Snag a window seat on your flight into Nassau for long-before-you-land views that look like the South Pacific. The 700-odd islands of the Bahamas and thousands of coral cays spread across 100,000 square miles of Atlantic Ocean, creating a swirling waterscape that looks like a painter’s palette. Even though Nassau is the buzzing hub of the Bahamas, home to more than half the population, life here is hardly about the low-lying limestone terrain. The islands of Nassau—New Providence and Paradise Island—sit some 180 miles off Florida’s south coast, and everything about life here is connected to all that surrounding blue. Test your courage while snorkeling with reef sharks, feed a wild stingray by hand or just chill under a palm-frond parasol beside water that mirrors the sky. It’s all within easy reach.
Most people refer to New Providence island as Nassau, but that’s also the name of the historic port city where most of the island’s 250,000 residents live. Nassau is linked by two bridges to the much smaller Paradise Island, home to most of the big-name resorts. The best-known is the sprawling Atlantis, which has pink towers and an 8-million-gallon “marine environment” brimming with rays, jellyfish, piranhas and more. Atlantis’s massive water park rivals the best theme parks anywhere; it has towering slides, wave action and a lazy river.
One of the region’s best dolphin interactions is at Dolphin Cay Atlantis, a facility housing 16 dolphins rescued from a Mississippi park after Hurricane Katrina. You can power-swim alongside the animals using an underwater scooter, and “surf” lying atop a bodyboard while dolphins push your feet, propelling you across the lagoon. Then there’s the Walking With Sharks activity, in which you don a helmet that lets you breathe underwater inside a shark tank. After descending with a guide to about 15 feet, you literally walk through the water for close encounters with nurse sharks and Caribbean reef sharks.
Visitors who limit their Paradise Island time to man-made attractions, however, miss what many locals consider the finest stretch of sand—Cabbage Beach, in front of Riu Palace Paradise Island and the One&Only Ocean Club, and open to the public. “Even though we live in Nassau, going to Cabbage Beach makes us feel as if we’re on vacation,” says Debbie Coble, who moved to Nassau from Orlando. “The beach is so clean, it feels like a huge swimming pool.” And according to Coble, Nassau’s best massages are found right here. When the weather is fine, look for a beach cabana run by a man named Colin. Arrive in your swimsuit and settle onto the table for an hour or half-hour massage with lapping waves for a sound track.
Restaurants on Paradise Island are notoriously pricey (think $18 for a sushi roll at Atlantis’s Nobu). So cross the bridge for a more casual and affordable meal on Arawak Cay (aka West Bay Street). About 5 minutes from downtown Nassau, the collection of colorful wooden buildings on the waterfront is known to locals as the Fish Fry. Every manner of seafood—particularly conch, the Bahamas’ ubiquitous shellfish—is presented with flair. Conch salad, for example, is prepared before your eyes with a deft crack of the shell and 5 minutes of theatrical chopping, and finished off with a squeeze of fresh lime and orange juice. It’s best enjoyed with Sky Juice, a potent cocktail made from coconut water and gin that'll cost you about $5 a pop. Weekend nights are particularly happening at the Fish Fry, when there’s live music and lots of locals and tourists hanging around to see and be seen.
You can drive all way around New Providence in about an hour and a half, but it’s better to make a leisurely day of it. Pack snorkels, masks, fins and beach towels and pull over where you like, at roadside caves and snorkeling coves. Just remember to drive on the left side of the road!
Leaving Nassau proper, make Cable Beach your first stop. This 4-mile stretch of sand is the island’s longest and the best spot for a stroll. Then drive a few miles west to cool down at a small open-air wooden bar marked with a sign that reads “Tropical Daiquiris.” Masks and costumes from Nassau’s favorite festival, Junkanoo, serve as decoration, and a generator humming under the ledge of a nearby cave powers the blenders. Andy Jones, the island’s unofficial master mixologist, whips fresh fruit into delicious, perhaps-these-are-even-healthy cocktails laced with Bahamian Fire in De Hole rum. Papayas, mangoes and strawberries are involved, but don’t expect an answer if you inquire as to what comes out of the mystery bottle (“That’s like asking Colonel Sanders for his secret recipe,” Jones says). There’s usually an enterprising local on hand to show you into a small cave system where pirates are rumored to have stashed their treasure; now it flickers with fruit bats.
As you continue west, Orange Hill Beach sneaks up on you (look for a small sign and a few parking spots by the road). The beach is rocky, all the better for scoping tropical fish and sea turtles in the turquoise shallows without having to take a boat out to the reef.
On the northwest shore, stop for lunch at Compass Point Beach Resort, whose colorful bungalows sit on low cliffs. The restaurant hangs over the water and is a prime place to chill with a bucket of Sands (a local beer) and a plate of conch fritters.
The main destination on New Providence’s less developed southwestern coast is <>Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas. A hugely successful dive and snorkel enterprise, it has earned a reputation as the “Underwater Hollywood,” thanks to filmmakers lured by its picturesque wrecks and a healthy population of Caribbean reef sharks. The James Bond movie Never Say Never Again and, indeed, one of the Jaws movies are among those that were filmed here. If you’re scuba certified, you can take part in the Shark Adventure; the $150 per person fee includes a free-swim dive and a shark-feeding dive. Reef sharks are fed within several feet of your mask as you kneel on the ocean bottom, 40 feet down. After the dive there’s time to search for shark teeth in the sand. Daily snorkeling trips ($65 per person for half-day trips, $30 for kids 11 and under) are a milder affair, exposing you to the island’s beautiful reefs (where you just might see a shark or two ).
For a taste of the low-key Out Islands, book a day trip to the Exumas with Powerboat Adventures. You’ll depart from the ferry terminal on Paradise Island aboard a boat carrying up to 58 passengers for the hour-long, 38-mile crossing to the chain’s northernmost islands. The trip starts with a visit to Allen’s Cay, home to native iguanas that take tourist snacks campfire style: Stick a grape on the end of a stick and watch the “Bahamian dragons” come running from all directions. Then the boat spirits you away, cutting close to the limestone islands to maximize views and adrenaline, before alighting on Ship Channel Cay, where you’ll spend a Robinson Crusoe-style afternoon.
“I hear a lot of screaming every day,” says Mona Wiethuechter, a Powerboat Adventures employee, laughing, “but the stingrays are actually quite cuddly.” Yes, stingray feeding in the gin-clear shallows is next on the agenda. Kneel in the water and hold a piece of raw grouper or mahi-mahi between your fingers, then feel the vacuum-cleaner-like siphoning of the ray’s mouth as it whisks the snack away.
Reggae vibes beat from a wooden hut at the end of the dock that doubles as an open bar. Here people settle into vacation mode, ordering rum drinks and kicking back in the sand before the main event: the shark feeding. Wranglers use fish heads to draw in 6-foot lemon sharks as well as Caribbean reef and nurse sharks, giving everyone a chance to ogle them from the beach and take photographs.
Later it’s into the water for group drift snorkels in the pass, where you’ll be lucky to spot a shark—they retreat into the deep once the feeding is over. The crystal waters are only about 7 feet deep at high tide, and visibility of 100 feet is normal. Your eyes will widen behind your mask at the sight of waving purple sea fans, orange tube sponges and all manner of colorful wrasses, damsels and butterfly fish flitting like a handful of tossed confetti below you.
Wind down after your activity-filled day with a deep-tissue or hot-stone massage in the sleek 30,000 square-foot Mandara Spa Atlantis. Or book a Balinese massage at the One&Only Spa, where treatments take place within the private confines of your very own Spa Villa. Inside, you can use the hydrobath and waterfall shower before your massage. More water makes a fitting ending to a perfect Bahamian day.