Over 3.5 million people pour off cruise ships into the Bahamas each year. And while cruises are nice (if you’re into that kind of thing), it’s statistically impossible for you to experience even a fraction of this country’s 700-plus islands and 2,500 cays if you’re disembarking for just eight hours or so.
But a four-day weekend in Nassau, the Bahamas’ capital city, is a great way to get a taste of the colonial city and explore some of the gorgeous surrounding islands—whether you’re looking for something fun and crowded (like Paradise Island, connected to Nassau via two bridges) or pristine and uninhabited (like the far-flung Exuma Island).
And you certainly don’t have to arrive by boat. The Bahamas is one of the closest Caribbean destinations to the east coast and Canada (second only to Bermuda) and there are tons of low-cost airlines that fly there regularly (including AirTran Airways, American, Air Canada, Air Jamaica, Continental, Delta, JetBlue, Spirit Air, and US Airways).
Here’s our long-weekend guide to getting the most out of the Bahamas without looking like a total tourist.
The Bahamas tends to be synonymous with the mega-resort Atlantis, but now you can stay at the equally impressive Baha Mar, which opened in April 2017. It’s actually three separate resorts: the Art Deco Grand Hyatt Baha Mar, a luxurious, bubblegum-pink SLS property, and the colonial-esque Rosewood. There’s also a 100,000-square-foot casino, over 20 restaurants and bars, more than seven pools, an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, and a 30,000-square-foot spa. If you’re looking for a weekend escape where you don’t even have to leave the resort, Baha Mar’s your spot.
If you prefer a less Vegas-ified Caribbean getaway, book a room at the Melia. It’s still huge: There are 694 rooms and suites, and 11 restaurants and bars, including a swim-up bar in the main pool (plus two other pools). But its Cable Beach location—complete with a perfect strip of white sand—is far enough from the port and the masses of Baha Mar to feel almost secluded (there’s a free shuttle to Baha Mar if you want to partake in the excess there, though). Plus, it’s all-inclusive, so you don’t have to worry about pulling out your wallet for poolside cocktails all weekend.
Morning: An early flight from the New York area can get you to Nassau International Airport before noon, which leaves plenty of time to soak up the Friday sun. It’s never too early for a daiquiri by the pool in the Caribbean, right?
Afternoon: Head into downtown Nassau, where you can scope out the colonial buildings. FYI: anything pink is government-related (see: the impressive Government House); anything green is police-related. Along Bay Street, you’ll find the obvious tourist bait—hello, Cartier—but also the famous Nassau Straw Market, where you can pick up hand-woven straw hats, bags, mats, and other handmade goods (as well as other touristy souvenirs, of course). Then, walk over to the John Watling’s Distillery—it’s mere blocks from the Government House on the Buena Vista Estate, which was built in 1789. Sample their small-batch, barrel-aged rums up until 6 p.m.
Evening: Since you’re exploring Nassau all day, wind things up at Arawak Cay—aka the Fish Fry. This area is packed with more than 20 brightly colored restaurants, bars, and shacks serving up the best Bahamian dishes in an open-air setting. It gets packed on weekend nights, especially after the cruise ship tourists clear out. Grab a local Kalik beer—or three—along with some fresh conch fritters and mingle with the locals.
Morning and afternoon: You can’t go to the Bahamas without visiting Pig Island. It’s not an easy trek from Nassau, but an Exuma Escapes excursion will do the work for you. The journey starts with an 8 a.m. pick-up, followed by a 150-nautical-mile boat trip through the clear turquoise waters leading to Exuma, all the way out to the uninhabited Big Major Cay aka Pig Island. Yes, there are swimming pigs; and, yes, you can swim with them. But you can also feed local rock iguanas, swim with sharks at Compass Cay, and snorkel around Pablo Escobar’s sunken drug plane off Norman’s Cay. The tour will get you back into Nassau by 5 p.m.
Evening: Head to Baha Mar (even if that just means walking downstairs…) for dinner and drinks. There’s fine Chinese dining at Shuang Ba; Katsuya for sushi and Japanese food; and the farm-to-table Commonwealth, among others. Then, it’s party time. For the love of God, don’t go to Señor Frog’s or Margaritaville. Right in the SLS at Baha Mar, you’ll find the LED-paneled Bond Nightclub, a 10,000-square-foot venue with fancy mixologists, bottle service, visiting DJs, and everything else you’d want to get your oontz-oontz on.
Morning: If yesterday’s snorkeling wasn’t Into the Deep enough for you, go diving with Caribbean reef sharks at Stuart’s Cove right off Nassau. Beginners can take lessons, but experienced divers can head out on a three-hour excursion, which starts at either 9 a.m. or 1 p.m., and includes two dives: The first descends 80 feet down the sea walls for 30 minutes; the second could take place at one of 12 nearby wrecks, like that of a 100-foot freighter, the famous James Bond wreck, or the Cessna used in the filming of Jaws. The sharks themselves measure anywhere from two- to 10-feet long.
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Afternoon: Celebrate not getting eaten alive by a shark at the Daiquiri Shack back in Nassau. Right across the street from the Melia, the open-air shack serves up drinks made from fresh local fruit and Bahamian rum (duh) at half the price of local resorts. If you need your Sunday sports fix, head to Bahamas Cricket Club—the Bahamian/British hybrid faces a local cricket pitch, and you can watch games live all weekend (they also air major events on TV, but try focusing on what’s in front of you—your fantasy league is fine).
Evening: Make a reservation ahead of time at Graycliff, the first five-star dining establishment in Nassau. The colonial-era mansion—think lots of dark wood and wrap-around porches—dates back to the 1700s and is as regal as anything you’ll find. The Bahamian-meets-European menu is tasty, but the wine cellar is the real selling point. Once a jail, the meandering basement is now home to over 250,000 bottles worth $25 million. The wine list is 120 pages long, so give yourself time to peruse if you’re a real oenophile. And if you’ve got serious cash to burn—like, Jay Z and Beyoncé bank account status—you can even rent out a special dining room in the wine cellar (yes, the Carters have actually dined there…more than once).
Morning: There’s no need to rush home; your flight won’t be that long. History buffs—and people who just like exploring old stuff—will love hiking around Fort Charlotte, one of the historic forts throughout Nassau. It was built in 1788, and you can ogle the cannons and dungeons the soldiers once used, as well as explore the secret passages and tunnels under the fort’s 100 acres.
Afternoon: Grab one last bite of fresh seafood (with a Kalik beer or daiquiri, perhaps?) at Moby Dick Restaurant, a tiny storefront within Potter’s Cay, another seafood market under the Paradise Island Bridge, where you can soak in the island vibes one final time before heading back to reality.