With more than 700 islands and cays, The Bahamas offers something to appeal to everyone.
The Bahamian idea of vacation perfection might involve anything from a beach chair and tropical drinks, underwater exploration, up-close encounters with native critters, or adrenaline-inducing activities. Most tourists only ever make it to New Providence, home to the nation’s capital city of Nassau, historic sites, large resorts and casinos, and a variety of restaurants serving up local and international cuisine. Those who visit the outer islands experience a completely different side of the Bahamas. These sparsely (if at all) populated islands have minimal development, limited accommodations and dining options, and not a whole lot of structured activity, but boast beautiful, untouched beaches at every turn and a range of ecotourism activities for those willing to slow down and seek out their own adventure.
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Join a Junkanoo Rush
The rhythmic beat of the goatskin drums, the vibrant crepe paper, feather plumed costumes, and flamboyant dancers rushing along Bay Street is a spectacle not to be missed. The Bahamas’ national festival Junkanoo has its roots in the days of slavery and takes place in the capital on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) and New Year’s Day starting just after midnight. Tickets for bleacher seats sell out fast, so check with your hotel’s concierge desk early.
INSIDER TIPIf you want to join in a Junkanoo Rushout any time of year, head to Marina Village on Paradise Island Wednesday and Saturday nights at 9 pm where an authentic group leads a fun-filled dance, or visit the Junkanoo Festival held Saturdays in July at Arawak Cay in Nassau.
Visit Charming Harbour Island
WHERE: Harbour Island, Eleuthera
Rent a golf cart and roam the narrow streets lined with historic pastel-colored clapboard houses to enjoy a Bahamian island where it feels like time stood still. Despite the old-world feel, Harbour Island, or “Briland” as locals call it, boasts a chic, island-cosmopolitan vibe courtesy of a lively second-home community and a smattering of upscale boutique hotels and gourmet restaurants. Once you’re done exploring, grab a towel and take a stroll, or a nap on the famous Pink Sands Beach.
INSIDER TIPBahamas Ferries offers a day trip to Harbour Island from Nassau that includes a guided tour, golf cart rental, lunch, and access to the famous Pink Sands Beach.
Sink Your Toes in Pink Sand
WHERE: Harbour Island, Cat Island
The powdery white sands on Bahamian beaches make it worth a visit, but for an extra memorable trip, head to one of the country’s pink sand beaches. The most famous is the Pink Sands Beach on Harbour Island, and rightly so. This three-mile long stretch consistently tops best beach lists and is often used as the back-drop for magazine photo shoots and barefoot weddings. It’s not the only one, though. Cat Island’s Greenwood Beach spans eight miles, and chances are you’ll have just about all of it to yourself on this remote southern island. So what causes this Instagram-ready phenomenon? You can thank minuscule pieces of shells and coral and a micro-organism called foraminifera that gets crushed by the offshore reefs and washed ashore.
SCUBA Dive a Barrier Reef
The crystal clear waters of the Bahamas are home to the world’s third largest barrier reef, making it a top choice for SCUBA divers. The Andros Barrier Reef is 190 miles long and starts at eight-feet below sea level plunging into the Tongue of the Ocean more than 6,000 feet down. Incredible dive spots can be found throughout the country—from shallow reefs teeming with colorful sea life to ship and plane wrecks and oceanic blue holes frequented by a variety of sharks and stingrays. You can pick a different site every day. Most dive operators offer discover SCUBA experiences to allow non-certified divers a taste of the magical underwater world.
The islands of the Bahamas are surrounded by coral, making it easy to just grab a mask, snorkel, and fins, and swim out to shallow reefs teeming with sea life. Expect to see schools of vibrant small fish like Sergeant Majors, Butterflyfish, and Angelfish. Be careful poking into holes in the coral as there may be a Moray eel waiting to greet you. It’s also likely that you’ll see bigger creatures like stingrays, turtles, and sharks. Be careful not to stand on, touch, or break off the coral—it’s a delicate living creature that can easily be killed by curious humans.
INSIDER TIPDon’t let your lack of strong swimming skills keep you on the shore. Try one of the personal “submarines” being offered by a growing number of dive shops. You’ll safely zoom along a shallow reef and enjoy an up-close and personal encounter with the fishes.
WHERE: Andros, Abaco
The pearly gray “ghost of the flats” as the bonefish is known can test even the most patient and adept fisherman. The first and perhaps biggest challenge of this popular catch and release sport is simply spotting one, as they blend in perfectly with the shallow, sandy bottom. Once spotted, challenge number two is casting your rod in the right spot. The third challenge is up to the fish as to whether it gets spooked or takes the bait. The Bahamas is home to some of the world’s best guides—they know the locations to go and can spot one long before you ever will. By law, you have to have a guide onboard if you want to head out in a boat on the flats, and you’ll also have to obtain a government license in advance.
Take the Plunge at Atlantis
WHERE: Paradise Island
Cast your fears aside and take the Leap of Faith at the Atlantis Aquaventure waterpark. Be sure to keep your eyes open, as this just-shy-of-vertical slide will have you whizzing through a tank filled with sharks. Don’t worry—the sharks can’t get into your acrylic tunnel. The 141-acre waterpark has a variety of slides to appeal to every level of daredevil, but if plunging down at warp speed isn’t your style, grab an inner tube and hop on one of the meandering river rides or relax in one of 11 pools.
INSIDER TIPAquaventure is reserved exclusively for resort guests, though a limited number of day passes are available to cruise ship passengers and those staying at a limited number of partner hotels. If you’re not staying at the resort, book your day passes online to avoid disappointment.
WHERE: New Providence; Grand Bahama
If you’re looking for authentic Bahamian food in a casual setting, head to the Fish Fry at Arawak Cay just west of downtown Nassau. Dozens of brightly colored restaurants all serve pretty much the same food—fried fish, cracked conch, conch fritters, bbq chicken and most also have conch salad made to order. Wash it all down with a sky juice—potent but yummy gin and coconut water—or a local Kalik or Sands beer. Most of the larger Out Island communities also have a fish fry once a week in season. Try the Fish Fry at Smith’s Point in Grand Bahama on Wednesday nights.
INSIDER TIPUnless it specifically says “filet,” the fried fish comes complete from head to tail. If you’re squeamish, ask the server to have them remove the head in the kitchen. Of course any local will tell you the cheek meat you’re leaving behind is the best part!
Try a Rum Cocktail
Rum takes center stage at any bar or restaurant in the Bahamas, whether it be dinner jacket required fine dining or a beachside shack. The country has a long and storied relationship with rum dating back to the days of pirates, and then again when Prohibition in the United States made bootlegging a popular occupation. Head to John Watling’s distillery to learn about the rum-making process and enjoy a Rum Dum. Miss Emily’s Blue Bee Bar in Green Turtle Cay, Abaco still serves up the original Goombay Smash. Festival Rum Bahamas is a three-day celebration of all things rum that takes place in the now-dry moat of Fort Charlotte. You can sample rums from the Bahamas and around the world, taste a variety of foods infused with rum, and dance to local bands.
Horseback Riding on the Beach
Whether you’re an accomplished equestrian or you’ve never mounted a horse, galloping along a sandy white beach, hair flowing in the ocean breeze, will create memories for a lifetime. If you’re a novice rider, perhaps keep it to a slow walk or trot. Pinetree Stables in Grand Bahama and Windsor Equestrian Centre in New Providence all lead trail rides that end up on a beach where you and your trusty steed can even go for a swim. In Harbour Island, just head to Pink Sands Beach and look for a man with a handful of horses. Some operators require a saddle while others will let you ride bareback if you prefer. Be sure to take your camera and ask your guide to take some photos of you.
Swim With Pigs
WHERE: Exuma, Abaco
Perhaps one of the quirkiest experiences to be had in The Bahamas is a close-up encounter with the world famous swimming pigs. The original herd of piggy superstars lives on Big Major Cay in the Exuma chain. They swim out to greet boatloads of tourists, hopeful for a snack and some behind the ears scratching. If you’re staying in Nassau, Harbour Safaris offers a fun boat ride to visit the pigs—with a pit stop to feed wild iguanas on neighboring Allan’s Cay. Seeing the popularity of the Exuma pigs, Brendal’s Dive Center started offering trips to the uninhabited No Name Cay in Abaco, where a rapidly expanding herd of swimming pigs resides.
INSIDER TIPPiglets are cute, but you shouldn’t try to pick one up for a selfie as you never know which of the large pigs is his mama. The pigs are adorable, and for the most part, harmless, but they are wild animals, so be careful and respectful.
Get Pampered at a Spa
WHERE: New Providence
The perfect way to unwind from your hectic days of lying on the beach, floating in the pool, and sipping on fancy cocktails is with a spa treatment. While many of the small hotels in the out islands can link you up with a masseuse to come to your room, for a true fluffy-robe-included spa experience, your best bet is in Nassau or Paradise Island at one of the bigger resorts.
INSIDER TIPA massage is relaxing. A massage while listening to waves gently lapping on the shore is pure bliss. Sandals Royal Bahamian Resort offers spa treatments on their private island, or on Sundays, you can book a massage under the shade of a casuarina tree at Sandy Toes on Rose Island, just a short boat ride from New Providence. A bit of sand on your feet will end up providing an added exfoliation bonus!
Kiss a Dolphin
WHERE: Grand Bahama, New Providence
Humans have a fascination with dolphins, so it’s no surprise that one of the top-rated experiences on a tropical vacation is the opportunity to interact with them. In Nassau, Atlantis has Dolphin Cay and there’s also Dolphin Encounters on Blue Lagoon Island, a short boat ride offshore. Choose shallow water interactions where you can pet and even kiss a dolphin, or dive right in and sign up to be a trainer for the day. In Freeport, UNEXSO offers a unique opportunity to swim with dolphins in the open ocean. A pod of dolphins will greet your boat along the way and once you jump in, they will play with you in their natural environment.
Pet a Shark
WHERE: Exuma, New Providence
Head down to Compass Cay in the Exumas for a chance to pet a shark. A handful of nurse sharks hang out around and even on the submerged deck at this private island marina. You can climb in and swim with them in the shallow water and even pet them. They are well fed, and nurse sharks are said to be among the least dangerous to humans—just don’t provoke them. If you are SCUBA certified, the shark feed dive offered by Stuart Cove’s dive shop in New Providence will give any adrenaline junky a thrill. Up it a notch by going on one of the night feeds for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Kayak at Lucayan National Park
WHERE: Grand Bahama
The 40-acre Lucayan National Park in Grand Bahama is an eco-adventurer’s dream. Grand Bahama Nature Tours offer the opportunity to explore a shallow water creek under a canopy of mangroves by kayak. Your guide will lead you through some narrow passages and point out native birds and fish along the way. Protected by the Bahamas National Trust, Lucayan National Park boasts the longest underwater cavern system in the world. When you’re done kayaking, stroll along the elevated pathway to explore the mouths of the caves and then head across the street to the beach at Gold Rock Creek. Be sure to time your visit for low-tide when the beach offers a welcome mat of endless sand ripples and bath-temperature tide pools to lounge in.
Conquer a Mountain
WHERE: Cat Island
You won’t have to get in top physical shape to climb to the top of Mount Alvernia in Cat Island. The highest natural point in the Bahamas only extends 206 feet above sea level. Originally named Como Hill, the peak was renamed by a Catholic priest who came to Cat Island from his native England. Father Jerome, as he was known to the locals, named it after La Verna, the Tuscan hill where St Francis of Assisi received the Stations of the Cross. The former architect also built The Hermitage out of local stone. He lived alone in the small medieval monastery and died there a hermit in 1956. The steep climb is made easy by the cut stone staircase. Pause along the way to catch your breath and admire his hand-carved Stations of the Cross and the breathtaking views.
Conch—pronounced “konk”—is the national dish of the Bahamas, and you can have it for breakfast (try the stew conch), lunch, dinner, or even just as a between-meals snack. This sea snail is eaten raw right out of the shell or cooked up a variety of different ways. The muscle is quite tough, so is tenderized with fresh lime or beaten with a mallet. Raw options include conch salad or scorched conch—diced chunks of conch are tossed with fresh tomato, onion, bell pepper, and bird or goat pepper in lime and sour orange juice. Just about every local restaurant will have deep-fried conch fritters and cracked conch on their menus. There’s also conch chowder—typically tomato-based—and grilled conch cooked and served in a foil packet. Besides being delicious, conch is considered a natural aphrodisiac—especially if you manage to slurp down the spaghetti-esque pistol.
Jump Into a Blue Hole
WHERE: Long Island
The second deepest blue hole in the entire world can be found on Long Island. Wade in the shallow waters to the edge of Dean’s Blue Hole and safely swim across the 115-foot wide, 663-foot deep oceanic sink-hole, clearly defined by its deep blue water contrasting the bright aqua hues surrounding it. Quite often you’ll get to watch professional free divers hoping to break and set world records. In 2016, William Trubridge broke his own freediving world record, descending 124 meters in four minutes and 34 seconds. Freediving takes training, but if you want some adventure on your visit, climb the surrounding cliffs and take a running jump into the water below.
March With Flamingos
WHERE: Inagua, New Providence
The Bahamas’ national bird is the elegant pink flamingo, and the southernmost island, Inagua, is home to more than 80,000 West Indian Flamingos. They enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the island’s salt flats, which are full of the microscopic brine shrimp that give the flamingos their vibrant pink hue. Once facing extinction, flamingos are now protected, and the Inagua National Park flamboyance (yes, that’s what a group of flamingos is called!) is the largest breeding colony of this particular species in the world. If you can’t make it down to Inagua, visit the Ardastra Gardens Zoo and Conservation Centre in New Providence where their world-famous marching flamingos put on a show three times a day.
Climb a Lighthouse
WHERE: Abaco, Inagua, San Salvador
Twelve lighthouses built between 1817 and 1887 are positioned strategically throughout the Bahama island chain to warn sailors from rocks and islands. The iconic candy-striped Elbow Reef Lighthouse that welcomes visitors into Hope Town, Abaco is the last remaining hand turned kerosene-burning beacon in the world. Two lighthouse keepers take shifts climbing the 101 steps to the watchroom every two hours to crank the handle 426 times and keep the light shining throughout the night. You can climb to the top to get an idea of the work involved and for a panoramic view of Hope Town and much of Elbow Cay. Two other lighthouses accessible without a boat and worth the climb are the Dixon Hill Lighthouse in San Salvador and the Inagua Lighthouse, where on a clear day, you can see Cuba.