The Bahamas' big year: Real reasons to go in 2023
This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Bahamas’ independence, and it’s hard to imagine a better time to celebrate the 700-some supernaturally beautiful islands that make up the archipelago. And, in honor of this milestone, why not infuse this year’s Bahamas escape with authentic experiences — ones that dive into the unique ecology, history, sports and festivals of the islands?
The golden anniversary also seems the ideal time to broaden ones’ Bahamian horizons beyond Nassau by including pastel-painted Harbour Island, wind-swept and rugged Cat Island, the quirky wildlife of the Exumas and other less-traveled Out Islands in your plans. With the islands' location just 150 miles off the coast of Florida and myriad nonstop flights from 21 U.S. airports, joining the celebration is too easy to pass up.
Here, a handful of experiences that will have you on your way to a truly Bahamian vacation.
Bahamian festivals and celebrations
The Bahamas' official Independence Day is July 10th, and there will be 10 days of colorful parades, musical performances, street festivals and fireworks shows leading up to the big day. Then, after the Independence Day lineup, celebrants will have a mere three days of down time (think early bedtimes and lots of electrolytes) before the Goombay Summer Festival begins (July 13-27). Named for traditional Afro-Caribbean goatskin drums and the supremely danceable music the drums create, these cultural fetes take place across 12 Bahamian islands and are an exuberant expression of Bahamianism — featuring traditional drum music, Goombay dancers in full costume, mouthwatering local specialties and Bahamian libations.
And as if that weren't enough festivity, the Junkanoo Summer Festival also pops off in downtown Nassau every Saturday in July. Performers in vivid, feathered, bejeweled and oversize costumes are the essence of Junkanoo performances, as are the cowbells, whistles, brass instruments, conch shells and of course drums they play. These parades, along with Bahamian food, drinks and art vendors take to the streets for all to enjoy.
This is a spinoff of the traditional Junkanoo Festival and Carnival that take place the day after Christmas (known as Boxing Day in the Bahamas, as evidence of its ties to Britain) every year. When the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Day (there's also a reprisal on New Year's Day), local families flock to Bay Street wearing the elaborate works of art they've dreamed up and painstakingly prepared for months. (Fun fact: at the center of most of these dazzling costumes is a surprisingly mundane — but light and durable — material: cardboard.) There are friendly competitions between families to see who has created the most impressive ensembles, and who has choreographed the best dance moves. The prize? A year's worth of pride and bragging rights.
Bearing witness to these impassioned shows of creative and cultural expression is a privilege worth planning ahead for — and you'll want to book your trip as soon as you make up your mind, since hotels sell out well in advance.
But if these summer and winter festivals seem too far off to sate your mounting wanderlust, you don't have to wait to get in on the year of revelry. Whenever you travel, you can pay a visit to the Educulture Junkanoo Museum on West Street in downtown Nassau, created by Bahamas native and cultural expert Arlene Nash Ferguson as a place where the Junkanoo spirit and story lives on all year. In it, visitors can trace the history of Junkanoo, from its roots as a celebration among slaves who were given three days off for Christmas, to the exuberant tradition it is today. Patrons can see myriad former costumes on display, and even try their hands at making their own scaled-down versions.
Hop across 16 distinct islands
The culturally authentic experiences continue across the Bahamas Out Islands, and if you truly want to get to know The Bahamas, experiencing the islands beyond New Providence (home to Nassau) and Grand Bahama (Freeport) is essential. Branch out from these more populous hubs (and between Out Islands) via scheduled chartered flights, private boat and ferries. You can also fly directly into some of the islands from Miami and Fort Lauderdale. (Book soon and you can even get flight credit or free flights for going the extra mile.) Learn more about getting to individual Out Islands here.
On the festival theme, Cat Island hosts a particularly sought-after four-day party known as the Rake 'N' Scrape Festival (June 1-4, also the Bahamas' Labour Day weekend), which showcases the popular Bahamian music style characterized by the sounds of the accordian, hand drums and, most notably, rhythmic handsawing — along with vendors offering delicious food (try conch fried in fritters or sliced in a citrusy, ceviche-style salad) and lots of dancing.
Whether or not you time your visit to coincide with this uber-authentic Bahamas celebration, the nature-rich, laid-back island offers many cultural sites to explore. Climb Mt. Alvernia, the highest point in the Bahamas, to peek inside a personal monastery hand-built from stone by Father Jerome, an English Catholic priest and architect who sought a quiet place to commune with God at the end of his life. Elsewhere around this 150 square-mile island, you’ll find secluded oceanside benches; rocky coastline that gives way to soft pink sand; and quiet roads with million-dollar ocean views. Sip a beer with locals at humble fish fry shacks or peer into waters so clear and lively, you might see an octopus or sting ray without even getting wet.
Fly into Eleuthera — famous as Lenny Kravitz's part-time home — to cruise by car or bike across a breathtaking strip of land known as the Glass Window Bridge (thanks to a Winslow Homer painting of the phenomenon). Then take a short ferry ride to Harbour Island, which offers a distinctly different experience with its unique boutique shops and quaint New England-style houses painted in Bahamian pastels.
The 30-foot-wide strip of land cuts between the deep sapphire-colored waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the bright turquoise Bight of Eleuthra, resulting in a view that will keep your eyes guessing and your sense of wonder turned up full blast. If your taste buds crave similar stimulation, pay a visit to the local pineapple farm (peak season is March - July) or one of the dozens of restaurants serving up flavorful local fare across the two islands.
Nature lovers and avid anglers will delight in a getaway to unspoiled Acklins and Crooked Island, a serene haven for boating, bonefishing, birdwatching, snorkeling and diving, wrapped around a shimmering and shallow lagoon (a.k.a. the Bight of Acklins, or sometimes just "the Bight"). Many of the islands' lodging options, which include bonefishing lodges, bed & breakfasts and other intimate accommodations, offer the services of personal fishing guides to help you navigate the Bight, mangroves and sounds in pursuit of tasty (but, not surprisingly, boney) bonefish, plus snapper, snook, jacks and more local catches. Whether or not you're fishing excursion is fruitful, you can sample expertly prepared seafood at local restaurants, many of which offer delightful ocean views alongside plates of stuffed lobster, grouper, snapper, tuna and conch with generous helpings of peas and rice.
Acklins & Crooked Island, along with neighbors Mayaguana and Inagua, represent some of the furthest-flung Bahamas islands from U.S. shores, as they're perched on the southeastern edge of the island archipelago. Meanwhile Bimini, on the northwest corner, is close enough to be reached via a 2-hour ferry ride from Fort Lauderdale. (Yes, it's okay if you stop reading and book your ticket now.)
The beauty of Bimini's three narrow islands (named North, South and East Bimini) is remarkable enough to have persuaded Ernest Hemingway to reside there in the 1930s and to use it as the setting for his final novel, "Islands in the Stream," published decades later. The islands that inspired the legendary American writer are still visited for their beautiful and peaceful beaches (contiguous Radio Beach, Blister Beach and Spook Hill on the west side of North Bimini are some of the best-loved sands), but now hold more varied attractions, too. Among them is the Dolphin House Museum in Alice Town, a building-sized art installation created with found and discarded objects by a resident artist whose family has lived on the islands since the 18th century.
Then there's Sapona, a concrete ship said to have been designed by Henry Ford during World War I. After a checkered career as a casino, floating Prohibition-era liquor warehouse and a bombing target, the ship became an oddly upright wreck in 1945, just a few miles off the coast of South Bimini. You can book a tour to see the wreck by boat and dive or snorkel around its submerged hull to score even more intriguing views of the marine life that now calls it home.
If you'd like your undersea adventure with a hefty shot of adrenaline, these islands can facilitate that too, in the form of the Bimini Bull Run. A ticket buys you an underwater date with some rather terrifying companions: predatory bull sharks. Of course, you'll be safely tucked inside a protective dockside cage during the whole encounter, but your fight or flight response may be slow to get the memo.
Another set of standouts among the 16 main Bahamas island destinations are the Exumas. This string of 365 small islands is home to gorgeous and secluded sandy beaches, remote cays, pristine coastlines and some of the Bahamas' most celebrated residents: the swimming pigs of Big Major Cay (less formally known as "Pig Island") in the Exuma Cays on the north end of the island chain. Tip: if you're star struck by these world-famous porkers, a fruit or vegetable snack will earn you the equivalent of a backstage pass — the chance to pet their furry heads or sandy snouts.
The animal-loving fun continues in the Exumas when you head to nearby Compass Cay for a run-in with some slippery, but surprisingly harmless creatures: nurse sharks. These unabashed sea creatures seem to have more in common with dogs than great whites, since they often swim up on the dock at high tide and allow visitors to stroke their smooth warm backs as they swim by.
Paddle a clear-bottom canoe to make the most of the experience, and take a break at the rustic bar on the dock to enjoy a Kalik or a Sands, the two most popular Bahamian-brewed beers.
Also in the Exuma Cays is Thunderball Grotto, a location featured in not one, but two James Bond films. A swim through this breathtaking underwater cave is likely to be one of the most memorable experiences of your Bahamas island-hopping adventure, if not your year. It's gorgeousness may also make you Instagram-famous if you choose to document the event.
Preserve while you play
As you've probably noticed, the islands of the Bahamas are bubbling over with unique natural riches that stun the eyes, soothe the spirit and stir the soul. Considering this glut of gorgeousness, you may feel moved to focus part of your Bahamian exploration on preserving this most incredible island archipelago for its inhabitants, your future visits and for future generations.
There are intriguing and easily accessible opportunities for adventures that meld leisure, fun and conservation in the islands of the Bahamas. "Tagging along" on a shark tagging mission is one of the coolest such excursions, offered by Grand Isle Resort in Exuma in partnership with Beneath the Waves, a nonprofit organization working to preserve shark populations and the habitats they occupy. During the 4-hour excursion, guests will join a team of marine biologists and learn to safely catch, measure, tag and release tiger, reef and nurse sharks, allowing scientists to follow the activities of the threatened species for years.
Divers, snorkelers and eco-conscious travelers can also give back during their travels with a visit to Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation (BREEF) Sir Nicholas Nuttall Coral Reef Sculpture Garden, the world's largest underwater artificial reef, located off the southwest coast of New Providence. Don your gear for a hands-on experience with the resident marine life.
The organization also offers customized reef education experiences for all ages and abilities, plus training for those interested in becoming a PADI reef rescue diver. Visitors can also give back to the seas through monetary donations and BREEF's adopt-a-coral program. (Of course, for divers looking to explore reefs beyond BREEF, there are countless opportunities, including stunning shallow-water dives in Andros, where beginners' courses are readily available; and the vibrant coral heads that make up "Picasso's Gallery" off Freeport.)
For travelers who are intrigued by the idea of swimming with a dolphin, but who don't want to support the capture of these intelligent animals, Bimini offers a conscionable alternative. Through a boating excursion with an experienced crew, visitors can swim with completely wild dolphins in their natural environment. Tour operators take specific measures to ensure the safety of the dolphins (like cruising at low speeds and not disturbing the marine mammals when they're resting, feeding or, ahem, mating).
You can also support conservation by visiting some of the Bahamas' numerous and expansive nature parks, like the Exumas Cays Land & Sea Park; Lucayan National Park on Grand Bahama Island; Blue Holes National Park on Andros (where you can dive into one of the park's namesake blue holes amid protected pine forest) and Conception Island National Park between Cat Island and Rum Cay.
In these natural areas, you'll witness wild mangrove communities, swirling coastal pools alive with their own microcosms of marine species, green sea turtles, sting rays, rare parrots, sea birds and a countless array of other living things. You can reach these parks via private boat charters or tours. It goes without saying in places of such staggering beauty that the "leave no trace" principles apply doubly in these island sanctuaries. Make sure to pack your reef-safe sunscreen as well to ensure you're doing your part to keep the underwater ecosystems healthy.
Water sports enthusiasts have the opportunity to experience another authentic Bahamian activity by sea: sloop sailing. The national sport of the Bahamas takes place aboard wooden sail boats that were once used primarily for fishing, but were later redesigned for racing. Visitors can see these boats all along the coast on Great Exuma, where a local organization called the Exuma Sailing Club sponsors the building and purchasing of these unique boats, and also trains young Bahamians on sloop sailing to keep the tradition alive.
Or for a larger dose of the sport, visit during the North Eleuthera Sailing Regatta in October, a 4-day free festival that invites sloop sailors of any skill level to participate (2023 goals?). The Regatta also includes numerous attractions for landlubbers, including a block party, cultural shows, drinks and live musical acts.
Even if you're not ready to compete this year, you can navigate the turquoise Bahamian waters in other ways, including paddle boarding, sea kayaking, body boarding, diving or surfing (Eleuthera is known for having the most surfable waves). But be warned — the deeper you immerse yourself in the warm, calm, crystal-clear sea (not to mention the inviting and intriguing local culture), the more Bahamian you'll feel — and the harder it will be to leave.