In the lead up to the ASTA/NACTA Bahamas Showcase in June, Lucy Grewcock dives into the multifaceted appeal of the Bahamas
The Bahamas’ 700 islands and 2,400 cays arc across the Atlantic Ocean between Florida, Cuba and the Caribbean Sea. A short hop from Miami, the two main islands are the most visited — New Providence is best-known for its glamorous all-inclusives, vibrant Nassau city and neighboring Paradise Island, while Grand Bahama is laid-back with pristine beaches and affordable retreats.
Beyond and between these hubs are hundreds of ‘Out Islands’ with boutique hideaways, deserted sands and untapped secrets. America’s nearest Bahamian island group — Bimini — is a day trip from Florida, while more than 1,000km south, the bird-filled Inaguas mark the islands’ southern extremity.
Unsurprisingly, the beaches are the biggest draw. Powder-soft with bath-warm waters, most visitors come to swim, sunbathe and sip cocktails on the sand. But a whole world of adventure awaits, from mysterious blue holes to swimming pigs and wild horses.
With such glittering credentials, it’s no wonder tourist arrivals increase year on year, with the biggest portion (more than 77%) coming from the U.S. In 2016, tour operators reported record numbers of 25,000 arrivals, and the archipelago was named ‘The Caribbean’s Leading Luxury Island Destination’ for the second consecutive year at the World Travel Awards.
This success has set the stage for a surge of new openings in 2017; cruise lines have added new itineraries, new luxury retreats are popping up on the Out Islands, and the two main islands are welcoming ambitious new developments. The largest of these is the $3.5bn Baha Mar on Nassau’s Cable Beach, set to be the largest resort in the Caribbean on its completion in December.
Everyone has their favorite Bahamian beach. For some, it’s the dazzling white sands of Cabbage Beach on Paradise Island, the party vibe of Nassau’s Junkanoo Beach, or the magnificent natural paddling pool on Gold Rock Beach, Grand Bahama. Others prefer the Out Islands, where Harbour Island (Eleuthera) and Cat Island have famously pink sands; Stocking Island’s shores are rimmed by coral gardens; and Treasure Cay boasts fine white sand.
Island-hopping adds a whole new dimension. By joining a tour or chartering a boat, adventurous types can cruise from Paradise Island to the secluded sands of Rose Island, while the Exumas have deserted stretches that are waiting to be discovered. Determined paradise-seekers could navigate through the Shroud Cay mangrove creeks to Camp Driftwood Beach.
Thanks to the lush national parks, endemic birdlife and endangered species, the wildlife here is hugely diverse and surprisingly accessible. Bimini is one of the best places to experience wild dolphins, and in the Exumas, visitors can meet rare rock iguanas, swim with nurse sharks and splash about with the famous swimming pigs of Big Major Cay, a ubiquitous bucket-list experience after going viral on YouTube. Winding Bay on Eleuthera is home to a small colony of sea turtles, and kayaking along the mangrove-lined coast will bring visitors within (almost) touching distance. Meanwhile, avid birdwatchers might be best served in the southernmost island group of Inagua, home to 140 bird species and 80,000 West Indian flamingos.
Luxury resorts & spas
A world leader in luxury, standards are consistently high, with resorts like the One & Only Ocean Club on Paradise Island, and the Cove on Eleuthera among the very best. Lumina Point in the Exumas added to this collection last April, and Eleuthera’s French Leave Resort was launched in January this year.
Luxury resorts and leading spas go hand-in-hand, with sea-view massages and tailored treatments as standard in the best hotels. Standalone spas, mobile therapists and wellbeing classes add to the options, with everything from guided meditation to Pilates and paddleboard yoga available across the islands.
For true tranquillity, the Bahamas’ private islands promise ultimate escapism: guests can view marine-life through the glass floor at the islands’ only overwater spa on Kamalame Cay. And, if money isn’t an option, entire islands are available to rent — Little Whale Cay in the Berry Islands is a 12-guest retreat with a private airstrip and 13 staff, including a personal masseur.
After-dark entertainment in the Bahamas ranges from all-night partying to all-out chilling. For casinos and clubs, Nassau and Paradise Island are where it’s at, with Bambu and the 9,000sq ft Aura Night Club and casino the pinnacle of the party scene. Hotting up at midnight and continuing into the early hours, this is no place for casual flip-flops — the top spots are as exclusive as those in New York or Miami.
Grand Bahama’s bars are more relaxed. Port Lucaya Marketplace is the main hub, with cocktail bars and live weekend music. Club Neptune’s is popular for dancing, and Treasure Bay Casino at the Radisson Grand is open 24 hours. Away from these focal points, evening revelry is far more laid-back — expect romantic candlelit meals and traditional music in waterfront bars, or stargazing and beach fires on the Out Islands.
From kite surfing and paddle boarding to big game fishing, the Bahamas is a playground for the adventurous. Kayaking is a fantastic way to explore the Exumas — many of these 365 islands are less than half a mile apart, making it easy to paddle between their beaches, or camp by starlight on secret cays.
Surfing is another top Out Island activity and, with the October to May swell, Eleuthera and Abaco are hotspots. Beginners can learn the basics at qualified surf schools, while seasoned surfers can join multi-day ‘surfaris’ to world-class breaks.
Back on terra firma, horse riding gives a new perspective of the main islands. All abilities can enjoy Nassau’s beaches and peaceful forests, or ride through Grand Bahama’s orange groves and wetlands.
The Bahamas’ appeal as a cruise destination remains strong. Passenger arrivals increase steadily each year, and the first half of 2016 saw a 1.7 percent increase. Given Florida’s proximity to Bimini, Grand Bahama and New Providence, it’s no surprise that affordability and short breaks are a huge part of the appeal. Cruise lines are responding to this demand with short escape options that include Miami to Bimini day trips and two-night weekend cruises. Themed experiences, such as Disney Cruise Line’s new Marvel Day at Sea, add to the options this year, and week-long vacations allow more time to experience private cays owned by the cruise lines themselves — including Castaway Cay (Disney Cruise Line), Coco Bay (Royal Caribbean), and Half Moon Cay (Holland America and Carnival cruises).
There’s enough to keep scuba divers and swimmers hooked for a lifetime here. The world’s third largest barrier reef runs for 140 miles near Andros Island; there are sharks, groupers and rays galore; and every November, armies of lobster march across the seabed near Little Bahamas.
For experienced divers it’s all about the blue holes — the Bahamas has more submerged vertical caves than anywhere else on the planet. Grand Bahama and Andros have the biggest concentration, and Dean’s Blue Hole (663ft) near Long Island is the world’s deepest. The sheer variety of marine life on offer here is staggering
— tropical fish, rays, turtles and tiny seahorses.
Wreck diving is another big draw, and several sites near Grand Bahama are shallow enough for snorkeling. Eleuthera and Harbour Island have the biggest concentration of natural wrecks; America’s first steamship sits off the Abacos coast; and, south of New Providence, divers can fin through purposefully sunk vessels and underwater film sets (including Thunderball Grotto) that have been used in the James Bond movies.