The Bahamas: bucket-list beaches, fine dining & festival fun
With sunshine 300 days a year, water temperatures averaging 26 degrees, and four direct flights a week from London Heathrow, it's easy to see why The Bahamas is an enduringly popular year-round beach destination.
But look beyond the islands' luxury resorts and you'll discover plenty to satisfy even the most adventurous and culture-thirsty traveller, with easy island hopping, festival celebrations, colonial architecture, award-winning dining, and wildlife excursions, plus the opportunity to mingle with the friendly locals over a rum cocktail or two. Just make sure you plan in some downtime for the island's pristine beaches -- they really are that beautiful.
Uncover culture and history
Long before it became a popular island holiday destination, The Bahamas was a playground for pirates, explorers and entrepreneurs. Nassau, the capital, is awash with relics from the islands' colourful past, including the Queen’s Staircase -- 65 steps that were hand carved from limestone by slaves in the 18th century -- the imposing Christ Church Cathedral, and the fascinating Bahamas Historical Society Museum.
Also worth a visit is Fort Charlotte, the largest of three British colonial-era forts on the island, the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, or picture-perfect Balcony House, a charming pastel-pink building and the oldest wooden residence still standing in Nassau.
If you want to understand the breadth of The Bahamas' history, head to Cat Island in the the Out Islands. Alongside an undeveloped tropical paradise, you'll also find Arawak Indian caves -- where the indigenous people Christopher Columbus first encountered lived -- cotton plantation ruins, and slave huts dating back to the 1700's.
If you're lucky enough to be celebrating Christmas in this island paradise, be sure to attend the annual Junkanoo -- a fun-filled parade (similar to Mardis Gras) with brightly costumed dancers and rhythmic drums, horns and whistles that traditionally takes place in the early morning hours of Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. But don't be fooled by the frivolity -- the dancing is highly competitive with awards for best performance, costume, dancing and music. For those visiting the rest of the year, be sure to check out the Educulture Junkanoo Museum with its fantastic insight into this spirited celebration.
Find your perfect beach
With powder-soft sands and coral-rich waters across 2000 islands and cays, there's no end of locations to spread your beach towel and bask in the sun when visiting The Bahamas.
For proximity to the resorts and restaurants of Nassau, Cable Beach is always a popular option for tourists, while Love Beach -- only 20 minutes from downtown Nassau -- has over 40 acres of protected coral. In the evening, take a stroll down to fun-loving Junkanoo Beach with its colourful shacks and lively atmosphere.
Big Major Cay, more commonly known as Pig Beach, is one of the archipelago's most famous attractions. You can book a day trip to visit this unique island from Nassau or The Exumas and paddle the crystal-clear waters with the pigs yourself.
Further afield, the idyllic Pink Sand Beach on Harbour Island is renowned for its endless stretch of coral sands and calm shallow waters, making it popular for snorkelling or horseback riding, or strike out in search of secluded Lochabar Beach on Long Island -- its white sands surround a mysterious blue hole.
Tantalise your tastebuds
There's a meal to suit every palette and purse in The Bahamas. Seafood is a staple for many dishes, particularly rock lobster and crab, but it's also an excellent destination to try conch meat -- you'll most often find it fried with a curry or tropical sauce, or in a ceviche-style salad. Other firm favourites with the locals include the rich souse stew and guava duff (guava in a sponge served with rum custard), all washed down with a glass of Yellow Bird -- a fruity Bahamian cocktail.
You can find many of the local favourites at a fish fry. Arawak Cay -- ten minutes from downtown Nassau -- has an excellent atmosphere with its hand-painted beachfront stands, rustic food trucks, and rainbow-hued standalone restaurants. This is The Bahamas at its most down to earth and the best way to experience local life.
Or if you find yourself island hopping, tie in your travels with one of the many food festivals throughout the year. Check out Crab Fest on Andros (June) during its main harvest season of the local land crabs, fill your belly at the Pineapple Festival on Eleuthera (June), or sample a range of cuisines over two days at the Annual International Culture Wine & Food Festival in Nassau (October).
At the other end of the spectrum, you have some of the world's finest dining. The Atlantis Paradise Island resort hosts a number of the islands' top restaurants, including modern Japanese cuisine sensation, Nobu, and Casa D’Angelo with its Tuscan flavours. The upscale Shuang Ba at Baha Mar with its lavish interiors is another luxury favourite worth adding to your fine-dining bucket list.
Enjoy a unique experience
Another way to taste your way around the island is on one of the many foodie tours on offer. Visit the beautifully restored Buena Vista Estate, home of the John Watling’s Distillery with its reems of Bahamian history dating back over 300 years (as well as the chance to sample a tipple of original island rum), or take a cookery class and master the art of conch chowder and broiled snapper yourself.
Another Bahamian institution is Graycliff Cigar Company. Witness first-hand the torcedores at work -- including Master Torcedore Avelino Lara, who was once the personal roller of Fidel Castro -- and then take a cigar-rolling lesson with these renowned expert craftsmen.
For wildlife lovers, the Out Islands are an excellent place to make your base. Here you'll have a chance to swim with the wild dolphins off the shores of Bimini, see flaming pink flamingos strut their stuff on the Island of Inagua, go in search for the rare Bahamas parrot -- your best bet for spotting this elusive bird is on The Abacos.
For the thrill seekers, there's plenty of adventure to be had, too. Take to the waters to meet the Caribbean reef sharks in a free swim, as well as watching a professional shark feeder enter the water with a box of bait, or explore the underwater world on your own personal SUB (Scenic Underwater Bubbles) -- a "bike" with a large oxygenated bubble that enables you to breathe underwater while exploring the reefs.
On land, you can find out more about the spooky side of The Bahamas and take yourself on a ghost tour of the island. Visit British Colonial Hilton, which was once the site of Old Fort Nassau, in search of the infamous Blackbeard, or even the spectres of shipwrecks from long ago at the Great Isaac Lighthouse on the northern tip of the Bimini Islands.