As featured in Travel Weekly – 21 November 2013
By: Katie McGonagle
Swap grey skies for 50 shades of blue in the Bahamas, says Katie McGonagle.
It’s odd to start thinking about Eskimos when you’re skimming over gentle waves in a sun-drenched speedboat, with nothing but tiny uninhabited islands all around.
But just as Eskimos are said to have hundreds of words for snow, I began to think Bahamians deserve extra vocabulary to describe the rich variety of waters surrounding their 700 islands and cays.
How else could you explain the warm glow from waters so shallow they take on the golden hues of the sand below; or shades of bright cerulean reflecting sunlight off every ripple; or the rich turquoise tones where the water runs deep enough for stingrays and reef sharks to slip by almost unnoticed beneath the waves?
This archipelago of Caribbean islands lies off the southern tip of Florida and attracts a wealth of American weekenders to the casinos and entertainment-rich resorts of Nassau.
Venture beyond the capital, though, and it’s an entirely different story. Each of the Out Islands – known more affectionately as the Family Islands to locals – has its own unique character, but one thing they all have in common is their warm welcome and mind-blowingly beautiful scenery.
Travel Weekly joined a fam trip led by the Bahamas Tourist Office to see how easy it is to flit between these sun-soaked spots on an island-hopping itinerary.
NASSAU AND PARADISE ISLAND
British Airways flies five times a week from Heathrow to Nassau, New Providence, so the capital is the gateway to any island-hopping trip. Joined to neighbouring Paradise Island via two road bridges, the pair offer hotels both big and small.
Between mega-resorts such as Atlantis Paradise Island or the sizeable Sandals Royal Bahamian, and smaller boutiques such as colourful Compass Point and charming A Stone’s Throw Away, there are plenty of places to spend a night on the way to other islands.
There are more than enough activities to make it worthwhile too. New company Tru Bahamian Food Tours offers a Bites of Nassau tour focused around seven culinary hotspots, and it’s not just the food that’s worth getting your teeth into.
While munching through fritters made from conch, a Bahamian seafood staple, then Jamaican jerk chicken, Greek salads and Tortuga rum cake, guests get a potted history of the diverse influences that have shaped these multicultural islands.
Plus they can indulge in velvety smooth Thai-spiced conch chowder at Van Breugel’s Bistro and Bar, and creative flavour combinations at Graycliff Chocolatier – dark chocolate with bacon, anyone?
The walking tour takes in many of downtown Nassau’s highlights, but top off the introduction to Bahamian culture with the Pompey Museum of Slavery and Emancipation, a wander through cruise terminal Festival Place (there are genuine local crafts amongst the tourist tat), and a stop at the Straw Market to pick up hats, woven bags, jewellery and conch shell souvenirs.
If that’s not enough excitement, how about being propelled through salty water with a dolphin at each foot? Privately-owned Blue Lagoon Island offers dolphin and sea lion encounters for guests aged six and up, but the ultimate thrill comes from jumping in for a swim with the dolphins.
Why isn’t the capital on largest island Andros? It’s a common question for anyone looking at a map of the Bahamas, as the island is larger than the others put together.
As we took the 15-minute flight to Andros Town, all became clear. Instead of one large landmass, Andros is a swampy maze of mangrove estuaries separated by snaking waterways, which shimmered in the early morning sunshine as we flew overhead.
The small population lives almost exclusively in one long, thin strip along the eastern edge, and it was there we found Small Hope Bay Lodge. This family-run all-inclusive resort is as low-key as it gets. While its 21 beachfront cabins are fairly basic, it’s the relaxed vibe that really appeals: guests can duck behind the bar to get themselves a drink, chat with other guests over beachside buffet dinners, and socialise during the Wi-Fi-free hour each evening.
The resort specialises in scuba diving and snorkelling – the third-largest barrier reef in the world lies just offshore – and the tricky sport of bonefishing. However, we took more interest in the arty side of the island, driving north to Red Bay to see local wooden carvings and finding out how the Bahamas’ signature hand-made batik fabrics are made at the Androsia factory in Fresh Creek.
Departing North Andros the next day, we flew south to Mangrove Cay, to the recently-refurbished Swain’s Cay Lodge.
Our fellow guests ranged from friends on a fishing trip to newly-weds, underlining the islands’ diverse holiday experiences, while spacious and well-furnished rooms made for a comfortable stay.
Special mention goes to tiny hideaway Tiamo: a collection of 10 lodges, some with private pools, and a three-bedroom villa with stair-gates and other family-friendly features.
With classy maritime-inspired decor, a gym, spa and diving centre, and a beautiful infinity pool, it’s clear the new management team that took over this year has set its sights high.
With such inspiring natural assets – a snorkelling trip to the nearby Blue Hole revealed lionfish, grouper and spiny lobsters and an array of electric-coloured marine life – it’s easy to see why.
This long chain of islets offers the answer to any client questioning whether island-hopping is worth the hassle. Firstly, the flight is just 45 minutes from Nassau, but more to the point, they won’t want it to end. When a simple domestic flight means soaring over luscious green cays, seeing bright blue currents swirling around golden sandbars, and waters so shallow you can barely tell the difference between land and sea, they should market it as an excursion in itself.
As impressed as I had been with the rest of the islands, the Exuma cays are the jewels in the crown. It was here that we took a day-long boat trip with Four C’s Adventures, darting in and out of secluded coves and past celebrity-owned cays, seeing nurse sharks feasting on discarded conch at Compass Cay and stopping at Hog Island where pigs comically paddle out to greet approaching boats.
Accommodation on Great Exuma includes the extensive Sandals Emerald Bay with its stunning beachfront setting and on-site golf course and the neighbouring Grand Isle Resort, where all 78 villas have individual decor and an independent feel, although serious luxury lovers might be put off by the absence of private pools. For groups or families travelling together Paradise Bay Villas is ideal as each has four bedrooms with a large shared space at the centre.
Visitors who want to party like the locals should spend an evening or two at Fish Fry in buzzing Georgetown. During the day, sail over to Stocking Island to meet some real characters at beachfront bar Chat ‘n’ Chill or watch them making ceviche-style raw conch salad right on the beach.