For tropical vacations, the Bahamas are legendary. And with good reason. Even as one of the smallest countries in the world, the Bahamas archipelago, with its approximately 700 tiny islands and 2,000 tinier islets, offers a broad spectrum of topography, facilities and recreational opportunities, and gorgeous, pristine beaches besides. There are nearly 30 inhabited islands here, and of those more than a dozen hold tourist interest.
So, for those visiting the Bahamas for the first time, or even those revisiting, here are the ‘Top 10’ islands in the archipelago, which are also the ones most easily accessible to visitors.
1. New Providence
New Providence is the principal island in the Bahamas. It is by far the most populous, most popular, and literally a magnet for vacationers, particularly Americans. On it is located Nassau, the largest and best known Bahamian city, which claims more than 175,000 people and over 400 banks (oh, did we mention that the Bahamas is a tax haven? No? Well, it is!)! Accommodations, dining choices and other visitor facilities are plentiful here, as are other realtime tourist attractions. Besides its history-laden narrow streets and British-era forts, the chief draws here are the Atlantis International Resort and Casino and the Queen’s Staircase, the latter a 65-step stone stairway, representing one step for each year of Queen Victoria’s rule, which climbs 102 feet to Fort Fincastle. Popular activities include swimming, snorkeling, windsurfing, parasailing, diving, sport fishing, walking and bicycling.
2. Grand Bahama
Grand Bahama is the fourth largest island in the Bahamas. A travel brochure for the island describes it as “cosmopolitan glitz and glamour, coupled with miles of pristine beaches and endless turquoise seas.” And that really sums it up. The island has a dozen or so good hotels, several excellent waterfront restaurants, outstanding shopping venues, two casinos, and miles and miles of sandy beaches. The main city here is Freeport, which is the second largest and most modern in the Bahamas, with a population of 50,000. The big draw on the island is the Lucayan National Park, an environmental happening of sorts.
3. The Abacos
The Abacos, or just Abaco, is a cluster of tiny islands, islets and outcroppings that forms a 100-mile-long archipelago of its own. This is the second largest such island group in the Bahamas, and the most visited among the Bahamian ‘Out Islands’. Its capital city, Marsh Harbour, which is really a one-stop-light town, is the third largest in the Bahamas. There are other quaint towns and villages on the other Abacos islands as well, with pastel-colored clapboard houses, sun-drenched beaches, abundant tropical flora, quiet country lanes, and more than 50 species of wild tropical birds. Recreation in the Abacos includes all the warm-weather outdoor sports you can think of, while the amenities here can be described as modern.
Andros is by far the largest island in the Bahamas, 104 miles long and 40 miles wide, located just north of the Abacos, with an island-wide population of 8,000. There are three main towns on Andros, Nicholl’s Town, Fresh Creek and Kemp’s Bay, all of them accessible by boat or direct flights from either Miami or Nassau. There are good visitor facilities here, including a wide selection of accommodations, ranging from full-fledged resorts to neat little guest houses. The island is particularly popular with divers.
Bimini, just a stone’s throw from Florida (okay, 50 miles) and made famous by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Zane Grey, is all about fishing, fishing, and fishing. It comprises two distinct islands, with a combined land mass of less than 10 square miles, and a population of around 1,600, most of whom live in Bailey Town in North Bimini. However, Alice Town, the other Bimini population center, is the primary tourist hub, with all the hotels, restaurants and fishing charter companies located there. Most visitors go to Bimini to fish, and the island, besides, is the locale of more than 20 well-known fishing tournaments.
Eleuthera, which is perhaps the longest of the Bahamian islands, more than 110 miles long, and which lies 60 miles west of Nassau, is the playground of the rich and famous. It is consequently also one of the most accessible of the Bahamas islands, with daily flights from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Nassau. The island has a population of 10,800, and its principal towns are Spanish Wells, the wealthiest colony in the Bahamas; Harbour Island, a resort island with clear water and a pink-tinged beach; Gregory Town, the locale of the island’s Pineapple Festival; Governor’s Harbour, a typical tropical town with history and charm; and Tarpum Bay, an artists’ community where, among others, artists Mal Flanders, an American, and MacMillan Hughes, a Scotsman, went to paint the scenery.
7. The Exumas
Situated 35 miles east of New Providence, the Exumas comprise a chain of roughly 350 islands and cays, strung out along some 95 miles of open ocean, all the way down to Long Island. There are about 3,500 inhabitants in the Exumas, the majority of whom live on Greater Exuma and Little Exuma, located in the southern part of the island chain, in the principal population centers of George Town and Williams Town, respectively. The Exumas are also well connected via daily flights to both Miami and Nassau. Boating, fishing, beachcombing and swimming are the main pursuits here, with good, modern amenities for vacationers.
8. Cat Island
For sheer natural beauty and solitude, Cat Island is the pick of the bunch. A 50-square-mile island, it offers a tranquil retreat with rolling hills, lush green forests and vast expanses of windswept beaches. There are few creature comforts here, and visitor activities typically center around swimming, hiking and poking through the ruins of the old, Colonial plantations. Sights on the island include the Hermitage, a miniature, hand-built abbey on Mount Alverina, the highest point on the island at 206 feet; and the ruins of the Deveaux Plantation at Port Howe, a veritable slice of local history in a spectacular setting.
9. The Inaguas
The third largest, remotest and most southerly in the Bahamas chain, the Inaguas are also the most sparsely populated. There are fewer than 1,200 inhabitants here, all of them on Great Inagua, with Little Inagua, just to the north, uninhabited. And while the Inaguas are hardly a top choice for tourists, the few who do venture this far south are well rewarded with miles and miles of unspoiled rocky shorelines and more wildlife than on any of the other islands. Walking, bicycling, fishing and bird-watching are the order of the day. Besides which, two places of particular interest here are the Inagua National Park, with its 280 miles of rocky shoreline, inland waters, saltwater flats, shrubland and jungle, populated with its famous flamingos and over 200 other species of birds; and the picturesque Matthew Town Lighthouse, standing at the southern tip of the Inaguas like a lone sentinel.
10. San Salvador
San Salvador, situated just to the northeast of the Bahamas’ Long Island, is 12 miles long and 6 miles wide, with fewer than 600 people. The main population center here is Cockburn Town, the capital of both San Salvador and its smaller sister island to the west, Rum Cay. Virtually all of the island’s residents live here, yet this is one of the smallest communities in the Bahamas Out Islands. Oh, and Club Med is here as well, just a couple of miles from Cockburn Town.