With around 700 islands to choose from, cruising around the Bahamas in a hired boat is the ideal way to see as much as possible, and is surprisingly reasonable
I was off to paradise. I’d hitched a ride with some friends who were hiring a boat to go island-hopping in the Bahamas, although before collecting our boat in Abaco, we had a few days staying in the chic Abaco Beach Resort, next to the marina in the island’s capital, Marsh Harbour. Not wasting any time, I had fun here learning to windsurf, while others tried snorkelling and sailing, or just relaxed in the sun.
The town itself has a clean, modern feel, with a good choice of shops and bars – all of which seem to be playing perfectly suited reggae music. I took an excursion to Hope Town, on a tiny island just offshore. The first sight is the much-photographed lighthouse, with its trademark red and white hoops, and magnificent view from the top. But take time to explore the rest of the town, as the colonial-style weatherboard houses, in their calming pastel colours, give it a quaint, picturesque feel.
Next day we collected our boat, and headed south to Eleuthera. After cruising along the coast, past miles of perfect palm-fringed beaches, we moored at Governors Harbour. Although it’s the main settlement on the island, it’s a small sleepy town, but wonderfully pretty with its neat wooden houses and white picket fences. The restaurant we visited was so laidback we began to wonder if it was self-service, but we comforted ourselves that they were just waiting for the sun to dip lower to the horizon, making the moment even more special.
There’s not a huge amount to visit on Eleuthera, but our next stop, Cat Island, had more to see. Reputedly named after the legendary pirate, Arthur Catt, it’s one of the least populated places in the Bahamas. I took a bus to Mount Alvernia to see the mysterious Hermitage Monastery at the summit. The small stone-built structure had a strange aura of danger about it, but the panoramic views are awesome. I found it interesting to clearly see the difference between the deep blue rolling waves of the Atlantic on one side of the island, and the calm, turquoise waters of the Caribbean on the other.
After a hearty meal in the Pineapple Fields restaurant in Governors Harbour, and a relaxing stroll along the stunning white sandy beach, we headed off to the tiny island of San Salvador. At just 12 miles long, this was the first landfall of Christopher Columbus on his discovery of the New World. There is a fair bit here of note, so we moored for a couple of days to take in as much as we could. We berthed at the Riding Rock Inn, a lovely hotel complex with its own marina, and took a trip into Cockburn Town. It’s only tiny, but I enjoyed wandering the narrow old streets, with their peaceful, timeless atmosphere.
Outside the town, the Columbus monument, overlooking his landing site, is an obligatory stop for most visitors. I was also intrigued by an archeological site with remains of the Lucayan Indian civilisation, and managed a brief, but fascinating, visit to the old pirate lookout at Watlings Castle. But of course the Bahamas are known for the sea, so the next day was spent swimming, snorkelling, scuba-diving, and just generally chilling out in the glorious surroundings.
Sailing west the following day, for a brief visit to Long Island, instead of beautiful sandy beaches we were greeted by towering rocky cliffs. We soon discovered the spectacular bays of pink-white sand were on the opposite coast, and are backed by plantations that were once the working place of many slaves. The crystal clear waters here are amongst the best I’ve seen anywhere in the world, and just walking waist deep in the sea I was surrounded by a stunning array of colourful fish.
The same is true of the breathtaking string of islands known as the Exumas, which we shadowed as we journeyed back north. This was where the Pirates of the Caribbean films were made, although the noise and action in those is completely at odds with the tranquil beauty that I encountered. Palm leaves sway in the warm breeze, over the most immaculate empty sandy beaches. Even the tiny waves seem lazy, as they struggle to find the energy to roll onto the beach.
The other islands on our tour followed a similar pattern of pretty towns, a warm, inviting welcome, and idyllic coastlines. On Bimini, two of our group went big game fishing, while the rest of us spent an exciting afternoon wreck-diving. Legend has it that the locals used to disable lighthouses, in the hope Spanish galleons would founder on the rocks. We didn’t find any treasure, but the richness of the undersea life was astounding.
Mooring for a couple of days on Paradise Island offered the chance to visit the Bahamian capital, Nassau, with its luxurious homes reminding us we were back in the more commercial islands. I did enjoy the famous straw market, and the modern centre was not unpleasant, but the lure of the water was too strong. I spent the afternoon at the amazing Atlantis resort, and what they claim is the ‘world’s biggest waterscape’. It certainly was fantastic, with waterslides down mock-Mayan pyramids, and a chance to swim with dolphins in the cove.
Our final day saw us pulling into Freeport, on Grand Bahama Island. Again, the main centres are clean, bright, and immaculate, with modern hotels, shops, and amenities. It’s easy to escape, however, and I enjoyed the quaint, colourful fishing village of West End, and my invigorating excursion into the world of shark-feeding. My afternoon here was spent kayaking through the mangrove swamps, and as we glided serenely through the picturesque waters, I thought back over the wonderful sights we’d seen. Now I was in no doubt why the Bahamas earned its reputation as a paradise on earth.