When to go
Rates skyrocket in high season, which kicks in Thanksgiving weekend and lasts until April. That’s when the beaches belong to international tourists. It’s Bahamian winter, so you won’t find many locals going near the water. The tropical weather without extreme heat (high 70s to low 80s) makes this season a visitor magnet, with livelier nightlife but thicker crowds.
Rates are lowest — up to 60 percent off — in September and October, the height of hurricane season, which runs from June through November. So consider buying travel insurance then. On average, a hurricane passes near the Bahamas every two years and makes a direct hit every four years. Hurricane season is also the rainy season, which may cut into your beach and outdoor time, though showers are typically short-lived.
The June-November low season in the Out Islands turns into a dead season from late August to early November — not the best time to visit. Choices are limited, with some hotels and restaurants shutting down or undergoing renovations then. However, summer is less expensive and local communities are in full festival mode — from sailing regattas to musical and cultural events. Join the fun at Nassau’s Junkanoo Summer Festival (usually on Saturdays in July), Eleuthera’s Pineapple Festival, the All Andros Crab Fest and the lively musical Cat Island Rake and Scrape Festival (the last three in June). But the intense summer heat, in the high 80s, and humidity are not for everyone.
Ways to save: In addition to low-season savings, travel on Monday through Wednesday. The weekends, starting on Thursday, are peak arrival days, so rates are higher and availability more limited. Check the Bahama Out Islands Promotion Board and the Nassau Paradise Island Promotion Board for specials and deals; they run seasonal and yearly promotions, such as air credits and companion-fly-free offers.
Tourists need a valid passport and a return ticket within eight months of arrival. No visa is needed. However, there’s a departure tax of $29.
Good news: No need to change your money. The U.S. dollar is exchanged 1:1 with the Bahamian dollar. Credit cards are widely used in Nassau, Grand Bahama and some of the Out Islands (Abacos, the Exumas, Eleuthera and Harbour Island, in particular). As a general rule, keep cash handy in the Out Islands. In the southern Bahamas, it’s all cash; islands like Acklins and Crooked Island, for example, have no banks or ATMs.
Electrical outlets in the Bahamas are compatible with all American devices (60 cycles/120 volts).
Wireless internet service is readily available at most hotels and around the Bahamas, although service is spotty on some islands in the south, such as Acklins and remote parts of Andros. The two local telecommunications carriers, BTC and Aliv, both offer roaming services.
The Bahamas follows American standards for tipping, except that restaurants and bars automatically add a 15 percent gratuity to all bills.
Where to stay
First things first. Decide which island you want to visit: more developed Nassau/Paradise Island and Grand Bahama or the more remote Out Islands, where your experience will be vastly different. Only 16 Out Islands have tourist facilities; favorites include the Abacos, the Exumas, Eleuthera, Harbour Island, Bimini, Long Island and Andros.
Nassau and Paradise Island
With a population of 228,000, Nassau is a compact little town that fancies itself a big city (it’s not). But you won’t have to travel back in time when you visit. While island culture is ever present, so is an urban familiarity that is modern and technologically connected. The city has an oversized cruise port; giant resorts and chain-brand hotels; fast-food joints; a passel of Starbucks (of course); duty-free shops; buzzy bars and nightclubs; record-setting casinos (they’re huge); and restaurants galore. Nassau bristles, as buses and taxis jostle for passengers, local drivers honk their way through traffic, vendors barter in the Straw Market and Jet Ski operators hustle on the beach.
Hotels in Nassau run the gamut, from Cable Beach to the tourist enclave of Paradise Island. There are historic properties like 18-room Graycliff, built by a pirate in the 1700s. It is home to a chocolate factory, a cigar factory, an award-winning wine cellar (featuring a rare 1727 Rudesheimer Apostelwein) and several restaurants. At Compass Point, a candy-colored romantic retreat, you’ll be within reach of city life but far from the congestion and cruise ship crowds.
All-inclusive resorts are not just for broke college students. Warwick Paradise Island, near Nassau, is an adults-only, all-inclusive offering sophistication and laid-back luxury. Thanks to its veteran Bahamian executive chef Christopher Chea, the Warwick prides itself on the quality of its five restaurants.
On 2.5-mile-long Cable Beach, the latest showstopper is Baha Mar. It boasts the largest casino in the Caribbean — a whopping 100,000 square feet — an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus golf course, a 30,000-square-foot spa and three name-brand hotels: the Grand Hyatt and the upscale Rosewood, both of which are strategically isolated from the Miami Beach-styled SLS. (Baha Mar is wheelchair accessible.)
On Paradise Island, you’ll find the best people — and animal — watching at the 3,000-room megaresort Atlantis, with the world’s largest open-air marine habitat (swim with dolphins and ogle sharks), 141-acre waterpark (great for grandkids), 11 pools, four miles of beaches, 18-hole oceanfront golf course and casino. Perfect for a multigenerational vacation, it’s also mostly wheelchair accessible, with 30 rooms equipped with safety bars, lowered sinks and roll-in showers. Some of the pools have roll-in access, and the beach has beach wheelchairs. But getting around the sprawling property involves long distances. While hotel shuttles help, they don’t accommodate wheelchairs.
Ways to save: If you want the Atlantis experience on the cheap, stay at Comfort Suites, just across the road. Children under 12 stay free, and rooms come with all the benefits of Atlantis. Other affordable Nassau options include Holiday Inn Express and Suites, A Stone’s Throw Away and the family-run Orange Hill Beach Inn.
Grand Bahama Island
Grand Bahama’s population of about 95,000 is sparsely disbursed across 96 miles, so you won’t notice that it’s the second most-populated Bahamian island. Freeport, the capital, is a neatly planned, modern city with an industrial center, which makes the island seem quite developed. It’s actually very rural, with countless beaches, three nature parks and ocean-centric activities. Grand Bahama’s popularity has suffered as Nassau and Paradise Island have boomed.
For a luxurious all-inclusive golf vacation, stay at Freeport’s Lighthouse Pointe at Grand Lucayan. But to totally unwind, head to Old Bahama Bay Resort and Yacht Harbour in the isolated fishing village of West End. Or find bonefishing action with comfort and style at Deep Water Cay, a small fishing lodge in the rural East End.
Northern and Central Out Islands
Apart from Nassau and Grand Bahama, the Out Islands of northern and central Bahamas may be the most accessible, but they are a world away.
Absolutely no cruise ships go to the Abacos, a 120-mile-long chain and a boater’s paradise. British loyalists settled here during the American Revolution, leaving a legacy of pastel clapboard houses and white picket fences. A dreamy beach sets the tempo at the Treasure Cay resort, with a golf course, spa and one of the country’s largest marinas. But to move at do-nothing speed, consider Sandpiper Inn on Great Abaco or Hope Town Harbour Lodge on Elbow Cay, a time-frozen island of only 400 souls.
On the other hand, if you want to spot celebrities, stay at Valentines Residences, Resort & Marina, Runaway Hill or the boho-chic Ocean View Club on Harbour Island. Called Briland by locals, it’s VIP central (thanks to Sports Illustrated swimsuit models), so hotel rates are pricey. With excellent restaurants and a pretty-in-pink beach, the tiny island is one of the best places to celebrate New Year’s in the Bahamas (no joke: Book at least one year in advance). The New Year’s Night street party and Junkanoo festival is a wildly fun celebration fit for the entire family.
Just a 10-minute water-taxi ride away, Eleuthera stretches for a quiet 110 miles. The Cove is a stylish luxury resort in the north, and Cape Eleuthera offers villas, cottages and a marina all the way to south.
A classy adults-only experience waits at Sandals Emerald Bay, an all-inclusive golf and spa resort on Great Exuma. For the ultimate in a water and beach experience, hide away in the Exuma Cays at Highbourne Cay, Staniel Cay Yacht Club or Compass Cay.
Two unconventional all-inclusive properties distinguish Andros, the country’s largest, most sparsely populated island: Small Hope Bay Lodge, a boutique dive resort in a coconut grove, and Kamalame Cay, a private island twice named No. 1 hotel in the Caribbean, Bermuda and Bahamas by Travel + Leisure.
Southern Out Islands
The farther south you go, the more likely you’ll see large flocks of wild pink flamingos and super-low-key communities. That doesn’t mean Cat Island, Long Island, Inagua, Acklins and Crooked Island only offer books to read on the beach.
Birders flock to Inagua, the birding capital of the Bahamas, with more than 140 species in Inagua National Park — the world’s largest breeding colony of West Indian flamingos. Use Enrica’s Innor the six-room the Main House as base camp for exploring. Fly fishing vacationers are hooked on Acklins and Crooked Island and stay at Grey’s Point Bonefish Inn or Chester’s Highway Inn Bonefish Lodge in Acklins (which has just two flights per week).
For a barefoot getaway on Cat Island, stay at Rollezz Villas Beach Resort, a family-run hotel with access to native crafts and indigenous music. Make an effort to catch Bohog & the Rooters or Ophie & Da Websites at the local fish fry, or the toe-tapping rake-and-scrape band (which features a crude goombay drum, a concertina and a carpenter’s saw that is scraped) at Da Smoke Pot restaurant.
Castaway wannabes head to Cape Santa Maria Beach Resort on Long Island, in an isolated cove near great fishing and boating and the Sandy Cayiguana sanctuary where Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was filmed.
Ways to save: Rent a vacation home from HomeAway, VRBO or Airbnb, especially with a family. Consider these top areas for renting: Cable Beach, West Bay Street and Eastern Road in Nassau; Pigeon Cay on Cat Island; Winding Bay, Rainbow Bay and Gaulding Cay on Eleuthera; and Great Guana Cay in the Abacos.
How to get there
There are 11 international airports in the Bahamas. Nassau’s Lynden Pindling International Airport (LPIA) is the busiest. Most international flights to the Out Islands originate in South Florida. Scheduled airlift from the U.S. goes to Nassau, Grand Bahama, Bimini, Berry Islands, Great Abaco, Great Exuma and North Eleuthera, so they are safe bets if you don’t want to feel too isolated. To reach an Out Island without international air service, fly to Nassau and connect to your destination with a domestic airline.
Taxis are the primary transport from an airport to your hotel. Government-regulated rates range from $18 to $41 in Nassau. Wheelchair-accessible vans from the Nassau airport can be booked through Majestic Tours (book 48 hours in advance) or Courteous Transfers and Tours (book weeks ahead).
Ways to save: Most of the Out Islands with tourist facilities have multiple airports: Andros, Great Abaco, Eleuthera, the Exumas, Cat Island and Long Island in particular. Find the airport closest to your hotel, which could make the difference between a $30 and a $90 taxi ride. Some hotels have free airport shuttles or designated drivers that offer discounted rates.
Activities to arrange before you go
On U.S. and Bahamian holiday weekends, make sure you book golf carts and car rentals in advance. If you plan to visit for New Year’s, book your accommodations a year out.
Ways to save: Stop by the Ministry of Tourism welcome desk after you pass through Bahamian immigration at the airport and pick up brochures and guide maps with discount coupons. Taxi drivers also often have coupons.
What to pack
This is the time to show off that fancy pedicure: Bring open-toe shoes and strappy sandals. But skip the high heels in the Out Islands, even at gourmet restaurants. Easy-breezy resort wear rules here. And you can never have too many swimsuits. In Nassau/Paradise Island, a night out for women calls for a sundress, slacks or a dressy outfit for more formal places; breathable dress shirts, slacks and an optional lightweight jacket for men. Respect the sun god at all times: Bring as much sunscreen as you can, a visor or hat and sunglasses. The sun is not only hot, it can also be blindingly bright and you’re exposed to its rays pretty much everywhere. Bring extra supplies of specialty medications.
Crime is not a major concern in the laid-back Out Islands. In fact, you’ll find resorts that don’t even have room keys. But it’s more prevalent in more populated Nassau and Freeport. Although crime was down 14 percent in 2017 and early 2018, robberies and assaults do occur, even in daylight, and tourists are at risk.
The U.S. State Department travel advisory is at Level 2 (“exercise increased caution due to crime”). Treat Nassau like the big city it thinks it is. Don’t go out alone at night; be cautious on secluded beaches; drink responsibly; avoid unlicensed taxi drivers and personal watercraft operators (who have been known to commit sexual assaults and other crimes against tourists) and keep your valuables safe and out of sight. Verbal street harassment toward women is common.
Be careful if you rent a scooter, especially navigating left-hand driving. And avoid unlicensed scooter operators and rental services, which have been linked to assaults.
Medical facilities outside Nassau are very limited. Each Out Island has a public clinic, and there is a mini-hospital in Marsh Harbour, Abaco. If there is a major medical emergency travelers can be transported for emergency, critical and specialized care by air ambulance (check with your insurance company to see if coverage is provided).