Among the dozens of island nations sprinkled like jewels across the Caribbean Sea, only the Bahamas lies closer to American shores than neighboring Cuba.
But thanks to the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1973, the United States and the Bahamas share a much closer relationship. According to the State Department, nearly all of the food and manufactured goods in the Bahamas is imported from America, while most of the country's five to six million annual visitors hail from the States.
All of which is to say, when you touch down in the capital city of Nassau or any of the landing strips scattered throughout the archipelago, the Bahamian vibe's decidedly American influence should be familiar to visitors from around the world.
The Out Islands
The Bahamas boasts more than 700 individual islands and islets, along with 2,000 cays - also known as coral reefs. Just 30 of those islands are actually inhabited, however, and per 2010 census data, some 70 percent of the country's nearly 400,000 citizens reside on New Providence in or near Nassau. And while the capital gets the most attention, the Bahamas is home to many minor islands that have a unique appeal of their own.
After arriving in Nassau, visitors are encouraged to explore the Bahamas' famous Out Islands - including favorites like Abaco, Andros, Eleuthera, the Exumas and Long Island - because exploring outside the confines of the capital often combines authenticity with adventure.
Hopping aboard a daily SkyBahamas flight from Nassau to Cat Island ($169 roundtrip) is the perfect way to immerse yourself in the classic island fantasy, as the capital's crowded downtown setting gives way to serene pink sand beaches and pure isolation. At less than 150 square miles in area, Cat Island is home to only 1,500 or so permanent residents. Cat Island is home to Mt. Alvernia, a rocky outcropping that rises to 207 feet above sea level to become the highest point in all the Bahamas, offering incredible views across the Caribbean Sea.
The tiny beachside retreat known as Arthur's Town - childhood home to famed actor Sidney Poitier - is another Cat Island staple. Locals and tourists alike flock here to sample the sweet-and-sour conch and rum punch served up at Da Smoke Pot - a landmark waterfront restaurant that serenades diners with the sounds of Bahamian tunes played traditionally on the musical saw.
The Orange Creek Inn is a quaint hotel on the northern tip of Cat Island that'll run you about $115 a night. For lodging on the more upscale side of the spectrum, Fernandez Bay Village ($289) and Greenwood Beach Resort ($170) are both three-star properties.
The Grandeur of Grand Bahama
Beginning in the bustling city of Freeport, visitors to Grand Bahama are encouraged to explore the teeming Port Lucaya Marketplace, billed as the largest open air shopping and entertainment district in the Bahamas. Among the network of duty-free stores, locals selling their wares from pushcarts and more than 40 specialty outlets, Port Lucaya Marketplace on Grand Bahama instills the area with a sense of modernity.
Most trips to the Bahamas are embarked upon to escape the modern world and Grand Bahama has visitors covered on that front as well. Peterson Cay National Park, found only a mile off the southern shore, is the site of world-class snorkeling, diving and underwater excursions. For land-lovers who prefer solid ground to saltwater under their feet, Rand Nature Centre is home to a 2,000-foot trail that winds its way through tropical forest and jungle. Birding enthusiasts can spot 18 of the 28 species native to the Bahamas - which can't be seen in the U.S., Canada or Europe - from here.
Discovering the Treasures of Atlantis Resort
The most desirable destinations manage to blend natural wonders with modern luxury, and in the Bahamas, no place does so better than Atlantis Resort. Located on a two-mile long strip of pristine white sand beaches known as Paradise Island - situated just to the north of Downtown Nassau - Atlantis Resort is recognized worldwide as a sprawling sunshine wonderland.
Upon opening in 1998, Atlantis Resort's developer Sol Kerzner sought to recreate the mythical oceanic kingdom of Atlantis from the ground floor to the top of its 1,200-room Royal Towers. In doing so, the South African business mogul created the world's largest open air marine environment, with 11 million gallons of saltwater home to 50,000 aquatic animals, representing more than 250 distinct species. You can walk directly from your room to The Dig, a series of sunken ruins that transports you directly to the city of Atlantis as it may have once existed.
Another great attraction at the Atlantis is Aquaventure, a141-acre waterpark complete with 20 different swimming areas, a mile-long river ride, and dozens of waterslides fit for all comers. The highlight of Aquaventure is definitely The Mayan Temple, an immense replica of a Mayan pyramid. Here you can take the infamous Leap of Faith, a 60-foot plunge down a steep slide that transforms into a clear acrylic tunnel, weaving through a shark-infested lagoon!
Although gambling is generally prohibited throughout the Bahamas, the poker world has descended on Atlantis Resort every year since 2005 for one of the global tournament circuit's premier stops: the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA). Poker superstars like Gus Hansen and Bertrand Grospellier have laid claim to the PCA's prestigious Main Event over the years, while well-known pros such as Vanessa Selbst, Scott Seiver and Steve O'Dwyer have each pocketed prizes in excess of $1 million by winning high roller or super high roller tournaments.
Rebranded for 2017, the PokerStars Championship Bahamas returns to Atlantis Resort on Jan. 6, with 92 individual events running around the clock through Jan. 14.
Most visitors to paradise tend to stay put, especially poker players, but with Downtown Nassau only minutes away via the East West Highway, you can always hop over to New Providence for a more authentic taste of Bahamian nightlife. A common barhopping route along Downtown Nassau's northern coastline will take you from Sharkeez Bar and Grill to Senor Frog's through Ibiza Bahamas Beach Club and Club Luna. Just make sure you go easy on the island's famous Bahama Mama cocktails, or you'll be feeling a little worse for wear the morning after!
Alternative Accommodations in Nassau
For millennial travelers, the online marketplace lists dozens of short-term rental properties throughout Nassau on a regular basis. Peer-to-peer purchased rentals begin with single rooms within private beachside residences for just $50 per night to the entire home itself for $99 and upwards. The stylings and surroundings vary wildly, of course, but experienced travelers will have no trouble locating the perfect low-budget lodging option.
Listings show just two operational hostels in the Nassau area, but the Orchard Garden Hotel is the obvious choice for budget-conscious travelers. Dormitory-style shared living spaces run just $35 a night and upgrading to a private room will cost only $2.50 more.
You can't beat the Bahamas when it comes to beachside bungalows, and in Nassau alone, visitors have dozens of options to choose from. Guests rave about the rare panoramic view offered by A Stone's Throw Away ($350), a 10-room plantation mansion outfitted with hammocks, patios and other Old World accoutrements. Compass Point ($144) is a collection of 18 multicolored huts that take their design cues from Calypso culture, combining to create a Dr. Seuss inspired dreamscape along the shores of Love Beach.
And if you enjoy pursuing personal growth while journeying down the road less traveled, the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat ($120) is an oasis of calm and relaxation tucked away from the action at Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island. Guests can lay their mats down right on the dock for group sessions, soaking in the sunshine while stretching away their stress.
Living Life the Bahamian Way
Whether you're staying in one of the Atlantis Resort's glittering hotel towers or you've commandeered a houseboat, residents of the Bahamas typically try to foster a warm and inviting atmosphere. The "People to People" program organized by The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism connects visitors interested in learning about local customs and cultures with Bahamian families who serve as hosts. Under this innovative and entirely free program, guests dine alongside their host families in Nassau homes, sampling local cuisine like plantain-and-conch meatballs, crawfish curry and Bahamian-style macaroni and cheese.
Visitors are also encouraged to make a side trip to Arawak Cay, located 15 minutes from Downtown Nassau and 25 minutes from Atlantis Resort along West Bay Street. Better known as "Fish Fry" to Bahamians, Arawak Cay is a series of shacks and shanties which once housed New Providence's local fishing trade. Today, the fishing itself has been modernized a bit, but the historic Fish Fry district lives on. You can try traditional dishes like fried snapper, but the true local delicacy here is conch, which can be served "cracked" (battered then deep fried) or "scorched" (seasoned with lime juice, onions and peppers).
However you choose to explore the Bahamas and wherever that journey takes you, the people who call this tropical paradise home tend to welcome tourists with open arms. So whether you plan to play poker at the PokerStars Championship, swim with the sharks at Atlantis Resort or simply island hop to your heart's content, the Bahamas should be at the top of any traveler's itinerary.