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This morning when I woke up I decided to forgo underwear in favour of a bikini. It's hidden under my work suit, but I know it's there, sitting on my tan lines, acting as a very definite reminder of where I was just a few days ago. I booked a trip to the Bahamas as a birthday present to myself, and as a way to celebrate the end of my summer in the US. Made up of dozens of individual islands, the Bahamas is slightly off the east Florida coast, and as such enjoys pretty decent weather all year round. I went in summer because that was when I was over on this continent, but this is generally marketed as the time to avoid because of the potential hurricane risk. As it happens I was lucky, and had great, clear weather for the whole time I was there, but if you're unlucky / don't want to tempt fate, April to October are the months you should really avoid. I stayed on Grand Bahama island which is the 2nd largest one in the group. It's not necessarily the most exotic or the most visited island, but it was the one to which my local airport were offering $60 flights to, so it was an easy choice.
The island has one airport in Freeport, slightly north and west of the geographical centre of the island. While some visitors enter this way, many others arrive by sea, coming in to Port Lucaya on the south coast. Freeport and Lucaya are the most populated areas on the island, and as such contain the most hotels. In summer (incidentally the low season) these range from $30 per night to over $300 per night, with many at the $70 - $150 mark. Government and occupancy taxes can add hefty chunks to these, so it's worth checking in advance that these are included in the quoted cost. Grand Bahama island does not run to youth hostels etc, no doubt on the assumption that people who choose to holiday there should be able to stay somewhere semi-decent.
I stayed in Freeport but visited several areas of the island during my 5 day stay. Lucaya's Marketplace and Freeport's International Bazaar are the most advertised shopping areas, but neither are overly impressive, so it's just as well you don't really go down to the Bahamas for the sole reason of fitting in some retail therapy. Both are market style setups with small shops and stalls selling duty free perfume and alcohol, souvenirs (t-shirts, ash trays, not much else) and random bits and pieces. They are also over-run with ladies offering hair braiding, who never quite seem to understand why you wouldn't want to sit in the blazing sunshine for an hour while they yank your hair back so hard you feel like throwing up (been there, done that, still recovering from the pain).
Pictures of Grand Bahama (Bahamas)
Each place also has a variety of restaurants and cafes, though the menus at most seem to revolve around American imports (Subway sandwiches, Pizza Hut and Domino's pizzas and so on) and Bahamian fish. Conch is on the menu absolutely everywhere - and in some places it is truly the only thing on offer. As an at times fussy vegetarian I lived off ice cream and cereal for most of my stay - both of which are readily available in all drug stores / convenience shops. Prices were high by US standards, both for food in stores and for meals in restaurants, and what would cost you $10 up in D.C. could easily rake in at $15 or $20 here. 1 hour photo developing sets you back a good $20, and postcards in many places are at the 65p mark rather than the 15p one. Most food is imported from the US or Europe, though some things come with produced-in-the-Bahamas tags on them. Catering to British tourists and expats they offer everything from Cadbury's chocolate to Marmite, though when it comes to publications, it's only American and Latino magazines that any of the shops stock.I went to Grand Bahama with the sole desire to laze on a beach / by a pool for a few days, and so didn't book onto any of the tours on offer. There are many of these however, ranging from horse riding to jeep safaris to booze cruises. Most are fairly expensive (none are under $50 per person, and many are 2 or 3 times that), but they are readily available if you have the time and wallet available. The one thing I did do which was hideously expensive but worth it was to go on a dolphin swim. Unexso (the UNderwater EXplorers SOciety) in Lucaya have several dolphin options available, from diving with them to swimming with them to sitting on a dock while they swim around you. The cheapest is about $60, the most expensive $200. I chose the swim because it's something I always wanted to experience, and figured I should get my act into gear and do before they stop it for being too un-PC. The trips all start with a 15 min boat ride out to the lagoon, then the swimmers are taken off to be fitted for flippers and given a run through of the do's and don'ts of dolphin groping (ours liked her sides being hugged but objected to face touching). Then we were allowed to enter the water and dive and play with her for maybe 15 mins before a training session started and we were taught how to bring forth the behaviors she'd been taught. The swim finished with photos where we all struck dolphin-and-human hug and kiss poses for the camera. About half an hour later - so 10 mins after getting back to shore having dried off and made the return boat trip - the photos were available to purchase from the on-site shop. These came in at between $12 for one and $40 for 4, but you could mix and match people so a family of 4 could each get one of their photos added to the flimsy paper frame at no extra cost.
I spent several days on beaches around the island too. Williamstown beach is served by several hotel's shuttle busses and is supposedly *the* place for natives to frequent at weekends. It's not a busy place, but the water is super clear, the sands are golden and sun beds cost only between 1 and 2 GBP per day (depending on which hotel you're at - I lucked out and ended up staying at one who had a deal with the vendors). Xanadu beach is slightly busier since a watersports company operate from their, with water trampolines, banana boats, jet skis and more. This is a good 45 mins walk from Freeport despite how close it looks on the map - something I found out the hard way. Lucaya beach is slightly busier because of the numerous hotels which border it, but is equally clean and sparkling. If you're down that way and want a break from the sand, the Sheraton and Westin are 2 neighboring hotels which have 5 or 6 pools between them which could, technically, be infiltrated by non-residents. One of these is one of those flat infinity-style ones, where the pool flows right out into the ocean almost. I did sneak a swim there one day, but there were tons of sun beds and lots of room in the pool, so I couldn't imagine anyone minding.
Getting around the island is easy if a little unusual at times. 75 cent busses will take you from Freeport to Lucaya, and basically take any route you ask them to when you board to drop you off at whichever top you happen to request. Taxis are also available, but more expensive, and come with fixed rates - it's $11 from the airport to Freeport no matter what the traffic's like for example. They are also communal affairs which I found strange - on arrival I was shuttled into a taxi-minibus with 8 others who were staying at hotels near mine, and on returning to the airport I was accompanied by the taxi driver's wife as well as the man himself. Grand Bahama island is very flat, so easy to walk around though the intense sunshine can make it more uncomfortable than a stroll around Manchester on a cloudy day. Cars drive on the left (which, as we all know, is actually the right side) so it's American rather than European visitors who have to think twice when approaching roundabouts. Many car rental companies operate on the island, and in addition electric cars and scooters and push bikes can all be hired for a day or longer.
Grand Bahama is very fragrant at times - we got off the plane and were hit by a damp, fishy kind of smell. It's also very lush - lots of palm trees (watch out for falling coconuts - they're liable to drop without warning), vegetation and colourful flowers. The beaches are the cleanest I've ever seen - no litter in sight, pure golden sands, crystal clear seas. Though the shopping areas are highly commercial, the beaches themselves aren't - and on some days I really struggled to find somewhere to buy a drink or snack. That's not a real downside though - just pack that extra bottle of water and something to eat and you'll be fine. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the island. It was a beach holiday with a difference, due in most part to the other visitors - being a slightly more up-market destination, it wasn't full of lager louts or stag and hen parties: instead I was surrounded by mostly American couples and families, who seemed happy just to lie back and bask in the sun for a few days. Most people were friendly and eager to offer tips and advice to first time visitors to the island. What I think I learnt most from my stay, though, is that at least some of the islands in the Bahamas aren't solely the playgrounds of rich honeymooners and the celebrity elite, out of reach to the rest of us. Though prices on the island were high - restaurant meals, even souvenirs cost more than the US, and more than many European tourist destinations - getting and staying there was affordable. For flights and hotel and in-resort spending (taxi and bus fares, 3 meals a day, a couple of stamps, a few postcards, some ice cream snacks and a token souvenir), I forked out less than 300 GBP - the same price as a last minute deal to Benidorm or similar would set me back if I was back home in the UK at the moment. Had I been traveling with a partner the per person cost would have dropped even further since by holidaying alone I was staying in a double occupancy hotel room on my own. Flying out of the US helped, but since transatlantic flights can be as low as 200 or 300 GBP these days, even flying in from the UK and transiting in somewhere like Washington D.C. is more affordable than those glossy holiday brochures would suggest. Somewhere that I always had in mind as being around the 1000 GBP mark could in fact be accessible for only a fraction of that cost. Fish-based diet aside, I would certainly like to return to the Bahamas again in the future, and sample life on one of the many other islands in the chain. For now I'll just revel in the fact that though barely out of college, I've made it to yet another of the big places on my hopefully-at-some-point-in-my-life list.
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