More than 700 major islands and thousands of small cays make up the trickle of islands known as the Bahamas, an independent nation conveniently close to the cruise ship ports of Florida.
Several cruise ships stop at either Nassau or Grand Bahama Island (Freeport), often as part of an itinerary that includes the cruise line's privately owned island, as many of these lie within the Bahamas archipelago. Cruise ship passengers love the ports for their warm climes, duty-free shopping, multi-hued and clear waters, gorgeous white-sand beaches, historic and natural sites, and destination resorts that issue day passes.
Nassau's cruise ship port lies just steps away from its vivacious downtown shopping and attractions and a quick ferry ride from Paradise Island. In Freeport, the cruise ship village has straw market shops and nearby dining, but most passengers head to Lucaya (10 miles away), out to sea, or to the beach and natural attractions.
Click through this slideshow for tips on how to make your Bahamas cruise the best that it can be.
--By Chelle Koster Walton, Cruise Critic contributor
Photo: Costin Constantinescu/Shutterstock
Just a water-taxi hop across Nassau Harbour from the cruise ship port, Paradise Island has become synonymous with its fantasy, Disneyesque Atlantis resort. This is vacation central that can satisfy every watery whim. Besides a beautiful beach, which most ignore in favor of its water features, Atlantis comprises 12 theme pools with everything from the thrill water slides of Aquaventure to dolphin interactions. Families will also love the separate hangouts and activities for young kids to teens and the spectacular aquariums. For adults, the elaborate casino and nightclubs entertain, plus the resort offers a couple dozen restaurants in all varieties plus two shopping venues. Atlantis offers day passes at different price points.
Tip: You can take the inexpensive water taxi to Paradise Island on your own to shop, dine and gamble without charge in some of the Atlantis venues.
Cruise ships dock steps from Bay Street, Nassau's main shopping strip, so you can easily get downtown by foot or horse-drawn surrey. The Nassau Straw Market sells cheap handmade Bahamian crafts and souvenirs; other stores specialize in duty-free goods. For sightseeing, walk along Parliament Square and up the hill to see historic churches, the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, Pirates of Nassau museum, the Governor's Mansion, and cigar and chocolate factories at Graycliff hotel. For beaches, head west to lively Junkanoo Beach and, on the other side of it, Arawak Cay -- a good place to get a taste of conch and other Bahamian folk cuisine.
Tip: For $65 per adult (children and online discounts available), you can enjoy beach and pool privileges, $40 in food and beverage credits per adult ($20 for kids ages 6-12), beach and pool chairs, towels' and recreational equipment at nearby British Colonial Hilton Nassau.
Photo: Kushal Bose/Shutterstock
To really understand the allure of the Bahamas, you have to explore what's under the water. The islands' clear, clean seas, wrecks and vibrant reefs mean endless opportunities for diving, snorkeling, or glass-bottom boating. A number of excursions take you snorkeling out of Nassau, Paradise Island and the Freeport area. Some take you to a private island as part of the excursion. One of the best-known companies for underwater exploration in Nassau, Stuart Cove's Snorkel Bahamas, has catered to visitors like actor Sean Connery for the filming of a James Bond movie and Princess Di. The operation picks up cruise passengers at the docks for a number of underwater adventures. The popular three-dive snorkel excursion includes an eerie swim with reef sharks.
Highlight: Stuart Cove's Sub Bahamas takes you underwater in self-propelled personal submarines.
Photo: Jim Agronick/Shutterstock
Fishing has always been a way of life for Bahamians, so they know where to find the big ones. The islands are known for two entirely different types of fishing: deep-sea fishing and bonefishing the flats. You can find bonefishing charters in Nassau, on Grand Bahama Island's East End and in the Out Islands of the Bahamas. In Nassau, most charters head for deep water 15 miles or thereabouts from Nassau Harbour. Many guarantee a catch or you don't pay. Strap into a throne to reel in wahoo, marlin, grouper, mahi mahi, tuna and sailfish. The charters provide equipment and bait and will even have your catches cleaned and frozen for you to take home.
Highlight: Seventh-generation Bahamian fishermen operate Chubasca Charters. If you're in port for dinner, the crew will set you up with a restaurant that will cook and serve you your day's catch.
Photo: Buckeye Sailboat/Shutterstock
If your ship berths long enough for an 8 a.m. excursion departure from Paradise Island ferry terminal and 5 p.m. return, hop aboard the high-speed Powerboat Adventure to explore the wildlife of the Out Islands. Most notable are the fearsome looking Bahamas rock iguanas that populate Allen's Cay in Exuma. The crew provides grapes for you to feed them off a stick. The tour also takes in the stingrays and sharks at private island Ship Channel Cay, where you can enjoy the beach, bar and a buffet lunch. You can also feed the stingrays bits of fish.
Tip: If you are wearing red nail polish, keep your toes away from the iguanas, who are known to mistake them for berries.
Photo: Mark Breck/Shutterstock
Freeport's sister city, Lucaya, lies about 15 minutes from the cruise port and comprises the main hub of resort action on 96-mile-long Grand Bahama Island. Shop for straw market goods, duty-free items, food, drink and watersports excursions at Port Lucaya Marketplace, lining the harbor. Or plan a shore excursion on the beach with a day pass to Grand Lucayan or Memories resorts. You will also find a water slide and swimming pools, a casino, a spa and plenty of dining and drinking options.
Tip: For a longer, less-crowded beach, head to nearby gorgeous Taino Beach. Walk the short distance to Smith's Point, an authentic Old Bahamian fishing settlement with restaurants.
Photo: Chelle Koster Walton
Adjacent to Port Lucaya Marketplace, the highly esteemed Underwater Explorers Society (UNEXSO) has been operating diving and dolphin interaction adventures since 1965. It practically invented shark diving and pioneered the field of dolphin swims, encounters and dives. You can swim with the dolphins at their home in Sanctuary Bay or in the open sea. UNEXSO also offers wreck and cave diving. The large harborfront facility has its own swimming pool for scuba training and certification courses, plus a poolside cafe and spacious retail area.
Highlight: The Shark Junction dive is signature. Guides feed the sharks, while divers, after a thorough briefing, stand back and observe.
Garden of the Groves
One of Grand Bahama Island's most famous attractions, historic Garden of the Groves received a major facelift that spruced up the lush gardens, water features and buildings and expanded its depth of field. The expansion added artisan shops and al fresco dining that provides respite after walking the trails, watching butterflies, turtles, hummingbirds and herons, exploring the playground, and photographing the charming replica of a historic old-island chapel. The 12-acre property lies about a half-hour from the cruise-ship port.
Highlight: The Labyrinth is a circular walking meditation path that follows the design of one at Chartres Cathedral in France.
Photo: Chelle Koster Walton
Lucayan National Park
Out in the "bush," as Bahamians call their undeveloped natural areas, Lucayan National Park holds some of Grand Bahama Island's most dramatic features. Trails take you to limestone caves, where you can descend steps to explore deeper. One of the caves serves as a bat-breeding area. In Burial Mound Cave, archaeologists discovered the remains of ancient Lucayan tribes. Other trails lead seaward across a stunted mangrove forest and tidal creek, through hardwood and pine forest before reaching Gold Rock Beach, named for a huge boulder protruding offshore. There are no restrooms on the beach; picnic facilities are reserved for tour charters.
Tip: Grand Bahama Nature Tours originated kayaking excursions within Lucayan National Park and still is best at it. Paddles start or end (depending upon the tide) at the site where "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies were filmed.
Photo: Styve Reineck/Shutterstock