With a subtropical climate, pristine beaches, and top-class tourism infrastructure, it's no surprise that the islands and cays of the Bahamas archipelago are some of the world's top tourist destinations. The Bahamas is comprised of an astonishing amount of islands of varying sizes and each one is sure to enthral travellers.
Andros Island is the largest of the Bahamian islands, and sits next to the third biggest barrier reef in the world, making it a haven for snorkelling and scuba diving. New Providence offers energy and culture in the form of the capital city, Nassau, and provides easy ferry and car access to the expanse of upscale resorts at neighbouring Paradise Island.
The northernmost islands of Bimini are the closest to the US, and their wealth of marine life draws serious fishermen after the catch of a lifetime. Eleuthera Island is named after the Greek word for freedom by English pilgrims seeking religious autonomy, and is largely considered to be one of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean, filled with lush vegetation and pink sand beaches.
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.
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.
The islands of the Bahamas are alive with marine life, culture, and beauty. The only difficult decision is which island visitors should choose! Apart from the tourist stalwarts mentioned below, the Bahamas boasts many other island gems.
The Ragged Island chain, an enduring favourite with fishermen in search of prey like barracuda, tuna, snapper and king fish, as well as travellers seeking unspoiled, empty coastlines. The little Rum Cay, in the south of the archipelago, offers pristine coral reefs, good surf and even some historical ruins.
San Salvador is known for its Christopher Columbus memorials and shipwrecks, while Inagua is a flamingo hotspot home to more than 80,000 of the bright and beautiful birds. Cat Island remains a virtually untouched slice of Bahamian paradise.
Many travellers choose to explore the islands by chartered boat or cruise ship. Others settle at a resort on one of the popular, more developed islands and take excursions to nearby cays from their home base. The resorts and cruise liners offer many excursions and activities to patrons as part of package deals, but it is easy to travel more independently and organise trips to various islands on a whim.
No direct flights from Heathrow to this Destination