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Although often thought to be part of the Caribbean, the Bahamas is actually an archipelago of 700 islands with thousands of small cays strung out in the ocean, starting 55 miles (89km) from Miami in the Atlantic Ocean.
The islands' first inhabitants were the Lucayan Indians who lived here from the 9th century until after Columbus discovered the islands in 1492, making his first step into the New World. The resulting exploitation led to the native population being virtually wiped out. For two hundred years, until independence in 1987, the Bahamas was a British Crown Colony and a strong British influence can still be seen in the architecture and culture.
The population of the Bahamas now consists mostly of Bahamians of African descent, who are mainly descended from freed slaves. The strong African cultural influence is evident in everyday life, and in events like Junkanoo, a traditional street festival held every year on Boxing Day. There is also a strong American cultural influence, particularly in the capital, Nassau.
Due to its proximity to the US, the Bahamas has become an offshore banking and financial centre. Tourism, however, remains its most important industry. The long stretches of empty beaches, clear waters, and excellent facilities have made the Bahamas a popular destination throughout the year and the multitude of attractions on each of the islands ensure that there is something for everyone.
The Bahamas are the quintessence of 'holiday heaven', with things to see and do reaching far beyond sunbathing on the miles of white sandy beaches, or idly frolicking in the translucent turquoise waters.
The islands offer a number of activities and attractions, with everything from Loyalist settlement ruins and the Glass Window Bridge to Christopher Columbus' first stop in the New World. The Bahamas also boasts one of the largest underwater cave systems in the world, and scuba divers can see the mysterious stone blocks in the waters off Bimini, said to be part of the lost city of Atlantis, or visit Long Island to explore the deepest blue hole in the world.
A unique experience for tourists is the possibility of taking a walk along the ocean floor in a rig reminiscent of the days before scuba technology, courtesy of Hartley's Undersea Walk. Divers need no experience as they wear an undersea botanical helmet that allows for normal breathing and dry hair. The trips give you the time to walk slowly among the fish and the reefs without having to swim. Half-day or full-day charters are available.
There are any number of activities for visitors who want to do more than just lie around: cycling, tennis, cricket, horse riding, golf, and other activities are available on land, along with attractions like casinos, restaurants, spas, bars, and clubs.
Offshore, you can enjoy exhilarating pastimes like windsurfing, snorkelling, deep sea fishing, parasailing, and scuba diving. For those with an interest in the historical or a simple love of pirate lore, the Pirate Museum takes visitors on an interactive tour through the heart of downtown Nassau, bringing them back to 1716 where they will board a replica of the pirate ship 'Revenge' and enter the world of bloodthirsty pirates. It is a must for all who are up for a swashbuckling good time. The museum has a gift shop with all manner of pirate booty.
Friendly locals, as well as comfortable, sunny weather, and a well-established tourism industry, make these activities and sights all the more appealing and accessible. Add numerous resorts, restaurants, shops, and markets to the mix and it becomes alluringly obvious why the Bahamas are the perfect beach-holiday destination.
The Bimini group of islands in the Bahamas is 50 miles (80km) east of Miami and spans an area no larger than 10 square miles (26 sq km). The main island, North Bimini, is barely seven miles long (11km) and no more than 1,200ft (366m) across at its widest point.
The islands are best known for the excellent fishing opportunities, with visitors from around the world coming here to test their skills in the hunt for tuna, sailfish, mako shark, barracuda, and, above all, blue marlin.
This was exactly the goal of the islands' most famous fishing enthusiast, Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Bimini for two years in the 1930s. The small hotel (and bar) where Hemingway lived burnt down tragically in 2006 after it was converted into a Hemingway museum.
Almost all the action on the Bimini Islands happens in Alice Town, a laidback town on the main island of North Bimini where fishermen gather to swap stories. However, the town is known to change its tune during April spring break when crowds of raucous college students descend on Alice Town.
Scuba divers too are lured to Bimini by mysterious stone blocks in the waters off the island of North Bimini, known as the Bimini Road, which islanders claim are part of the lost city of Atlantis. The Bimini Biological Field Station, located on South Bimini Island and commonly called the Sharl Lab, is one of the world's top marine research and conservation centres, and is a major contributor to our understanding of life in the ocean.
The Berry Islands are among the least busy in the Bahamas, and the perfect destination for those looking for the ultimate escape. In part because of the difficulty involved in getting to the islands and their lack of infrastructure, the resorts in this archipelago are extremely exclusive, catering mostly to wealthy travellers, big game fishermen, and yachters. The largest island is the Great Harbour Cay, home to a multimillion dollar resort which once hosted the likes of Cary Grant and Brigitte Bardot.
The beaches in the Berry Islands are known as the best shell-collecting spots in the Bahamas, while the game fishing is some of the best in the world, offering billfish, tuna, grouper, tiger fish, yellow snapper, wahoo, and king mackerel, to name a few.
Every May the islands, nicknamed the 'world's fishbowl', play host to one of the world's top game fishing tournaments. The islands are largely privately owned, and wealthy owners use the islands as occasional holiday homes. This has resulted in the Berry Islands having more resident millionaires per unit area than any other place in the world.
Connected to New Providence Island by a bridge, Paradise Island, formerly known as Hog Island, is one of the most popular destinations in the Bahamas. The island used to be privately owned until it was bought by developers in 1959 and turned into a resort haven. Since then, Paradise Island's owners have changed several times, including a stint of ownership by Donald Trump.
It offers a variety of beaches to suit almost any taste, while most of the island's hotels and resorts can be found along Cable Beach, Paradise Beach, or Cabbage Beach. The miles of white sand host outstanding watersport facilities, including swimming, snorkelling, diving, jet skiing, sailing, and more.
Perhaps Paradise Island's most famous resort is Atlantis, nicknamed 'Vegas by the Sea', where gambling mingles with waterslides, beaches, and a host of restaurants. Thanks to excellent weather and the popularity of its resorts, Paradise Island is busy year-round and the young and energetic are often to be found at resorts' bars and parties at any time of year. Those travellers wanting to escape the crowds can head over to the secluded Caves Beach or Love Beach.
Approximately fifty miles (80km) from Miami, Grand Bahama is an idyllic island of white beaches and aquamarine seas beneath which vivid coral reefs teem with life. Most visitors to Grand Bahama stay in Freeport, a few miles inland, or at the seaside suburb of Lucaya on the south coast of the island.
Here you can sail, play golf or simply relax by the pool at one of the many all-inclusive resorts. In Freeport there are plenty of boutiques and bazaars to tempt shoppers, and evenings can be spent at one of the many restaurants. Following on from this, travellers with cash left in their wallets can head to one of the island's casinos.
Outside of Freeport, nature lovers will find themselves in their element. Between Sweeting's Cay and Pelican Point, are seven marine caves inviting exploration, and a little further west is Deadman's Reef, accessible from the powdery white beach at Paradise Cove.
East of Freeport is the Lucayan National Park which is home to the largest underwater cave system in the world and an experience coveted by those seeking new thrills. Visitors can enjoy the island's natural flora and fauna, or hire a kayak and explore the mangrove creeks. Owing to its beauty and variety, Grand Bahama has become one of the most popular stops for Caribbean cruise liners, so visitors can expect a constant coming and going of tourists on the island.
Andros is the largest island in the Bahamas and is a favourite for scuba divers and fishermen. The island is largely undeveloped, so the atmosphere is very casual and hotels tend to be small and unpretentious. Much of the island is covered with palm savannahs, primeval forest, and huge mangrove wetlands, which make it a wildlife fanatic's paradise.
However, it is the underwater life that really makes Andros unique: it has the world's third largest barrier reef running along its east coast for 167 miles (269km). Andros' most famous attractions are the Blue Holes, a network of water-filled caves, both inland and in the ocean, that draw scuba divers from all over the world.
The colourful and unique marine life that lies below the tranquil surface makes Andros a fantastic spot for divers, snorkellers, and fishermen. Some of the world's first dive-dedicated resorts are located on the island, both running regular scientific research dives as well as purely recreational ones. Recreation is to be had on land as well, with Andros hosting several festivals throughout the year, including an annual regatta, a conch festival, a pirate festival, and a seafood festival.
The Exumas Islands include a myriad of islands and cays that stretch for hundreds of miles. Although historically the home of the Lucayan people, who were all captured and sold into slavery in the 16th century, the islands were uninhabited for roughly a century until the arrival of British loyalists from America in the late 1700s.
Owing to the islands' long stint free from human habitation, they were often used as hideaways by pirates. The largest islands, Great Exuma and Little Exuma, are now home to a small community of several hundred island inhabitants, who farm the land and welcome tourists.
Visitors usually arrive by yacht, as these islands offer legendary sailing opportunities. Even if travellers arrive without sails, they may be tempted into hiring a boat to make the most of the inviting waters. Most cays are edged with towering palm trees and expanses of white, powdery beaches.
The surrounding reefs have magical, underwater gardens that draw scuba divers and snorkellers. The main destination for divers is the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, a 176-square-mile (456 sq km) natural underwater preserve that can only be reached by seaplane or boat (charters can be arranged through the hotels). Many of the smaller islands are owned by the likes of Nicolas Cage, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and Eddie Murphy.
Long Island, often said to be the most scenic of all the Bahamian islands, is 80 miles (129km) long and four miles (6km) across at its widest point. Like most Bahamian islands, Long Island provides opportunities for visitors to swim, sail, snorkel, scuba dive, free dive, and engage in any number of watersports activities or seaside relaxations.
One of the main events on the Bahamas yachting calendar is the Long Island Regatta, which takes place in the town of Salt Pond each May, drawing visitors from all around the world to one of the most beautiful and unspoilt islands in the Bahamas.
The locals of Long Island still depend on fishing for their livelihood, while visitors revel in the shallow bays and white beaches of the western shore. The rugged windward coast features towering cliffs washed by wild waves. There are also some renowned offshore diving and snorkelling spots, and a spectacular view from the northern tip of the island at the site of a monument to Christopher Columbus, who enjoyed the vista when he came ashore in 1492.
The island is home to the deepest blue hole in the world, just north of Clarence Town, called Dean's Blue Hole. The world free diving record has been set in Dean's Blue Hole, and the free diving world championship is held there.
The tiny Abacos Islands cover 649 square miles (1,681 sq km) and form the most northerly part of the Bahamas. Located only 200 miles (322km) from Miami, they are a popular holiday destination, and therefore fairly well developed for tourism.
The two main islands, Great Abaco and neighbouring Little Abaco, are separated from each other by a narrow strait. They are often tagged the 'Loyalist Isles' because of the English supporters who fled there to avoid persecution after the American Revolution. The early Loyalist settlements can still be seen in their well-preserved finery on Green Turtle Cay and Elbow Cay. As for modern settlements, visitors will find themselves in quaint cottages by the sea or in beautiful guesthouses near the marinas, as opposed to the mega-resorts seen elsewhere in the Caribbean.
The sheltered waters around the islands make it a hotspot for yachters, and Man-O-War Cay is famous for its local boatmakers. On the opposite end of the spectrum, coral reefs entice divers and inland pine forests provide wonderful bird-watching and walking opportunities, and it's these things that make these islands special.
The Abacos Islands avoid the typical package-holiday rush and only draw travellers who are curious and adventurous at heart. Finally, the lighthouse in Hope Town is a good way to round off any trip to the Abacos Islands.
Only 14 of Bahama's Out Islands are inhabited, leaving the rest largely free from resorts, cruise ships, and crowds. Eleuthera, which stretches for almost 100 miles (161km) but is at most two miles (3km) wide, is the most popular of the group. Eleuthera (and nearby Harbour Island, which is just a short water-taxi ride from the main island) has long been the holiday haunts of the fashionable set, sporting luxury hotels and fine restaurants that cater for trendy and wealthy visitors. Some of the more famous visitors in the past have included Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Robert de Niro, and the industrialists Arthur Vining Davis, Henry J. Kaiser, and Juan Trippe.
While the island used to be home to many glitzy resorts, these were all shut down after the Bahamas' independence in 1973. Today, Eleuthera is much more relaxed and low-key. The main entertainment here is sunbathing, swimming, snorkelling, shell-collecting, and fishing.
The scenery can be enjoyed through a meander along the coast, passing scenic headlands and wandering through villages dotted between dozens of pristine beaches. Natural highlights along the coast include Glass Window Bridge, the Hatchet Bay Caves, Surfer's Beach, and Ocean Hole, among others.
Once the capital of the Bahamas, Eluethera's Harbour Island is home to Dunmore Town, whose flower-lined streets and colourful New England-style buildings are popular with tourists in the Bahamas. Harbour Island's main attraction, though, is the spectacular pink sand beach. A product of the coloured shells that make up the sand, the beach takes advantage of the protection of a coral reef, offering tranquil waters and excellent swimming. The accommodation on Harbour Island caters mostly to wealthy travellers.
This island is a private paradise, reserved for passengers who are tendered ashore by cruise ships. Those who have paid for the pleasure will not be disappointed. Half Moon Cay (pronounced kee) is an island, about 100 miles (161km) south of Nassau, which has been sensitively developed to preserve its natural assets and ecosystem, while ensuring it provides a fantastic day ashore for cruise passengers.
The main attraction is a surreal two-mile (3km) crescent of beach which gives the island its name - dotted with palm trees and home to flocks of captivating birdlife. All of the pristine facilities at the resort on Half Moon Cay are connected by a network of pathways, but those who prefer can catch a tram which runs continuously from the welcome centre to the food pavilion.
Visitors wanting to cure their 'sea legs' can take one of the peaceful walks along marked trails with descriptive signs pointing out the local vegetation, plants and birds. Activities on offer to visitors include swimming, snorkelling, scuba diving, jet skiing, horseback riding, volleyball, and cycling. A wide variety of watersport equipment is also available for hire, including catamarans, windsurfers, and kayaks.
Aquaventure, in the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island, is one of the Caribbean's largest waterparks, featuring dozens of thrilling water slides and a mile-long river ride with rapids and special effects. The 97 acre park has a network of interconnected rides which means guests can go from one attraction to the next on rivers and water escalators without ever leaving their inner-tubes.
Some of the rides include the Leap of Faith, a nearly vertical 60 foot drop through a clear tube that runs under a shark-filled lagoon; the Abyss, a 58 foot near-vertical drop through darkness followed by many twists and turns; and the Surge, an inner-tube ride that mimics a flash flood. For young children, there is the Jungle Slide, a simple twisting slide featuring jungle-like scenery, and the Splashers, a Mayan-themed set of pools and water-based playgrounds. When visitors get tired of the water, there are other activities available like rock climbing, with instructors present to guide and teach. The park is accessible to guests of the Atlantis resort as part of their resort fees, and guests of the adjacent Comfort Inn have access as well.
Dolphin Encounters affords visitors to Salt Cay a particularly special experience: a chance to swim with the local bottlenose dolphins, get a kiss, or just watch from the side. There are also opportunities to interact with sea lions, who were brought to the island from Louisiana after their previous home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Dolphin Encounters is based on Blue Lagoon Island (Salt Cay), roughly three miles (4.8km) northeast of Paradise Island.
To start off a visit to Dolphin Encounters, visitors are taken on a 20-minute ride on a catamaran from Paradise Island to Blue Lagoon Island, and while on the catamaran visitors are given the chance to see the dolphins' natural habitat.
Once visitors arrive on the island, they are taken to the Dolphin Encounters centre where it's possible to meet with one or more of the centre's dolphins or sea lions. The centre makes provision for those who are nervous swimmers, and even those who can't swim at all, by providing platforms for visitors inside the dolphins' pools. In addition to visitors' encounters with dolphins, there are also dolphin shows where the dolphins are given the chance to show off their tricks. Dolphin Encounters is happy to host groups and birthday parties.
As one of the most isolated islands in the Bahamas, Mayaguana is also among the least developed (relying on a weekly mail boat for outside communication) and least visited by tourists. With modern amenities few and far between, the island appeals to adventure travellers looking to experience the pristine wildlife of the area, including iguanas and bright pink flocks of flamingos.
Scuba diving in Mayaguana is world-class, especially in Abraham's Bay, and bonefishing is another popular activity. Some go to Mayaguana for duck hunting season, while others may visit for the challenging mountain biking routes on Mayaguana.
The Bahamanian government has recently entered into an agreement with the American government to turn Mayaguana into a free trade zone, developing 14 percent of the island - almost all of its coastal areas - into resorts and tourist destinations, while trying to maintain the island's status as an eco-tourism drawcard. However, none of the development has begun and the island remains as authentically isolated as ever.
As a result, it's important to be prepared before you visit Mayaguana as there are no ATMs or banks, and credit cards are not widely accepted. Accommodation and dining options are also limited and often quite basic.
In general the weather is good all year in the Bahamas and the trade winds ensure that the temperatures remain relatively mild. Seasonal changes are minor. The rainy season extends from May to November, when there is a slight chance of hurricanes. Peak season is between December and April, when average temperatures range between 75°F (24°C) and 85°F (29°C). Generally the northern and western islands are cooler, while the southern islands can get very hot in summer.
The official currency is the Bahamian Dollar (BSD), which is divided into 100 cents. The Bahamian Dollar is equal in value to the US Dollar and both currencies are accepted throughout the islands. Currency can be exchanged at banks, bureaux de change and many hotels. There are ATMs in the main tourist centres and credit and debit cards are widely accepted in all the big resorts. Banks' opening hours may vary, but tend to be from 9.30am to 3pm (Monday to Thursday) and 9.30am to 04.30 pm (Fridays).
English is the official language of the Bahamas.
Electrical current in the Bahamas is 120 volts, 60Hz. Two-pin, flat blade plugs and flat blade plugs with round grounding are standard.
US nationals: United States passport holders must have a passport valid for period of intended stay. A visa is not required for visits of up to eight months for those carrying a passport issued in mainland USA. Passport holders living in US territories can stay for up to three months visa-free.
UK nationals: Visitors from the United Kingdom should ensure that their passport is valid for the period of intended stay and that they have proof of return or onward tickets. British Citizens can visit without a visa for stays of up to eight months. Passengers with a British passport with nationality of "British Overseas Territories Citizen", "British National (Overseas)", "British Overseas Citizen", "British Protected Person" or "British Subject" can visit without a visa for a maximum stay of three months.
CA nationals: Canadian nationals must hold a valid passport, but no visa is required for a stay of up to eight months.
AU nationals: Passports and other documents must be valid for the period of intended stay. Australians can stay in the Bahamas without a visa for a period of up to three months.
ZA nationals: South African nationals must hold a valid passport, but no visa is required for a stay of up to three months.
IR nationals: Irish nationals must hold a valid passport, but no visa is required for a stay for up to three months.
NZ nationals: New Zealanders require a valid passport but do not require a visa for a stay of up to three months.
All visitors must be in possession of a return or onward ticket, plus proof of funds, and a passport valid for period of intended travel. As part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), all travellers travelling between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean region are required to present a passport or other valid travel document to enter or re-enter the United States. It is recommended that passports are valid for six months beyond travel to any country.
Many routine vaccinations are considered cautionary measures, as food and water sources are typically safe and well managed in the Bahamas. Visitors should steer clear of fruit or vegetables unless peeled or cooked, and note that some types of fish, including tropical reef fish, are poisonous to eat even when cooked. Visitors should also use mosquito repellent to avoid bites. Medical facilities are good in Nassau and Freeport, but expensive, and usually require payment in cash on treatment; as a result, comprehensive travel insurance is advised.
Many hotel and restaurant bills in the Bahamas automatically include a service charge of about 15 percent; if this is not included a 15 percent tip is expected for most services, including taxi journeys. Hotel bellboys and porters usually receive about BSD 1 per bag.
Most visits to the Bahamas are trouble-free, though care should be taken in the major cities of Nassau and Freeport. Visitors should take sensible precautions and not carry large amounts of cash or jewellery on their person or wander away from the main tourist areas, especially after dark. In light of several fatal accidents and serious injuries that have occurred using rented watersports equipment, it is advisable that only those experienced on jet skis consider renting them on New Providence and Paradise Island. The watersports industry in the Bahamas is poorly regulated and visitors should only rent equipment from reputable operators and make sure that they have received adequate training before going out onto the water. Hurricane season is from June to the end of November and visitors should monitor weather forecasts before making travel plans.
A vital part of Bahamian custom is their dialect of English which is characterful and descriptive, and, while it may take some time to come to grips with, it will only add more colour to travellers' experiences of the Bahamas. Handshakes are the norm for greeting people and visitors should default to addressing locals by their surnames, as the use of first names is reserved for incredibly close firends. Visitors should also act in a humble and accepting manner while in the Bahamas, as the locals will treat you in this way; however, Bahamians also have a wicked sense of humour and they have great fun teasing others as a sign of affection. Visitors should note that some of the islands and resorts are very upmarket and require a certain standard of dress. Beachwear should be confined to the beach and smart-casual dress is usually expected in the evenings.
Nassau is the business centre of the Bahamas, whose economy is heavily dependent on tourism and offshore banking. Business protocol is fairly relaxed, although appropriate business attire is expected. Meetings are usually held in conference rooms, they begin punctually, and business cards are customarily exchanged and should be treated respectfully by being placed in a card case. Handshakes on introduction are the norm between both men and women and women are treated as equals in the business environment. Moreover, colleagues and business acquaintances should be addressed by their professional or academic title and surname. Always be punctual for meetings and do not try to hurry others in an effort to end meetings more quickly as this is perceived as rude. Office hours are generally 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
The international access code for the Bahamas is +1, in common with the US, Canada, and most of the Caribbean, followed by 242. Mobile networks and internet cafes are widely available. Wifi is becoming more accessible, especially in the tourist areas.
Travellers to the Bahamas over 18 years do not have to pay duty on 200 cigarettes, or 50 cigars or 454g of tobacco; 1 litre spirits and 1 litre wine (all imported beer is subject to duties); and other goods to the value of US$100. Prohibited items include firearms and ammunition without a police permit. Pets and dogs from countries with rabies infections are strictly prohibited from entering the country.
Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, Nassau: +1 800 224 2627, or www.bahamas.com.
Bahamian Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 319 2660.
High Commission for The Bahamas, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7408 4488.
High Commission for The Bahamas, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 232 1724.
United States Embassy, Nassau: +1 242 322 1181.
British High Commission, Kingston, Jamaica (also responsible for The Bahamas): +1 876 510 0700.
Canadian High Commission, Kingston, Jamaica (also responsible for The Bahamas): +1 876 926 1500.
Australian High Commission, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago (also responsible for The Bahamas): +1 868 822 5450.
South African High Commission, Kingston, Jamaica (also responsible for The Bahamas): +1 876 620 4840.
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