Bahamians are beach snobs, straight up — and justifiably so. If they can’t see the clear nail polish on their toes when waist deep in water, the beach just doesn’t measure up. But thanks to their talcum-soft sand and translucent water, Bahamian beaches — from eggshell white to seashell pink — are some of the best in the world.
While some resorts restrict access to their guests only, all beaches are public property — that’s right, even on the many private islands owned by celebrities. On land, you can access a beach only through a public access point, but by boat, you can pull up to any one you want. Just stay below the natural high-tide mark.
All beaches of note have public access points, though many are also bordered by hotels. Beachfront resorts are protective of their umbrellas, so don’t look to them for shade unless you’re a guest. You’ll need to rent an umbrella, borrow one from your hotel or bring your own. It’s also smart to tote a lunchbox and mini cooler with drinks, particularly in the Out Islands, where hotels are accustomed to providing them. Very few beaches have public restrooms or changing facilities.
A few stunners do have convenient amenities, such as pearly white Cabbage Beach on Paradise Island, where coconut-water vendors and chair and umbrella rentals cluster on the western end. On seashell-rich Stocking Island Beach, quench your thirst, fill your belly and swim with stingrays at the Chat ‘N Chill Beach Bar and Grill and Grill. And on Treasure Cay Beach, you can take beach yoga classes and enjoy resort amenities when you’re not luxuriating on the three and a half miles of secluded bliss.
On and on the bathing beauties go: Rose Island, an uninhabited sliver of sand just three miles off Paradise Island; Harbour Island’s three-mile-long Pink Sand Beach, where the rosy sand will never burn your feet; Bimini’s placid Radio Beach; Pig Beach on Big Major Cay in the Exumas, where you can go hog wild swimming with swine; Dean’s Blue Hole on Long Island, with the world’s second-deepest saltwater sinkhole (safe for offshore snorkeling); and Great Guana Cay in the Abacos, with more than seven miles of reef-protected sand and excellent snorkeling waters.
One to avoid: Junkanoo Beach, near downtown Nassau, which resembles college spring break year-round.
Island-hopping day trips
With more than 700 islands and 2,400 cays (small low islands or banks) in the country, it would be a shame to visit only one. If you’re based in Nassau/Paradise Island, take a speedboat day trip with Exuma Escapes to see those swimming pigs. Closer to Nassau, a ferryboat goes to private Blue Lagoon Island, where you can swim with dolphins and interact with sea lions. Sail on the Flying Cloud catamaran for a full day on gorgeous Rose Island beach. Or use Bahamas Fast Ferry for day trips to lovely Harbour Island.
Insider tip: If you’re on Long Island or Cat Island, request a special turtle-spotting boat tour from Docky Smith in Blue Sound, Long Island, or Derrick Rolle in Bennett’s Harbour Creek, Cat Island. You won’t regret it.
With its pristine flats and seagrass beds, the Bahamas boasts first-rate bonefishing, particularly in Andros, Acklins, Crooked Island and the Abacos, as well as big-game fishing for tuna, blue marlin and more. Even though going after big game is possible year-round, check the seasonal charts, because some species have high and low seasons.
In Nassau and the Out Islands, there is no shortage of fishing charters for half-day and full-day trips. If you go to Mangrove Cay, Andros (a 15-minute flight from Nassau), ask for Captain Randy Thompson, a local guide known for inventing the “Halle Berry” fly, rumored to be a lucky charm. In Nassau, the family-operated Yellow Tail Charters has guided fishing tours for three generations.
For a day away from the beach, take a walking tour of tiny Nassau with locally owned Islandz Tours or Tru Bahamian Food Tours. Downtown tours focus on history, culture, and food: restaurants, art galleries, a chocolate factory, duty-free shops (diamonds galore), the stately Catholic cathedral and historic Parliament Square. Nassau has some hills, so walking tours are challenging for those in wheelchairs or not nimble on their feet. For gentler walking, consider a birding or nature tour from Bahamas Outdoors.
Not up for a walk? Take a leisurely (though touristy) horse and carriage tour through town to see centuries-old buildings unchanged from colonial times. Or take a guided tour via jeep, scooter or ATV with Bowcar Bahamas or via bike with Bahamas Rental Vacations.
The Best of Bahamas Accessible Shore Excursion offers watersports activities and swim-with-dolphin programs for disabled travelers and wheelchair users.
Ways to save: Licensed taxi drivers are great tour guides, historians and concierges. Many offer personalized taxi tour packages that can save you money.
Diving and snorkeling
Elegant sea fans and fluorescent-colored sponges protrude off rocks. Queen angelfish, blue tang, parrotfish and schools of sergeant majors dart around coral. Baby lemon sharks nest in the mangrove nurseries, while majestic hammerheads and blacktip reef sharks cruise the deep reefs. Such is the wondrous underwater panorama in this world-class diving and snorkeling destination. From dramatic wreck, wall and cave dives to snorkeling in shallow reefs, the Bahamas is a watersports paradise. You can dive with sharks, which are protected, and snorkel with a resident barracuda and occasional turtles in the Exumas’ Thunderball Grotto.
Among the best snorkeling sites are the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park; Andros Barrier Reef; and Rose Island Reef, Gambier Deep Reef and Goulding Cay Reef near Nassau. There’s even Snuba, an easy-to-do cross between snorkeling and scuba that requires no certification. Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas in Nassau offers both Snuba and SUBs — miniature submarines that resemble underwater scooters.
The small art scene is centered in Nassau. Start at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas to view Bahamian masters and contemporary and intuitive artists. (It’s wheelchair accessible.) Two galleries founded by local artists are Hillside House and Doongalik Studios, which host regular pop-up events for the creative community.
Nettie’s Place, owned by cultural icon and hotelier Nettica Symonette, is a cultural heritage center-cum-hotel that includes a museum, a bush-tea garden, a chicken-coop writing corner and a storytelling bus. There is nothing else like it in the Bahamas.
Ways to save: Those 65 and over save $5 on admission to the National Art Gallery.
In recognition of its authentic handicrafts, Nassau was named a UNESCO Creative City of Crafts and Folk Arts in 2014. You’ll find relative bargains on Indigenous arts and crafts and Bahamas-themed goods at Nassau’s famous Straw Market (wheelchair accessible, though packed when the cruise ships are in port), although it pays to always inspect purchases carefully. Bring your best bartering skills. One way to bypass the cruise and resort crowds is to buy directly from artists at the twice-a-month Art Walk at Marina Village at Atlantis or the biweekly Creative Nassau Market in Pompey Square. Bahama Hand Prints, which features original apparel, linens, swimwear and other items, is a five-minute taxi ride from downtown Nassau.
Festivals and events
Bahamians love a good party! Pinch yourself if you can join a “party in the backyard,” as it’s called — an open-air bash where local musicians play rake and scrape and calypso, deejays spin Caribbean beats, food stalls dish Bahamian comfort food, and travelers and locals alike gather to drink, dance and “lime” (have a good, relaxing time). The calendar is filled with festivals, regattas and cultural events that are basically large-scale parties in the backyard. Highlights include Junkanoo, which takes place on several islands; New Providence’s Emancipation Day Festival, which commemorates the 1834 emancipation of enslaved Africans in Britain’s colonies; the Eleuthera Pineapple Festival; the Cat Island Rake and Scrape Festival; the All Andros Crab Fest; and Nassau’s Tru Tru Bahamian Festival, a celebration of all things Bahamian.
For a small country, the Bahamas has a lively culinary scene — from traditional dishes like “steam fish with peas ’n’ rice” sold at casual beach shacks to sophisticated international fare offered at five-star resorts.
Bahamian cuisine is anchored by ocean-fresh seafood, which is always on the menu, typically snapper, grouper, lobster and the reigning star, conch (pronounced “konk”). Synonymous with Bahamian comfort food, this marine mollusk is eaten steamed, grilled, “scorched” (chopped into bite-size pieces), “cracked” or frittered (battered and deep-fried), raw in a ceviche salad, swimming in a tomato-based chowder and even as a burger. Playing second fiddle is the Caribbean, or spiny, lobster, not to be confused with the Maine lobster. Unlike that cold-water cousin, it doesn’t have large edible claws or meat as soft and sweet. Still, at the start of lobster season, Aug. 1, many restaurants create special menus.
National specialties also include pan-cooked johnnycake, a beloved Bahamian shortbread; souse, a meat-based stew; Bahamian stew fish, partially pan-fried catch of the day smothered in spicy red sauce; and, for dessert, guava duff, a spongy guava jam-spiraled pastry drizzled with butter rum sauce.
Speaking of rum, the national drink shows up in such classic cocktails as Goombay Smash (with pineapple juice and coconut water) and the fruity Bahama Mama, while classic Sky Juice is made with gin, coconut water and condensed milk, of all things.
Apart from the Out Islands, where Bahamian soul food is a mainstay, you can try it at such non-touristy Nassau eateries as Nesbit’s or Bahama Grill. Saturday brunch is a treat at Le Petit Gourmet Cafe.
One of the most popular restaurants in town is the Italian Cafe Matisse, with its charming garden patio. Overlooking the harbor in downtown, Lukka Kairi serves creative Bahamian dishes tapas style, such as cracked conch sliders and lobster mac and cheese. Wild Thyme offers Bahamian fine dining in a recently renovated historic Bahamian home.
Ways to save: Dine at the neighborhood takeouts where locals eat. Alternatively, cook what you catch, especially in the Out Islands. When you go fishing, ask one of the dockhands to clean and filet the fish for you. Just pay them a tip. Then ask your restaurant to cook it up. It doesn’t get fresher than that!
Want to go really local? Every island in the Bahamas has a traditional fish fry — a laid-back social event where you can eat authentic Bahamian food, drink rum, listen to Caribbean music and meet locals. Carrying on a pre-Columbian tradition of grilling fresh seafood over an open fire, seaside stalls and pop-up restaurants have traded in their firepits for gas stoves and outdoor coal grills. The food is seasoned with the hot peppers and spices of the African diaspora, with lime essential for fish. It’s always accompanied by starchy sides such as pigeon peas and rice, Bahamian baked macaroni, fried plantains, potato salad and coleslaw. Between the portion sizes and the carb overload, this is stick-to-your-bones filling. Bring cash.
Nassau’s largest fish fry is at Arawak Cay. Its 30-plus food stalls and eateries are active every night, including classics like Goldie’s Conch House and Twin Brothers, Bahamian-Haitian fusion Oh Andros, and the modern standout, Frankie Gone Bananas. A few Out Island notables include the Friday night Fish Fry at Anchor Bay in Governor’s Harbour, Eleuthera, and the weekend Regatta Beach Fish Fry in New Bight, Cat Island — perfect for sunset watching and mingling with locals.