The view from our room was awfully hard to say good-bye to when it was time to head home.
The water around Great Exuma Island in the Bahamas is one of the most recognizable landmarks to astronauts 249 miles overhead. The irradiant blue-green hues are unrivaled elsewhere on the plant, as tides rush in and out through shallow channels between Exuma’s 365 islands and cays. The ocean seems to glow, as if lit from below.
Sandals Emerald Bay Resort and its championship Greg Norman-designed golf course boast panoramic views of these waters – vistas that look like they’ve been filtered by some hyperbolic Instagram photographer. But there is no smart-phone trickery here. Only paradise wherever you look.
Sandals Emerald Bay Resort
Sandals has been synonymous with “all-inclusive resort” since the first one opened in 1981.
The name Sandals is synonymous with Caribbean getaways. The first Sandals opened in 1981 in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and pioneered the concept of the all-inclusive couples resort. Sandals Emerald Bay opened in 2010 when the company took over and expanded the Four Seasons on Great Exuma. Sandals Emerald Bay is the larger of two Sandals in the Bahamas and is expansive by any measure. Sandals employs 650 on this island of 4,000 residents. Many of the staff come from other Bahamian islands other Caribbean locales (we met several from Jamaica). There are 11 restaurants on property, two large pools, and a nearly mile-long private white-sand beach.
From the 16th Hole of the Sandals Emerald Bay Golf Course you can see the full expanse of the resort’s private beach.
Service at Sandals is outstanding. Guests have the option of upgrading to butler service, complete with a private cell phone to call their butler any time of day or night. Our primary butler, Kevin, seemed to anticipate our every need: surprise charcuterie boards were waiting for us in our room. Hot bubble baths were drawn to meet us when we returned from our strenuous days of sightseeing, golf, and laying about. Prime lounge chairs and cabanas were saved for us by the pool. Signature cocktails magically appeared in our hands precisely when we started thinking, “Hmmm…I might go get a drink.”
Our butler Kevin made sure treats and snacks were always waiting for us in our room.
Food at all-inclusive resorts sometimes takes a back seat, given the “captive” audience. My wife and I tried nearly every restaurant at Sandals Emerald Bay and were struck by the consistent quality, ranging from very good to excellent. The Jerk Shack chicken and yams were my favorite casual fare (perfect by the pool with a cold beer). For dinners, Soy sushi, Bombay Club Indian, La Parisienne French, and il Cielo Italian were frankly neck and neck in terms of our favorite meals—all excellent, all very different. Dinner at il Cielo was especially opulent, as we attended a small private dinner with Adam Stewart, Deputy Chairman of Sandals Resorts, whose father, Gordon “Butch” Stewart, is Founder and Chairman of Sandals Resorts. Also in attendance was Greg Norman, World Golf Hall of Famer and designer of the Sandals Emerald Bay Golf Course.
Dinner with Greg Norman and Adam Stewart, Deputy Chairman of Sandals Resort
Sandals amenities are legendary. From the boisterous main pool with swim-up bar to the Quiet Pool, from the bountiful hammocks strung between palms around the property to the nearly mile-long beach complete with complementary watersport equipment, there is plenty to do. Treatments at the sumptuous Red Lane Spa are extra but highly recommended. If you feel like exploring off-site, Island Routes has a desk opposite reception, where you can book island tours, bone fishing trips, or excursions to swim with the famous pigs of the Bahamas (as seen on “The Bachelor” and soon to be a feature-length film), feed grapes to endangered Bahamian rock iguanas, and snorkel in the crystalline waters of Great Exuma.
Swimming with the famous pigs and scratching some iguanas behind the ears.
Sandals Emerald Bay Golf Course
The Sandals Emerald Bay Golf Course is a stunning 7,001-yard championship Greg Norman design that has hosted the Korn Ferry Tour’s Bahamas Great Exuma Classic since 2015. The six-hole stretch from hole 11 to hole 16 are some of the prettiest oceanside holes I’ve ever seen. There are no dramatic forced carries over frothing coves, but with the electric sea as a constant companion, the vistas are nothing short of heavenly.
Players in the Korn Ferry Tour Bahamas Great Exuma Classic had to block out the crashing waves.
During an exclusive one-on-one interview with The Shark himself, Norman shared the history of the course, and how those stunning views were nearly hidden from golfers.
“I became involved with the course in 2002/03. The original developer was from South Africa. Originally, it was a real-estate constrained designed. That’s why some holes are short. All those holes on the back along the ocean were supposed to run between houses, which would line the shore on both sides. Boring! Then they realized how expensive it would be to run utilities down two sides of the property. I convinced them to save money by running it just down one side and allowing for seaside holes. Then Four Seasons took over, and the course sat fallow for a while. When Sandals took over, Butch [Stewart, Sandals’ Founder] listened and carefully protected and managed this course back to life.”
It would have been a shame to hide views like this from golfers. Good on ya for bringing them to us, Shark!
Thanks to Stewart’s stewardship and Norman’s aesthetic, the course today not only hosts the Korn Ferry Tour Bahamas Great Exuma Classic, but also offers Sandals guests one of the best golf deals in the Caribbean. Non-guest green fees are $155, with cart fees $25-$35. Sandals guests pay no green fees, so a golf-addled vacationer could play 36 holes (or more!) of tournament-quality seaside golf—every day—for practically pennies. (Rental clubs and shoes are also available for the more casual player for $65 and $15, respectively.)
While the ocean features on six holes of Sandals Emerald Bay Golf Course, the trade winds feature on all eighteen, though the inland holes are somewhat sheltered. This is especially true at certain times of the year, including the week of the Korn Ferry Tour tournament. According to Brooks Downing of BD Global Sports, who runs two Korn Ferry Tour events in the Bahamas (Exuma and Abaco), the week of the tournament has been extraordinarily windy all four years so far.
“The first year,” says Downing, “the tail of a nor’easter hit us. That tournament had the highest scoring average in the 30-year history of the Tour. The par-4 12th had a stroke average of 5.8. Guys couldn’t bring themselves to aim 30 yards out over the ocean and let the wind bring it back. So their tee shots kept landing OB right.”
The green of the par-4 12th is the only safe place on the hole when the wind blows hard.
Because of the tempestuous winds, the course plays differently every day. Even the gorgeous par-3 11th, which stretches to only 148 yards even for the pros, can be a demon if the wind is in your face. My pro-am partner, Paul Barjon, who was 2019 leading money winner on the Canadian PGA Tour, hit a 6-iron into the 11th in the pro-am. I tried a 9-iron from 100 yards…and failed to make the green.
The 148-yard 11th Hole is not a pushover if the winds dictate a mid-iron from the tee.
For all the postcard beauty of the seaside holes, the real test of an oceanside golf course is the inland holes. At Sandals, Norman has hewn memorable holes from scrub brush and wetlands, and incorporated several water hazards that aren’t the Atlantic Ocean. One of the real beauties is the 165-yard 6th, a downhill par-3 to a peninsula green that is wide but shallow.
The 165-yard 12th (top L), 228-yard 2nd (top R), and 460-yard 10th (bottom) have their own non-ocean water hazards.
For visitors, the secret to enjoying your round (or rounds) here will be choosing the right tees not just for your skill set, but also for the conditions. If the wind is whipping, play up. In addition, always prioritize hitting it in the fairway over hitting it a long way. On nearly every hole, you will find water, rocks, brush, or waste areas 10 yards off of nearly every fairway and green. What you likely won’t find is your ball if you hit it in these places. So make sure to bring or buy plenty before your round, or you’ll be re-stocking at the turn.
No matter how you play, take plenty of time to soak in the sun and sea, along with plenty of photos of what might just be the most beautiful corner of the Caribbean. There may be astronauts overhead wishing they were playing golf in the midst of that otherworldly blue.
The 572-yard 15th (top L), 401-yard 16th (top R), and 122-yard 13th (bottom) holes all dazzle with ocean vistas.