Cruise ship entering Nassau

For cruisers with a limited window of opportunity, the short hops from Florida to Nassau, Freeport and the cruise lines' private Bahamian islands fit tight schedules and budgets. Some departing from Florida visit both Nassau and Freeport, plus a private island, for a variety of experiences. Longer trips of five days or more depart from Charleston, New Orleans and New York, while others include the Bahamas in Eastern Caribbean itineraries. In all, far more ships stop in Nassau than Freeport, which basically welcomes Carnival and Norwegian.

Besides convenience, the Bahamas offer cruise ship passengers some of the most gorgeous beaches and clear, mesmerizing waters in the western hemisphere. Freeport's extensive "bush" (i.e., wilderness) endears it to nature lovers. Nassau shows off its long history dating back to the American Revolution in its downtown structures, and there are casinos and the fantasy allure of Atlantis resort to entice visitors on shore excursions.

Here are some of the most enticing excursions from Nassau and Freeport

Caribbean reef sharks


Shark Snorkel

The Stuart Cove's water sports operation appeals to underwater sightseers of all levels with snorkeling, scuba diving and personal SUB device tours. We recommend its three-site snorkel tour, which takes you first to colorful reefs, a wall, a fish nursery and a wreck to see lots of pretty tropical fish. Then comes -- dun-dun-dun -- a final plunge with reef sharks. The guides drop a cage of chum to the ocean floor at about 30 feet deep. Participants slide as noiselessly into the water as possible, hanging on to the anchor rope without flipping fins, to stare downward at some 30 or so 5-foot, feeding-frenzied sharks. Scavengers by nature, the reef sharks do not menace people, but still the experience feels electrifying and just-enough frightening.

Who Should Go: Adrenaline junkies, Shark Week fans, and Facebook one-uppers.

Why It's Extraordinary: All three of the sites have their own rewards, but the shark snorkel tips the scale toward deliciously dangerous.

Chubasco Charters Deep-Sea Fishing

A seventh-generation Bahamian family descended from Nassau's early Loyalist settlers operates this charter company, which will custom design excursions for you and your party. They know exactly where to find the big fighter fish -- mahi, wahoo, and tuna -- in deep waters off Nassau's shore. You are practically guaranteed a battle from the fishing throne, reeling in prize fish that the crew lures onto the boat's battery of heavy-duty rods. All you do is reel it in; the crew takes care of baiting, netting the catch and even cleaning if you so desire.

Who Should Go: Anglers of all skill levels, adventure-seeking families, and anyone who loves the sea.

Why It's Extraordinary: There's nothing quite like Nassau's inky, 6,000-feet-deep offshore waters and the heart-pounding fight of man against fish.

Clifton Heritage National Park

A trip to the West End of New Providence Island reveals the flipside of Nassau's metro personality with old-time settlements, secluded beaches and this gem that preserves Bahamian natural habitat and bygones. Ruins of a number of 18th- and 19th-century plantations form the core of the 156-acre seaside site, where prehistoric Lucayans once dwelt. Other vestiges of the past include slave hut ruins and Pirate Steps that mark an old seaport and lead down to the sea. Natural Jaw Beach is home to great blue herons and sooty terns, with preserved seagrass beds offshore.

Who Should Go: Anyone with an interest in local history and culture; landlubbers of all stripes.

Why It's Extraordinary: Travelers get a sense of the true Bahamas, like that preserved away from Nassau in the chain's Out Islands.

Paradise Cove Bahamas


Paradise Cove & West End

Skip the drive through the fading glory of the once-marvelous Freeport resort scene and crowded Lucaya; instead, head in the other direction (literally and figuratively) to snorkel off a beach at low-key, Bahamian family-owned Paradise Cove resort. It supplies access to one of Grand Bahama Island's best and most easily accessible reefs. The drive there samples life and natural wonders in the island's outlying settlements. If time permits, continue on to the island's original capital and famed renegade fishing settlement of West End for fresh conch salad straight from a conch pen.

Who Should Go: Visitors who want to experience the island more deeply than its surface resort and beach scene; snorkelers from novices to experienced.

Why It's Extraordinary: You will witness a slice of the island that few Freeport visitors ever see, and feel like you're visiting one of the Out Islands.

Lucayan National Park & High Rock

Head east of the Freeport-Lucaya metro-resort busyness, along miles of wilderness, to Lucayan National Park. Here, you can climb down into limestone caves, walk boardwalk trails through diverse biological communities, and arrive at Gold Beach to swim. If you're keen on kayaking, a couple of tour companies provide package excursions that include a paddle along a mangrove tidal creek. Hungry? Head east to the beach restaurants of High Rock, a typical Bahamian settlement.

Who Should Go: Those looking for the flipside of Freeport's commercialized cities; kayakers of all skill levels; beach lovers.

Why It's Extraordinary: You'll find nesting bats, an Indian burial cave and beautiful, remote beaches all in one place.