The subtropical Bahamas, where turquoise waters flow along miles of white sand beaches, include more than 2,000 cays, islets and rocks. Of the approximately 700 islands, 30 of the largest ones are inhabited. Beginning 50 miles (80 km) from the Florida coast, The Bahamas form a 760-mile (1,223-km) arc through the Atlantic, creating a natural barrier across the eastern gateway to the Gulf of Mexico. The island of Bimini is closest to Florida, while the southernmost island, Inagua, is 60 miles (97 km) from Haiti. Spaniards named this archipelago baja mar, or “shallow sea.”
The most popular tourist destinations in The Bahamas is the islands' capital, Nassau, on New Providence Island. It is rich in colonial history and charm and offers varied opportunities for sports activities, shopping and sightseeing. Prestigious Paradise Island, linked by entry and exit bridges to Nassau, is a playground of the rich. Bahamar, a multi-hotel resort complex, is one of the island’s latest developments. About 80 percent of the people vacationing in The Bahamas are from the United States.
The Out Islands, known the world over for game fishing, scuba diving, sailing, pristine beaches and emerald-blue seas, extend as far as you can see. There are resorts in areas noted for their lack of commercial development, and where only the silver-top thatch palms and flamingoes claim residence. The principal Out Islands are Abaco, Andros, Bimini, Cat Island, Eleuthera, Exuma and Long Island. Abaco has naturally protected waters and dozens of offshore cays (pronounced keys) that make them a favorite with yachting and fishing enthusiasts. Here there are excellent marinas, guides and boats for hire, and championship golf courses.
Just off the island of Eleuthera, with its picturesque little villages and exclusive resorts, are the charming settlements of Harbour Island, with its pink sandy beaches, and Spanish Wells, which in the old days served as a watering hole for Spanish galleons. The Exumas have many cays, most of which can be reached only by boat.
About The Bahamas
The Bahamas claim the distinction of being Christopher Columbus' first New World discovery. In 1492 he stepped ashore on an island originally called Guanahani and renamed it San Salvador. The Lucayan Indians, who then populated the islands, were soon sent by the Spaniards to labor in the mines and sugar mills of Cuba and Hispaniola. However, the Spaniards did not settle here, and in 1629 King Charles I of England granted the islands to Sir Robert Heath, attorney general of England.
A group of English merchants and pioneers from Bermuda, known as the Eleutherian Adventurers, then came seeking religious freedom. They colonized Eleuthera in 1648 and attempted to establish the first republic in the New World. This attempt at colonization and other settlements which followed were, for the most part, unsuccessful. As a result, The Bahamas were soon overrun by pirates such as Blackbeard and Calico Jack, who were finally routed in 1718 by Capt. Woodes Rogers, the first royal governor.
Another wave of immigration occurred after the American Revolution, when Loyalist refugees fled to The Bahamas, taking their slaves with them. England ruled until 1782, when Spain captured the islands; however, the Treaty of Versailles returned them to England once again in 1783.
Throughout The Bahamas' turbulent history their strategically positioned cays and islets played a vital role in international intrigues. Not only were The Bahamas a formidable hideout for pirates, but Confederate blockade runners during the American Civil War and bootleggers during America's Prohibition Era also exploited the islands' proximity to Florida in efforts to smuggle contraband into the United States.
From 1718 to 1969 a governor was appointed by the British Crown; after 1969 the appointment was made in consultation with The Bahamas Government. On July 10, 1973, the islands became an independent sovereign nation headed by a prime minister. Now a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations, the islands retain many legacies from the years of British rule, including the distinctive Bahamian accent and two popular spectator sports—cricket and rugby.
Shoppers have a field day exploring the multitude of stores and boutiques lining the streets of Nassau. Shops also are found just over the bridge on Paradise Island, at Cable Beach and at shopping malls in the outlying areas.
Bay Street is the center of activity in Nassau, where the merchandise consists of imported European goods: perfumes, brass, leather goods, cameras, cashmere, candies, jewelry, china, porcelain, crystal, glass, figurines, linens and designer and sportswear fashions to name just a few. Duty-free prices, made available for the first time in 1992, make these items all the more attractive. Available at discount prices are the island's own liqueur, Nassau Royale, and local banana rums and coconut liqueurs. Festival Place, on Prince George Wharf, features local crafts, food and music in an atmosphere reminiscent of a Bahamian village.
Since the 1930s, Nassau's Straw Market on Bay Street was famed for its island handicrafts made not only from straw but also from wood and a variety of shells, including coconut and conch (pronounced konk). Bargaining is expected here, but not in Nassau's shops. Items made from tortoiseshell are banned from importation into the United States. Most shops are open Mon.-Sat. 9-5. Banking hours are Mon.-Thurs. 9:30-3, Fri. 9:30-4:30. All banks are closed on Saturday and Sunday. ATMs are available 24 hours a day. Major credit cards, such as Visa and MasterCard, are widely accepted.
Food and Drink
With the exception of fruit, vegetables and seafood, most food is imported. Many restaurants and hotels feature European, Chinese, Italian, Japanese and American cuisines. But Bahamian specialties should not be overlooked: dishes include pigeon peas and rice, rock lobster, baked crab, grouper cutlets and fried snapper. Souse is a hearty dish of simmered vegetables and chicken or pig's feet. Conch, a meaty mollusk, is served raw—with fresh lime juice, onions, tomatoes and peppers—and can also be steamed, pounded and deep-fried (“cracked”), or used as an ingredient in soups, chowders and fritters. Rum-raisin ice cream, guava duff (a steamed bread pudding topped with guava sauce) or a coconut tart round off the meal. Tap water is usually safe to drink; bottled water is widely available. Milk is pasteurized.
Prices for meals in hotels are higher during the winter season, and on the whole, native dishes are usually the least expensive. Most restaurants add a 15-percent service charge to the bill.
Sports and Amusements
Local and international yachting and sailing regattas, golf and tennis tournaments, cricket, rugby and squash are only a few of the activities available in The Bahamas. That golf ranks high in popularity is verified by the number of 18-hole public golf courses on New Providence Island, including the Ocean Club golf course. The PGA-rated Ocean Club Golf Course on Paradise Island is exclusively for the guests of Atlantis properties.
Great Abaco Island boasts an 18-hole course, the Scottish-style Abaco Club on Winding Bay. Some hotels have tennis courts and information about horseback riding which is available in Nassau.
Though landlubbers enjoy their share of activities, water sports captivate the majority of island travelers. The numerous coves along the beaches of New Providence Island create natural pools ideal for swimming and snorkeling. The 142-mile (228-km) underwater coral reef known for its “blue holes,” freshwater springs that well to the surface, offers excellent scuba diving. Paradise Island boasts one of the finest beaches in The Bahamas. Fishing in The Bahamas is good, and light-tackle anglers are amply rewarded.
Peterson Cay National Park, some 15 miles (24 km) east of Freeport, offers excellent opportunities for snorkeling and diving in a pristine setting and is accessible by boat only.
The trade winds ensure fine sailing conditions all year; boats and equipment for sailing, parasailing, fishing, water skiing, windsurfing, snorkeling, scuba diving and spear fishing can be rented from charter firms at the major marinas and from the docks of many waterfront hotels. Hotels that offer parasailing are found in Nassau and Paradise Island; and Cockburn Town, San Salvador Island.
An informative publication for those interested in bareboat charters is the “Yachtsman's Guide to The Bahamas,” available at many yachting supply stores, marinas and bookstores in The Bahamas. The 1- or 2-hour scuba diving lessons offered throughout the islands are usually not enough preparation for the sport; you should take a complete course in advance.
Those who prefer indoor recreation will find nightclubs and casinos on New Providence Island and Paradise Island. Hotel nightclubs and restaurants usually sponsor dancing and after-dinner entertainment. The Out Island hotels occasionally feature calypso and steel-drum bands. First-run American movies are shown in New Providence, Grand Bahama and Eleuthera theaters.
Lively festivals and tournaments are offered throughout the year. Junkanoo, the Bahamian national festival, is held on December 26 (Boxing Day) and January 1. Across the islands, competing groups in costumes and playing music parade through the streets from 1 a.m. to dawn vying for prizes. The most spectacular parade takes place on Bay Street in Nassau, where the sounds of cowbells, goatskin drums and whistles can be heard in the distance. Visitors are free to join in the revelry as part of a “scrap” group.
Smaller versions of Junkanoo are held at various hotels year-round. The Junkanoo Summer Festival is held in Nassau the last weekend of July. Featured are Bahamian food, craft demonstrations, storytelling, special children’s activities, live entertainment and parades. For additional information, contact the Ministry of Tourism's Events and Entertainment Department or the Bahamas National Festival Commission; phone (242) 302-2000 or (242) 356-2100, respectively.
Popular excursions include glass-bottom boat trips, which depart from the Prince George Dock in Nassau and the Port Lucaya Marketplace on Grand Bahama Island, or swimming and snorkeling cruises around Nassau and to Blackbeard’s Cay on catamarans. Several yacht trips depart from the Nassau Yacht Haven for excursions to nearby cays.
Views of the underwater world around Nassau are offered daily aboard the Seaworld Explorer, a semi-submarine that operates out of Prince George Wharf. Glass-bottom boats also depart from Prince George Wharf for 90-minute tours of the Sea Gardens, with views of colorful tropical fish and coral formations.
The tour buses that leave from the major hotels and Festival Place (the cruise ship port) are convenient and economical ways to tour Nassau. A pleasant 2-hour drive might include stops at such sites as the Queen's Staircase, Government House, Ardastra Gardens and forts Fincastle, Montagu and Charlotte.
Air service from the East Coast and the Midwest is available aboard many major carriers to Lynden Pindling International Airport and Grand Bahama International Airport. American Airlines provides nonstop scheduled flights from Charlotte, Dallas/Fort Worth, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Delta provides nonstop service from its Atlanta hub to Nassau/Paradise Island and Grand Bahama Island; daily service from New York (LaGuardia) to Nassau/Paradise Island; and seasonal service from Boston and Minneapolis to Nassau/Paradise Island. JetBlue offers up to three nonstop departures per day (during peak periods) from JFK to Nassau/Paradise Island and daily service from Boston to Nassau/Paradise Island. American Airlines, Spirit, JetBlue and Silver Airways provide direct service from such Florida cities as Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Orlando, West Palm Beach and Melbourne to several points in The Bahamas.
Some of the large islands have bus service. Bicycles and motor scooters rent by the hour, day or longer. For more luxurious transportation, chauffeur-driven limousines can be hired in Nassau and Freeport. A quaint way to see the sites in Nassau is by horse-drawn carriage, called a “surrey tour.” Metered taxis are a convenient way to get around, and the rates are regulated. There are major car rental agencies in Nassau and on Grand Bahama Island; rentals also are available on most of the Out Islands. Driving is on the left side of the road.
More than 145 miles (230 km) of good roads make for pleasant motoring from downtown Nassau to almost all parts of New Providence Island; road conditions on the Out Islands have improved since 1992. Automobiles can be taken duty free to Nassau for up to 6 months. A deposit covering duty charges (50 percent of the car's value plus 4 percent stamp tax), in the form of a customs bond executed by a local bank, is refunded if the vehicle is removed from the Commonwealth before the end of this period. A U.S. driver's license is valid for 3 months.
Island-hopping is possible by both plane and boat. Bahamasair has regularly scheduled interisland flights from Nassau. SkyBahamas offers service from Nassau to Exuma, Freeport, Grand Bahama and other points. If there is not a direct flight to the island of your choice, check with area charter companies; information also is available at hotels on the Out Islands.
Many cruise services travel from Miami, Port Everglades and Port Canaveral to Nassau and Grand Bahama Island on a once- or twice-weekly basis. Traveling by mail boat, though it might be slow and lacking in some comforts, is an inexpensive way to island hop. Since departures are subject to change without notice, advance arrangements with the captain are recommended.
Bahamas Ferries offers a 2-hour ferry ride to Harbour Island, Spanish Wells or mainland Eleuthera. The ferry departs Nassau at 8 a.m. and returns at 6:50 p.m.; phone (242) 323-2166.
Area13,934 sq km (5,380 sq mi.).
Highest Point63 m (206 ft.), Mount Alvernia, Cat Island.
Lowest PointSea level, Atlantic Ocean.
Time Zone(s)Eastern Standard. DST.
LanguageEnglish (Creole among Haitian immigrants).
GovernmentIndependent. Member of the British Commonwealth of Nations.
CurrencyBahamian dollar. $1 U.S. = 1 Bahamian dollar. U.S. currency is widely accepted.
Electricity110-220 volts, 60 cycles AC; voltage varies with location.
MINIMUM AGE FOR DRIVERS21-25, depending on the rental car agency; maximum age 65 without medical certificate. U.S. license valid for 3 months; drive on left.
Minimum Age For Gambling18.
Seat Belt/Child Restraint LawsSeat belts are required for all adult passengers. Children are to be secured in seating apparatus fitted to the rear seat; those less than 20 pounds require an infant car seat that should face the vehicle's rear, those between 20 and less than 40 pounds require a convertible car seat, and those over 40 pounds or up to 4 feet, 9 inches tall require a booster car seat. Seating apparatus may be fitted to the front seat if the vehicle has no rear seat.
Helmets for MotorcyclistsRequired.
HolidaysJan. 1; Majority Rule Day, Jan. 10; Good Friday; Easter Monday; Whit Monday, May or June (8th Mon. after Easter); Labour Day, June (1st Fri.); Independence Day, July 10; Emancipation Day, Aug. (1st Mon.); National Heroes Day, Oct. (2nd Mon.); Christmas, Dec. 25; Boxing Day, Dec. 26.
TaxesA 12 percent VAT (value-added tax) is added to hotel rooms and most consumer goods. On Grand Bahama Island, a $15 airport security fee is assessed for all ticketed passengers; $7 for other islands. Departure tax of $29 U.S. is included in the airline ticket cost.
ImmigrationPassport and a return or onward ticket are required. No visa needed for stays up to 90 days for U.S. citizens. The U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security requires all U.S. citizens returning from the Caribbean to present a valid passport.
PHONING THE ISLANDSTo call The Bahamas from the U.S. or Canada, dial 1 + 242 + the 7-digit local number.
Further Information The Bahamas Tourist Office, Florida 1200 S. Pine Island Rd. Suite 450 Plantation, FL 33324. Phone:(954)236-9292 or (800)224-2627
The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism Bay St. 4th floor Nassau, THE BAHAMAS . Phone:(242)302-2000 or (800)224-2627
AAA’s in-person hotel evaluations are unscheduled to ensure the inspector has an experience similar to that of members. To pass inspection, all hotels must meet the same rigorous standards for cleanliness, comfort and hospitality. These hotels receive a AAA Diamond designation that tells members what type of experience to expect.