So close to the United States, yet the Bahamas are worlds away with a tropical paradise vibe. This must-visit popularity comes not only from proximity but also a plentiful number of islands to visit, each with distinct personalities. You find everything from upscale resorts to laidback beach bars and pristine nature preserves.
While four islands have international airports, and more than 50 have smaller airports and airstrips, some reachable solely by boat. This means the only way to travel to these destinations is by ferry, water taxi or private boat. Here’s a sampling of seven boat-only Bahamas islands to visit.
Sea turtles abound on this namesake three-mile-long barrier island considered part of the Abaco “Out Islands.” Fly from the United States into airports on Treasure Cay or Marsh Harbour. From Treasure, it’s a 20-minute ferry ride to the cay. A couple of marinas, such as at the Green Turtle Club and Bluff House Beach Resort, make it easy to arrive by private boat. The best place to see endangered green sea turtles is Coco Bay Beach. This calm shallow bay to the north is the perfect place to swim and snorkel next to these gentle giants. Reach the bay either on shore by walking or golf cart, or by boat.
Green Turtle Cay is full of civilization too. To the south is the historic town of New Plymouth, founded in the 18th century by British Loyalists during the American Revolution. Walk past the quaint New England-style homes to sight-see at the Loyalists Memorial Sculpture Garden and Albert Lowe Museum, which is housed in a Victorian-era family home and traces the island’s history from its origins. Restaurants, shops, galleries, banks, churches, hardware and grocery stores are on the island.
Smack in the middle of this 30-square mile chain of 100-plus islands and cays, it is relatives of Chester Darville who first settled here nearly a century ago. Today, Darville owns the cay’s sole business, Flo’s Conch Bar & Restaurant. He brought his father’s dream to life by taking the family back to their home when he opened Flo’s in 1993. Darville’s mother, Flo, served as head chef until her death, building a reputation for the best conch fritters. Today, conch fritters, conch salad, cracked conch and conch burgers are on the menu along with Danville’s special rum punch.
Beyond Flo’s, expect good snorkeling on the nearby reef beyond the small dock and anchorage and sport fishing near and offshore. Located 40 miles north of Nassau, the closest airport is 9 miles south in Little Whale Cay, with no ferry service. This makes Little Harbour remote to reach by boat. Perhaps that’s why some of Darville’s customers have included Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz and Sylvester Stallone.
Find a best-of-both-world experience on this 12-mile-long island located three miles east of Nassau. Away from the hustle and bustle of the Bahamas’ capital city, Rose is full of peace and quiet. Back to nature after past lives as a pineapple plantation and private residence until 2005, the now road-less, nearly resident-less island is ripe for a day trip. “While on Rose, guests can partake in snorkeling, exploring, and of course swimming with the world-famous pigs,” says Deb Saunders, sales and marketing at Sandy Toes, which operates full-day private excursions to Sandy Toes Beach on Rose.
“We make our own water and power to leave the smallest footprint, so Rose Island may retain its beauty for many years to come,” Saunders adds. Rose is popular with private boats to cruise over from Nassau. First Beach, on Rose’s west end, is closest at a little over 4 miles east of Nassau Harbor. MacTaggart’s Beach, to the east, is farther and delightfully secluded as a result.
Baby sharks and bigger ones too are the star attraction in the naturally protected harbor of the Compass Cay Marina. “Visitors come from all over the world to have a close interaction with these docile nurse sharks,” says Trevon Rolle, assistant manager. “Aside from these precious creatures, enjoy several hiking trails, a large maze of mangroves leading out from the marina that’s great for kayaking and paddle boarding, a beautiful sandy crescent beach on the eastern shore with gazebos, and a natural formation at the island’s northeast tip called Rachel’s Bubble Bath, which is a natural swimming pool.”
Fly from Fort Lauderdale or Miami to Staniel Cay and take a water taxi to Compass. Or cruise from the Exuma Banks and Exuma Sound through buoy-marked channels, where the draft is six-feet in low and nine-feet in high tide. Marina docks accommodate yachts up to 200 feet and are equipped with reverse osmosis water and 30-, 50- and 100-amp electricity. The marina store sells beverages and food items. The closest fuel is Staniel Cay five miles south.
Where to Dock: Compass Cay Marina
Once used as a nature-made corral where nearby communities raised chickens (hence the namesake fowl), this 50-acre island has been a private luxury destination for two decades. Its vibe is Robinson Crusoe meets the Ritz. Six secluded yet spectacular one-, two- and three-bedroom rental villas start around $20,000 per week in season. That combines with resort amenities such as a restaurant, pool, tennis courts, housekeeping services and watersports equipment. Best of all, an 18-foot powerboat with unlimited gas is included in every villa hire.
Fowl is a perfect homeport to cast off on a trolling trip for snapper and grouper. Or snorkel at the nearby underwater Thunderball cave, so- called for the same-named James Bond spy flick filmed here. Or cruise to Staniel Cay Yacht Club for lunch. Staniel is the closest airstrip to Fowl, and the resort offers guests a seven- minute ferry ride. Or, BYOB (bring your own boat) and tie off at Fowl Cay’s north dock.
Where to Dock: Staniel Cay Yacht Club
Shaped like — you guessed it — a long narrow stocking, the one-mile distance from the Government Dock in Georgetown, Great Exuma, across a protected harbor, makes this an easy dinghy trip. You can explore several beaches on this three-mile-long island, from Starfish and Powder beaches to the northwest and northeast, respectively, to Sand Dollar beach at the southern tip. Right in the middle, and nearest to Georgetown, on a small beach sits the Chat ‘N’ Chill beach bar and grill.
“Try our fresh conch salad and experience a Bahamian tradition,” invites owner Kwanza Bowe. “Watch as conch is taken straight from the sea, cracked and broken out of its natural shell right before your eyes. The conch man then skins the conch, washes it, chops it up, and prepares it with locally grown onions, tomatoes, sweet peppers, goat peppers and Bahamian sea salt for your conch salad.” An easy walk from this eatery is gorgeous sand dunes. Beyond, on the island’s Atlantic side are stromatolites. These are fossilized bacteria dating over 1 million years old and found only on Stocking Island and in Australia. “We also recommend visiting the Jacques Cousteau Mystery Cave,” Bowe adds. “This is reached by a two-minute boat ride from the Chat ‘N’ Chill. The cave’s mouth teems with fish and is an excellent snorkeling spot.”
Where to Dock: St. Francis Resort & Marina
Take a visit to the wildlife side. Christopher Columbus first sited it in 1492, but no humans have lived on this 4.5-square-mile island for over a century. The Bahamas National Trust established a national park here in 1964. Pink sand beaches, lush mangrove ecosystems and spectacular sandstone cliffs make this one of the prettiest islands in the Bahamas. Imperiled long-tail tropicbirds, ospreys, sooty terns and oystercatchers nest on the island, while surrounding waters are nurseries for conch, crawfish, sharks and fish. Green turtles are a common sight in the creek off the southwest shore. Discover ruins of several early 20th century structures made of limestone, shells and mortar, but no amenities or facilities are ashore. So, bring food and water to explore on land. The best anchorage is in West Bay, and a couple of moorings, marked by large red buoys, are nearby. The closest island is Rum Cay, 20 miles south, which has a small airport.
Where to Dock: Conception Island National Park