As she delivers a bright orange Bahama Mama cocktail that looks like a liquid sunset, the waitress at the Bimini Big Game Club Resort wails: ‘It’s so cold today!’ You could have fooled me.
In the Bahamas any temperature below 75f (24c) is considered freezing, prompting its residents to don woolly hats and order mugs of hot chocolate.
It’s a hilarious sight if you’ve just flown in from grey and chilly Britain, eager to frolic amid the cheerful nation’s abundant white-sand beaches and sea as smooth as glass. Stretching south-east from Florida, this dazzling sprinkling of 700 islands and 2,400 cays runs for 760 miles, with its highest point, on Cat Island, a mere 206 ft.
Now it’s easier to go island-hopping in The Bahamas thanks to a new twice-weekly flight from Heathrow to Nassau
Memories of the Bahamas’ 325 years as a British colony, which ended with independence in 1973, linger on in driving on the left and the Queen’s role as head of state, but the abiding influence is from moneyed America.
This is where the well-off denizens of Uncle Sam come to fish, dive and party in a safe and prosperous archipelago that is culturally (but not geographically) part of the Caribbean.
‘We Bahamians love to dance,’ a tour guide tells me with a wink and a waggle of her hips, and they drink too. I’ve never seen a place with so many liquor stores.
Tropical: The 3,805-room Atlantis Paradise Island resort (pictured) is just one of the gargantuan hotels in The Bahamas
Pictured above are the bright dwellings on Elbow Cay, which is set on the isle of Abaco
Getting here has become easier thanks to a new twice-weekly flight from Heathrow to Nassau, on the gateway island of New Providence, with Virgin Atlantic. Launched two weeks ago, this complements a well-established, six-days-a-week British Airways service from the same airport. Many visitors get no further than this well-run entry point, with its cruise-ship terminal, casinos, golf courses and gargantuan hotels that include the 3,805-room Atlantis Paradise Island resort.
To find the soul of the Bahamas, you need to push on by plane or boat to what is collectively known as the Out Islands. Here’s our pick of the best.
Nigel recommends visiting the Bimini Big Game Club Resort on the Bimini isles. Pictured is North Bimini
The twin isles of North and South Bimini are just 50 miles off the east coast of Florida, so close that in summer, some hardy trippers shoot over by jet-ski.
The Bimini Big Game Club Resort, with a busy marina and blue and yellow cottages set in leafy grounds, is the best place to recall the mid-1930s era when Ernest Hemingway drank, fished and wrote novels here.
Don’t try to swim. The water’s full of sharks. Head to the superb sands at Radio Beach where you can snorkel over Bimini Road, an enigmatic run of undersea stones that some think is a highway to the lost city of Atlantis.
DON’T MISS: Dolphin House, an exuberant three-storey art house that island historian Ashley Saunders has been building from beach finds and upcycled materials since 1993 (dolphinhousebimini.com).
BOOK IT: Doubles from £190, room only (biggameclubbimini.com). Western Air flies from Nassau, from £171 return (westernairbahamas.com).
PINK SAND PARADISE
Valentines Resort, pictured, is at the heart of the party on Harbour Island, with clapperboard houses in sugar almond hues
Virgin flies from Heathrow to Nassau from £609 return (virginatlantic.com). Fully vaccinated travellers need to submit a negative antigen test prior to arrival and buy a £38 health visa which includes Covid-19 insurance (travel.gov.bs). For more information see bahamas.com.
Harbour Island is home to one of the most impressive beaches in the world, a broad, three-mile-long swathe of pink sand soft as flour that is blissfully unspoilt.
Serena Williams and Kim Kardashian were recently seen relaxing on this hassle-free isle where golf carts rule and restaurants buzz with wealthy families tucking into bouillabaisse and rum cake with papaya.
Valentines Resort is at the heart of the party with clapperboard houses in sugar almond hues, plus there’s a pool, marina and loungers on Pink Sands Beach.
DON’T MISS: Harbour Island is the place for nightlife. Seek out Daddy D’s club and Gusty’s Bar with its sand-covered floor (daddyd.com).
BOOK IT: Seven nights departing on January 15, 2022, from £2,099 pp, room only, including flights to North Eleuthera via Nassau (tropicalsky.co.uk).
KAMALAME CAY DAYS
The Bahamas is full of luxurious hideaway resorts ideal for romantic downtime. One of the easiest to reach is privately-owned Kamalame Cay, off the east coast of Andros and just a 30-minute speedboat ride from Nassau.
White, shingle-roofed cottages set on stilts are strung along a three-mile beach and come with an ocean-view deck, paddleboard and kayak. The world’s third largest barrier reef is on your doorstep and the farm-fresh cuisine runs from lobster rolls to a spicy Bahamian chicken curry made with coconut milk.
DON’T MISS: The resort’s dreamy spa is built over the water, offering blissful massages to a backdrop of lapping waves and a soft sea breeze (kamalame.com).
BOOK NOW: Five nights departing on February 7, 2022, from £2,350 pp B&B, including flights and speedboat transfers (abercrombiekent.co.uk).
Blue holes are a Bahamas speciality – on Eleuthera, seek out Sapphire Blue Hole near Preacher’s Cave, pictured
ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW
Fully vaccinated travellers must take an antigen test within the five days before arrival. Unvaccinated travellers aged 12 years or older must take a PCR test within five days before arrival and must complete daily health questionnaires on the island. If an unvaccinated traveller is staying more than five days, they are required to take an antigen test on day five.
An online travel health visa form must also be completed, with Covid tests uploaded, before travel (travel.gov.bs). For more information, go to bahamas.com/travelupdates.
This is a 110-mile slither of land linked by a long and often empty road known as the Queen’s Highway. Settled in 1648 by English Puritans who named it after the Greek word for ‘freedom’, it has an Outback feel with sleepy settlements, pineapple farms and a scenic brilliance born of it being caught between the deep blue Atlantic and milky green Exuma Sound.
In the north, The Other Side is an eco-minded beach resort with a driftwood chic style that offers organic meals, an overwater pool and a choice of glamping tents, designer shacks and wooden huts for children to sleep in.
DON’T MISS: Blue holes are a Bahamas speciality. Framed with limestone rocks, these bewitching circles of fresh or saltwater are so inviting to jump into. Seek out Sapphire Blue Hole near Preacher’s Cave where the drop is around 35 ft followed by a scramble back up by rope ladder.
BOOK IT: Seven nights departing on January 12, 2022, from £3,725 pp, all-inclusive, including flights to North Eleuthera via Nassau and speedboat transfers (bon-voyage.co.uk).
Just 50 miles north of Cuba, Great Inagua is the southernmost island and a magnet for birdwatchers, with 140 species of native and migratory birds. The star attraction is a flamboyance of 70,000 Caribbean flamingoes in its national park. They live here year-round, with March the best time to admire their courtship dances.
Flights are limited so book early. The simple accommodation includes the colourfully painted Enrica’s Inn in the capital, Matthew Town.
DON’T MISS: The photogenic ‘Salt Alps’, mountains of salt from a factory that has been harvesting the mineral since the 1930s.
BOOK IT: Seven nights departing on March 19, 2022, costs from £1,469 pp, room only, including flights via Nassau and four nights on Great Inagua with two days’ guided birdwatching (windowsonthewild.com).
Stay in Nassau, pictured above, for a couple of nights before joining a cruise or moving on to another island
Life and soul: A fun-packed festival parade – known as the ‘Junkanoo celebration’ – in the Bahamian capital
The Bahamian capital is worth a night or two before joining a cruise or moving on to another island, particularly if you check into the historic Graycliff Hotel next to Government House.
Treats include a delightful, hand-painted swimming pool set in tropical gardens and superb food in a smart dining room with a bow-tied maitre d and a Cuban lady rolling cigars.
A short stroll away lies the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, housed in an elegant 1860s mansion, while Fort Fincastle, built in 1793 and intriguingly shaped liked a paddlewheel steamer, has fine views over the port.
DON’T MISS: A tour of Graycliff’s wine cellar, which is home to 275,000 bottles — the third largest collection in the world. Pride of place is given to a German dessert wine from 1727, the oldest drinkable bottle in the world, which is on the wine list for £150,000.
BOOK IT: Double rooms from £413 B&B (graycliff.com).
Sunkissed allure of the all-inclusive: Sandals’ two resorts in the Bahamas will be updated to mark the hotel chain’s 40th birthday
The young man at the speedboat controls reduced the power of the massive dual outboard motors to idle so his passengers could gawp for a moment at what music-star wealth can buy — in this case a private island with helipad in the Bahamas.
I’d never heard of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, but the couple with whom I shared a bench seat hailed from Florida and told me McGraw and Hill were country and western royalty.
I was staying at the Sandals Emerald Bay Golf, Tennis and Spa Resort on Great Exuma island. All you could drink, manicured gardens, 11 restaurants and a not bad beach.
Jewel: A dip in the pool at Sandals Emerald Bay, a hotel that is surrounded by palm fronds and fronts a mile-long beach
The Exumas are a 120-mile long chain of coral islands, islets, cays and sandbars in the aquamarine sea south of New Providence.
On our day trip, we were nine passengers and two crewmen. My feet rested on a cold box of local Kalik and Sands bottled beer. The sea was clear when you looked down, blue from a distance and pale green closer to the islands and cays, which were fringed with white sand. It was a memorable outing.
But what of my hotel? Well, it was clean and smart — and just 35 minutes away from Nassau by Bahamas Air. Set in 500 acres, it is surrounded by palm fronds and fronts a mile-long beach that curves around a bay of tranquil water where kayaking, windsurfing, snorkelling and paddleboarding take place.
So too, further out, does scuba diving from one of the resort’s shiny speedboats. There are many splendid coral reefs, caves and wrecks to explore and the hotel has a first-rate PADI-certified dive centre.
The Exumas are a 120-mile-long chain of coral islands, islets, cays and sandbars. Pictured is a beach on Great Exuma island
Five nights at Sandals Royal Bahamian and five nights at Sandals Emerald Bay cost from £3,915 pp, based on two people sharing a Club Level room all-inclusive, with resort transfers, British Airways economy flights from London Heathrow to Nassau departing on February 13, 2022, returning from Georgetown, and inter-island flights (sandals.co.uk, 0800 597 0002).
More information at bahamas.com.
Like all Sandals hotels, it is all-inclusive, with 249 rooms ranging from Love Nest villa suites (complete with a butler and a private pool) to beachside Prime Minister Honeymoon villas (also serviced by butlers and with traditional, colonial-style mahogany furnishings) and more modern-looking Beach House rooms — no butlers, sadly, but set in pretty tropical gardens.
Dining choices are mind-boggling. Among the 11 restaurants are an Italian, an Indian, a French brasserie, a Jerk Shack (serving Caribbean dishes) and the Drunken Duck, a British pub-like place where the blurb promises you can ‘discover the heart of England’, if you really want that.
Sandals has two resorts in the Bahamas. The other is the Royal Bahamian in Nassau, which has just had a swanky make-over during the slowdown caused by the pandemic. It’s scheduled to reopen on January 27.
The ‘royal’ comes from Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson having stayed in one of the resort’s older buildings that used to be part of the exclusive Balmoral Club. There are pictures of the King Emperor looking slightly grumpy in front of the Governor’s Residence, as well as one of him inside appearing furious after losing at cards to the woman he loved.
Sandals is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. It was founded by the larger-than-life Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart, who pioneered all-inclusive hotels in the region — and who died in January. The firm is now run by his son, Adam.
All these years on, I can report it’s still going strong — free drinks and a free spirit, too.