You can find white-sand beaches lapped by balmy waters in many parts of the world, but no tropical destination delivers the all-out wow factor of The Bahamas. Any flight over the archipelago—whether you’re cruising high above after takeoff from nearby Florida or puddle jumping on a small plane between the many Bahamian islands—reveals swirling sandbars, dark deep trenches, and shimmering aquamarine reefs that look like an impressionistic fantasy.
“Where on earth is that?” many a passenger has wondered, slack-jawed, at the sight of a particular island, with countless others dotting the sea below. The Bahamas are even more magical, however, once you descend to sea level.
More than 700 coral islands and cays make up The Bahamas, with some thirty of them inhabited by humans. Their limestone geology and the fact that there are no freshwater rivers flowing into the ocean here result in crystal-clear waters and abundant sinkholes and caves.
“For a scuba diver or snorkeler, whether you’re a beginner or experienced, this destination is paradise,” says Patricia Wuest, editor-in-chief of Scuba Diving magazine, “There are breathtaking coral-covered canyons that start shallow and then plunge thousands of feet into the blue; thrilling reef, hammerhead, and tiger shark encounters; exhilarating drift dives and caves still to be explored and mapped.”
Snorkeling excursions are offered throughout The Bahamas, and pretty much any place you find humans on the islands, there will be a boat ready to ferry you out to the reefs to explore. On the island of New Providence (Nassau), you can head out on snorkeling or scuba diving trips with longstanding operator Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas to swim amongst colorful parrot fish, trumpet fish, and perhaps even a sea turtle or two atop coral reefs and sunken shipwrecks. And on Grand Bahama, the educational and interactive UNEXSO attraction offers snorkeling at reefs close to Freeport as well as the opportunity to enter the water with Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.
“What’s surprising is not that each island has its signature experience; it’s that they have multiple ones,” says Wuest, “Nassau with its wrecks, sharks, and walls, Grand Bahama’s caverns, Eleuthera’s drift dives and walls—and all of this is practically in Florida’s backyard.”
What many visitors are also surprised to discover is that The Bahamas’ diverse ecosystems go behind its rich coral reefs, with lots to see on land as well for those who prefer to stay dry while exploring.
Part of The Bahamas National Trust, the 40-acre Lucayan National Park on Grand Bahama is home to a subterranean wonder, one of the largest underwater cave systems in the world. And above ground, the park offers a chance to wander through The Bahamas’ diverse vegetative zones including mangrove wetlands, sand dunes with their scrub plants, and even pine forests. Soak it all in on the natural trails and boardwalks here or set out on a kayak tour to paddle the calm waters of Gold Rock Creek.
On the island of New Providence, the Primeval Forest National Park is an old-growth woodland you can access with ease thanks to boardwalks, steps, and bridges. The park is a window onto the tropical hardwood forests that once blanketed entire swaths of the Caribbean.
With so many pristine places still left in The Bahamas, it’s no surprise that the islands attract some 140 species of migratory and resident birds. Among the 28 Bahamian bird species you won’t ever see in the United States are Bahama mockingbirds and banaquits. The island of Andros—the largest and least populated of The Bahamas’ major islands—is particularly popular with birders and home to the endemic Bahama oriole, which is found only there.
Whatever you’ve come to The Bahamas to find, you won’t see it all in one trip. With all the diverse ecosystems and islands to explore, however, trying to pull off that feat will be an eye-opening adventure.