Many travelers think of the Bahamas mostly in terms of Nassau and Freeport -- the biggest cities on the most populous islands -- but this archipelago bordering the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea actually consists of 29 islands plus hundreds of cays. Lightly settled and largely unexplored by casual tourists, the Out Islands of the Bahamas are more well-known to anglers, divers, and nature lovers as pristine outposts of solitude and "old Caribbean" lifestyle. These (mostly) small specks of land are also home to dozens of resorts, mostly located on the bigger islands profiled below.
The Exumas are a 130-mile archipelago of islands made up of 360 cays -- islands formed on the surface of coral reef. As such, it's a premier destination for snorkelers, divers, and other lovers of the open water. Be sure to explore the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, which encompasses 174 square miles of protected public and private cays teeming with marine life.
You'll need somewhere to stay, however. Great Exuma, the largest cay, and its capital, George Town, sports a number of modest and immodestly priced accommodations, from genteel spas to big all-inclusives, notably the Sandals Emerald Bay, the only five-star resort in the Bahamas. There's even a golf course.
A haven for British Crown Loyalists fleeing the mainland during the American Revolution, the Abacos differ in temperament from the rest of the Bahamas. Settlements are scattered throughout a dozen cays and small islands, with the largest, Marsh Harbor, having a population of just 5,000. Boatbuilding and fishing are still an important part of the local economy rather than just an amusing fillip to entice tourists.
There are a few large hotels, notably the Treasure Cay Hotel Resort and Marina and the Abaco Beach Resort in Marsh Harbour, but most accommodations are small villas and cottages. Sailing and eco-tourism reign supreme; tourists can island-hop, fish, and explore the unique pine forests with their wild boar and deserted beaches.
Andros — comprised of North Andros, Mangrove Cay, and South Andros — is the largest island in the Bahamas. It's also one of the most lush and least populated.
Subterranean limestone caves, pine and mahogany forests, and rich, thick tangles of endless mangrove are Andros's hallmarks. This is an island for the nature-oriented traveler: bird-watchers, photographers, kayakers, and all-around pathfinders. Andros is also known for its excellent bonefishing, sailing, and well-established dive sites, with the third-largest barrier reef in the world off the east coast. In October, Andros plays host to the All Andros Regatta, a day of sailing races featuring sixty-plus locally constructed sloops.
The long, skinny island of Eleuthera is 110 miles long and one to two miles wide, so there's plenty of room on the beach. Explorers will love the island's strange natural land formations, such as the Glass Window Bridge, which provides elevated vantage points of the Atlantic Ocean and Exuma Sound, the Cow and the Bull, two boulders shaped like -- you guessed it -- and the Ocean Hole, a "bottomless" natural limestone sink. The Atlantic side of nearby Harbour Island boasts pink coral sands.
There are quite a few hotels and cottages scattered throughout Eleuthera and on Harbour Island, mostly quaint villas, small resorts, and hideaway cottages. The best restaurants, nightlife, and shopping are in Gregory Town and Governor's Harbour.
If you're looking for nightlife, Long Island is probably not your best bet. It is, for instance, the animal husbandry sweet-spot of the Bahamas. What Long Island lacks in social scene, however, it makes up in activities. This island centers around fishing, sailing, yachting, and diving, in the pristine surroundings of an island many consider the most beautiful of all the Out Islands.
Salt ponds, old plantation houses, pink sand beaches, and prehistoric caves replete with ancient cavern drawings are Long Island's calling cards. Snorkel at Poseidon Point, where the careful observer can catch spy tarpon winding through the island's coral reefs; or dive at Dean's Blue Hole ... at 663 feet, it's the deepest underwater sinkhole in the world.
Bimini is another slight slip of an island, just seven miles long and no wider than 700 yards wide. Actually two islands -- North and South Bimini -- this is the place to go for big-game fishing and a stopping-off point for deep-sea fishermen from Florida (just 50 miles west). Diving is also popular, especially the wreck of the SS Sapona, a steamer that was once a floating warehouse for illegal liquor during Prohibition. The "Bimini Road," an underwater rock formation, is purported to be remnants of the lost city of Atlantis.
The only airport is located on South Bimini; but the social center is on North Bimini, in Alice Town. A handful of hotels in the Biminis include the Bimini Big Game Resort & Yacht Club and the new Hilton at Resorts World Bimini.
Rum Cay, San Salvador, Acklins, Cat Island, Crooked Island, Mayaguana, Inagua
San Salvador is famous as Christopher Columbus' first landfall during his voyage of discovery in 1492, while Rum Cay is known for the famous shipwreck of the HMS Conqueror -- in fact, the island is named for a wreck that deposited a load of rum on its shores. Acklins and neighboring Crooked Islands are beloved by divers and fishermen for their shallow, clear waters. Cat Island and Mayaguana have some of the most untouched beaches in the Bahamas. Inagua is an ecotourism destination known for its resident population of flamingos and other seabirds.