The Bahamas are so close to Florida that they are many people’s first taste of international travel. It’s an easy destination to visit, short travel time, and it’s a beautiful paradise… but most people’s first visit is via a cruise ship. That doesn’t have to be the case! With more than 700 islands, on this podcast episode we dig into why visiting the Bahamas is awesome and why they are MORE than a cruise port. Our chat is with Angie Orth, travel writer, host of the Traveling with AAA podcast and former PR rep for the destination.
Being a native Floridian, Angie has been visiting the Bahamas since she was little. She’s vacationed, worked, cruised and even got married in the Bahamas, so clearly she’s an expert. Give a listen as we chat about how to get to the Bahamas, which islands are best for first timers, where to plan a trip for a quiet getaway and how YOU can swim with the famous pigs of the Exumas.
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Need to Know about the Bahamas
Even though a lot of people start visiting the Bahamas via a simple cruise from Florida, there are some things to know for planning any other sort of trip. I love just showing up in a destination for the first time and feeling right at home, but I also like to have the confidence that I can be safe, have lots of fun and get home with no issues.
Do I Need a Passport for the Bahamas?
Yes, you do need a passport to visit the Bahamas from the USA. There’s also a program called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) that permits US citizens to visit the Bahamas via cruise ship without a passport, but with a different US document IF IT’S A CLOSED LOOP. This means that if you’re heading to the Bahamas from the USA on a cruise that only ports in the Bahamas, you may be allowed to travel without an actual passport, but with an enhanced drivers license or military ID. Confirm with the cruise line you’re using if this is correct for YOUR sailing.
If you’re flying to the Bahamas from anywhere, you do need a valid passport and you’ll need at least two open pages for stamps. Visiting the Bahamas is pretty easy, but you need to be sure you can get home!
Bahamas History to Keep in Mind
Despite the overwhelming amount of tourism in the Bahamas, it’s still a place that has a colonial history. This means that as you visit different islands in the Bahamas, you’ll see the vestiges of slave trade, plantations and military presence through the years. While visiting the Bahamas doesn’t mean that you’re going to get a history lesson every day if you’re staying at a resort or something, it does mean that if you actively observe the islands and research your destination, you may learn a lot about the people who’ve inhabited the Bahamas and the tragedies of colonialism in the Caribbean.
I don’t want to be a downer if you’re planning on visiting the Bahamas, or any Caribbean island for that matter, but just being realistic. It’s not difficult to see pieces of history all through the Caribbean, but sometime it feels so far in the past that you may not even consider the stories that come with it. Visiting Puerto Rico brings a lot of very obvious colonial stories (and current struggles), but the Bahamas’ history is less visible depending where you are. Just something to keep in mind and watch for…
When is the Best Time to Visit the Bahamas?
Like Florida, the Bahamas has hurricane season. This doesn’t mean that there’s always a hurricane on the horizon, but just that there are hurricanes that can happen. What’s good about hurricanes (not that they’re good) is that you know when they’re coming. If you’re visiting the Bahamas in the Atlantic hurricane season you can see if there is a storm forming at least a week out, and then you can easily watch its transformation and stay informed as to if it will impact your travels.
Tip: you can monitor large storm systems easily through the National Hurricane Center (NHC) website. I keep an eye on it June through November, whether I’m traveling or just staying home. It’s good to be informed and understand how weather changes.
The “Out Islands” tend to close at the end of hurricane season (September through November) to work on the different properties and tourist areas, so visiting smaller islands / smaller resorts isn’t likely in the off-season. Not all of the Out Islands full close down, but you can expect limited services outside of the larger resort areas.
Where Should I Visit in the Bahamas?
Ooh! So, the Bahamas has around 700 islands, but only 30 of them are inhabited and are ready for steady visitors. A lot of people plan for island hopping when they’re visiting the Bahamas, but that’s not going to get you to EVERY beautiful, turquoise bay. Also, once you start adding multiple stays to your Bahamas trip, you’re overall costs start going up. Kind of like visiting Hawaii, if you’re going to visit multiple islands, maybe start by picking two and build a plan from there.
The most visited islands in the Bahamas are:
- Grand Bahama Island: Home to the city of Freeport, Grand Bahama is known for its beautiful beaches and resort areas, and it’s probably the most common island to stop at if you’re visiting the Bahamas on a cruise.
- New Providence (Nassau): The capital city Nassau is located on New Providence Island, and it is a major hub for all things Bahamas. This is also a major cruise port, so it’s built up to be both a multiday destination and a one-stop spot.
- Paradise Island: Connected to Nassau by bridges (but still its own island), Paradise Island is famous for its luxury resorts, including Atlantis, which features a water park and marine exhibits. **We do not recommend Atlantis because of the dolphin tourism element, but there are other options here too.
- Great Exuma: This group of islands is known for its clear blue waters, pristine beaches, and the famous swimming pigs at Big Major Cay. Swimming pigs… who knew? There’s more to Great Exuma (and the rest of the Exumas, see below)
- Bimini: Located close to Florida, Bimini is known for its big-game fishing and diving. I have friends who visit Bimini several times each year for the sharks!.
- Andros Island: The largest island in the Bahamas, Andros is known for the Andros Barrier Reef and West Side National Park. It’s a nature-lover’s island!
- Eleuthera: Known for its pink sand beaches, Eleuthera has a more laid-back vibe compared to some of the busier islands. Eleuthera is a long, skinny island.
- Abaco Islands: A group of islands and cays known for their small settlements, boating, and fishing. We’re not big into fishing, but if that’s your jam, go for it. There’s the usual Bahamas fun and relaxation in the Abaco Islands, but it really attracts the fishermen.
- Cat Island: Known for being the highest point in the Bahamas, Cat Island is less developed and has a lot of less fancy places if you’re mellow travelers like us.
- Long Island: This island is known for its landscapes (and not too many people), including Dean’s Blue Hole, one of the world’s deepest underwater sinkholes. Think of it as a cenote, but underwater! A part of the Exumas island chain, Long Island can be paired with other islands for an island hopping Bahamas trip.
If you’re working with a bigger budget or more time than we do (we try to hit a maximum of 9 days gone at a time), then you’ll be able to visit some of the smaller islands or out islands. I think visiting the Bahamas really can shape up differently for every family / person planning their adventure.
Best Bahama Destinations for a First Time Visit
Nassau (on New Providence) is a great place to start for visiting the Bahamas. There are lots of flights to Nassau from the USA, and this is a primary cruise port for the country too. Nassau is the place to go the the stereotypical Bahamas trip: fire shows, entertainment, waterparks… Nassau is also a place with lots of history, including several historical figures who were born there (but remember, colonialism…). This is where you’ll find the famous Queen’s Staircase.
Grand Bahama is another island great for a first-time visit. You’ve got beaches, history, lots of tourism areas, lots of infrastructure and direct flights from mainland USA. Because Grand Bahama is less city-like than Nassau, it’s more quiet and with fewer big ticket activities. It’s still pretty developed, but less so.
Ideas for the Bahamas with Kids
If you’re planning on visiting the Bahamas with kids, the Exumas is THE part of the country to visit. The Exumas are very outdoorsy and not overly developed. Besides Great Exuma, there are quite a few small islands you can stay on or visit. There are tide pools, lagoons, and endless beaches. The Exumas are also where you’ll find the swimming pigs!
More highlights in the Exumas that make it great for visiting the Bahamas with kids are looking for conch shells in the shallow water, more calm snorkeling spots than you can visit in one trip, and family friendly accommodations. You’ll find there are a lot of adults only resorts all through the Bahamas, but the Exumas have plenty of family friendly Bahamas options. Also, Great Exuma is one of the islands that actually has a lot of vacation rentals in addition to resort hotels.
Best Bahamas Destinations for a Quiet, Beautiful Trip: Staniel Cay
Staniel Cay is a part of the Exumas (365 islands within the Exuma chain). To get here, you need to fly in or arrive via boat (but flying is more normal). You can fly from Nassau or from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport (FXE). Because it’s not a cruise port like Nassau or Freeport, Staniel Cay gets to stay quiet and mellow. There aren’t cars on Staniel Cay and you get to enjoy golf cart life, kind of like on Isla Holbox near Cancun.
Embrace Resort on Staniel Cay is right by the landing strip. It’s so chill that you can take your shoes off when you get off the plane and never put them back on. Being such a small sort of place, you can easily set up the unique island experiences you want with the locals, such as spa services or island hopping.
Unique Bahamas Experiences
I know that I love visiting new beaches and am thrilled just with fresh sand. Visiting the Bahamas means more than beaches though, as the country has some wonderfully unique tourist activities. Before I get deep into it, I’ll admit that I don’t have all the details about the guidelines of the different wildlife experiences and natural sites. For example, Thunderball Cave or petting the sharks… But what I can tell you is there are ample truly Bahama things to do.
Swimming with Pigs in the Bahamas
The very first time I saw that there were swimming pigs in the Bahamas, I didn’t really understand the level of cuteness and how it worked. Here’s the scoop though: the pigs live in the Exumas, as well as other island areas, and they are very used to human interaction. They are on certain beaches and sometimes just hang out, and then sometimes they’re swimming with visitors. Swimming with pigs in the Bahamas is Caribbean bucket list activity for some, but not for everyone. Also, I’ve heard from some friends that the pigs can be cranky or feel unsafe, so only do what you actually feel okay with.
Stingrays and Sharks in the Bahamas
Compass Cay is THE place to go for swimming with sharks! Don’t worry, they’re nurse sharks, which are like ocean puppies. We’ve paddled with nurse sharks all through the Florida Keys and love them. They are more skittish than some types of shark normally, but in the Bahamas the nurse sharks of Compass Cay are very used to humans. And no, they don’t have giant teeth like great white sharks, but are mellow, big fish basically. Again though, don’t do an activity you’re not comfortable with.
There are also stingrays in the Bahamas that you can swim with. Stingray City is well know for being a safe place to swim with stingrays, and it’s a very popular cruise excursion if you’re visiting Coco Cay with Royal Caribbean. In general, unless you’re doing a guided stingray experience, interacting with rays of any sort is at your own risk. We’ve doing snorkeling with manta rays several times (on the Big Island of Hawaii) but that’s very different as they don’t have barbed tails and have different behaviors than stingrays.
How to Get to the Bahamas
Because the Bahamas are so close to the mainland USA (Florida specifically), there are actually quite a few ways to get there. Visiting the Bahamas isn’t just a cruise port you can do for 8 hours, and it’s not a week at an all-inclusive property. You can do the Bahamas however you like.
Flying to the Bahamas – Direct Flights
From Florida, you have lots of options for getting to the Bahamas. Flying from Miami (MIA) or Fort Lauderdale (FLL or FXE) is super easy. Palm Beach (PBI) also has direct flights, and you’ll be shocked how cheap they can be.
Nassau (NAS) has the most direct flights from all around, including London, Seattle, Calgary and more Caribbean destinations. To Freeport (FPO) you can fly direct from Montreal, Toronto, and several Florida airports. To Great Exuma (GGT) you can fly from Toronto, Atlanta, Charlotte and Florida airports. Since there are so many direct flights to different Bahamas islands you can get wherever you need to be with usually just one connecting flight, or two if you’re doing a smaller Bahama destination.
Ferry from Fort Lauderdale to the Bahamas
If you’re visiting the Bahamas and want to take the ferry, you can do a leisurely boat ride from Fort Lauderdale to Grand Bahama or Bimini (a small but awesome island). This takes longer than a flight, but at 3-5 hours it’s a great option, particularly if you’re going to be in the Fort Lauderdale / Miami area. This runs about $300 USD per person through Balearia Caribbean Ferries. The longer leg of travel between the Bahamas and Fort Lauderdale is due to a layover on that leg (it’s a circle route).
Note: when you’re booking, it may seem cheaper, but there is a large ticketing fee ($70 USD).
The Bahamas via Cruise Ship
Grand Bahama is the main cruise destination, with Nassau coming in close behind. Day excursions from the ship give you enough time to explore the port area and do an activity. Depending on the port you’re in, excursions may include food tours, Jeep tours, kayaking or SUP, swimming with sting rays or pigs, or doing a historic tour of whichever island you’re on.
Most cruise ship stops in the Bahamas last about 8 hours, so it’s enough time to explore on your own and have some beach time, or do a guided tour. What’s nice about the guided or cruise-arranged experiences is that they know you are limited with your time and you must be to your ship for departure, so you minimize the risk of missing your boat. I’ll be honest, it’s tough to follow somebody else’s timeline when I’m in a destination, but for a cruise with a set schedule, I can do it!
Visiting the Bahamas via cruise ship is a great way to get a taste of the islands and see some beautiful scenery. Consider cruising to the Bahamas as a beginner experience to figure out what you want to do and see on your next trip.
This is a lot of information! Visiting the Bahamas is one of the most accessible, easy Caribbean options from the USA or Canada. With so many islands and resort options, it’s also one of the most affordable.
If you have any questions about planning a trip to the Bahamas or the rest of the Caribbean, please leave a comment or send us a note. We’re always happy to share our experiences and resources to help other have awesome travel experiences!