahamas, but the entire chain comprises 700 islands and thousands of smaller cays at the northern end of the Caribbean, just 50 miles from Florida at their closest point. New Providence Island, where capital city Nassau is located, and Grand Bahama, which has the second-largest city, Freeport, are the two most developed islands and have most of the country’s golf facilities.
The remaining islands are known as the Out Islands. Life here is lived at a slower pace. Golfers wanting to get a true taste of the Bahamas can do as I did and combine Freeport and Nassau with island hopping to play the other courses on Abaco and Exuma.
GRAND LUCAYAN. My Bahamas golf adventure began on Grand Bahama Island. After flying direct from London into Nassau, my connecting flight landed at Freeport in the early evening. A warm Bahamian welcome at the Grand Lucayan resort, which has a long beach and three pools to laze by plus balconies with all rooms, got me straight into a laid-back mindset.
Grand Lucayan’s adjacent Reef golf course is a 6,900-yard Robert Trent Jones Jr layout that opened in 2000 and features a dozen lakes in its compact design. A test for any golfer, the course is eminently playable with generous fairways and large greens. The three par-5 holes offer scope for birdies, while the par-3 4th, 14th and 17th holes require tee shots over water that test your mettle. Beware the long par-4 12th, with its narrow fairway and risky approach shot to a green edged by water.
PIGS AND DOLPHINS. Grand Lucayan actually has two courses. The Lucayan Country Club course, designed by Dick Wilson and opened in 1964, is currently closed but there are plans to revamp and reopen it in the next two years.
An invigorating massage in the resort’s oceanfront Senses Spa will ease any post-round aches. Eight restaurants and bars offer options, from elegant Churchill’s, serving up Mediterranean-inspired dinners with entertainment, to casual dining at Iries Bar. More eateries are across the street among the jewellery and souvenir stalls at Port Lucayan Marketplace.
Grand Lucayan’s extensive facilities also include a casino, kids’ club and tennis courts. Before meeting the aquatic pigs, I swam with dolphins at the enclosed Sanctuary Bay lagoon of dolphin experience company UNEXSO, a short boat ride from their base opposite Grand Lucayan. Having done so in several countries, my encounter with bottlenose dolphins Coral and Exuma was the most enjoyable of all. UNEXSO also offers swimming or diving dolphin interactions in the open ocean, as well as diving with sharks.
HURRICANE DAMAGE. My Grand Bahama stay coincided with Freeport’s annual Junior Junkanoo parade, a colourful and exuberant version of the Bahamas’ traditional adult Junkanoo by the island’s schools, with exotic costumes and marching bands.
Also in Freeport is the Joe Lee-designed Ruby Golf Course, opened in 1964 and redesigned by Jim Fazio in 2002. Formerly part of a resort hotel with a sister course, it is all that remains open following hurricane damage a decade ago.
After flying into Nassau, my taxi took me past the Baha Mar golf resort development on Cable Beach. Opening in December, its Nicklaus course may open for play sooner.
Linked by twin one-way bridges with Nassau, Paradise Island is a haven of fun, centred on the sprawling, pink-towered Atlantis resort. Aquatic activities include dolphin swims, snorkelling with manta rays and tropical fish, hand-feeding stingrays, and a tube flume ride from atop a “Mayan temple” through a shark-filled pool. It also has a casino, bars, shops and restaurants, and a marina full of mega yachts.
LOCAL CUISINE. The next door Comfort Suites hotel is a welcome oasis of calm whose guests can use facilities at Atlantis. From there, I walked across one of the bridges to the Fish Fry on Potter’s Cay, a strip of waterside shack restaurants serving up locally caught conch (the iconic Bahamian shellfish) and fish.
A fisherman threw his boatload of tied conch shells into the sea just feet from me as I tucked into delicious cracked conch and fries washed down by a local Kalik beer.
Paradise Island has top drawer golf. The Ocean Golf Club is a beautiful Tom Weiskopf design and LPGA Tour host course managed by Troon Golf with several holes edged by the Caribbean. My playing partners were the Director General from the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism and a senior colleague, but any nerves about playing in such lofty company were soon dispelled; both were down to earth and a joy to play with.
The ocean holes are the stars, notably the stroke index one, par-4 4th with its beachside green, the par-5 6th, par-3 8th fittingly called Surf’s Up, and the par-4 17th, which plays alongside the ocean from tee boxes including one hard against the beach.
TOUR STARS. Close to Nassau’s airport is the exclusive Albany golf and marina community, co-owned by Tiger Woods and Ernie Els and where several Tour stars are members. Before a flight to the Out Islands, I was given a tour of its pristine, Els-designed, desert-style course and passed Justin Rose on one hole, having seen Adam Scott in the clubhouse earlier. Non-members can play if they rent one of the grand villas dotted around its edge.
Nassau has several colourful, historic buildings and forts echoing the Bahamas’ British colonial past. A Surrey horse-drawn carriage tour is a good way to explore Nassau.
EMERALD REEF. On Great Exuma, Greg Norman’s 7,000-yard Emerald Reef course is part of the swish, 500-acre Sandals Emerald Bay all-inclusive resort. This is no resort course, though; it’s big boys’ golf.
After a front nine weaving through seaside dunes and mangroves, the back nine features six magnificent holes hugging the coast on a rocky peninsula. Perilously tight fairways, water hazards including an island green on the par-3 6th, and frequent, brisk trade winds present a formidable challenge. Play with caution and it won’t beat your game up too much. But you’ll come away with a smile even if it does.
My favourite holes include the par-3 11th which starts the peninsula holes’ run, the short par-3 13th with its two-tiered green by a rocky headland, the par-4 14th for its tee shot over rocks and waves, and the long and narrow par-5 15th. Salt water-tolerant seashore paspalum grass, used throughout, is surprisingly smooth to putt on.
There are plans to restore the driving range, currently out of action.
BUTLER SERVICE. Top room categories at Sandals enjoy personal butler service from a team trained by the London-based Guild of Professional English Butlers. I was assigned a butler suite, complete with complimentary wines, spirits, beers and soft drinks, and given a mobile phone for my stay, pre-programmed to display My Butlers on screen with one press of a button.
The butlers will do everything from unpacking your luggage to running a bath. I opted for an indulgent breakfast one morning and duly called. Within 15 minutes, Adam the butler arrived with my breakfast tray on a tricycle, setting it down on my terrace overlooking Emerald Bay. Now that’s what I call service.
Following golf, I was pampered with a relaxing West Indian massage in the Red Lane Spa, the largest in the Caribbean. Seven dining venues include the stylish La Parisienne restaurant, fine dining at Italian restaurant Il Cielo and English cuisine and beers at The Drunken Duck pub.
ROYAL ACCOMODATION. Already wowed by my butler suite, I was upgraded to the resort’s massive Royal Villa. Where the Bahamian prime minister stays when visiting Exuma, it spans two floors with its own private pool, office, sunken bath and walk-in dressing room.
A stay in the Royal Villa in September, with private butler and including flights and transfers, costs from £6,555 per person.
Sadly, there was no time to enjoy the mile-long soft sands, the huge freshwater swimming pool and swim-up bar or free water sports, let alone play with everything in my villa.
Abaco’s Treasure Cay was the last course planned by Dick Wilson, of Miami’s Doral Blue Monster fame. Comprising two loops, sea breezes make club selection tricky, particularly on the tighter back nine holes. It has a rustic feel but presents an enjoyable challenge. Uncrowded fairways mean rounds take three hours or less, leaving the rest of the day to hit the beach or relax on the terrace of your marina-view room.
Native trees and vegetation edge fairways and greens, adding difficulty to holes like the par-5 11th hole, which doglegs sharply around a pond. A renovation programme has begun to replace some greens.
TREASURE CAY. Themed dinner evenings are held at Treasure Cay’s Tipsy Pool Bar, overlooking the marina where boat masts frame fiery sunsets, and Coco Beach Bar, by the stunning white sands of three-mile-long Treasure Cay Beach, one of the Bahamas’ best.
Treasure Cay was founded by loyalists fleeing the American Revolution. They resettled on outlying island Green Turtle Cay, where the colourful New England-style homes of New Plymouth reflect its heritage. Take the ferry and discover its history at the fascinating Albert Lowe Museum before stopping at Miss Emily’s Blue Bee Bar, home of the Goombay Smash – the Bahamas’ national drink – for a glass of the rum-based cocktail. It leaves you with a warm glow on the ferry ride back.
An hour’s drive south of Treasure Cay, past bustling island capital Marsh Harbour, lies The Abaco Club on Winding Bay. Gloriously situated on 500 acres of picturesque cove and rocky headland, its centrepiece is a beautifully-manicured Donald Steel and Tom Mackenzie creation described as the “world’s first Scottish-style links in a tropical location” and which again uses seashore paspalum throughout.
WATCH THE BIRDIES. The first 14 holes loop out and back along the cove, its opening three inland holes giving way to a stretch of beachside holes with the deep blue waters of Winding Bay the backdrop.
Chances are you will hear the raucous calls and see the brilliant red and green plumage of critically-endangered, ground-nesting Abaco Parrots as they roost in the trees during your round or provide a noisy morning alarm outside the windows of your luxury cabana.
The final four holes, set atop the headland cliff, give panoramic views and a memorable finish. The 15th and 16th holes skirt a deep quarry that gobbles up errant shots before the par-3 17th and sinuous par-5 18th bring breathtaking ocean views beyond crashing waves.
Using your personalised golf buggy you can explore the resort, stop for lunch and a Kalik at Buster’s Beach Bar and drive up to the clifftop restaurant for dinner. After your round, get a ride down the dirt track to nearby Little Harbour for a sundowner on the deck of Pete’s Pub.
As I watched my final Bahamian sunset, I resolved not to leave it another 15 years before returning.
Good to know
Grand Lucayan, Grand Bahama
The Ocean Golf Club, Paradise Island
Sandals Emerald Bay, Exuma
(guests booking a minimum three nights get two free rounds; guests staying in Butler Suites for a minimum four nights get unlimited free golf)
Treasure Cay Beach, Marina & Golf Resort, Abaco
The Abaco Club, Abaco
Comfort Suites Paradise Island
Atlantis Paradise Island
Dolphin swim, UNEXSO, Grand Bahama
Ocean Safari (pigs swim), Exuma Water Sports, Exuma
A seven-night stay at the Grand Lucayan including direct return flights from Heathrow to Nassau and return Nassau-Grand Bahama flights for travel between September 1 and October 16, 2014, costs from £1,499 per person with Tropical Sky (0843 249 7657) for Great Golf Magazine readers, a saving of £200. Book by June 30, quoting GREATGOLF.