Many Americans and Europeans think the Bahamas are too close to the States to be an exotic, tropical charter destination. The truth is exactly the opposite.
My first charter in the Bahamas came just a few weeks after I cruised in one of my dream locales: Fiji. I’d been harboring visions of the South Pacific’s white sand beaches, pristine coves and sparkling aquamarine waters for as long as I can remember, and Fiji did not disappoint. I was still on something of a high, or perhaps a jetlag-induced stupor from the 18-hour return trip, when I packed my bags for my relatively quick flight from New York to Georgetown, Bahamas, and the nearby marina where my motoryacht awaited. Based on my previous trips to the Bahamian city of Nassau—where tacky souvenir shops hawk everything a pasty white tourist could ever want— I feared this charter would be a huge letdown after my Fiji cruise, a blood sugar-like drop in exotic vacation euphoria.
The Bahamas, quite frankly, have always been cursed with a lack of cache. They’re best known as the home of Atlantis Resort and Casino, a Las Vegas-inspired sprawl of pink that sits on Paradise Island complete with shark-filled aquarium and nosebleed-inducing waterslide. Atlantis also happens to be home to what is arguably the best megayacht marina in the Bahamas, so it serves as a base for most large-yacht charters. Mine was no different, though instead of starting out there and cruising round-trip, we began down south in Georgetown and worked our way back to Atlantis and the international airport on Nassau, making our way up through the Exumas chain.
I have to say, the experience shocked me. Here I’d been, fully expecting a so-so seascape, when in reality I found a paradise that’s much easier to get to from U.S. and European shores than Fiji or even the Caribbean could ever hope to be.
The Bahamian water was even more vibrant than what I’d seen on the other, more marketable side of the planet. Civilization was almost as minimal: a few inns painted bright pinks and yellows, some with food service on their waterfront porches, others offering simple glasses of lemonade. The harbors were downright empty, and the beaches were ours alone. Our megayacht was one of only three we saw on the water during the entire week. The islands were close together, so there were no long, uncomfortable days at sea. The conch sandwiches were bottomless, and the bartenders were generous.
In retrospect, I think the Bahamas may be one of the best-kept secrets in charter.
The Bahamas comprise several chains that start due east of West Palm Beach, Florida, and run southeast until they merge with the Turks and Caicos Islands, north of Haiti. The closest Bahamian island to the U.S. shore is Grand Bahama, which is home to the resort towns of Freeport and Lucaya. East of Grand Bahama is Abaco Island, and south from there are the aforementioned Nassau and Paradise Island.
That northernmost group of islands is where most Bahamian mass tourism occurs, and where most day and weekend cruisers from the States end up on their own boats. Luckily, charter yachts that spend the whole season in this part of the world can access quiet, private marinas in those places. Even luckier is that they can also get where the deeper-draft cruise ships can’t: east to the skinny island of Eleuthera and its colorful shopping town of Dunmore, and south to the pristine Exumas, where I cruised.
The Exumas are shallow, for sure, and megayachts with deeper drafts can’t always anchor close to shore, but I found that the contours of the ocean floor made for fantastic dinghy tours, kayaking and jet skiing, all part of any great megayacht experience. Fishing in the Abacos is a religion, but in the Exumas, beach barbecues and conch chowder can be the order of every day. There are even a few surprises to be found in the Exumas, such as Pig Beach (and its aggressively hungry inhabitants), the hundreds of iguanas that make Allan’s Cay feel like a part of the Galapagos archipelago, and the famous Thunderball Cave from the Bond film of similar name. You can snorkel inside the very waters where 007 Sean Connery escaped from impending doom, then discuss all the colorful fish you saw while having a rum punch and a game of pool at the nearby Thunderball Bar.
My cruise to all of those Exumas highlights happened to be in mid-March, a time I do not recommend for chartering there. The constant, gale-force winds that battered our 120-footer’s flying bridge all week are typical of early spring, and some of the marinas and restaurants were still recovering from Christmastime hurricanes. The Bahamas are definitely best as a summer destination, say May through August or early September, even though they seem like they should be part of the winter Caribbean experience. Leave February and March to the spring break crowd, and you’ll be much happier.
I do recommend the kind of one-way charter we did, from Georgetown to Nassau. You can see more of the islands and get far away from the crowds during a weeklong itinerary, though you’ll have to endure a puddle-jumper flight or book a private helicopter to get you from the smaller islands back to Nassau, Miami or Fort Lauderdale and the international airports at each.
You may also have to pay a delivery fee for a one-way charter, as there are far fewer motoryachts in the Bahamas than down in the Caribbean (the yacht owners can often be more demanding thanks to supply and demand). Sometimes your broker can arrange a pickup or drop-off that works with the owner’s cruising schedule, or with the dates of charter clients using the boat before or after your holiday.
If you prefer to cruise round-trip from the same port, Nassau is your best option. It does have its benefits as the hub of civilization in the region, if also the distraction of all the tourists who make that civilization thrive and thump into the night.
That bustling, boozing image, to me, is one reason the Bahamas have been underrated as a charter haven for so long. Their close proximity to the U.S. coast also tends to hurt their reputation, as it makes them seem far less exotic than they really are. The shallow waters are more challenging for captains than deep Caribbean harbors, but to me, that simply means you’ll find excellent captains paying close attention to navigation during your charter.
Having finally been there to explore the outlying islands for myself, I now see the Bahamas and all they have to offer as benefits: high-rolling fun, sunbathing privacy, spectacular waters, interesting animals, quaint bars, and a relatively short plane ride back home. To be able to experience all of that aboard a motoryacht with short day cruises between islands is a bonus, and to be able to enjoy the experience during summertime, in a sarong instead of in uncomfortable heels on the Mediterranean docks, is as refreshing as the juicy lime in a cold Corona.
Yah mon, indeed.--Kim Kavin