Take advantage of off-peak deals in these tropical isles
By Kimberly Garza
Jeffrey Brown/Atlantis Paradise Island
This time of year, the Bahamas can claim still-balmy temperatures (averaging around 87 degrees), less crowded shores and, better yet, plenty of great deals at local resorts or on cruises headed to the popular ports. And with 700 islands to its name, the Bahamas is sure to have something to satisfy every type of traveler.
For those looking for an exclusive retreat with a quirky charm, try the picture-perfect Exumas, an archipelago made up of 365 cays and islands beginning 35 miles southeast of Nassau. It's divided into three major areas -- Great Exuma, Little Exuma and the Exuma Cays -- and each has its own unique Bahamian style. The Exuma Cays are home to private houses, luxury resorts and glitzy beachside condos; no wonder, then, it's a popular playground for the rich and famous, many of whom own property along the stunning, secluded shores (Johnny Depp and David Copperfield, to start). Meanwhile, Great Exuma and Little Exuma welcome visitors with a laid-back attitude and more than a few surprises. On the coast of Little Exuma, the Tropic of Cancer Beach (also known as Pelican Beach) is a white-powder crescent of sand, the longest beach on the island and regarded as its most beautiful.
During Sept. 20-21, visitors to Regatta Park in George Town, on Great Exuma, can witness the Fishy Fest Hand Line and Lion Fish Tournament, known as the event that opens winter-season activities. Hand-line anglers (no rods or reels allowed) vie for top prizes for the most fish and the largest fish caught in six hours; there's even a junior competition for teens. On-site vendors serve up a variety of seafood dishes.
More adventurous travelers shouldn't miss a trip to Major's Spot Cay to mingle with some colorful locals: the famous swimming pigs. On a stretch of beach now known as Pig Island, large pink and spotted oinkers live peacefully and swim out to approaching boats, expectantly waiting for food. The story of how the pigs arrived at the island is unclear, but the beach has become a hot spot for photo ops while feeding them scraps.
You won't find swimming pigs on Grand Bahama Island, but you will find a bit of everything else: miles of pristine beaches lacing the south side of the isle, your choice of shopping and restaurants in the bustling hub of Freeport and the lush wildlife of botanical gardens and three national parks. Birding is a popular activity on the island, which is home to the second-highest number of native bird species in the Bahamas, including 18 species not found in the U.S., Canada or Europe. In Freeport, shop to your heart's content at the Port Lucaya Marketplace, featuring upscale boutiques and eateries along with the brightly hued huts of local handicraft merchants. Divers can explore one of the world's largest underwater cave systems, and night owls are drawn to Freeport's many casinos, shows and clubs with hours of entertainment.
For activities, fine dining and a metropolitan vibe, it's hard to beat the one-two punch of Nassau -- the capital of the Bahamas -- and neighboring Paradise Island. Nassau is situated on the 21-mile-long New Providence Island and boasts a rich history. Its early days were spent as a haven for pirates (including the infamous Edward "Blackbeard" Teach) until 1718, when the first royal governor of the Bahamas expelled the buccaneers and built Fort Nassau. Now New Providence is home to about 212,000 people, most of whom live in Nassau. On the island you can explore area history at Gambier, Adelaide and Fox Hill -- three villages settled in the 1800s by liberated slaves. Or walk upon the grounds of Blackbeard's former home, Old Fort Nassau, now the site of the British Colonial Hilton. Paradise Island, just to the north of the city, caters to travelers with 685 acres of resorts and hotels, restaurants, shops and bars. And the beach is never more than a few steps away, with miles of white sand fringed by turquoise water.
Off-season deals in the Bahamas take in many of these islands and more, often at a significant drop in price from the high season. On Grand Bahama Island, the Grand Lucayan Bahamas is a 519-room resort upon nearly 8 acres of pristine beaches. An array of amenities includes four pools, two golf courses, a spa and fitness center and a casino, as well as a kids' club to keep the little ones entertained while mom and dad relax. Just 5 miles from downtown, you're never too far from shopping and eateries. A five-night stay in an ocean-view room at the Grand Lucayan Bahamas in mid-October was priced at $192 per night ($96 per person), a savings of nearly 50 percent over the same stay in January ($381 per night).
The trio of pink towers of Atlantis Paradise Island juts against a brilliant blue sky, marking the sprawling deluxe resort with everything a vacationer could possibly want, from a 141-acre waterscape and the world's largest outdoor aquarium to lagoons for snorkeling, a driving range, duty-free shops and more than 20 eateries, including award winners like Nobu. Five nights at Atlantis in January can cost around $278 per night ($139 per person); in mid-October, the stay is marked down to just $195 ($98 per person), a savings of $83 a night.
And the deals run to all-inclusive locales, too, where meals, drinks and on-land and in-water activities are packaged in the upfront price. Guests of kid-friendly, all-inclusive Hotel Riu Palace Paradise Island pay $327 per night ($164 per person) for a junior suite with an ocean view in mid-October versus $451 ($226 per person) in mid-January, saving more than $120 a day. For a deal on a luxe, adults-only vacation, think Sandals Emerald Bay on Great Exuma. Set on a mile-long stretch of ivory sand, the resort features 183 elegant accommodations ranging from beachfront villas to ocean-view suites, plus an 18-hole championship golf course, a 17-acre marina and private butler service. Added bonuses include complimentary scuba diving and free rounds of golf. A weeklong stay for two in early February was priced at $622 per night ($311 per person). In late October, that jaunt costs $584 per night ($292 per person), a total savings of $266.
If visiting multiple spots in the Bahamas is more your style, check out the many deeply discounted cruises hitting the area this fall. Aboard the Carnival Pride, a seven-night sailing leaving Baltimore on Oct. 13 counts Freeport and Nassau among its ports of call; an inside stateroom is priced at $399 per person, marked down 78 percent. Norwegian Cruise Line's newest ship, the Breakaway, frequently heads to Nassau as well as Great Stirrup Cay, a lush private island exclusively for NCL cruisegoers. Weeklong round-trip sailings from New York City start at $569 per person for an inside stateroom in November and December, a savings of 68 percent. For these deals and many more, call the experts at Vacations To Go, a full-service travel agency based in Houston: for resorts, (800) 998-6925, and for cruises, (800) 338-4962.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in September/October 2013. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.