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Stylist.co.uk's Anna Brech turns island castaway on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma...
I'm very much a beach person. Any old beach with sand, sea and sun will do, but throw swimming pigs and the potential to spot Johnny Depp into the bargain and I'm sold for life.
Which is how my beloved and I found ourselves heading to The Exumas, a sprawling archipelago of 365 cays off the southeast coast of Bahamian capital Nassau, for our honeymoon.
This mystery land of pirate coves and subterranean grottos is beautiful even by Bahamian standards, and films directors have long been drawn by its travel brochure appeal.
Bond flicks Thunderball and Never Say Never Again were filmed here, as was the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Lead vagabond Depp was so taken with the place, he brought property on one of the cays.
Our descent into George Town airport on a tiny commuter airbus panned out like a Hollywood script, minus the schmaltzy orchestral soundtrack. Emerging from our post-wedding stupor, we were able to appreciate the sheer panoramic magnitude of the tiny isles that appear in a riot of turquoise, jade and indigo shadows.
Great Exuma, the largest island of the lot, is more remote than we expected it to be. Yachts and time-share villas hint at a millionaire's playground, but population is small (just over 4,000 people live on the Exumas), with relatively few tourists and a relaxed vibe that stands out from its party-loving neighbour Nassau. Most people come here for the spectacular marine life and unspoilt island terrain.
A place on the beach
Sandals have been operating in the Caribbean for over 30 years and their particular form of catered luxury has proved enduringly popular. Sandals Emerald Bay is the kind of hotel that is made for honeymoons and intimate escapes-a-deux but if the phrase "couples only" puts your teeth on edge, think again.
The grounds are large and sprawling enough to avoid any sense of loved-up duos being corralled together, in some uncomfortable show of manufactured romance. The couples aspect comes into play more with a.) no children and b.) indulgent facilities everywhere you look, from jacuzzi cocktails to trips across the bay on the hotel's fleet of catamarans.
Set in 500 acres of tropical landscape, the resort seems to occupy its own slightly surreal - and exuberant - universe. Now and again, we spot a cycling butler holding a full tray of champagne aloft in one hand. Down in the acre-long pool, the party is in full swing with live musicians playing on the balcony, poolside fire pits and a swim-up bar where you order a mean Dirty Banana (a potent rum concoction that will have you sliding off your bar seat).
The hotel has a number of other pools and outdoor Jacuzzis but our favourite spot was the beach, a surprisingly empty space with plenty of shady spots and clear, wonderfully warm water cut through with shafts of sun light.
We stayed in the impressive-sounding Beachfront Honeymoon Walkout Butler Villa Suite, where everything seemed to come as super-sized as the room title, from a cavernous mahogany bath to a giant balcony with a path leading directly to the beach. The clear perk of this part of the service is a 27/4 butler service designed to cater to your every whim, whether that's a delivery of watermelon slices down on the beach, kitsch greetings spelt out in tropical flowers or a fresh supply of champagne, for the mini-bar that just keeps on giving.
Food and drink
All food and drink at Sandals is included and unlimited, in a wildly exciting, button-popping prospect that will pander to all your baser instincts.
One of our favourite haunts was Bahama Bay, where we started what became a daily ritual of over-eating with a morning Mimosa (the standard welcome aperitif) before descending headlong into a dizzying array of American-meets-local delights. This culinary adventure generally ended up with us wielding platefuls of completely disparate food, from a cherry Danish to Bahamian fish stew, caramel sauce waffles and a freshly cooked mushroom-cheese omelettes.
This theme of over-indulgence can be explored in any number of the hotel's plethora of restaurants, from Le Parisienne, the chic French patisserie serving lattes and and pastries to Il Cielo, the go-to place for swanky Italian fare. At Barefoot By The Sea, a thatched canopy grill bar overlooking the ocean, we feasted on spicy Bahamian conch chowder with diced tomatoes and onions and freshly caught lime-marinated Mahi Mahi, with our feet firmly planted in the sand.
And we also took advantage of our very own seaside pop-up, via a candlelit dinner on the beach. As the sun went down, we could just make the outline of the bay with the odd twinkling light here and there, amid the distinctive ting-ting sound of nearby boat masts caught in the onshore wind.
Around and about
Life on Great Exuma revolves around the sea and you could easily spend a week just lazing in its warm, balmy shallows. But determined to make the most of our tropical setting, we literally pushed the boat out with an Off-Island Adventure charter trip around Moria Harbour Cay National Park. Captain Steve Cole is the sixth-generation Bahamian behind this enterprise, and he's just the man for the job. He knows this spectacular marine landscape like the back of his hand, and has spent years guiding tourists (including an unlikely amount of Victoria's Secret models who regularly pass through The Exumas on shoots), around its picturesque contours.
After an exhilarating 40-minute boat ride across the protected marine life area - including a chance encounter with a dolphin mother and calf - he dropped us off on a deserted island thronged with mangroves, sand dunes and palm trees, for our own private castaway experience (known officially as Secluded Castaway Getaway Bahamas and booked via Island Routes Caribbean Adventures).
This potentially alarming set-up was actually brilliant, not least in the company of two pairs of snorkels and a crate full of chilled beers and sandwiches. After five happy hours playing at desert islands on an obscenely photogenic beach, Captain Steve (thankfully) returned, and stopped off at a nearby coral reef for our first close-up encounter with a stingray and hoards of tropical fish. Turtles, giant starfish and nurse, reef and blacktip sharks can also be spotted in the area.
There are plenty of other trips available on Great Exuma, including the chance to see those infamous swimming pigs, a visit to the iguanas that live on White Cay (the film location for Pirates of the Caribbean II and III), snorkelling around the legendary Thunderball Grotto or the opportunity to ogle the rare Stromatolites, the oldest known macro-fossils on earth that thrive in the cays. The brave and bold can even go diving with sharks.
Back at Emerald Bay, Sandals runs a great watersports centre with free daily snorkelling trips to a nearby coral reef and well-respected scuba diving courses, as well as kayaks and canoes for guests to take out. For some serious down time, its Red Lane Spa awaits, with treatments including a honey ginger body wrap or Caribbean seaweed scrub.
Seven nights staying at Sandals Emerald Bay Golf, Tennis & Spa resort on a Luxury Included® (all-inclusive) basis in a Beach House One Bedroom Butler Suite costs from £2349 per person and includes the services of a butler, return flights, resort transfers, tips, unlimited gourmet speciality dining, premium wines and spirits and watersports, including scuba diving for certified divers. Price is based on two people sharing a room travelling between 11 April and 10 July 2015. For further information or to make a booking call Sandals on 0800 597 0002, email email@example.com or visit sandals.co.uk. Excursions on the island are bookable through Island Routes Caribbean Adventures.
Stylist reader discount
Stylist.co.uk readers are eligible for an extra £100 off on top of savings of up to 40% off, plus £350 discount on air credit, to be redeemed against any Club Level or Butler Suite at Sandals Emerald Bay Golf, Tennis & Spa Resort.
For more information about your Luxury Included® holiday visit sandals.co.uk. The offer is valid for holidays booked by 28 February 2015 and taken by 31 December 2016. To book, call 0800 597 0002 and quote STYLIST.
Terms and Conditions:
Book by 28 February 2015 for travel up to 26 December 2016. Quote STYLIST when booking. £100 discount is per booking and is only valid on any Club Level or Butler Suite at Sandals Emerald Bay Golf, Tennis & Spa Resort only. Minimum stay 7 nights. Valid on air-inclusive packages only. Not combinable with any other promo code offer but is combinable with the current Save up 40% plus £350 air credit savings. Terms and conditions and blackout dates apply. See here for full Stylist terms and conditions.
Photos: Sandals and Getty Images