Bahamas Vacation Guide
Here in the Bahamas, there is no shortage of white sands or turquoise waters. In fact, with over 700 islands to explore, one would need years to see it all. With some islands only fifty miles from Florida, the Bahamas are the closest Caribbean destination to the States, but the wealth of activities here entices visitors from the world over.
Throughout its history, the Bahamas have been famous for the enormous tract of sea that encompasses the islands. The Lucaya Indians first plied these waters in search of fresh seafood, then Columbus arrived in search of a fresh world and later pirates such as Blackbeard trawled these seas in search of looted treasures. These days though, the warm waters here appeal to those looking for a truly tropical getaway. But just as in the days of yore, the sea is still the star attraction. With 5% of the world's coral reef mass, the Bahamas are home to the third largest coral reef on Earth, which is a boon for scuba divers, snorkelers and underwater explorers.
Though most vacationers head to Nassau or Grand Bahama Island, the less-travelled Out Islands are perfect for those looking to get off of the tourist path. Here amidst the tranquil cays lie our favorite Bahamian jewels. Andros is a naturalist's paradise, Bimini appealed to Ernest Hemingway and Cat Island has an expansive pink sandy beach — and that's just A, B and C…
Besides its nautical treasures, the Bahamas are home to extremely-friendly locals, who retain their rich cultural heritage that can be traced back to their West African ancestors and traditions brought from the American South. The colorful costumes of the annual Junkanoo festival, the spicy seafood and the riotous goombay music are but a few examples of the infectious Bahamian culture, which is always on full display. With Georgian architecture on display, native fishing villages on the coasts and quaint towns reminiscent of New England, the amalgam of cultures is still felt here in this tropical Eden.
On land, visitors can laze by the beach or explore the natural wonders of these lush tropical islands. Rare birds, exotic flowers and endangered reptiles are easily spotted at one of the Bahamas' twelve national parks. One Bahamian natural highlight is the world's largest breeding colony of West Indian flamingoes found on Great Inagua, where flamingoes outnumber humans 16 to 1.
Endowed with an ideal climate, the Bahamas offer pleasant temperatures year-round, with sweet tradewind breezes keeping conditions temperate. With its stunning beauty, friendly inhabitants, sun-filled days and music-filled nights, its hard not to fall in love with this tempting tropical destination.
Lucayan National Park
On Grand Bahama Island lies this 40-acre national park, which is home to an amazing network of underwater limestone caves and pine forests. The coast is endowed with incredible beaches (such as Gold Rock Beach) with turquoise waters and natural tide pools. The park encompasses all six of the ecosystems found in the Bahamas, making it an ideal spot to explore land and sea.
Actually made up of two islands (Great and Little Inagua), Inagua is famous for the West Indian flamingoes that call Great Inagua home. Locals like to point out that the island is home to only 900 people and a staggering 80,000 flamingoes. Incidentally, this happens to be the world's largest breeding colony for this flamingo species.
Though one of the largest islands in the Bahamas, Andros is pleasantly undeveloped. With the second largest coral reef in North America, Andros is a naturalist's wonderland. The island's ecosystem encompasses mangroves, rare birds, wild orchids and lush pine forests. The national park is also home to blue holes, which are caves that have been filled with fresh and salt water.
Known as Briland to locals, this easy-going island, with its quaint town set amidst a tropical locale, is a favorite Bahamian hang-out. The local pink sand beaches, famous throughout the Caribbean are worth a visit in their own right. When English Loyalists migrated here during the American Revolutionary War, they brought their New England-style architecture, still apparent on the picturesque streets of Dunmore Town.
Stretched over 120 miles of sea, this collection of cays and islands is ideal for those eager to explore hidden bays, untouched beaches and quiet coves. With 365 islands to visit, an island-a-day regiment is just the perfect regiment for a stress-free year. This chain of islands is ideal for those with access to a yacht. The turquoise waters make for amazing diving as well.
The main drag here in Nassau is like the 5th Avenue of the Caribbean, known for its shopping, restaurants and nightlife. Just down the road is Straw Market, home to vendors plying local handicrafts, many of which are made from straw (hence the clever name).
Being home to the second largest reef in the world, the waters here are ideal for scuba enthusiasts. In addition to the usual array of dives available, the Bahamas are one of the best places to observe sharks in their own back yard. Watching these majestic creatures at such close range is truly unforgettable. There are shark dives available throughout the Bahamas, with some company outfitting divers in chainmail suits, just in case…
This colorful festival is the annual Bahamian celebration that takes place every December 26th and January 1st. Not to be missed, this massive street party with its colorful parades and bright costumes, provides a fascinating glimpse into Bahamian culture. Though the festival takes place throughout the country, the celebration in Nassau has more of a carnival atmosphere, with lots of tents serving up plenty of food and drinks to keep everyone happy.
Rand Memorial Nature Center
This 100-acre wildlife reserve is one of the most accessible parks in the Bahamas. The park features hundreds of species of birds and plants endemic to these islands. For those that don't have a chance to visit the West Indian flamingo breeding colony on nearby Inagua, this park is a great place to see these pink birds in their natural habitat.
Bahamian People and Culture
Though the modern age has arrived to this Eden-like island nation, Bahamians remain true to the cultural traits that span back to their African ancestors. From cuisine to music to religion, the traditions of their past remain an integral part of everyday Bahamian life. The history of the islands has even impacted the language; the melodic form of English spoken here is closely related to the Gullah dialect of South Carolina as many of the slaves were brought here by English loyalists from America before the Revolution. Besides the distinct island accent spoken by the locals, there are lots of local sayings. "Skylarkin" (joking around) and "kerpunkled up" (very drunk) are a few examples.
The rich array of traditional music of the islands is still practiced as well, which combine African traditions with European influences. The most well-known, goombay, is named after the African-style goatskin drum used to lay the rhythm. In addition, "rake and scrape" bands still belt out tunes that have been passed down from slavery days. In those days the slaves had little instruments to speak of, so they improvised with whatever they could get their hands on, such as saws, homemade drums and string instruments. The Bahamian sacred music, which has its origins in the church, also retains its popularity. These religious hymns, which cross the traditions of slave spirituals with gospel music, are accompanied with hand-clapping, choirs and spiritual dancing.
Bahamian cuisine is famous for its seafood and spice; in fact, food here is spicier than anywhere else in the Caribbean; one reason could be the strong influence felt from the American South. Conch, whose white meat comes from a huge shell, is quite popular and can be fried as fritters, served cold in salads or made into soup in the form of delicious conch chowder. The local lobster is quite a delicacy as well.
Native plants are still incorporated into bush medicines, using recipes that were brought to the New World by the African slaves. There are over a hundred plants still used to treat afflictions today, one of the most widely-used being aloe vera. The Bahamians still believe in superstitions such as chickcharnies, which are bird-like elves that inhabit the forest. Carrying a special flower or colored fabric is said to charm these creatures which isn't a bad idea as those who win their affection are said to enjoy a life of good fortune.
The Bahamians are a religious lot, the vast majority being Christian. The Eleutheran missionaries from England imported the Puritan ideals that still hold true today, which is why education is held in such high esteem. But despite their religious devotion, the Bahamians are known for their propensity to celebrate and enjoy all that life has to offer. After a few days, we can feel the festivity that dominates daily life in these parts. Endowed with a rich sense of humor and an instincty to focus on the positive, these islanders enjoy their lives to the fullest.
The word Bahamas originates from the low water level the Spanish encountered when they arrived here in 1492. "Baja Mar" translates to shallow sea, but long before the arrival of the Europeans, these islands were inhabited by the Lucayans, a tribe descended from the Arawaks of nearby Hispaniola. These "Island People," as their name implies, were dubbed Indians by Columbus and crew who touched down in 1492, erroneously believing they had reached India.
But the Spanish didn't rush to settle these beautiful islands. Instead, they focused on the development of nearby Hispaniola, brutally uprooting the local Lucayans to use as slaves in the plantations. The first Europeans to settle the Bahamas were a wayfaring group of English settlers known as the Eleutheran Adventurers. Though their name may imply some mystical society of explorers, William Sayle and his twenty-five followers were simply fleeing religious persecution in England; in fact, their arrival in 1620 mirrored that of the Pilgrims that arrived in Plymouth Rock (present-day US) around the same time. Due to the fertile soil, they made New Providence their capital and developed a successful agricultural-based economy, but it was the treasures of the seas that attracted the islands' next settlers.
Due to its strategic position in the Caribbean, many pirates called these waters home, including the infamous Blackbeard. The "Golden Age of Piracy" may not have contributed much to world heritage, but it certainly swelled the coffers of these buccaneers who lured merchant ships into the shallow waters here before raiding and robbing the unaware crew that had apparently failed to learn enough Spanish to know what Baja Mar meant! Though Britain laid claim to the islands in 1670, they exerted little influence for fifty years as the "Black Flags" imposed their will. When the pirates were expelled in 1718, the Bahamas were proclaimed a British colony.
After the American colonies achieved independence in 1776, many British loyalist supporters migrated to these islands, bringing with them their black slaves and experience running mercantilist economies. Soon, they had established lumber companies, salt mines and cotton plantations, drawing upon the labor of imported slaves from Africa.
During the ensuing American Civil War, the North attempted to blockade these islands in order to weaken the South, but the Bahamians proved quite adept at circumventing the naval barricade and made a fortune trading Confederate cotton to Britain while importing ammunition to the Southern forces. Unfortunately, the end of the war though brought troubling times to the islands. Though the Prohibition of alcohol in the US gave rise to the profitable business of rum-running, this only lasted until the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. The island's prosperous sponge industry was plagued by disease and what was once a flourishing pineapple business was decimated when the US started importing them from Cuba. As economic stagnation set in, thousands of islanders migrated to the US.
It wasn't until after World War II that the Bahamas' tourism industry began to blossom. When Cuba denied entrance to US tourists in 1961, the Bahamas dredged Nassau's harbor to make way for cruise ships and the islands experienced a major boom. Though Britain granted the Bahamas self-government in 1964 and independence in 1973, the nation remains a part of the British Commonwealth. Today, tourism accounts for roughly one half of the country's income.
Though the land mass of the Bahamas only encompasses about 5,400 square miles (8,700 sq km), the coral-studded waters surrounding these islands are home to the natural treasures that make this tropical destination famous. In fact, with over 10,000 square miles of marine territory, the Bahamas constitutes 5% of the world's coral reefs.
With waters so rich in marine life, the islands themselves are like outposts to explore the rich surrounding seas. The Bahamas are a prime destination for scuba divers with hundreds of dive sites, including shipwrecks and some of the best coral reefs in the world. Daredevils will be drawn to special shark dives, as this is one of the best places for up-close and personal contact with the sharks that inhabit these warm waters. Caribbean Reef Sharks, Silky Sharks and Blacktip Sharks are on full display as divemasters feed these carnivores to the delight of onlooking divers.
The islands are also geared towards those more relaxed travelers, eager to swim with the dolphins or enjoy a leisurely day snorkeling. The beaches here vary in size and shape, allowing each visitor a full range of sandy options. For those interested in water sports, beach bars, music and fresh seafood restaurants, beaches such as Nassau's Cable Beach fit the bill. But for those seeking a little more tranquility, the vast Bahamian coastline is studded with hundreds of desolate beaches. Beaches here resemble postcards with their white sands and turquoise waters. For a real treat, audacious visitors head to the deserted beaches on Cat Island or Elbow Cay Island in the Abacos.
Besides the beaches, the islands themselves are loaded with wildlife. Though most of the mammals here were introduced by Europeans, there are still two endemic mammals that call these islands home: the raccoon and the hutia (cavy-like rodent). Reptile fans will marvel at the hawksbill turtles as well as the endangered Bahamian rock iguana. Birdwatchers rave about the parks here; the West Indian flamingoes' nesting colony inside Inagua National Park is the largest on earth and a sight to behold. The woodstar hummingbird and West Indian Whistling Duck call these islands home and the Kirtland's warbler, one of the rarest birds of North America, passes through in it's annual migration. The Abaco rose-throated parrots population form their nests inside limestone cavities in the ground, the only parrots in the Western Hemisphere to do so.
Terrestrial foragers like birds and hungry tourists are drawn to a wide range of fruit trees such as tamarind, wild grape, fig and pigeon plums. In addition, there are flowers everywhere, most notably the bull vine's red buds as well as plenty of bromeliad and orchid. Especially beautiful is the endemic blue mahoe which is a hibiscus with bright red and yellow blossoms. Fortunately, twelve national parks have been established by the government in order to preserve the natural treasures found here. These parks are located throughout the islands, ranging from hardwood forests and marine parks to mangroves and desolate sand dunes.
Climate and Weather
Millions of tourists can't be wrong — the Bahamas possess a fantastic climate. Days are dominated by sun, but temperatures — tempered by Gulf Stream breezes — seldom reaching above 90°F (32°C). The islands marine tropical climate features plenty of sun, but due to their location a bit north of other Caribbean destinations, conditions are almost never sticky-hot. In fact, temperatures average 86°F (30°C) during the warmest months. Despite the heat, temperatures are moderated year-round by northeast trade winds that keep humidity around 80%.
Though the Bahamian archipelago spreads across a wide swath of sea, the islands don't experience much variation between winter and summer months, with only a ten degree variation in average daily temperatures year round. Nevertheless, due to the cold winters in the US, the winter months (December through March) bring the highest number of visitors. During this time, prices increase as does the energy level. "Cold fronts" that descend from the north during these months are tempered by the warm waters surrounding the islands, keeping temperatures comfortable. Highs average around 77°F (25°C) during these winter months and as the trade winds shift south, the islands experience much drier conditions.
The summer season (May through October) experiences the warmest temperatures and the highest rainfall, peaking at around 7 inches (18 cm). Though showers can be intense during this rainy season, they are generally short, allowing sun-worshippers plenty of beach time. The summer months also coincide with hurricane season, which officially lasts through November and although the Bahamas are located a bit north of the path of the majority of the North Atlantic hurricanes, these storms generally strike the islands once per decade.
Map and Location
Location: Caribbean Sea, off of the southeast coast of Florida and northeast of Cuba
Geographic coordinates: 24 15 N, 76 00 W
Time Zone: GMT/UTC
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