September/October 2000 Issue

  Nobody is exactly sure how many islands form the Bahamas. Those in the know estimate that 700 is a good guess. But, like the tides, some of the small spits of land in this Caribbean necklace come and go as the water level ebbs and flows. This 760-mile-long chain of islands, cays, and reefs is like a blue-green kingdom with colors so intense they dazzle the eye.
In the 1940s, when the duke and duchess of Windsor ruled the Bahamas, the islands were considered the exclusive playground of the rich and famous. Today, the rich and famous mingle with people from all walks of life and all enjoy this paradise.
    Lucayan Indians originally settled the Commonwealth of the Bahamas in the ninth century. In 1492, Columbus landed on Guanahani, later naming it San Salvador (Holy Savior), and was followed by conquistadors searching for gold. It was Columbus, though, who gave the island chain its name. After observing the shallow sea around the islands, he called them the "baja mar," effectively naming the area the Bahamas.
    The islands became a crown colony but were lost to Spain during the American Revolution. In 1783, they were restored to Great Britain, which continued to rule until 1973, when the Commonwealth of the Bahamas declared its independence. Today it has a parliamentary democratic government.
    The islands have some of the best diving and snorkeling in the Caribbean. Barrier reefs, fringing reefs, platform reefs, and atolls draw a wide variety of sea life.
    Rich in history and culture, the Bahamas offer visitors a myriad of sports choices, including sailing, windsurfing, fishing, diving, golf, tennis, biking, hiking, and horseback riding. The islands feature museums and national parks, art and architectural style, music and rituals such as Goombay and Junkanoo, wonderful Bahamian cuisine, the beach, and, of course, shopping.
The islands have some of the best diving and snorkeling in the Caribbean. Barrier reefs, fringing reefs, platform reefs, and atolls draw a wide variety of sea life. The island of Andros has the third largest barrier reef in the world, while Grand Bahama is home to the headquarters of UNEXSO, the renowned Bahamian diving school. Divers can explore underwater caves and shipwrecks including the USS Adirondack, the 125-year old American warship lying off Man-o-War Cay, a train freighter intentionally sunk off Freeport/Lucaya, and the MS Comberbach off Cape Santa Maria.

The Abacos
At the northeastern tip of the Bahamas chain, the Abacos stretch roughly 130 miles. They encompass tranquil bays, beaches, pine forests, corkwood tree thickets, and pastel New England-style villages. Home to the colorful Abaco parrot, the Albert Lowe Museum, the Memorial Gardens, and the Hope Town Lighthouse, many of the residents are descendants of British loyalists who fled the United States after the Revolutionary War.

In the 16th century, the Spaniards dubbed Andros La Isla del Espiritu Santo, the Island of the Holy Spirit. A haven for divers and fishermen and home to the oldest dive resort in the world, Andros’ crystal-clear waters maintain a year-round temperature of 80 degrees. Also a favorite spot for bonefishing, it has perhaps a greater diversity of marine life, flora, and fauna than anywhere else in the country. On or off land, visitors can explore ancient blue holes formed by water erosion, or search for the mythical Chick Charnie, the legendary half-man, half-bird figure that protects against evil.

The Berry Islands
The Berry Islands are a cluster of 30 islands and 100 cays lying 35 miles north of Nassau. Permanent home to only 700 people, the islands offer the perfect setting for privacy seekers. Known as a stopover point for yachtsmen and for fishermen on the hunt for sailfish, blue marlin, and giant bluefish tuna, the Berry Islands boast some of the most unspoiled beaches in the world. The southernmost tip of the islands is Chub Cay, known as the billfish capital of the Bahamas, which overlooks the deep-sea trench, the Tongue of the Ocean.

Long known as the big-game fishing capital of the Bahamas, Bimini is legendary for its land-dwelling "big fish" as well: Ernest Hemingway, Howard Hughes, Richard Nixon, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. all came for the sport and sun. The only island whose deep-water side faces west, the Biminis–North Bimini and South Bimini–stretch across the Gulf Stream, making the waters rich in such fish as wahoo, marlin, and sailfish. The history of the Biminis dates back to Ponce de León, who visited the area in 1513. The waters of the Healing Hole are famous, as is Memory Ledge: It is said that if you lie down face up at the ledge, you will be struck with flashbacks of your life. There also are many diving opportunities on Bimini and it is rumored that the Lost Continent of Atlantis is located off shore.

Cat Island
The least inhabited of the Bahama islands, Cat Island is home to secluded pink- and white-sand beaches, rolling hills, rocky cliffs, and cerulean waters. It offers a wealth of diving, snorkeling, and fishing opportunities, as well as many historic sites dating back to the 1600s. Mount Alvernia, the highest point in the Bahamas, rises 206 feet through a thick forest that is also home to The Hermitage, a small monastery at the summit of the mountain.

Crooked Island
According to Bahamian legend, when Columbus sailed down the Crooked Island Passage, the sweet aroma of native herbs drifted out to the ship and delighted his senses, giving the islands their nickname, "Fragrant Islands." However, it was not until the 18th century that settlers were known to have set foot on Crooked Island. Since then, the Cascarilla shrub has been stripped for its bark and used as flavoring in Campari liqueur. Caves and ruins invite visitors, while bird sanctuaries and reefs teeming with fish attract divers and bird-watchers.

English settlers arrived in 1647 in search of religious freedom and named the island on which they landed Eleuthera, the Greek word for "freedom." Perhaps the best-known Out Island of the Bahamas and the agricultural center of the chain, Eleuthera gave the islands the first written constitution that called for the establishment of a republic. Today, the island attracts visitors to its abundant water-related activities. The Devil’s Backbone is a long stretch of fringing reef and shipwrecks, while the Current Cut is a playground to experienced divers.

Wild cotton plays an important historical role in the Exumas, a string of 365 islands and cays along 120 miles of ocean. But the islands are better known as the backdrop for not one, but two James Bond movies, and for the Annual Family Island Regatta. In a tribute to the tradition of racing workboats, handmade sloops with wooden hulls, canvas sails, and tall wooden masts bring Elizabeth Harbour to life every April. The rare Bahamian iguana, brilliant coral reefs, and exotic marine life can be found in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, a 176 square-mile natural preserve.

Grand Bahama Island
Known as the golf capital of the Bahamas, Grand Bahama Island, home to Freeport/Lucaya, offers visitors world-class shopping, nightlife, and dining, as well as watersports. With some of the most colorful waters, ancient caves, and shipwrecks, combined with a rich diversity of marine life, diving around Grand Bahama Island is an unforgettable experience.

Harbour Island
Harbour Island is renowned for its three-mile pink sand beach and charming New England architecture. Divers are attracted to the Plateau and Arch, both giant coral structures densely populated with marine life. The island’s first major settlement of Dunmore Town was originally the capital of the Bahamas.

Inagua is one of the largest breeding destinations in the western hemisphere of not only the West Indian flamingo but also many waterbirds, exotic parrots, and the Bahama woodstar, a dazzling hummingbird that isn’t found anywhere else in the world. Mostly flat and scrub, Inagua is the third largest island of the Bahamas, dominated by a national park and Lake Windsor.

Long Island
One of the most scenic hideaways in the Bahama chain, Long Island is divided by the Tropic of Cancer and bordered on each side by contrasting coasts, one with a white sand beach, the other with rocky headlands that descend into the sea. Many Loyalist mansions are reminders of the island’s past, and the original carriage road, built more than a century ago, still connects major settlements situated around the island’s harbors and anchorages.

New Providence Island
Home of Nassau and Paradise Island, this is the historic core of the nation and capital of the Bahamas. Famous for its bustling Straw Market, horse-drawn surreys, and nightlife, history was made and preserved here in Victorian mansions, cathedrals, 18th-century fortresses and the sixty-six-step Queen’s Staircase leading to a breathtaking view of the island. A bridge over the harbor leads to Paradise Island’s sand and surf.

San Salvador
At the eastern tip of the island chain lies San Salvador, the exposed peak of a submerged mountain that plunges 15,000 feet to the ocean floor. San Salvador is dotted with monuments, ruins, and wreck sites–the ultimate escape for divers, fishermen, yachtsmen, and those who yearn to relax in serenity.

Travel writer Della Smith lives in New York Cty, where she writes magazine articles and runs a public relations business.