Judith Baker enjoys the relaxing calm of these beautiful islands
Nassau has a wealth of new hotels including the dramatic Baha Mar development which includes a 1800 room Grand Hyatt and 299 room SLS, with Rosewood due to open this Spring. But it is refreshing to find low rise, low key properties like Sunrise Beach Club still exist here too. Sunrise Beach sits on the same lovely Cabbage Beach as Atlantis, Paradise island. This is one of a few remaining quaint private properties on the island where visitors can access the thrills of Atlantis by purchasing a day pass while enjoying some traditional comfort in a charming beach front setting.
Downtown in Nassau, The Bahamas, we attend a tea party at Government House as the aristocracy did when the Duke and Duchess of Windsor resided here after the abdication of Edward VIII. But although we feel like royalty, this experience is completely free. On the last Friday of the month the Bahamian People-to-People programme offers complimentary afternoon tea with fashion show, live music and shuttle transfer to your hotel, providing luxury and colonial history for no charge whatsoever.
Then for an authentic Bahamian island experience, we head to The Out Islands
You can arrive in Bimini by fast ferry from Miami or for a stylish entrance take the little seaplane that drops you right at the doorstep of the Hilton Resorts World Bimini.
But once on the island things slow down considerably.
Ansil Saunders the boat builder downs tools to chat about when he took Martin Luther King out to fish. Now in his 80s, Ansil still builds boats by hand and is always around to share stories with passers-by. For such a small island Bimini has some heavyweight connections – Ernest Hemingway was also a regular here.
Just 50 miles from the USA, Bimini was an offshore speakeasy during Prohibition in 1919. Nearly 100 years later, people come for big game fishing and the chance to dive with iconic hammerhead sharks. The best way to get around is by foot or golf cart. We cross the island from the ramshackle museum and eccentric Dolphin House, created by local author and historian Ashley Saunders, brother of boat builder Ansil, to rustic conch shacks which jump into life at weekends. On the deserted Radio Beach there is a rusty old wreck, but here you find no Starbucks or KFC. Fast food is from Joe’s Conch shack, CJ’s Deli or Edith’s Homemade Pizza and Bimini bread.
The only big hotel is the smart Hilton at Resorts World Bimini which offers reasonable ferry and stay packages. The Big Game Club, a Bimini institution since the 1930s, still attracts fishermen and divers, and Bimini has simple cottages and rooms to rent which offer the same ocean views and peaceful ambience. There is no neon flashing their presence, just hand painted signs at Ebbie’s, Matt & Kat’s Kottages or My Three Daughters.
Molly McIntosh, who manages the pretty small hotel Bluff House at Green Turtle Cay, Abacos says, ‘No one here will try and braid your hair or sell you trinkets’.
Instead, dive master Brendal who claims to know these waters like the back of his hand, steers the dive boat with his foot while he gesticulates towards pigs on the beach at Crab Cay.
The swimming pigs of The Exumas may be the poster pigs of The Bahamas but pigs are also found here in The Abacos. Brendal seems to know each one personally as well as the rays which are stroked while eating scraps of fish from between tourist’s toes. Other close encounters with local life include petting turtles and spotting parrots.
The 120 mile chain of Abaco islands with calm waters and soft breezes is a magnet for sailors. But on land there is colourful history experienced by walking around colonial Hope Town, with its red and white candy cane lighthouse, or New Plymouth with its periwinkle and pistachio coloured wooden houses. The islands were settled in the 1700s by Loyalists escaping the American Revolution and New Plymouth, a short drive from Green Turtle Cay, feels like a sleepy 18th century English town.
Formerly a private home, Bluff House is one of the oldest resorts in The Out islands and sits on the highest point of Green Turtle Cay. We spend our last few Bahamian days here relaxing on its picture perfect beach and sipping daiquiris in The Tranquil Turtle beach bar.
British Airways flies to Nassau from London Heathrow four times a week. ba.com
FRS ferry from Miami to Bimini. frs-caribbean.com
Ferries between the islands. bahamasferries.com
Sunrise Beach Club. sunrisebeachclub.com
Hilton at Resorts World Bimini. rwbimini.com
Bluff House. BluffHouse.com
For accommodation options and general information. Bahamas.com