Nassau is the gritty, vivacious alter ego to the relaxed character of most of the Bahamas. The country's only city, it teems with haring jitneys, bawling straw-goods vendors, rum-happy locals and endless waves of cruise-ship passengers. It's appropriate that Nassau has some hustle to it – it's been a redoubt of hustlers for centuries.
Despite the name, Grand Bahama has always run second to bigger, more glamorous Nassau. Yet if you’re looking for a laid-back, affordable getaway with a minimum of fuss, this is your place. The streets of Freeport, its main city, and Lucaya are wide and calm. Its golden beaches and aquamarine waters are rarely overcrowded, even in high season.
The Abacos – Great and Little Abaco, and their offshore cays – are one of the jewels of the Bahamas: a 320km crescent of sand that's a sailor's paradise, a history-buff's delight, a seafood-lover's dream and a bold entry in any diver's wish list. Most Abaconians live in Marsh Harbour, capital of Great Abaco and the only urban area of any size.
Freeport & Lucaya
Freeport, Grand Bahama’s only urban settlement, was built seemingly overnight in the 1950s to serve as a duty-free tourist destination for Rat Pack–era pleasure-seekers. Half a century and several major hurricanes later, it’s now an uninspiring grid of banks, strip malls and government buildings, with little appeal for travelers.
‘Briland’, as locals and repeat visitors call it, is renowned as one of the loveliest, most stylish and enjoyable islands in the Bahamas, if not the Caribbean. Just 5km long and 2km wide, it's a photogenic bric-a-brac of pink-sand beaches and colonial houses that once served as the national capital.
Believe it or not, this one-stoplight town is the third-largest city in the Bahamas. Situated on a peninsula, quiet Marsh Harbour has worked to establish itself as a small tourism and boating center for visitors to the Abacos. It’s a pleasant enough place, with most of the hotels and restaurants lining a small strip of road alongside the marina.
Eleuthera's sleepy island ‘capital’ overlooks a broad and handsome harbor that runs west to Cupid’s Cay, apparently the original settlement of the Eleutheran Adventurers, English Puritans who emigrated here in 1648. It has some faded architectural reminders of its official stature, and is an ideal base for exploring Eleuthera in either direction.
North & Central Andros
Technically one island, North and Central Andros are two separate administrative districts. Sleepy Nicholls Town (population 645) is the closest settlement to San Andros Airport and the center of activity for much of North Andros. Outside of town are some extraordinary hidden beaches and coves – ask a local.
On the edge of the Gulf Stream, closer to Miami than Nassau, this postage-stamp paradise comprises North, South and East Bimini and a scattering of private and uninhabited islets. Naturally stunning, culturally relaxed and boasting excellent diving and unsurpassed deep-sea fishing, Bimini is well worth the 30-minute flight from Nassau.
Privileged Paradise Island – linked to Nassau by two great arcs that may as well be bridges to another world – is unashamedly built for profit and pleasure. Its landscape is mostly artificial: vast hotels straight from the covers of fantasy paperbacks, hangar-sized casinos, ersatz 'villages' in which to shop and eat, and the lushest lawns you'll see anywhere in the Bahamas.
Separated from Marsh Harbour by 10km of clear, shallow sea, Elbow Cay is just lovely. Greeted on arrival by the most photogenic lighthouse in the Bahamas, visitors glide into a broad sheltered harbor flanked by sturdy timber cottages, studded with sails and framed by low greenery.