Lay of the Land
The Bahamas, located offshore from Miami and northwest of the Turks & Caicos, consists of 700 islands plus 2,400 baby cays, although visitors tend to focus on only a handful of the isles. New Providence measures seven miles wide by 21 miles long, but two of every three Bahamians live there. New Providence can be broken down into three parts: Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas; Paradise Island, the home of Atlantis, which is connected to the "mainland" by a couple of bridges; and all the rest, where you'll find resort areas like Cable Beach, gated communities, several nature preserves, and many small settlements. To the north of New Providence is Grand Bahama, the second most popular island. The town of Freeport is overcrowded and overdeveloped, but the pristine west and east ends of Grand Bahama are full of fish-rich snorkel sites, white-sand beaches, and pine forests. If getting away from it all is your goal, head east of New Providence until you reach the Out Islands (sometimes called the Family Islands). While the flight from New Providence to Great Inagua, the farthest Out Island, takes about 90 minutes, the pink-sand beaches of Eleuthera (and Harbour Island, the famous cay off its northeast shore), are a 20-minute hop away. A mere 50 miles east of Miami are the little Bimini islands, the largest of which are North Bimini and South Bimini. The south island is practically deserted, while the north island, especially around Alice Town, is a big destination for the spring-break set. The curved 130-mile chain of the Abaco islands, to the east of Grand Bahama, is a very different prospect, known for its small inns and marinas. Southwest of the Abacos is the largest island in the Bahamas, 1,600-square-mile Andros, beloved for its bonefishing[link]; it's divided into North Andros, South Andros, Central Andros, and Mangrove Cay. Southeast of Andros are the Exuma islands, a 120-mile strip of 365 cays, rife with undiscovered beaches and fishing flats. The two main islands are Great Exuma and Little Exuma, which forms the southern tip.
WHEN TO GO
Thanks to a reliable climate whose heat is tempered by constant gentle trade winds, the Bahamas really don't have an off-season. However, with temperatures generally around the 70s and 80s, there definitely is a high season, from mid-December to mid-April. The rainy season, from May to November, does bring the risk of hurricanes, although short tropical storms are typically the norm.
HOW TO GET THERE
You can fly to Nassau's Lynden Pindling International Airport, ten miles west of the capital, from several U.S. cities on six carriers: US Airways, Continental, Delta, JetBlue, Spirit, and American Airlines. There are many direct flights from Miami and Fort Lauderdale to the larger islands, such as the Abacos and Andros, and from Atlanta to smaller islands such as the Exumas and Eleuthera—which may eliminate lengthy waits for connections at Nassau (not the world's best-equipped airport). For interisland travel, try small local airlines such as Western Air (242-329-3167), private plane charter companies (among them Flamingo Air, New Providence; 242-351-5922), or a ferry service (242-323-2166). You can also board an interisland mail boat departing from Nassau on weekly trips to and from all the islands—a relatively inexpensive but very slow experience (around $35 to $140).
When you arrive at Nassau's Lynden Pindling International, there's only one way into town—a taxi—unless you ask your hotel to arrange transportation. Taxi fare is $22 to Nassau and $28 to Paradise Island. Among the services that will send a driver to meet you, Silverline Tours is very dependable (242-362-0861). Most visitors get around New Providence and Grand Bahama by taxi and jitneys (small white buses charging $2 a ride). Other options include horse-drawn carriages or rental cars (agencies on these islands include Avis and Hertz). In the Out Islands, where rental cars are scarcer, the options are taxis, golf carts, or bicycles. Driving in the Bahamas is British-style—on the left side of the road—which is why so many visitors leave the driving to others. Another way to get around is to charter a seaplane (these can also be rented for half- or full-day eco-tours). Safari Seaplanes, for example, is an internationally recognized company that services the Out Islands (866-272-5728).
Bahamas Ministry of Tourism
P.O. Box N-3701
Nassau, New Providence Island
Tel: 800 224 2627 (toll-free)
Tel: 242 302 2000
Fax: 242 302 2098
NEED TO KNOW
Capital City: Nassau
Area: 5,400 square miles
Telephone Calling Code(s): 1
Electricity: 120V, 60 Hz
Currency: As of Nov 22, 2011:
1 Bahamas Dollars = $1.00 US Calculate Other Amounts
The Bahamas does not require visas for citizens of the United States. A valid passport is sufficient for an eight-month stay.
GOOD TO KNOW
Books and Movies
To get a taste of Bahamian history stretching back to Columbus, dip into The Story of the Bahamas, by Paul Albury. Buccaneers of America, by John Esquemeling, offers an entertaining 17th-century eyewitness account of the sordid carryings-on of the peg-leg and parrot set. The Lucayans, by Sandra Riley, relates a more somber tale about the extermination of the indigenous population by ruthless Spanish conquistadors, long before affluent crowds and megaresorts ruled the islands. A Saga of Sea Tragedy and Sunken Treasure, by Dave Horner, tells the true story of two treasure-toting galleons lost near the Bahamian seas. The sun, sand, and crystalline waters that attract vacationers is also a lure for movie producers, and a slew of films have used the Bahamas as the setting or as an anonymous (often underwater) backdrop, ranging from the Beatles' Help in 1965 to Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End in 2007. James Bond seems to have a soft spot for the islands: Thunderball (1966), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), For Your Eyes Only (1981), Never Say Never Again (1983), and Casino Royale (2007). Other recent movies set in the Bahamas are Holiday in the Sun (2001), Into the Blue (2005), and After the Sunset (2004), with Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayek.
Like that of other Caribbean islands, the cuisine of the Bahamas focuses on seafood (including conch, crab, grouper, and lobster) with fresh fruit, rice, and grits—but without the hot chiles or fusion flavors of, say, Jamaica. Tourist fare here is likely to reflect the Bahamas' specialties, though obviously with an upscale, Continental, hotel-friendly twist and lots of fruity rum libations.
The islands of the Caribbean are very similar when it comes to shopping potential. The main attractions are inevitably duty-free goods—jewelry, watches, electronics, makeup, fragrance, liquor, and tobacco at good markdowns. Bahamian specialties include seashell jewelry and wood carvings.
January: 1, New Year's Day
June: First Friday, Labor Day
July: 10, Independence Day
August: First Monday, Emancipation Day
October: Second Monday, Discovery Day
December: 25, Christmas Day; 26, Boxing Day
Spring: Friday before Easter, Good Friday; Easter; Monday after Easter, Easter Monday; eighth Monday after Easter, Pentecost Monday