Nassau, Freeport, Abaco, Bimini. These are household words to tropical travelers looking to escape winter’s blast. Those seeking a true sense of Bahamian culture and outdoorsmanship have a different vocabulary, however: Andros, Cat Island, Long Island, Eleuthera, Inagua.
Even outside of Nassau and Freeport, the land takes on the character of the time-stilled Out Islands, where goat farming, straw plaiting, storytelling, bush medicine, fishing, boat building, conch pens and ripsaw music persist. For those who prefer to go off the radar, here are 10 Bahamas destinations that might just be perfect for you.
NOTE: Hurricane Matthew storm surge caused serious destruction in some of the Out Islands, but all places mentioned here are accessible and operational.
Small Hope Bay, Andros — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Divers and bonefishermen have long kept this three-island group in their sights. Small Hope Bay Lodge caters to the former; the fishing lodges of Cargill Creek, the latter.
The largest of the Bahama islands, Andros is famous for its bush medicine and mesmerizing blue holes. Head to the village of Red Bays for one-of-a-kind hand-weaved baskets. Nicholls Town is known for its conch salad shacks on the beach.
The Hermitage, Cat Island — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
At a whopping 206 feet, Mount Alvernia is the Bahamas’ highest point and home to this island’s top attraction – the Hermitage, built by the reclusive priest-architect Father Jerome in the 1930s.
With a population of about 1,800 and one paved road, Cat Island retains an old-island flavor where Obeah religious practices and ripsaw music survive. An old Bahamian family operates Fernandez Bay Village resort on the beach with an eye for preserving culture.
Fountain of Youth, South Bimini — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Sister island North Bimini has its Ernest Hemingway legends, party beaches and bonefishing claims to fame, while the southern island, a short ferry hop away, hides in the shadows despite the airport located there. It has the better beaches of the two, plus attractions such as the Fountain of Youth, Shark Lab and full-service boaters’ haven Bimini Sands Resort.
Lighthouse Point Beach, Eleuthera — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
The pink sands of its Harbour Island are a celeb-magnet, but the main island stretches long and is relatively deserted. Eleuthera’s hard-to-reach beaches keep them secluded. Plus, its bakeries lure with pineapple tarts, from the island’s signature crop, and fresh goodies from Henry Sands, whose homemade bread won him an invitation to Princess Di’s wedding. Stay at shiny new Pineapple Fields, named for the adjacent farm.
Hand-plaited straw work, Long Island — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Arguably the most traditional of the islands, it is home to a community of hand-plaiting straw workers, plus goat farms and two churches built by Cat Island’s Father Jerome. And we'd be remiss if we didn't mention its natural beauty – ethereal sand flats rife with bonefish, caves, salt ponds, rugged beaches and the deepest inland blue hole in the world. Enjoy classic island hospitality at Stella Maris Island Resort Club.
West Indian flamingos, Inagua — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
The difficulty factor here – Inagua is the farthest island from Nassau with flights only three times weekly – keeps it refreshingly remote. Frozen in a time and place when salt harvesting began driving the island’s economy in the 1930s, it has ducked tourism’s sometimes homogenizing effect.
One byproduct of the salt industry, however, is responsible for Inagua’s reputation with serious birders: the West Indian flamingo. The population of the national bird outnumbers human residents 60 to 1. Around the salt ponds, wetlands and unsettled bush, flamingos thrive along with Bahamas parrots, Inagua hummingbirds, herons, egrets, roseate spoonbills and wild donkeys, goats and boars.
West End, Grand Bahama Island
West End, Grand Bahama Island — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Once the capital before Freeport arose, quiet West End attracts boaters and bonefishermen, but it’s a good place for a day visit or a stay. Score conch pulled right from shallow conch pens and chopped into ceviche-like conch salad, and spend the night at lovely Old Bahama Bay with views of the beach and multimillion-dollar yachts.
East End, Grand Bahama Island
"Lunch Beach" at Grand Bahama Island's East End — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Some 40 miles and worlds away from Freeport, small fishing settlements dot the landscape to easternmost McLean’s Town, site of the annual Conch Cracking Festival. Don’t stop there: Hop a ferry to Sweetings Cay for a sleepy Bahamian village experience or charter a boat for a day of fishing, drift snorkeling in Thrift Harbour or hopping secret islands for the ultimate beach escape. Stay on yet another offshore island, Deep Water Cay, where it’s all about water sports.
West End, New Providence Island
Coral Harbour, New Providence Island — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
It doesn’t take long to escape the traffic and city vibes in Nassau. Head west past Cable Beach to feel the pace gradually slowing. Visit beachfront villages such as Gambier and Adelaide for a taste of the Out Islands. Tour Clifton Heritage National Park, then head for a cold drink, conch fritters, beach time or even a room at Coral Harbour Beach House & Villas.
Man-O-War Cay, Abaco
Albury's Sail Shop, Man-O-War Cay — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
You could call it the anti-Nassau. Not only is it tiny and hushed, it sells no liquor. Unlike Abaco’s more famous island destinations like Hope Town, Green Turtle Cay and Great Guana Key, it flies under tourists’ radar.
Why go? It’s one of the islands’ holdouts for boat building, and you can buy craftsmen’s to-scale models. Also, the sailcloth bags hand-sewn at Albury Sail Shop have a strong following among Abaco’s yachting crowd. Three rental homes sit right on the beach at Schooner’s Landing Ocean Club.