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Caribbean-On-Line » Caribbean Travel News » The Bahamas » Savor the hidden treasure of The Bahamas

Savor the hidden treasure of The Bahamas

By Michele Jarvie, Canwest News Service, September 27, 2008
Under the cover of night, they lay in wait for merchant ships and plodding Spanish galleons filled with gold. Hundreds of islands, each with tiny cays and channels, were perfect hiding places for Blackbeard and other pirates who plundered ships all along the Bahamas in the late 1600s.

Henry Morgan liked to lurk in the shallows around Andros. Captain Kidd favoured the Exumas, and Anne Bonney and William Catt commandeered Cat Island. Most of the pirates were captured or killed by the mid-1700s, but evidence of the Bahamas' buccaneering past is evident today in hundreds of wrecks off the Abacos islands, Grand Bahama Island and Bimini. Colonial forts, now tourist sites, surround Nassau like sentinels, as if on watch for the black flags of ruin.

Most tourists visit the paradises of Nassau or Grand Bahama Island, but there is another side to the Bahamas to consider adding to an itinerary. Visiting the Out Islands puts the region's history into perspective.

Arawak Indians settled in the Bahamas in the ninth century. Christopher Columbus set foot on San Salvador island in 1492. Later came the rum runners and pirates, followed by Americans who started cotton plantations with slaves. Many of the people who inhabit the 700 islands of the Bahamas are descendants of these groups.

The Abacos islands, to the north of New Providence Island, attract sailors with their clear, shallow waters and abundant marinas. If you're a landlubber, this long, skinny spit of land has a good assortment of accommodations.

Andros, to the west, is the largest island but the least explored. It's best known for bone-fishing in the sandy flats, diving and eco-tourism. Lodging is limited to the east side of the island.

Eleuthera and the Exumas are popular for gorgeous landscapes and quaint charm. Here you'll find pristine beaches, turquoise waters and Cape Cod architecture.

While some tourists head to the islands for idyllic beachcombing, others are interested in the clear blue waters surrounding them.

Diving or snorkelling in the Bahamas is like swimming in an exploding prism of colour. Turquoise water laps against bright white or pink sand while an encyclopedia of marine life darts around. If you spend time in the water here, you'll see everything from angelfish to barracuda. The warm Atlantic is home to bonefish, lobster, conch, dolphins, grouper, a variety of sharks, tarpon, snapper and stingrays, such as the magnificent spotted eagle ray.

"It was the first time diving for us where we saw lion fish. And it was the start of the invasion of the lion fish. They were everywhere," said Candice Grismer of Calgary, who also raved about a shark feeding session. An experienced diver who has spent time underwater in Honduras, Belize and the Dominican Republic, she said Bahamas water is warm and visibility is great.

Too great, sometimes, it seems.

"There were groupers the size of sharks there. They looked like they could eat you whole."

If tales of giant fish and shark feedings keep you out of the water, you'll find lots to do on land. There are cultural festivities, eco-tours, shopping and sightseeing.

The capital city of Nassau on New Providence Island has the bulk of tourist facilities and its past comes to life at places such as the Pompey Museum of Slavery and Emancipation, Bacardi Distillery and the Pirates of Nassau Museum. The museum downtown is set aboard a replica of Blackbeard's 1716 pirate ship, Revenge. Walk among the cold-blooded crew as they eat, drink and plot their next attack.

It's easy to navigate around Nassau as facilities are grouped in three areas: Cable Beach, downtown and Paradise Island.

Like a pearl necklace, Cable Beach has hotels strung along its 6.5-kilometre stretch of sand. Prices here are moderate to high, ranging from the Nassau Beach Hotel to Sandals Royal Bahamian.

The only caveat to staying here is that the area is undergoing a major redevelopment. Existing hotels are getting expensive facelifts and new facilities are being added, such as the $1.6-billion Baha Mar resort with six luxury hotels. The 3,550-room beachside complex is the single largest investment in the Bahamas -- reflecting the surge in tourism here. If you opt to stay at Cable Beach, find out exactly what state the hotel and grounds are in before you book.

Nassau's downtown is home to some of the country's most venerable establishments, such as the British Colonial Hilton and Graycliff Hotel, a former 18th century private home. With Old-World style and grace, it has hosted the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Winston Churchill and the Beatles.

Paradise Island has nine resorts competing for your attention and money. The cheapest is Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat, with rooms and tent sites. This is for serious devotees only, as lodging here includes four mandatory meditation and yoga classes daily -- and they start at 6 a.m.

At the other end of the scale, Atlantis is the power player with five towers of varying expense. This is where to go to spot celebrities such as Tommy Lee, Lindsay Lohan or Nick Lachey.

It's also where to go if you have young kids in tow. Water parks, river rides, waterfalls and dozens of pools and beaches keep everyone entertained and the drop-off kids' club is tremendous. Youngsters do crafts, go swimming and can even feed fish guts to baby stingrays in a tiny stream. While that wouldn't appeal to most squeamish adults, kids think it's incredible to have little rays eating out of their hands and swimming through their legs.

Adult pleasures tend to involve the rapid river ride on inner tubes, spiralling water rides and doomsday drops, and the biggest, baddest waterslide of all -- an almost-vertical 18-metre Mayan pyramid which ends in a clear tunnel intersecting a shark tank.

All this fun costs plenty, however, with rates starting around $219 a night in the Beach Tower and reaching $1,280 a night in the exclusive Cove. If you're on a budget, stay at the neighbouring Comfort Suites, and use the Atlantis facilities for free.

A bargain hotel further afield is the Orange Hill Beach Resort, 10 minutes from the airport. This family-run resort has cottages, apartments and motel-style rooms grouped around a pretty (but chilly) courtyard pool.

The restaurant serves tasty, homestyle food such as grilled fish and barbecued chicken. The lounge is also a popular spot for guests and locals, who swap stories at the honour bar. It is one of the best bests for family and budget-conscious travellers.

The beach here is also spectacular and almost always deserted -- nary a pirate in sight.



SIGHTSEEING: You can indulge a love of history here with a number of historic forts. Fort Charlotte on West Bay Street in Nassau, built in 1788, is the largest and has a moat, dungeons, underground passages and 42 cannons. $5 adults, $2 children under 12. There is also a nice zoo in Nassau, with marching flamingos and several gardens. The Ardastra Gardens and Conservation Centre has more than 300 birds, mammals and reptiles. The Botanical Gardens has 18 tropical acres, with 600 species of plants. Kids will love the interactive Pirates of Nassau museum downtown (King and George Streets). It has a pirate-themed pub, courtyard bar and gift shop. $12 adults, $6 ages 4-17.


Fun can range from four-wheeler tours on the beach to dolphin encounters or stingray adventures. The stingray trip is aboard a catamaran to Blackbeard's Cay where you'll swim and snorkel with rays before feeding them out of your hand. $42 adults, $37 children. If you like fly fishing, try your hand at bonefishing. There are a number of guides and prices vary depending on time and gear provided. Ages 4-17.


If you want to splurge, go to Atlantis. The kids will be thrilled, no one will be bored and there are great kids' programs and babysitting. 1-800-ATLANTIS, At the other end of the price spectrum, try Orange Hill Beach Resort, a family-run complex with restaurant, lounge and pool across the street from the tranquil and deserted Orange Hill Beach. 1-888-399-3698,

- Best bets if you're single: Sign up for the People-to-People Encounter Program. It brings tourists and locals together for a night of cultural exchange. Enjoy a home-cooked meal, attend social events, and learn more about the islands than you ever could from a guidebook. The locals are volunteer hosts from a cross-section of the community. Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, call 1-242-323-1853 or fax 1-242-323-1857.

- BEST BETS FOR REGIONAL CUISINE: Arawak Cay, the site of the summer Junkanoo Festival, has become home to 100 shacks selling fresh off the boat seafood. Here you can try Bahamian delicacies such as conch salad, cracked conch and fried fish. Also try Aunt Jane's or Perfections Eatery at the Prince George Wharf for baked crabs, steamed fish or peas soup, or the Bahamian Kitchen downtown for delicious and reasonable traditional fare.

- Best bets for regional indulgences: Festival Place on Prince George Wharf is the place for shopping. With dozens of artisans selling their wares, you can cart home wood carvings, straw bags, quilts or shell souvenirs. If you visit the Bahamas at Christmas, you can't miss Junkanoo, the Bahamas version of Carnival or Mardi Gras. Street parades on Dec. 26 and Jan. 1 are riotous affairs, with music, extravagant costumes and dance.


The Bahamas has over 700 islands spanning 260,000 square kilometres in the western Atlantic Ocean. Each island is unique and attracts visitors for different reasons.

Abacos: This 193-kilometre chain of islands, uninhabited cays and beaches has naturally protected waters that are perfect for sailing. There are dozens of marinas, guides and boats for rent.

Andros: At 6,000 square km, this island is the largest and the least explored. Dive boats ply these waters, though, as the island boasts the world's third-largest barrier reef.

Bimini: Eighty kilometres from Miami, it is the smallest island, but one of the best known, thanks in part to Ernest Hemingway and his novel, Islands in the Stream. It is the big-game fishing capital of the world.

CAT ISLAND: Home to a few small inns and guest houses, this is truly a place to get away from it all. It's also home to actor Sidney Poitier.


ISLAND: Eleuthera is 160 km long but only three km wide. It draws tourists to its accessible beaches, charming towns and inns. Harbour Island is a ferry ride across the channel but a world away. It has quaint colonial charm and some high-priced real estate.

EXUMAS: This collection of small islands and cays is home to the Bahamas National Trust's Exuma National Land and Sea Park. It's a diver's paradise with underwater limestone and coral reefs, blue holes and caves.

GRAND BAHAMA: The second-most visited island in the Bahamas has a mix of modern resort tourism and outdoor adventure. It has one of the oldest underwater cave systems at Lucayan National Park.

INAGUA: Popular for ecotours and home to one of the world's largest flamingo sanctuaries: the gangly pink birds outnumber people 60 to 1.

SAN SALVADOR: It was on this 163-square-km isle that Columbus landed in 1492.

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