The Bahamas are a byword for beach-vacation bliss. Scattered like emeralds between Florida and the Caribbean, this Atlantic archipelago comprises more than 3000 subtropical islands and cays, most uninhabited.
Lushly subtropical, they’re fringed with teeming coral reefs and world-famous beaches, offering as much to divers and hikers as they do to sunseekers in search of banging beachside bars.
Here are the best eight places to visit in the Bahamas.
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Best place for nightlife
Nassau is the unchallenged nightlife capital of the Bahamas. Historically a haven for pirates and smugglers, the city’s treasures now attract travelers.
Ground zero for any Nassau night out is the Fish Fry on Arawak Cay, just west of the center of town. Shacks slinging fried fish, freshly cut conch salad and sky juice (a local favorite drink of gin, green coconut water and condensed milk) mingle with bars booming out reggae and rake-and-scrape (the local sound) from 7pm every evening.
Once your night’s started, head back downtown for rum punch and sandy toes at the clapboard bars of Junkanoo Beach, a Black Beer’d Stout at Pirate Republic microbrewery or even a dress-up-nice cocktail at Sky Bar.
Planning Tip: If you want an early kick-off, John Watling’s Distillery – a working rum factory in a gorgeous 18th-century estate – opens at 10am.
2. The Biminis
Best place for game fishing
One of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite fishing grounds, the tiny Biminis are only 80km (50 miles) from Florida. Sitting on the edge of the Gulf Stream, they’re magnets for game fishers seeking the marlin, sailfish and swordfish that swarm these waters.
Head for Alice Town, North Bimini, and base yourself among the best selection of hotels and restaurants. Stay at the Bimini Big Game Club for a taste of 1950s luxury and guided game fishing jaunts and make sure to visit the gloriously eccentric Dolphin House, part museum and part loving tribute to the wild dolphins of the Bahamas.
Hungry? Stuart’s Conch Stand in Bailey Town does some of the best conch and lobster salads in the islands.
Planning Tip: The billfish these waters are famed for are most plentiful in summer.
Harbour Island is a favorite of celebrities and fashionistas © Sylvain Sonnet / Getty Images
3. Harbour Island
Best place for celebrity spotting
Known as “Briland” to locals and regular visitors, lovely little Harbour Island is a favorite haunt of celebrities such as George Glooney and Jessica Alba. A short water-taxi ride from parent-island Eleuthera, it’s famous for colonial architecture and stunning sandscapes such as Pink Sands Beach, rose-tinted with crushed coral.
Briland is blessed with boutique accommodations like Pink Sands Resort and Runaway Hill, formerly a grand private seafront estate that was built in the 1940s. You’re always just a serene stroll away from fine restaurants like Malcolm 51 and Rock House Restaurant or the sandy floors and sunsets at Gusty’s Bar.
Planning Tip: Bahamas Ferries’ fast boats get you from Nassau to Harbour Island in two hours and in greater comfort than a flight to Eleuthera.
4. Elbow Cay
Best place for historic architecture
The British history of the Bahamas is most evident in Elbow Cay. The prettiest of the gorgeous Abacos islands, its epicenter is Hope Town, founded by British loyalists in 1785 and distinguished by bougainvillea, brightly painted cottages and the iconic Elbow Reef Lighthouse.
Its sheltered bay bristling with masts, Hope Town is also a yachting haven. Happily, its car-free streets are blessed with winsome hotels like the Abaco Inn, both exemplars of the pastel clapboard architecture that’s strictly maintained here. Knowledgeable local operators like Sundried T’s and Froggies Out Island Adventures rent surfboards and guide diving and snorkeling expeditions on surrounding reefs and beaches.
Get onto the water in a kayak at Lucayan National Park © Alamy
5. Lucayan National Park
Best place for underwater caves
Mangroves meet underwater caves in one of the Bahama’s greatest natural attractions: Lucayan National Park on Grand Bahama. Named for the original inhabitants of the Bahamas and populated by raccoons and native birds like the Bahama woodstar hummingbird, this 16-hectare (40-acre) swath of protected wilderness encompasses all six naturally occurring Bahamian vegetation zones. Ben’s Cave and Burial Mound Cave are just two of the most easily accessed of its underwater cave system, one of the world’s longest.
Bahamas EcoVentures is our pick for walking tours with expert guides, while Grand Bahama Nature Tours leads fantastic kayaking expeditions around the park’s mangrove-fringed coast.
Planning Tip: Grand Bahama International Airport flies direct to Miami, Fort Lauderdale and several other North American cities.
Pigs might not fly, but you can see them swim on the Exumas © shalamov / Getty Images
6. The Exumas
Best place for diving and seeing swimming pigs
The Exumas, a central-Bahamian archipelago, is known for secluded resort luxury and incredible diving. At its heart lies the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, the Bahamas’ richest reef ecosystem. The 283 sq km (109 sq mile) expanse encompasses more than 300 islands and cays, pristine fringing reefs and idyllic sailing waters.
Dive Exuma, the only PADI-certified dive shop in Great Exuma’s capital George Town, is the experienced, professional outfit we recommend to explore this undersea fantasia.
If you want to see Exuma’s famous swimming pigs, you can’t go past Staniel Cay Yacht Club, a beachside haven of bungalows, kayaking and stress-free comfort that’s as close as you can get to Big Major Cay’s Pig Beach.
7. Blue Holes National Park
Best place for swimming in karst sinkholes
Andros, the “Big Yard,” is the largest island in the Bahamas, and one of the wildest. Its 5960 sq km (2301 sq miles) of mangrove, pine forest and reef are dotted with “blue holes,” deep karst sinkholes that sustain unique ecosystems and provide perhaps the island’s greatest spectacle.
More abundant here than anywhere else on earth, they’re the focus of the 16,1870-hectare (40,000-acre) Blue Holes National Park. Trails and information boards lead travelers to the park’s more accessible sites, such as Captain Bill’s Hole, where you’ll find both a swimming deck and bathrooms.
Others, including Cousteau’s Hole (named for the famous undersea explorer), are less accessible but equally inviting to hikers and swimmers. Small Hope Bay Lodge, set against the mangroves in nearby Andros Town, offers 21 luxurious units and activities including blue-hole dives and snorkeling “safaris.”
Planning Tip: There’s no public transport on the Bahamas’ biggest island. Rent a car at Andros Town Airport.
8. Conception Island
Best place for getting away from it all
Conception Island is a secluded pocket of paradise that seems almost entirely untouched by humans. It’s the centerpiece of Conception Island National Park, an oasis of thriving mangroves, vivid coral gardens and abundant wildlife. Conception Island Wall, a gorgeous playground of coral heads, sponges and colorful critters, starts at 14m (46ft) in waters of exceptional clarity.
These waters and the beaches they wash are home to abundant green turtles, fish nurseries, conch and crawfish. Conception’s unpeopled forests are also an important sanctuary for migratory birds.