A few weeks ago, Neil Glazer from Pilot Mall invited me to tag along on a fly-in trip to the Bahamas in his Mooney Ovation. The annual trip is put on by the Bahamas Tourist Office as a way to educate American pilots about the processes involved in the quick international journey and about everything the islands have to offer. Needless to say, I was happy to make the trip.
Neil picked a fellow passenger and me up last Thursday at Orlando Executive, where we began the short hop over to Fort Lauderdale to meet the rest of the group – a group made up of everything from twin engine aircraft pilots to a couple of guys making the trip in a Breezer LSA. After topping off the tanks and attending our flight briefing, we ventured out over the open waters and into international territory, a first for me in a private aircraft.
The flight lasted all of 30 minutes, during which my initial concerns about flying over open water in a single-engine airplane quickly dissipated as I realized we would never be too far from land.
We came in to Grand Bahama International Airport on a long straight final, and as we landed, I got my first taste of the warmth of the Bahamian people as airport personnel came to greet us with wide smiles and friendly welcomes.
Getting through customs was a breeze, and after a quick tour of the island and some tasty Grouper, we were back at the airport. Our stay on the second most populated island in the Bahamas was brief, but the main point of the trip was to take advantage of one of the greatest benefits we enjoy as pilots – the opportunity to travel to remote areas often unreachable were it not for GA aircraft.
Our second destination, Great Harbour Key, fit that bill perfectly. A 7 ½ mile island with a population of less than 1,000, Great Harbour Key had its heyday in the 1960s, when it became a favored vacation spot for the likes of Cary Grant, Brigitte Bardot and other Hollywood A-listers. Today its exudes a laid-back feel, with its wide expanses of pristine beaches and a waterfront grill right off the airport that boasts some of the most famous hamburgers in the region.
We left Grand Bahama in a light drizzle – the only poor weather of the trip – but were able to make the short flight to Great Harbour Key, located a little over 60 nautical miles to the south, in VFR conditions.
After a night on the island, we headed to the region of Exuma, which offers some of the most spectacular views from the sky I have ever seen. We flew in low in order to better enjoy the view along the way, and as we hugged the various uninhabited islands stretched along our flight path, we watched the water turn from bright shades of royal blue to the most incredibly vibrant hues of teal. Check out our video footage from the flight below.
A testament to its beauty, Exuma has been the set for some major Hollywood blockbusters, including the Pirates of the Caribbean series as well as the 1965 James Bond movie Thunderball. Despite its popularity on the big screen, however, the area remains a remote string of islands replete with open skies that make for an easy flight with little competing traffic. Exuma International Airport’s new full service FBO, known as Odyssey Aviation and opened in February of this year, makes the spot an even more compelling destination for GA pilots.
Of all the islands, Exuma provides some of the most spectacular accommodations in the Bahamas. For those looking for a five-star resort experience, the Grand Isle Resort and Spa provides world-class beachfront villas. Those on a tighter budget can still find plenty of great hotels, as well as plenty of fun excursions on the island. One of the best low-cost experiences is a beachfront bar and grill appropriately titled Chat and Chill, where visitors can stand knee-deep in the water with pieces of conch meat and watch as stingrays approach to gently eat on the scraps.
After swimming with the stingrays, we hopped in the Mooney on Saturday morning amidst blue skies, departed Exuma and journeyed over to the island of San Salvador, where many believe Christopher Columbus first discovered the New World during his 1492 voyage. While the island’s airport is never too busy, pilots looking for both a good view of the beaches and some occasional airplane watching can find both in an affordable waterfront hotel just a few steps away. Visitors can also take advantage of San Salvador’s first-rate fishing and scuba diving opportunities, known as some of the best in the region.
In preparation for our return to Florida on Sunday, Neil made a quick heads-up call from the airport to the customs office at Fort Pierce, where we would arrive in just a few hours. After paying San Salvador’s custom office the $25 per person departure tax, one of the cheapest around, we were off.
As we approached Fort Pierce, we bid adieu to the peaceful emptiness of the Bahamian skies and were ushered into the busy hustle and bustle of South Florida airspace.
I returned to the States with a newfound appreciation of the Bahamas – one that can’t be gained by visiting the islands via the regular tourist route – as well as some new flying friends. For any other relatively new pilot looking for a fun adventure to stretch his flying skills, or any veteran pilot simply looking for an amazing low-hassle destination, I’d recommend giving the Bahamas a try.
The Bahamas Tourist Office has put together a group of Flying Ambassadors, of which my host pilot, Neil (firstname.lastname@example.org), is included, to answer any questions pilots looking to venture into the region might have. Pilots can contact them or learn more about flying to the Bahamas at FlyingAmbassador.com. Pilots interested in visiting a number of islands may also consider taking the 2012 Bahamas Pilot Challenge, which provides some pretty desirable prizes for those able to make it to at least 12 of the airports of entry in the region.