What comes to mind when you think of a trip to The Bahamas?
Expensive cruise ship ports?
High end shopping and dining?
Beaches and fancy resorts?
You might write off the possibility of a “real” vacation in the beautiful Bahamas because you think it’s too expensive or not your style. We urge you to think again. You CAN do Budget Bahamas.
The Family Islands (or Out Islands) of The Bahamas are often overlooked as a destination for travelers, especially for those who are trying to stick within a budget, or who don’t like the “typical” touristy venues. Many people are familiar with the busy city of Nassau, on New Providence, or even Freeport, on Grand Bahama. The Atlantis Resort is famous for its water park and casino, restaurants and dolphin experiences. The Junkanoo Festival is likened to the Brazilian Carnaval. Plenty of booze cruise boats love to putter past the homes of the rich and famous along the coast in front of Lyford Cay or Old Forte Bay.
But we’d love to show you a different Bahamas- the one we’ve come to know and love this past year.
Getting to Nassau’s Lynden Pindling International Airport is pretty straightforward from anywhere in the world. This time, you’re going even further! We’ll mostly highlight the island of Eleuthera for this post, although all of the other Family Islands of The Bahamas have their own charm and allure.
The Bahamas, consisting of 700 islands scattered across about 100,000 square miles of ocean, lies just southeast of Florida, not quite officially a part of the Caribbean. The population of The Bahamas is a little over 375,000, but only 30% of its inhabitants occupy the Family Islands. Eleuthera is a 110 mile long, approximately 2 mile wide island just east of New Providence, with a population of around 8,000.
Traveling to Eleuthera from Nassau can be by boat or plane. Since we’re talking budget here, one of the most cost-effective modes of transportation would be the ferries, which operate year-round on specific days into and out of Governor’s Harbour, Current, North Eleuthera, or Spanish Wells and Harbour Island. A round trip ticket on the BoHengy for an adult in the main cabin is around $155 at the time of this writing, which includes the VAT tax adopted in January of 2015. A child’s ticket is approximately $108. Pineapple Air and BahamasAir operate flights to and from Eleuthera in the morning and afternoon most days of the week, at about $150-190 round trip. We’ve heard that you can take passage on one of the mailboats as well, for a much lower price; however, we’ve not done that ourselves. Information on contacting the mailboats can be found here.
Once you arrive on the island, one of your greatest expenses will probably be the rental of a vehicle. There doesn’t seem to be a good way to get around that issue, as Eleuthera is long and narrow, and there is really no public form of transportation. Occasionally a vacation home rental will offer the use of a vehicle for the duration of your stay, and if that happens, we’d recommend you take the deal! (But be forewarned- some of these vehicles can be in disrepair, and it’s unclear if non-Bahamian families are legally allowed to “rent” their vehicle along with their house.) Typical car rentals are in the neighborhood of $70 per day for a mid-sized car, which can quickly add up. However, sometimes you can strike a bargain with your rental service for a reduced price if you’re staying for several days. It’s possible to get taxi service most anywhere on the island from your disembarking point, so if you’ve chosen to spend your time on Eleuthera in one spot, like your vacation home on a beach, then taking the cab is your best bet.
If you’re really adventurous and don’t want the expense of renting a vehicle at all, hitchhiking is not a bad option on Eleuthera. Locals grab rides almost everywhere they go, and many folks we know who don’t own vehicles and are on the island for a few days to a year or more, have been known to do the same. Scott has hitched rides himself from Governor’s Harbour down to Rock Sound, about 40 miles, when he had to take an unexpected flight back to a different airport than where he flew out of! Of course, we wouldn’t recommend this option for women traveling alone or with small children, and there will probably be stretches you’ll have to walk if you don’t see much traffic. But it’s definitely a viable option for some people- Eleutherans are usually friendly and generous, and would not expect anything in return for your ride except nice conversation and a smile. If you do rent a vehicle, you’re likely to be asked by them for a ride, too!
Lodging on the island can range anywhere from $70/night to upwards of $1000/night at the higher end. A quick TripAdvisor search usually reveals several modestly priced rooms, such as the Surfer’s Haven in Gregory Town, or vacation home/apartment rentals in any one of the picturesque towns long the Queen’s Highway or beaches on Eleuthera. Although it’s technically illegal, camping on the beaches is definitely an option for travelers if you have your own gear. Most of the 135 beaches of Eleuthera go untouched by human feet for days on end, so you can expect to have the place to yourself! It’s best to check with the locals if you’re considering camping out somewhere, as they can give you a bit of advice on the soundness of your choice. If you’re in the Exumas, be sure to check out the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, where you can definitely camp on the beach for just $5/person/day, and explore the incredible park as much as you like.
When it comes to food, one of the least expensive options is to purchase what you need in a local grocery store, or at a food stand or market. We’ve found the stores themselves are not always obvious- the best ones can be hidden down a side road off the main highway, or look like someone’s house with a small, faded sign off the front door. Asking in town for a place to buy groceries is your best bet. Ask a few different people, too, as you can usually do a little comparison shopping. In other words, one store might have the bread you’d like at a dollar less than another store. Convenience foods stock the shelves in these places, so head out to a conch stand or ask the fishermen at the town pier for fresh seafood and other Bahamian favorites. You can often find a fundraiser going on in one of the small settlements- we recently stopped in Tarpum Bay for a church /school benefit, where they were selling fresh conch fritters 6 for $1- yum!!
To add to your food options, visit a settlement during its annual Homecoming celebration. This event in itself is a great cultural experience, and local eats are offered at reasonable prices. Throughout the typical Homecoming weekend, the party usually starts in the late evening, continuing into the wee hours of the morning. Rake and Scrape, Reggae, and all other manner of music carries into the night sky, while people from all walks of life laugh, dance, eat, and enjoy each other’s company. You will be welcomed.
While Eleuthera and many of the other Family Islands are not known for their night clubs, fancy resorts, or expensive excursions, there’s always plenty to do. We weren’t kidding when we said that most of the 135+ beaches on Eleuthera are usually completely empty, so finding a secluded stretch of sand for walking, jogging, shelling, swimming, snorkeling, or sunbathing is never difficult. This particular website we’ve found to be invaluable in finding fun and little-known things to do as well. It has great maps of all parts of the island, and links to home rentals, hotels, restaurants, and sights.
The southern end of Eleuthera is quiet and remote. Lighthouse Point is a sight to behold, so if you have transportation or can find your way to Bannerman Town, be sure to head out to the beach here. The incredible blue waters of the Caribbean and the Atlantic crash together at this point, and you can explore the abandoned lighthouse or the limestone cliffs to your heart’s content. There are occasionally cruise ship passengers visiting this area as well; however, they don’t often stay very long, and even if they do, there’s plenty of space for all. Bring lots of water and perhaps a picnic, and plan to spend the day. Boogie boarding on windy days, or snorkeling and swimming on calmer days is a must.
Out on the cape, the Island School and Cape Eleuthera Institute will give you a free tour of their sustainable facilities if you’re interested, and you can probably finagle a lunch or dinner with them at their open air dining hall. They provide organic meals with vegetarian options for the students, groups, researchers, and visiting academics that are constantly in house at this busy institution. The grounds are incredible, with beautiful views and cutting edge, socially responsible systems for solar energy, hydroponics, and conservation.
While you’re on the cape, head out to the Cape Eleuthera Marina and Resort, recently revived and offering a small store, dive shop, swimming pool, beach area, and Pascal’s restaurant along with its condos for rent or sale. Ask for directions to the 4th Hole beach, too, a remote area with great snorkeling and a cute tree swing, and impressive sunsets in the evening.
Driving north along the Queen’s Highway brings you through some smaller settlements and up to Rock Sound, where there is an airport, shops, restaurants, the Rock Sound Market, and boat moorings. If you need anything at all, Chris Cates at Dingle Motors is always ready and willing to help. He is the kind voice boaters hear as they head into the sound, the go-to guy for fuel, the place to stop for snacks and conversation, and someone who knows pretty much everyone and can answer pretty much any question. Dingle Motors is a two-story peach (tan?) colored gas station right on the highway, east side.
When you’re in Rock Sound, don’t forget to visit the Ocean Hole, a large cenote just behind and down the street from Dingle’s, where you can view fish or jump right in with them and swim. When Scott and I were first moving to the island, we swam in Ocean Hole and saw some local boys arrive to survey the scene. Within minutes, they had shed their t-shirts and were flying off the cliff, jumping into the water with acrobatic skill the likes of which I’ve never seen. Clearly this was a regular thing for them, and they had no fear! Oh, to be young again… In any case, you can also walk the trail around the Ocean Hole and read the placards about its history, flora and fauna.
As you leave Ocean Hole, be sure to stop by the small ice cream and candy shop about one block from the highway- they have the BEST Blueberry Cheesecake ice cream, one scoop for just $1.50!!
Keep moving “down island,” as they say (northward), and you’ll pass through the fishing village of Tarpum Bay, then Savannah Sound and the exclusive Windermere Island, where Mariah Carey and other celebrities have homes. Further north you’ll find Palmetto Point, and midway through the island is Governor’s Harbour, the first settlement and “birthplace” of The Bahamas.
In Governor’s Harbour, you can visit the Haynes Library and participate in any one of its many, often free, programs. If you’re in town on a Friday evening, don’t miss the Fish Fry, complete with music, dancing, and great seafood. You can also easily get to many stunning beaches nearby, such as the old Club Med (French Leave), or Sky Beach, accessed through the Sky Beach Club parking lot. If you visit Sky Beach, stop in to Sammy’s poolside bar and grab a drink- I’m sure he’ll let you take a dip in the pool, too!
Continuing north, you’ll see settlements like James Cistern, Gregory Town (where you can rent a board at Surfer’s Beach for about $30/day from Surfer Pete), and later Lower and Upper Bogue before you reach the northern tip of the island. Along the way, you can’t skip stopping at Queen’s Baths, the area on the east side of the island just before Glass Window Bridge. The Queen’s Baths is a magical place where the waves of the Atlantic crash up onto the limestone, creating small pools where the water warms during the day. Wear good water shoes, and climb around or float in the many pools as you gaze at the caves and the view out to the ocean.
Of course, a trip to Eleuthera wouldn’t be complete without exploring the Glass Window Bridge, where the Atlantic and Caribbean crash together under the highway at high tide. You can stop your car and hike up the rock to the highest point above the bridge to get an unencumbered view of the island stretching north and south. On a sunny day, it’s breathtaking!
A little further up the road, take a water taxi for just $10 each way to Harbour Island, and explore this posh getaway for the rich and famous. The renowned Pink Sands Beach extends 3 miles from south to north, and many people get around on foot or by golf cart, which are rented almost anywhere for about $50/day. Shops and restaurants abound. We got a nice lunch one day at the Dunmore Deli.
Back on the main island of Eleuthera, keep heading up the Queen’s Highway and check out Preacher’s Cave, where the first settlers on Eleuthera, fleeing Bermuda for religious freedom, shipwrecked on the Devil’s Backbone reef and made their way across the beach and through the bush. Preacher’s Cave is a free, fun place to climb around, or crane your neck and stare up at the cave ceiling, imagining what it was like for those brave souls who didn’t know a thing about where they were. These settlers eventually called the island “Eleuthera,” which in Greek means “freedom.” Apropos, we think. The beach nearby is a beautiful place to play in the sun after your cave explorations.
Anywhere you go in the Family Islands, be sure to patronize the small local establishments, and try to find out about native crafts and souvenirs. Of course, our website is dedicated to helping indigenous artisans continue their traditions and make a fair living, so stopping at places like the Eleuthera Arts and Cultural Center in Tarpum Bay, or purchasing an item or two at a festival kiosk are things we encourage. Support those who create such beautiful Bahamian art and crafts!
I think we’ve covered as much as we can for now. There are plenty of websites referenced here that can answer any lingering questions you might have, so the only thing left… is for you to plan your trip to The Bahamas!!
Tags: activities, bahamas, beach, beachcombing, budget, budget bahamas, camping, Caribbean, dancing, family travel, fish fry, flight, fun, hostel, hotel, local food, nightlife, restaurant, snorkeling, swimming, view