The Bahamas Islands Guide, Atlantic Ocean

Vorobek beach on Big Major Cay with wild pigs chilling in Bahamas, Atlantic Ocean

Vorobek beach on Big Major Cay with wild pigs chilling out. Photo by Cdorobek.

Vacations in The Bahamas

The climate of The Commonwealth of The Bahamas (as it’s officially known) is warm year-round (68F/20C – 86F/32C) thanks to the trade winds, English is the official language and Americans find it very easy to get to by plane, cruise ship, private yacht or even speed boat as it’s so near the coast of Florida, less than 50 miles/80kms in places.
Most major airlines fly directly to Nassau (the capital) from Miami and other major US cities.

The Bahamas is not technically in the Caribbean as most of its islands are in the Atlantic Ocean with only a few in the south bordering onto the Caribbean Sea, but the latitude is similar and the experience more-or-less identical. Furthermore, when local people talk about Bahamas island’s shores they often refer to them as Atlantic side or Caribbean side.

Composed of around 700 islands (depending on your definition of an island), The Bahama’s soft powdery sand, such as you will find on Grand Bahama island, is a big draw for beach lovers and conditions are ideal for sailing, fishing and other marine activities such as scuba diving.

The Bahamas is home to the Andros Barrier Reef, the world’s third largest reef, where divers can find world-class diving in a variety of blue holes, vertical caves or underwater sink holes.

Well-setup water parks and nature parks are available to keep families occupied while laid-back locals are a pleasure to deal with. For fans of Bond movies six of its films used The Bahamas as locations, most famously the original Thunderball but also underwater scenes were filmed around Nassau’s reefs for For Eyes Only and Never Say Never Again.

In December the Junkanoo music carnival and parade is distinctively Bahamian and worth planning for. Junkanoo takes place on Boxing Day and on New Year’s Day.

Downsides

• The Bahamas is a major cruise ship destination, particularly Nassau and Freeport, the two most visited ports in the Caribbean region, though the Bahamas is actually not part of Caribbean. Tourists are unlikely to find peace and quiet in those towns during the peak season (wintertime).
• Crime rears its ugly head from time to time, especially around Nassau/after dark/after drinking too much. See safety.

Best Weather

The best weather in The Bahamas is December through May, when average high temperatures will be about 80F/27C and lows about 63F/17C at night with a little rain every few days but lots of sunshine; of course accommodation prices are higher during this season. In fact the Bahamas climate is very similar to that of south Florida. USA Spring Break happens from March to mid-April so avoid Nassau at this time unless you like to party in the vicinity of extremely drunk and excitable college kids.
Water temperatures range from 73F/23C to 82F/28C so spending long periods immersed in the sea or in a pool is not a problem.

The rest of the year is hot with temperatures approaching 90F/32C while humidity is high, rain heavy and mosquitoes biting. Hurricane season is June through November but August – October are the seriously stormy months to be avoided.

Bahamas

Bahamas’ most famous resort, Atlantis Paradise Island. Photo by D. Ramey Logan.

Best Bahamas Tourist Islands

#1 New Providence Island, Nassau

Home to the capital city Nassau, New Providence Island is the most sophisticated and busiest of the 700 or so Bahamian islands. It contains 60% of population and is the hub of Bahamas’ economy and tourism with numerous exclusive beach resorts such as Cable Beach, Cabbage Beach and Paradise Island off shore – best known for the massive Atlantis resort complex.
There are some interesting sights such as Rawson Square’s historic government buildings, The Cloisters and museums such as the Heritage Museum and the National Gallery.

#2 Grand Bahama Island, Freeport

The closest major island to the United States of America, just 90 km off Florida, this is The Bahamas’ best balanced and most diversified destination with lively city action but also the unspoiled natural beauty and charm of outer islands such as Mayaguana and Cat Island.
Lucayan National Park encompasses a beach, a mangrove shoreline, pine and hardwood forest trails and one of the world’s largest underwater cave systems, making this one of The Bahamas best natural playgrounds. The Bahamas’ smallest park, Peterson Cay National Park, is home to a popular snorkeling site.

#3 The Abacos Islands

One of top reasons for heading to the Abacos is to fish, particularly bonefishing at the Marls, large mangrove flats situated on the southwest side of the island.
Boating, cay-hopping and beach combing are also a great way to explore the Abacos. Some of the cays in the chain off shore (about 100 all together) offer sophisticated resorts with well-maintained marinas.
The delightful village of Hope Town and its landmark Elbow Cay lighthouse in mint-green stripes is one of the Abacos’ main attractions.
Abaco National Park is for nature fans, especially bird-watchers. Excellent diving and snorkeling can be found in Fowl Cay National Reserve and Pelican Cays Land and Sea Park.

#4 The Exumas

Made up with 365 cays (islands, most uninhabited) including Great Exuma and Little Exuma, these islands are best explored by private or hired boat. Due to their remoteness The Exumas make a fine nature destination, especially Exumas Cays Land and Sea Park, a marine reserve where snorkeling and scuba diving are among the best in the Bahamas. The underwater cave near Staniel Cay (aka Thunderball Grotto) is a natural fishbowl and one of the most popular dive spots in the region.
The Exumas were used as locations in two James Bond movies, Thunderball and Never Say Never Again and also host one of The Bahama’s most prestigious events, the annual Family Island Regatta.
The famous wild swimming pigs of Big Major Cay are fascinating and hilarious but take care if watching them, they can bite if their stately swims are disturbed!

#5 The Andros

Scuba diving and fishing are the main reasons to visit Andros, the biggest island in the Bahamas group. Andros Barrier Reef, a 140 mile-long coral reef located just off Fresh Creek is the third largest reef in the world and home to a variety of must-dive sites such as the 20m deep coral caves of Black Forest and a 2000m drop-off at Tongue of the Ocean, while snorkelers enjoy coral and marine life around Trumpet Reef.
Several blue holes (vertical sea caves) can be found around Andros such as Uncle Charlie’s Blue Hole and there is even a unique Black Hole, though it is apparently filled with toxic bacteria so no diving!

#6 Eleuthera and Harbour Island

The ‘World Capital of Pineapple’, long thin Eleuthera (means freedom in Greek) and tiny Harbour Island are dedicated to fishing and pineapples but also host a handful of exceedingly romantic, pink, soft sand beaches along the island’s Atlantic shore(as opposed to the Caribbean side, which is not actually the Caribbean! ) that are fringed by equally romantic resorts. French Leave Beach (Eleuthera) is one but the best known is exclusive Pink Sands Beach on Harbour Island.
Thanks to Loyalist settlers in the late 1700s New England/Victorian architecture is one of the attractions of Eleuthera. Among the prettiest are the original settlers’ houses in Governor’s harbor, the town of Rock Sound in the south and Baker Street on Harbor Island, particularly the photogenic ‘Loyalist Cottage’.

#7 other attractions

Long Island offers Dean’s Blue Hole, the world’s deepest sea cave going down to over 200m from practically the surface. The hole is roughly circular at the top with a diameter of about 30 meters but expands to 100m wide at 20 meters down. Snorkeling over the hole is a great experience let alone diving into it, a real spine chiller. Dean’s Blue Hole is situated in a bay near Clarence Town.

Cat Island is home to the Bahamas’ highest point at Mount Alvernia, originally called Como Hill, with a hermitage on its summit for a panoramic view.

Near Great Abaco Island the port of Castaway Cay is a fine amusement and activity center for kids – including submarine rides. It’s owned by the Disney Corporation but is for Disney cruise ship passengers only.

Lighthouse Beach, Eleuthera, Bahamas

Lighthouse Beach, Eleuthera, in need of a manicure. Does it look pinkish to you?

Best Beaches in The Bahamas

Pink Sand Beach, Harbour Island

One of world’s most celebrated stretches of sand and often regarded as the best in the Bahamas, Pink Sand Beach has to be the top of the list. Although the secluded resort Pink Sands carries its house name, Pink Sand Beach is discreetly occupied by several elegant resort hotels and cottages along the 3-mile stretch of pinky colored soft sands.

Treasure Cay Beach, Great Guana Cay, the Abacos

Also generally considered to be one of the Bahamas’ best, Treasure Cay’s 5. 5 mile long white sand beach occupies most of 7 mile long Great Guana Cay in the Abacos.

Cape Santa Maria Beach, Long Island

This 4 mile long stretch of white powder sand is another of the finest and additionally blessed with a spectacular up-market resort often reviewed as ‘heaven on earth’ by its guest. It’s called Cape Santa Maria Beach Resort and Villas, but it’s not alone, there are other excellent resorts along the sands too.

Cable Beach, Nassau, New Providence Island

This is not the prettiest resort area on Bahama’s many shores but it is an incredibly convenient, action-packed and well facilitated resort at the right price for all kinds of visitors from families to couples and singles, especially when the complete make-over is finally complete.

Sandy Toes, Rose Island, near Nassau, New Providence Island

A half an hour boat ride and a lazy day on this unspoiled beach of a private island is one of the most popular day-trips from Nassau.

Gold Rock Beach, Lucaya, Grand Bahama Island

Located in the Lucayan National Park an hour from the cruise dock, Gold Rock Beach is backed by some of the largest dunes in the area, a natural beauty, but it must be visited at low tide as the beach disappears at high tide. Try to combine beach time with a visit to the caves in Lucayan Park. A great snorkeling spot is just offshore at Gold Rock Reef but the swim there is challenging so it’s better to take a boat.

Lighthouse Beach, Eleuthera

The best beach on Eleuthera, pale pinky sand and little-visited Lighthouse Beach is situated at southern end of the island and often confused with adjacent Lighthouse Bay. Despite being on the Atlantic shore, Lighthouse is calm and shallow with little undertow so excellent for swimming but also offering good snorkeling around nearby rocks. If you are a fan of pink sand, try also French Leave Beach in the town of Governor’s Harbour.

Tropic of Cancer Beach, Williams Town, Little Exuma Island

Also known as Pelican Beach this crescent-shaped white sand strand is one of the prettiest of the Exuma chain. There’s a sign marking the Tropic of Cancer crossing point at the entrance to the beach which makes a nice souvenir photo.

Hamburger Beach, Stocking Island, off Great Exuma Island

Also known as Volleyball Beach this stretch is named after a famous conch/hamburger stand. The superb white sandy beach takes up much of the tiny 4 mile long island off the port of Georgetown and encompasses pretty good snorkeling as well as walking trails.
There is also an extremely popular beach café/bar called Chat N’ Chill at the Point on the island. The island is packed during the annual Long Island Regatta in early June. Take a water taxi to reach the island in 5minutes or take an island tour from Georgetown.

Saddle Cay, the Exumas

Located at the northern tip of the Exumas chain, Saddle Cay beach is on a deserted island only accessible by boat and has no facilities at all so it’s ideal for romantic isolation and a lazy picnic.

Old Bight Beach, Cat Island

Old Bight is a sleepy little island with an unspoiled 5-mile strand of scintillating white sand. It’s ideal for visitors seeking peace and quiet but has no facilities. in fact none of beaches on Cat Island have facilities apart from beach resorts.

Resort beach huts in The Bahamas.

Resort beach huts in The Bahamas.

Getting to The Bahamas

Flights

Major airlines fly into two of the largest airports at Nassau international Airport and Grand Bahama international Airport in Freeport from where travelers can connect to other flight to outer islands.

Although most flights come via Florida’s Miami Airport, some US cities such as Fort Lauderdale, Washington and New York and non-US cities such as London and Toronto run direct flights to The Bahamas, including to outer islands such as Great Abacos, Andros, Eleuthera and Exumas.

Ferries

The Discovery Cruise Line operates a daily service between Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Freeport, Grand Bahama. Ships depart at 9: 30am and arrive at 13: 30, returning at 17: 15 to arrive in Lauderdale at 22: 30.

In addition some cruise companies sail to private islands, such as Disney Cruise Line’s Castaway Cay near Great Abaco Island, Royal Caribbean cruises’ CocoCay, aka Little Stirrup Cay, one of Berry Islands and Holland America Line’ s Half Moon Cay, Little San Salvador Island.

Alternatively sail your own boat to the destination of your choice from Florida’s east coast, see the sailing section.

The famously massive Dean

The famously massive Dean’s Blue Hole off Long Island.

Activities

Snorkeling/Diving

The best of the Bahamas’ wall dives is Andros Wall and its large collection with mountains and canyons, particularly where the reef drops off to 2000m (6, 000ft) at the trench of Tongue of the Ocean.
Other notable reef walls are the Grand Bahama Wall or Great Lucaya Wall in Lucayan National Park, featuring a series of underwater caves and tunnels (a permit required for diving).
The Exuma Wall off Highbourne Cay is a 23 m vertical drop off; it’s part of Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. Conception Island Wall is one of the most striking and colorful coral walls in the region.

Shallow reefs are snorkel-friendly and found in many locations: off the east side of Little Bahamas Bank in the Abacos with caves; off the west coast of Eleuthera, Current Cut, a narrow underwater passage with four wrecked ships lie close by; Dry Heads south of Cat Island; Bimini where you can explore the Sapona Wreck in shallow water; Long Island is home to the world’s deepest blue hole ‘Dean’s Hole’; other blue holes are found both inland and in shallow water around Andros Island including the Great Blue Hole (Bahamas’ second deepest); other blue holes are dotted in the shallow water between Grand and little Bahama banks.

New Providence and Paradise Island are known for wreck dives as many ships have sunk near Nassau in the past; for example spectacular Shark Wall is the place to see sharks hanging around the David Tucker II, a former defence vessel sunk in 50 m of water.
For deep wrecks, head to Grand Bahama where Theo’s Wreck is an intact 238-foot fighter at 30 m or a couple of sites off Walker’s Cay in the Abacos – Dorothy H and Esther K – where a famous ‘Shark Rodeo’ (shark feeding dive) takes place attended by many creatures with a lot more teeth than you.

Blue Lagoon island with Paradise in the distance, Bahamas

Blue Lagoon island with Paradise in the distance. Photo by Dolphin Encounters.

Swimming/diving with dolphins

The Bahamas offers dolphin encounters with wild spotted dolphins at Bimini, West End, and Orange Cay as well as training open-water scuba-diving program at the Sanctuary Bay by UNEXSO, Lucaya on Grand Bahama.

Fishing

For game fishing head to Bimini – ‘Sport Fishing capital of the world’ – on the edge of the Gulf Stream. The Abacos and Andros are specialists in bonefishing while the Exumas are a great destination for fly fishing.

Nature/Eco tourism

The Bahamas contains 25 national parks covering 3000 square km (700, 000 acres) of protected natural beauty but not a lot of sizeable land-based wildlife. Iguanas and racoons are about the largest animals found there apart from the Abacos wild horses that are an exceptional oddity, though underwater life is more diverse and a lot bigger with plenty of sharks and dolphins but also the loveable sea-cow manatees.
The Abacos is ideal for bird-watchers and home to the endangered green Bahama parrot/green Abacos.
West Indian pink flamingos can be seen in Inagua National Park, the largest breeding colony in the world.
To see unique Bahamian iguanas various eco-tours and cruises can be arranged at the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.

Sailing

The sheltered waters of this 750 mile long archipelago, line-of-sight navigation and steady trade winds make the Bahamas an excellent destination for yachting.
You can sail almost year around but the most popular time is winter, spring or late autumn.

If you sail from south Florida the closest ports are the Bimini Islands – 43 miles is about the narrowest crossing point – but wind speed and the Gulf Stream’s current will dictate the time required for the crossing, probably somewhere between 14 and 20 hours of not very easy sailing.

Alternatively sail on to the Abacos, or further to the Berry Islands with a quick stop at Nassau (viewed by sailors as a necessary evil where the all boating services are based) and move on to Rose Island, or the Exumas or the Eleuthera Island.
The Exumas, a 130 mile (209 km) archipelago are considered to be a cruising/yachting paradise and easily the Bahamas best sailing destination.
Experienced sailors who are looking for adventure could head to the Out Islands such as Long Island, Cat Island, Conception Island and Rum Cay.

Visas

Bahamian Parliament in Nassau, Bahamas

Bahamian Parliament in Nassau. Photo by UpstateNYer.

All visitors must bring a valid passport and a return or onward ticket. No visas are need by citizens of USA, Canada, the EU or The Commonwealth for stays up to 8 months. Most of central and south Americans require no visa for stays up to 2 weeks. Visitors from elsewhere should check.

Domestic Transport

Hopping between islands is not as easy as you might imagine without your own boat or plane. The inter-island ferry service run by Bahama Ferries links Nassau and Andros, Abacos, Eleuthera and the Exumas by high-speed vessels but doesn’t do much for other islands except Harbour Island which gets charters, cruises and round trip excursions.
Other ferries run between Grand Bahama and Abacos, as well as off shore cays.

Water taxis are available between Nassau and Paradise Island.
If your time is limited, taking inter-island flights run by companies such as Bahamas air or charter flights is a convenient way to travel.

Inland, taxis and mini buses are relatively frequent with a fixed rate in Nassau and Freeport but no public transport on outer islands. Car rentals are available at Nassau and Freeport though with poor lighting and worse road conditions night driving is challenging. And note that you drive on the left!

Food

While you can find restaurants that serve any international cuisine in Nassau and Freeport or any high end island resorts, trying local cuisine is always fun.
Bahamian cuisine is not fancy but mostly dishes made from fresh ingredients and spices such as fried/steamed/grilled fish or chicken served with peas ‘n’ rice or mac (macaroni) ‘n’ cheese. Peas ‘n’ rice is a typical Bahamian side dish – white rice cooked with pork, pigeon peas, tomato paste and thyme. Generally ‘Fish in Bahamian Style’ means fish cooked with onions, peppers and tomatoes.

The most Bahamian dish of all is conch, a shell fish (if you really want to know that’s a kind of marine snail! ) prepared and served in several ways such as raw in a salad (a kind of ceviche), cooked as soup (usually in tomato chowder), grilled or fried as fritters.

Breakfast: Locals have a bowl of lime/pepper/chicken/ fish based soup with johnny cake (sweet corn bread).

Try snacking at Bahamian ‘Fish Fry’ event that happens about once a week on different islands, wooden stalls or shacks by the sea frying up fish ‘n’ chips (or served with bread) in a discordant environment as each stall plays their own music (boo! ), later followed by dancing ( hooray! ).
For a sweet tooth, fresh baked rum cake is a must. Otherwise try Bahamian Duff, a thick flour pudding flavored with guava fruit, served with a sweet rum or brandy butter.

Rum has played a major part in Bahama’s history and is a serious part of Bahamian life. Try some of great Bahamian cocktails especially ‘Bahama Mama’ with Bacardi Gold rum, coconut rum, grenadine, Nassau Royal Liqueur and pineapple juice, preferably at a beach bar at the sunset.

Rapids at Atlantis Paradise Island, Bahamas

Rapids at Atlantis Paradise Island. Photo by D. Ramey Logan

Accommodation

Bahamas is not a budget destination for a number of reasons. One is that there are virtually no hostels or budget hotels so tourists are looking at an absolute minimum of about $70 per night though most room rates are in the two or three hundred range.
On top of that – and a shock to many lightweight tourists – the grasping Bahamian government charges guests a ‘Service Fee’ of $18 per person per night on top of the hotel cost. And there is a ‘Hotel Guest tax’ of 10% that’s added to the guest bill. And if that’s not enough most hotels manage to find some other spurious charges to hit the visitor with. Energy? Pool towels? Excue my French but WTF?

Safety

Some tourists have been victims of robbery, sometimes armed, in areas of Nassau (New Providence), Cable Beach, Paradise Island and Freeport/Lucaya, so exercise the same caution you would as if visiting Miami.
Most crime takes place in districts of Nassau not usually visited by tourists (south of downtown) but crime has gradually moved into tourist and residential areas. Try not to walk alone (especially women) from hotels, tourist areas, beaches and downtown Nassau after dark and avoid local bus services after dusk away from main tourist areas.

Sexual assaults have been made against drunk women, some of whom were apparently drugged. So stay in groups, don’t get uncontrollably wasted, don’t accept rides or drinks from strangers and take your drink with you to the toilets!

Pickpockets cruise the busy casinos of Paradise Beach and Cable Beach so check wallets and valuables are well secured before entering.

The outlying islands of the Bahamas (known as the Family or Out Islands) have very low crime rates.

Marine activities

Before booking any excursion or activity make sure that health and safety precautions are evident and that the operator has insurance cover.
The water sports industry in The Bahamas is poorly regulated. Every year people are killed or seriously injured using jet skis and other watercraft carelessly, or by the reckless behaviour of others. Do not rent jet-skis or other water sports equipment unless you are an experienced user. .

Health: Tap water is drinkable in The Bahamas but resorts filter the water strongly so store-bought water tastes better. On many Out Islands, rainfall is the source of water – so be sure to drink bottled water there.

Currency: Although the official currency is the Bahamian dollar (BS$) the US dollar is widely accepted as one-to-one with no exchange rate.

Electricity: Electrical outlets in The Bahamas are flat, two-pin sockets running 60 cycles/120 volts, compatible with all US appliances. British and European visitors will need a flat two-pin adaptor and 220-volt converter.

Language: As a Commonwealth country The Bahamas is English-speaking. .

Religion: Most of the population are Protestant Christians, the majority being Baptists denomination.