Your Island is Calling: The Bahamian Paradise Next Door

Nov 12, 2020

It’s safe to say most of us share a primal urge right about now: to get away. Ideally, to any reasonable facsimile of paradise. Even more ideally, with room to stretch out. A lot of room. 100,000 square miles of clear, liquid turquoise dotted with 700 or so islands would do the trick. Enter The Bahamas, which re-opened to U.S. travelers earlier this year. (A negative PCR COVID-19 test taken no more than five days before arrival is required prior to applying for a Bahamas Health Visa. Read more about COVID-19 travel requirements.)

Accessible enough to feel doable (seriously, it’s visible from Miami on a clear day, and reachable from much of the Eastern U.S. in under three hours)—but idyllic enough to feel like a waking dream—this archipelago is calling pretty much everyone's name. But as for which part is calling yours specifically, you’ll have to read on to find out. Every Bahamian outpost has its own personality, so whatever you’re in the mood for—flip-flops or stilettos, romance or a family getaway, adrenaline or all-hammocks-all-the-time—we’re happy to help you find your match. Or several of them.

And, once you find your island(s), you can apply to stay in The Bahamas to work (and play) for up to a year. Brings a whole new meaning to working remote ...

Bimini

A world away that’s absurdly close at hand, Bimini lies 48 nautical miles from Miami (translation: 2.5 hours by boat or 45 minutes by plane). Not for nothing do locals love to note that you can leave Florida after breakfast and be in Bimini before lunch. Pretty much any Bahamian specialty—cracked conch, rock lobster, Johnny cakes—would justify the trip. But of course, a toes-in-the-sand feast is just the beginning of what awaits at this archipelago within an archipelago.

The Bimini Islands include North Bimini, South Bimini and assorted little cays. Then again, “little” is a relative term in an island group where even the biggest outpost is all of seven miles long and a few hundred feet wide.

For small islands though, they pack a big punch. The history alone here is amazing, as you’ll find when you snorkel or dive the S.S. Sapona Shipwreck—a relic of WWI, when a steel shortage prompted then president Wilson to commission concrete-hulled troop transport ships (this one designed by none other than Henry Ford, reportedly). And if the wreck looks more haggard than most, know that it was repurposed for torpedo target practice during WWII.

For a couple of years between the world wars, Ernest Hemingway called Bimini home—and put it on the literary and sport fishing maps. But Papa wasn't the only American icon to do some of his most famous writing and angling here: Over a series of trips to see New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell—who had a home in Bimini—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fell in love with the place and wrote good portions of his Nobel acceptance speech, among others, here. In fact, you can follow an entire Martin Luther King, Jr. trail here now, with a must-visit trip through the local mangroves.


Nassau & Paradise Island

As paradisiacal as Bimini proved for King, Hemingway and Powell (for starters), another island group is officially home to paradise: Nassau & Paradise Island. The former is the Bahamian capital, with the all the implied cosmopolitan energy, while the latter is all about escape: stunning beaches, lush golf greens and spare-no-amenity resorts (some of the most iconic have already re-opened, or are opening soon).

Between the two islands, the shopping, dining, live entertainment and relaxation ops are effectively endless, but you should also leave time for a few local treasures: The Retreat national park, home to one of the largest private collections of rare and exotic palms on earth; The Pompey Museum of Slavery and Emancipation, where you’ll learn about the namesake renegade slave, among other important historic figures; and Gambier, a historic village rich in African heritage.


Eleuthera & Harbour Island

Nassau was the first Bahamian outpost rocker Lenny Kravitz got to know: Growing up, he visited regularly with his Bahamian-American mom, the late beloved Roxie Roker. But he now spends a good portion of his life away from the capital—on an island of pink sand beaches, sprawling pineapple fields, 18th century houses and decided mellowness. Put otherwise: quintessential Bahamas. In fact, Eleutheria is one of several songs said to be inspired by his love of the place, though his better-known Fly Away accompanies his official recent love letters to the Bahamas.

Kravitz’s cousins were the ones who first told him he had to check out Eleuthera, and you’ll see what they meant as soon as you set foot here. Your must-stops include Glass Window Bridge (a dramatic rock expanse separating the cobalt waters of the Atlantic from the transparent turquoise Bight of Eleuthera), Surfer’s Beach (whether you like to ride the waves or spectate, this is one of the best spots on earth for either) and Pink Sands Beach (a gorgeous stretch of Eleuthera’s neighboring Harbour Island). Another must? Making your way around on a golf cart—second only to boats in the hierarchy of iconic island transport.


The Exumas

For all of Eleuthera’s celebrity cred, star power pervades The Bahamas—not least, the 365 islands and cays of the Exumas. (Perhaps one reason Tyler Perry can lend Meghan, Harry and Archie his Beverly Hills estate is that he’s got a backup property here—where other celeb sightings have included Faith Hill, Justin Timberlake and Bill Gates, to name a few.)

But humans hardly have the monopoly on fame here. The archipelago is also home to some of the biggest Instagram stars of our age: the famed swimming pigs of the Bahamas. On your island-hopping tour of the Exumas, don’t miss Big Major Cay, where you can go for a dip with the ridiculously adorable inhabitants of Pig Beach. Other spots sure to rack up the Insta-likes for you: Little Exuma’s stunning Tropic of Cancer beach, so named for the meridian line that runs through it; Thunderball Grotto (wade, swim or snorkel your way through the ethereal cavernous space); and Allen’s Cay (where you’ll meet more animal kingdom celebrities, in the form of endemic rock iguanas).


The Berry Islands

If your celeb affinities lean old-school, know that these islets were a hideout for the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant back in the day. Not that you couldn’t spot a 21st-century A-lister (they still steal away here), but likelier than not, you’ll spot no one at all—and therein lies the beauty of the place.

Most of the 30 cays that make up this cluster are uninhabited—all the better to dive, snorkel, fish and stroll your way through. Don’t miss the coves and cliffs of Sugar Beach, the pine-backed blue hole of Hoffman’s Cay and the 19th-century lighthouse of Great Stirrup Cay.


Inagua

More than 80,000 flamingos live here, making the flamingo-to-human ratio 60:1. And while the leggy pink icons are Great Inagua’s main claim to fame—and also, the Bahamian national bird—they’re not the only winged wonders to call the island home. Certain parrots, pelicans, ducks and hummingbirds are unique to this corner of The Bahamas, so the local birding is exceptional.

For its part, the largely uninhabited Little Inagua protects endangered sea turtles, thanks to a reef that keeps boaters and sailors (but not respectful ecotourists) at bay.


Andros

If flamingos, sea turtles, iguanas and swimming pigs are all well and good, but fish are the real lure for you, hop the 15-minute flight from Nassau to Andros. The latter—despite being The Bahamas’ largest island—is also the most sparsely populated. Unless, that is, you count the bonefish that thrive in the local flats and make this one of the bonefishing capitals of the world.

Not that you need to love fishing to love Andros: The wide-open space means countless ecotourism ops. In fact, the island is home to The Bahamas’ largest protected area—a system of five national parks that include everything from a singular series of ocean and inland blue holes to the Crab Replenishment Reserve.


Freeport

The capital of Grand Bahama, Freeport is that rare something-for-everyone blend. Arguably best known for duty-free shopping, casinos, golf, water sports and nightlife, the area has a lot to offer nature-lovers, too—three national parks, to be precise.

Amazingly, one is smack in the heart of Freeport: The 100-acre Rand Nature Center takes you on a bird-rich nature trail. Another—Peterson Cay National Park—lies offshore, where tropical fish and rays like to hang out among the soft corals, sea fans and elkhorn.

The crown jewel, however, is Lucayan National Park. It’s home to not only remarkably diverse ecosystems—from pine forests to mangroves to fern gullies—but also one of the world’s longest underwater cave systems. For good measure, the park is also houses Gold Rock Beach, where the sand is particularly stunning at low tide (you can’t miss the rippled-just-so “welcome mat”).


Rum Cay

While that last national park description was the first time you came across "Lucayan" in this story, you'll spot the word early and often in your Bahamian travels. Often used interchangeably with "Arawak" and "Taino," "Lucayan" refers to the original inhabitants of the archipelago, whose handiwork is arguably best seen on Rum Island. Here, at Hartford Cave, you'll find the Bahamas' largest known collection of ancient indigenous petroglyphs.

Ducking into caves for glimpses of ancient history is just part of what lends an adventurous, castaway vibe to your visit here. There's only one inhabited village left on the island—and the rest is pretty much just you and nature: rolling green hills, long sandy beaches and—with apologies to the island's namesake liquor—gin-clear water.


Acklins & Crooked Island

Once the scene of some of the largest Lucayan settlements in The Bahamas, this atoll looks like it hasn't changed all that much in the intervening centuries—with notable exceptions including plantation remains and a marker where the first Bahamian post office once stood.

Remote, sparsely populated and wildly beautiful, Acklins & Crooked Island are separated by a big lagoon, where the boating, fishing, snorkeling and diving are otherworldly. There's also Crooked Island's nine-mile Turtle Sound, widely considered one of the natural wonders of The Bahamas, and home to all manner of flora and fauna—not just the namesake turtles, but also bonefish, rays and tarpon, among others.


San Salvador

Though some would argue that the aforementioned Acklins atoll is where Christopher Columbus originally made landfall in The Bahamas—and for that matter, in the so-called New World—another version of events has San Salvador as his first stop. (See: the island's five Columbus monuments, including the Pinta's reported anchorage spot.)

Whatever your thoughts on his landfall and legacy, you'd never fault the guy for being taken with San Salvador: The landscape is among the most distinctive in The Bahamas, with saltwater lakes punctuating the undulating interior and stunning reef formations surrounding the exterior. Actually, 15th-century explorers weren't huge fans of the latter, but scuba divers definitely are—thus the 50+ dive sites here.



Mayaguana 

The most remote and least developed of all the inhabited Bahamian islands, Mayaguana is also the only one to retain its Arawak name. What few locals there are live largely in fishing villages—your first clue to how good the angling is here. (Your next clue: all the grouper, jacks, marlin, snapper, tuna and wahoo you'll find when you ply these waters.) 

The island is also home to some of the archipelago's most intriguing land animals: Ingraham's hutia (an adorably pudgy native rodent believed to be extinct until reappearing in the 60s); wild goats that descend from early settlers' livestock; and land crabs that cruise the limestone rocks of Horse Pond Beach.


Cat Island

Despite the name, this island isn't a continuation of the intriguing land animal theme. Unlike Japan's "Cat Island," the Bahamian version is said to be named for a person: Arthur Catt, a pirate who used to hide out here. 

Other local notables include Sir Sidney Poitier, who grew up outside Arthur's Town and went on to become the first black Academy Award winner, and the Right Reverend Monsignor John Cyril Hawes, whose hermitage tops the Bahamas' highest point: Mt. Alverina, aka Como Hill. Though the Hawes' monastery is said to be an ode to St. Francis of Assisi, spiritual seekers of all kinds—including yogis—love the contemplative space and overlook.


Long Island

Another prime place to see Hawes' sacred spaces, the aptly named Long Island is home to two churches by the famed architect-priest: St. Paul's Anglican Church and St. Peter & St. Paul's Catholic Church (where tower stairs lead to stunning views).

Meanwhile, nature has crafted its own cathedrals here, whether the soaring cliffs that dominate the eastern shore—or the plunging blue hole (one of the deepest on earth) that punctuates a bay west of Clarence Town. Go for the island's drama, stay for the the soft, sandy lee side that drops gently into The Bahamas Bank. 


Ragged Island

In contrast to Long Island, Great Ragged Island is one of the Bahamas' smallest inhabited outposts (think 70 or so people in 9 square miles). So you're never far from the water—and for anglers and divers, that's particularly welcome news: The scene below the surface ranges from teeming reefs to deep drop-offs. 

Also home to many a cave, a safe harbor—and a perfectly placed lookout hill—the island is believed to have been a pirate hideout. Indeed, Blackbeard himself is rumored to have run a base camp here. Thus Blackbeard's Bay and Blackbeard's Well, two popular local sites.


The Abacos

These gorgeous, beloved islands—so tragically affected by last year's Hurricane Dorian—are steadily recovering. In fact, certain hotels, ferry services, airlines, tour operators and attractions throughout Abaco have resumed business and look forward to introducing (or reintroducing) you to some of the world’s best boating, sailing, diving and bonefishing.


Ready to Fly Away? The Islands of the Bahamas are one of the easiest international trips for Americans. (You can even clear customs on the way home in the Nassau airport.) Take a virtual tour, then start your planning with the Island Finder, read up on their COVID-19 safety guidelines and see which of the islands are calling your name.

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