Gaining independence from the U.K. in 1973, the Bahamian chain consists of some 700 islands (of which maybe 30 are inhabited) and more than 2,000 cays, all scattered across the ocean. They stretch from Grand Bahama Island -- about 75 miles east of Palm Beach, Florida -- to Great Inagua -- about 60 miles to the northeast of Cuba.
Generally, cruisers touch terra firma on New Providence Island to visit candy-pink Nassau, Cable Beach and Paradise Island, or ships head to the lush, green Grand Bahama Island, for spending time in Freeport and Lucaya. Both have activities to keep you going day or night -- be it sand-lounging along coastline beaches, hiking through national parks, shopping island markets or fancy boutiques, dancing the limbo in Count Basie Square, teeing off for a hole in one, glitzy casino gambling -- or filling up on the freshest conch you'll ever find.
Nassau is the capital of the Bahamas, and is the center of all the islands' industry, commerce and communications. It also happens to have one of the largest straw markets (but no casinos) in all the Caribbean. Freeport is the Bahamas' fourth largest island and is second only to Nassau in popularity (here's where to find the casinos). It began to enjoy popularity in the 1950's as a veritable "man-made" Vegas-type island that happens to be surrounded by crystal-clear turquoise waters speckled perfectly with marvelous beaches instead of a barren desert. Mere miles to the west is Lucaya, another "man-made" paradise that grew up in the 1960's.
For those into nature, Grand Bahama is also home to one of the oldest underwater cave systems in the world, situated at the Lucayan National Park. For history buffs, the Victorian buildings and fortresses of Nassau should do the trick. For extreme sporters, there's everything from parasailing to jet-skiing and diving through underwater caves at the two popular stops.
Now That You Mention It
It's in the Atlantic, but dips its toes in the Caribbean! The current population -- mostly of African descent -- is 300,529, of which nearly 60 percent live on New Providence Island (more than 26,000 live in Freeport and Lucaya).
Tell Me More
With everything you'd expect from a seaside resort, think languid Caribbean charm; to-die-for Bahamian cuisine for even the most discerning of foodies; shop-'til-ya-drop markets, bazaars and haute-boutiques; dawn-to-dusk beach-bumming; smooth sailing; cavernous caving; big-time fishing; glorious golfing; delightful diving; beautiful boating; eye-candy bird-watching; dolphin dating; eco-safaris; beachy horseback riding; glittery casino-hopping; hammock-style napping and swank afternoon tea breaks.
Who Goes There
Who doesn't is more like it. The greatest majority of cruises begin on the Eastern Seaboard -- offering really quite affordable voyages ranging from three to seven nights and more. The short-hop trips -- three- and four-night varieties -- typically depart from Miami, Port Canaveral and Ft. Lauderdale's Port Everglades. Longer cruises -- seven nights plus -- tend to leave from places like Baltimore, Boston, New York, Norfolk and Philadelphia. These voyages may also include calls at Caribbean islands as well as Florida ports.
Among the majors like Carnival, Costa, Disney, Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Regent Seven Seas -- there are hundred of choices when it comes to dates, ships and days at sea.
What to Bring
Plenty of country-club casual clothing, bathing suits and plenty of sun screen. Yes, there's a lot to see for those in need of a culture fix, so pack comfortable shoes. Golf junkies, bring your clubs for hitting the links.
When to Book
Low season, schmo season! Truth is, the tropical maritime temps here rarely budge more than a few notches from 80 degrees, and the sun shines more than 300 days a year. The rainy season is May - October, but rain is generally fleeting. The hurricane season picks up in August and can last through November.
Freeport/Lucaya: The 12-acre Garden of the Groves has no fewer than 10,000 varieties of flowers, trees, and shrubs from around the world. A wonderfully serene destination filled with winding, shaded paths. Daily 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. Midshipman Rd., Freeport.
The Underwater Explorers Society (UNEXSO) offers scuba diving adventures for both the experienced and first-time diver. They also have a long list of excursions, including shark and night dives The Dolphin Experience -- which obviously provides a number of options for dolphin-related encounters -- is also on the list. Reservations strongly suggested. (www.unexso.com). Freeport.
Saddle up with Trikk Pony Adventures (www.trikkpony.com) for horseback riding through nature trails and along the beach. They offer a number of options including a sunset beach ride with dinner on Saturday evenings. Freeport.
Nassau/Paradise Island: If you'd rather just spend the day as a guest at the showy 34-acre Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, consider purchasing a hard-to-come-by day pass for about $25 ($19 for kids). The pass gets you access to most of the must-see sights at the resort, such as the Dig, the marine habitats and their beach. What you won't get is the fun stuff around the pools and waterslides. You'll see a kiosk selling the passes by the cruise terminal -- or you can try to purchase one at the resort.
Under the heading of Mardi Gras fun, check out the museum dedicated to the flashy Junkanoo Festival (a middle-of-the-night event the day after Christmas and New Year's Day) at the Junkanoo Expo. It's a chance to see the humongous costumes and floats. Daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Prince George Wharf.
Take a 25-minute helicopter tour with Majestic Tours for a breathtaking trip over Nassau. You'll roundtrip from the Heliport on Paradise Island for the bird's eye views. Daily departures every 30 minutes from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Nassau.
Take a stroll through the tiny Hope Town to see the candy-cane striped lighthouse. Built in 1864, it's one of the last three hand-wound kerosene-burning lighthouses in the world.
Feed the stingrays off Green Turtle Cay.
Bimini: For those who dare, dive from 70 ft. into the Gulf Stream at the Bimini Wall.
Take a 10-minute water taxi to see Harbour Island (a k a Briland), and Dunmore Town's 200-year-old architecture -- a cluster of New England-style clapboard houses framed by picket fences and fragrant, colorful blooms. Guzzle down Goombay Smash (pineapple, coconut, light and dark rum, pineapple juice, lime and a touch of grenadine and bitters), while watching the sun set along the harbor.