Read our expert’s overview to the best that the islands have to offer for a Bahamas vacation sure to please everyone.
When there are 700 tropical islands to explore and 1,200 cays (pronounced ‘keys’), where do you begin? It’s The Bahamas, and that means the choices are endless, though I have my favorites. Give me Nassau for history and culture, Freeport City for limbo in the town square, Exuma for glorious aquamarine waters, Bimini for tales of Atlantis and San Salvador for scuba diving. That covers five islands—only 695 to go. I guess that’s the reason it’s “better in the Bahamas,” as locals say, because you never run out of options for a tropical vacation.
The Bahamas is an archipelago of islands just east of Florida, first inhabited by Arawak Indians centuries ago. The Arawak fled when the cannibalistic Caribe Indians pursued them, and the lands were then mostly deserted until the British colonized the islands in the late 1600s. British colonists and their slaves settled mostly on the island of New Providence at first, with Nassau as its capital, as pirates like Blackbeard and Calico Jack roamed area waters. Blackbeard even ruled Nassau for a few years until the British took firm hold, eventually declaring the islands a crown colony in 1718.
The Bahamas gained independence in 1973 and today represent a lively blend of British, African, West Indies, European and other cultural influences all rolled into one. It’s a land of smiles and friendly faces, of thousands of white sandy beaches and secret coves. And plenty of islands to explore.
The most populated island in the Bahamas is New Providence, which is often referred to as its capital city Nassau. The city has a bustling downtown center on Bay Street, where the pink and sunset colors of the city’s colonial architecture are interspersed with restaurants and duty-free shops. One of the biggest tourist draws in the area is the enormous open-air straw market, featuring everything imaginable that can be made out of straw (beware of overly aggressive salespeople).
I love the Pompey Museum of Slavery and Empancipation next door, which covers the course of slavery and its abolition, the slave trade having seeded a large part of the Bahamian population and integral to the islands’ culture.
For kids, Pirates of Nassau is a must-see museum. Here, a swarthy-looking pirate look-alike helps bring me back to the days of Blackbeard as we meander among reincarnated pirate villages.
Throughout downtown are various historical points of interest like Parliament Square, Fort Fincastle and the Queen’s Staircase, 65 steps carved out of limestone by slaves to commemorate the years of Queen Victoria’s reign. And some of the Bahamas’ finest restaurants are located near Bay Street like Graycliff, situated in a 260-year-old grand estate, and Chez Willie, where Bahamian and French cuisine is complemented by weekend limbo shows.
But the Bahamas is, after all, mostly about beaches, and some of Nassau’s finest are just minutes from downtown. My favorite is Cable Beach, a beautiful sandy stretch with an assortment of luxury resorts. An especially good one for families is the Sheraton Nassau Beach Resort. The resort has a new Love Your Family program with daylong activities that encourage family fun. At any given time you might encounter a hula-hoop contest, butt volleyball (try sliding on your bottom while hitting an oversized ball!), family feud and more crazy fun. (Love Your Family rates start at $299 per night, and include a $100 resort credit per day.) The Sheraton’s more than 400 rooms were just redone, and its next-door sister property, the Wyndham Nassau Resort & Crystal Palace Casino, features reciprocal resort privileges. (Wyndham rates start at $125 per night.)
But who can go to Nassau without crossing the bridge to Atlantis on Paradise Island? Atlantis is an enormous hotel/water park/entertainment complex featuring amazing water rides, aquarium tanks lining hotel hallways, dolphin encounters, a pool casino and more. Be prepared for crowds. My Bahamian guide, Romeo, says first-time visitors to Atlantis are always enamored but often tell him once is enough. Yet Atlantis is a must-see; I just prefer to return to the tranquility of Cable Beach to sleep. But on my way back to my hotel, I stop to eat the freshest seafood in existence at Poop Deck on the west end of New Providence where waiters will bring your meal out to a private table along the beach. Now that’s tranquility, or at least I thought, until I got to Exuma. [Read more about family-friendly Atlantis and the gorgeous island of Exuma.]
Grand Bahama lies just 55 miles east of Florida and is one of the most-visited Bahamian islands, spurred on by resort development that began in the 1950s. And that’s what a visit to this island is usually about—resorts and casino in the Freeport City/Lucaya area. The island doesn’t have the charm and variety of Nassau, but for those that like resort destination holidays, it fits the bill.
Not to be missed on a visit to the island is Count Basie Square at the Port Lucaya Marketplace. The square rocks and rolls almost every night with live entertainment ranging from Bahamian music and karaoke to fire dancing and limbo with audience participation. It’s quite likely the liveliest nightspot in the Bahamas, that is, unless you’re at the new Isle of Capri Casino Our Lucaya.
The casino is situated on the Sheraton Grand Bahama and Westin Grand Bahama Island properties, which are terrific resorts for families with children. In addition to Camp Lucaya for kids, there’s a water slide, sand playground and babysitting services to name a few. For those into a more tranquil vacation, head to Old Bahama Bay, also a family-friendly resort, in the historic fishing village of West End at the tip of Grand Bahama. West End is also known for some of the best sport fishing in the world.
Some say the Lost City of Atlantis is buried at sea beneath the waves of the island of Bimini, the smallest of the Bahamas islands. I met a couple in Bimini that traveled thousands of miles to heed Atlantis’ calling, the mystique is that compelling to some. But if the tale of Atlantis doesn’t suit your fancy, follow the wake of Bimini’s dolphins instead, with Bill and Nowdla Keefe's Wild Dolphin Adventures. The couple were the first team to pioneer dolphin interaction in the wild, bringing visitors to dolphin grounds to snorkel and skin dive with dolphins “in their environment, and on their terms.” No visitor is too young, though it helps to know how to swim. www.wilddolphins.com.
Andros is the largest but least-explored island in the Bahamas, but that means there’s plenty of room for its native land crabs. Yes, that’s right, crabs. And in crab-walking season from June through August, the locals make torches out of wrapped-up dried grass in an all-out effort to capture as many as possible. “In Nassau, we run from crabs,” says Romeo Farrington with a laugh, “but in Andros, [people] catch them with both hands, even young kids.” Adults like the crabs as ingredients for tasty dishes; children like to have their own form of derbies by racing the critters. Time a visit to Andros right and catch the crab fun.
Themes: Beach Vacations
Treasure Cay Twice as kid we visited Treasure Cay on Abaco in the Bahamas. I would love to go back some time. Confectioner sugar sand beaches and crystal clear water. I still remember walking out 100 yards and the water still being hip deep and picking up starfish off the shoals. Awesome place.