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With 700 islands and 2,400 cays sprinkled over a swath of ocean, stretching from the Florida Keys to Haiti, the Bahamas would make up the largest island chain in the Caribbean — if it were in the Caribbean. The coral-based archipelago actually lies entirely within the Atlantic Ocean, although you wouldn’t know it by looking. Like its neighbors to the south, the Bahamas boast sugar-white beaches, turquoise seas and a definite vacation vibe.
There’s a definite British vibe, too. While the Bahamas gained independence from Britain in 1973, many colonial customs have been retained — including a local patois spiced with a British accent, policemen in pith helmets, and driving on the left-hand side of the road.
Of the more than 4 million cruise visitors who call in the islands each year, the majority arrive in Freeport or Nassau, making these fast-paced cities among the busiest cruise ports in the world. Several cruise lines also call at private “out islands,” where the pace is easy and shoes are optional.
The busy port of Freeport on Grand Bahama Island is just 70 miles off the coast of Florida, making it a regular stop on the short-cruise circuit. You’ll find casinos here, along with lots of come-on hustle and tempting merchandise at shopping meccas like the Port Lucaya Marketplace and International Bazaar (word of warning: don’t point your camera at vendors without asking permission first; they don’t like it). But you’ll also find golf courses, rustic restaurants on gorgeous beaches, water activities galore and Lucayan National Park, home to two of the largest underwater cave systems in the world and a showcase for all six of the archipelago’s ecosytems. The easiest way to get there is on a guided excursion that might include kayaking and hiking as well as cave exploring.
Lucayan National Park, on the island of Grand Bahama, is home to all six of the island’s natural ecosystems, including one of the longest underwater caves in the world.
The soul of New Providence Island, Nassau is a shopping and entertainment mecca. The high and low-end shops vie for your attention on Bay Street while hawking jewelry, perfume, liquor and souvenirs. This same energy is poured into the discos, bars and nightclubs that pulse along the streets after dark. Connected to New Providence by bridge, Paradise Island is a much smaller island dominated by the sprawling Las Vegas-style resort, Atlantis.
Birders will have a field day at Rand Nature Center National Park in Freeport, which also features native plants once used in Bahamians’ daily lives. The private Garden of the Groves is another great option for visitors interested in tropical vegetation.
Choices for beaching it on Grand Bahama are many, with Fortune and Lucayan on the north shore considered the most family-friendly strands due to off-shore reefs that limit wave action. Paradise Cove Beach has a close-in reef good for snorkeling, while Peterson Cay National Park, a mile offshore, is favored by divers. Coastal boat tours, visits to out islands (including the Abacos chain, a renowned sailing paradise), kayaking, exploring the island’s famous “blue holes” and deep-sea fishing are among other day-tour options.
Nassau, the nation’s capital, is on New Providence Island, connected by causeway to Paradise Island. These urban-resort enclaves are the Bahamas’ shopping and entertainment meccas. High-end shops selling duty-free jewelry, perfume, liquor and souvenirs vie for attention on Nassau’s Bay Street, while discos, bars and nightclubs pulse after dark. Nassau’s famous Straw Market, which recently got a major makeover, is here, too. Bargaining is expected for merchandise ranging from hand-woven mats and bags to conch-shell jewelry and T-shirts.
Paradise Island is dominated by the 3,400-room, Vegas-style Atlantis Paradise Island mega-resort, is spread over 171 acres and counts among its amenities 40 restaurants, three casinos, 19 swimming pools, a vast water park, a swim-with-dolphins attraction and an underwater “Mayan temple” (go figure). A mile-long artificial river, meant to be floated on inner tubes, twists through the property. Many cruise passengers visit Atlantis on day passes.
Joining Atlantis since 2015 is Baha Mar, a sprawling resort along a lengthy tropical coast and white-sand beach. It offers modern rooms and suites, a large casino, multiple dining options, a beachfront bar, nine outdoor pools, a swim-up bar and a poolside lounge. Other amenities include a fitness center, a nightclub, a kids' club and a spa with a sauna and a steam room.
Delve into the Bahamas history and culture at Nassau’s Pompey Museum at Vendue House, recounting the history of slavery in the islands; the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, showcasing the work of Bahamian artists; Retreat National Park, an 11-acre botanical garden housing one of the largest collections of palms in the world; and Forts Charlotte and Fincastle, both bristling with pirate lore.
For watersports and bikini-watching, head to in-town Junkanoo Beach, popular with the spring-break set and cruise passengers who don’t have time to head farther afield. Cable Beach, on the island’s north shore, is not a single beach, but a miles-long resort district lined with sugar-white sand. The Goodman’s Bay section has public facilities, and barbecue vendors often are present on weekends. Cabbage Beach on Paradise Island is another popular strand. Access to some sections is restricted to hotel guests, so patronize a restaurant or bar if you need to use the facilities. Better yet, ask your cruise line about purchasing a day pass at a beachfront resort hotel. That way, you’ll have access to pool, chairs and entertainment as well as sand and sea.
Many cruise passengers count days ashore on private islands owned or leased by cruise lines as their favorite stops on a Caribbean itinerary. Disney Cruise Line’s Castaway Cay, Royal Caribbean’s CocoCay, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Great Stirrup Cay and Carnival/Holland America’s Half Moon Cay have all been transformed into tidy, no-hassle paradises. Each offers a similar atmosphere: protected water for swimming, barbecues and buffets, island-style entertainment, water sports and various types of excursions. Princess Cruises doesn’t have a private island per se, but its 40-acre Princess Cays resort on the island of Eleuthera clings to the same concept. The cruise line's private islands
Though a variety of international cuisine can be found on the islands, there are many native dishes unique to the Bahamas. With a bounty of fresh seafood coming into restaurants daily, conch, land crab, crawfish, grouper and red snapper are favorites among locals and tourists alike. Look, too, for specialties such as guava duff, johnny cake, peas ‘n’ rice and sheep-tongue or chicken souse, an authentic breakfast stew.
For a truly Bahamian experience in Freeport, seek out the Big Daddy’s Brown Conch and fill up on fried conch and lobster. On the upscale end, Flying Fish, specializing in innovative seafood dishes, is the islands’ first restaurant to earn a AAA Four Diamond rating. In Nassau, dining doesn’t get more elegant than at Dune, set in a hilltop pavilion with ocean views at the One & Only Club. For authentic fish-fry, try the very colorful Goldies Conch House on Arawak Cay, where you can enjoy conch salad and a local Kalik or Sands beer with your fried grouper.
For a truly Bahamian experience on Nassau’s Cable Beach, check out Cafe Johnny Canoe for blackened grouper and guava cocktails. For an eclectic and creative menu serving everything from Cuban-style sea bass to New Zealand lamb, try waterfront Ferry House on Bell Channel Bay in Lucaya, Grand Bahama Island. An upscale choice serving gourmet versions of local specialties on New Providence Island is Dune, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner at the One & Only Ocean Club resort.
Arawak Cay, an artificial island connected by bridge to Nassau, is where the locals go for Sunday fish fries, and where tourists can go any time to experience a recreated “authentic” Bahamian atmosphere chock-a-block with casual restaurants serving fried grouper or jack with French fries and sweet island bread. It’s also a great place to hear the catchy, African- and calypso-inspired island music known as goombay.
Aside from casinos and discos, what’s not to like for families? If the islands’ natural attractions aren’t enough, consider kid-pleasing alternatives such as Pirates of Nassau, an interactive museum with a three-masted pirated ship, living-history demos and a high entertainment factor; or the over-the-top, 141-acre water park at the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island.
Swim-with-dolphins attractions have popped up in many places in the world, but in the Bahamas, there are multiple ways to get up close and personal with these engaging marine creatures. Dolphin Encounter’s marine mammal program, based on Blue Lagoon Island (Salt Cay) three miles from Nassau, includes a variety of options for all ages, from swims with dolphins to shallow-water encounters to sea-lion introductions. At the sprawling Atlantis Paradise Island resort’s 14-acre marine environment, guests can also swim with stingrays or sign up for a “trainer for a day” program.
You’re probably familiar with the large, spiral shells sold in souvenir shops around the world, but don’t leave the Bahamas without trying the meat of this giant sea snail (pronounced “konk”). Once tenderized, the calamari-like flesh is turned into chowder, salad and fritters. It’s found in one form or another on almost every Bahamas menu.
Junkanoo is the Bahamas’ carnival tradition, replete with parades, home-grown goombay music and lots of partying in the streets. The fest traditionally takes place over the Christmas holidays, but a summer festival has been added that brings the party to the streets of Nassau, Freeport and other island towns throughout June and July. In addition, junkanoo dancers perform daily at the cruise-ship wharf in Nassau.
Goombay, the distinctive music of the Bahamas, can be heard at every turn. It’s a blend of African rhythms, Caribbean calypso and English folk song set to rolling beat produced by goatskin drums.
While the weather is pleasant year-round, you’ll take your chances (but enjoy lower prices) if you cruise during the August-November hurricane season. Summer is the most popular time for families to cruise to the Bahamas, while in winter, ships tend to fill up with grateful snowbirds from northern climes.
For Freeport, ships dock at Lucaya Harbor, a 10-minute drive from town and about a half-hour from Port Lucaya attractions. In Nassau, ships dock right in the middle of town at King George Wharf. At the cruise lines’ private islands, passengers are ferried ashore.
Taxis go everywhere, and it’s common to share with locals or other tourists. Jitney buses, water taxis and horse-drawn surreys are among other options. Rental cars are available, but be aware that driving is on the left-hand side of the road.
Documents: U.S. and Canadian citizens need a valid passport.
Language: English. Between themselves, however, Bahamians speak a local dialect that is difficult for outsiders to understand.
Currency: The Bahamian dollar, traded on par with the U.S. dollar.
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“From pirates and blockade dodgers to rum smugglers, wily go-getters have converged and caroused on the country’s 700 islands and 2,400 cays for centuries.”
“Blame it on Bond ... James Bond. In 1965, Sean Connery starred in Thunderball — the fourth installment of Ian Fleming's 007 series — an action-packed movie shot mostly underwater and on the Bahamian island of New Providence. The film's classic moments firmly established the old colonial capital, Nassau, and the beaches of offshore Paradise Island, as the getawayfor the jet set.”
“With a few hours in Lucaya, enjoy a nature tour while kayaking through the jade-colored waterways of Lucayan National Park. Looking for less adventure? Head to the Perfume Factory to whip up your own signature blend.”
“The archipelago of the Bahamas spans over 100,000 square miles and boasts more than 700 breathtaking islands, cays and islets. You'll find some of the clearest crystal-blue water you've ever seen, as well as the world's third largest barrier reef.”
“No trip to Nassau is complete without a pilgrimage to colorful Arawak Cay. For true Bahamian eats, munch on conch fritters and sip on ‘sky juice’ (gin and coconut water) while listening to Junkanoo beats.”