The Bahamas is, clearly, a beach paradise. But for many travelers, the Bahamian experience can be two-dimensional.
That includes me, actually. I spent two weeks on the shores of Paradise Island, at two beautiful all-inclusive resorts, doing little else than beach-bumming and indulging.
But, it turns out, the Bahamas -- hundreds of unique, lush islands -- has a wealth of lifestyle, cultural, even historical experiences to offer. All of a sudden, the atypical Bahamian vacation can become the perfect getaway.
See Abaco, Skip Paradise
As the capital of the Bahamas, the city of Nassau is a typical focal point for many tourists. And its satellite island, Paradise, to which it's linked by a pair of bridges and which is home to beautiful properties like The Atlantis, is easily one of the Bahamas's most sought-after stops.
But the Out Islands of the Bahamas, a collection of 698 locales peppered across azure waters, deserve the attention of any traveler in the hunt for the idyllic Caribbean escape. Think of them as a more laid-back, more remote, more unhurried version of a Bahamian vacation. Many celebrities flock here to escape the paparazzi (Johnny Depp even bought one of the islands).
Among them is Abaco, flanked by dozens of offshore cays and home to beautiful marinas. This is, indeed, a yachtsman's paradise and home to golf and the famous red-and-white-striped lighthouse.
Be a Hermit, Skip the Crowds
Those beautiful beaches can get packed, so an escape to what was once the monastery of one religiously inspired man might be just what your vacation ordered. Cat Island, named after the pirate Arthur Catt, is located southeast of Nassau and home to the highest point in the Bahamas, Mount Alvernia. Topping out at 206 feet above sea level, it is here that Father Jerome Hawes built his one-man miniature monastery around 1940, complete with steps carved out of rock by hand, which you can still visit today. Lobster diving is big on Cat Island, which offers several rustic, secluded, thatch-roofed beach cottages to spend the night.
Hike the Hills, Skip the Beach
The Bahamas is synonymous with lounging on the beach. But many islands are home to lush nature trails that, while they might take you away from those warm sands, take you toward pristine landscapes. On Bimini, you can follow the Nature Hiking Trail to observe dozens of animals and plants native to the island. And on Andros, where much of the expanse is enveloped by miles of impenetrable and still-unexplored bush, you can explore mangrove marshes and pine forests teeming with wildlife; this island is also dotted with blue holes, fresh water-filled caves found miles in from the ocean's edge.
Sip the Beer, Skip the Bahama Mama
The cocktail culture is alive and well in the Bahamas. I loved discovering the Bahama Mama on my honeymoon, a sweet blend of rum and tropical juices that made everything OK. But the production of quality beer is now starting to take the Bahamas by storm. Kalik is a popular locally made light lager produced by the Heineken folks, who built a brewery on Nassau about 30 years ago. Their most formidable competition is Bahamian Brewery & Beverage, a 5-year-old, locally owned operation on Grand Bahama Island that makes the popular SANDS Beer. Its 60,000-square-foot facility is set on 20 acres near the harbor and features a tour facility and 2-acre sipping garden.
Savor Fine Dining, Skip the All-Inclusive
There's plenty to eat at your all-inclusive, thanks to a plethora of restaurants and your own desire to get your money's worth. The best meal you've ever had? Maybe not. So consider that the Bahamas is home to many restaurants primed for making culinary memories. The Atlantis Paradise Island Resort is home to myriad eateries, including the not-to-be missed Nobu, with its fresh market-driven Japanese fare. The Fish Fry in Nassau's Arawak Cay is a hit with the lunch crowd craving fish (and lots of conch options). And the restaurant at the Landing Hotel on Harbour Island is making a splash all its own, with specialties such as char-grilled rack of lamb and coconut palm sugar-grilled lobster.
Walk in Columbus' Steps, Skip the Sand
Following your spouse's footprints on the sand; how romantic! But how about Christopher Columbus' footsteps? Historic! San Salvador was the explorer's first landfall back in 1492. The exact spot of his arrival, purportedly on Long Bay, is marked by a simple cross made of stone. Like a walk back in time.
Soak in Culture, Skip the Sun
There's more to the Bahamas than golden beaches, it turns out. Culture abounds here, and there are several museums right in downtown Nassau that introduce visitors to the country's rich history. Set in a restored 200-year-old building, the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas pays tribute to contemporary artists, including many young and up-and-coming painters.
Nearby, the Pirates of Nassau, in an interactive way, highlights the country's buccaneer lore, complete with a replica of a real pirate ship, The Revenge. And visitors can learn about a dark chapter in this nation's history at the Pompey Museum of Slavery & Emancipation, named after a slave who once led a revolt against unfair plantation conditions on The Exumas.
See the Wildlife, Skip the Sea Life
What lives under the sea in the Bahamas is breathtaking. But wildlife also reigns supreme inland. The Ardastra Conservation Center in Nassau is a 5-acre park that feels a lot like a jungle, with its many reptilian and avian residents. The flamingoes here are legendary.
And on Grand Bahama Island, visit the Garden of the Groves, a 12-acre botanical oasis with waterfalls and thousands of species of banana plants, orchids and bougainvillea. Birds abound and the kids will love the pigs-and-goats petting zoo.
Go Bonefishing, Skip the Snorkel
Watching fish through goggles is grand, but the Bahamas happens to be one of the best spots on the planet to try your hand at catching bonefish, a pastime that is as legendary as it is addicting. The small silver fish can inspire any budding fishermen to hone her skills and attempt to catch (and then release) this expertly fast swimmer. If you're serious about bonefishing, seek out lodges on islands like Bimini, Andros and The Exumas.