Travel

These Idyllic Islands Off the Florida Coast Just Reopened to U.S. Travelers

Have we ever needed the Bahamas more than right now?

As I breast-stroked from the boat to the rocky exterior of Thunderball Grotto in the Bahamas’ Exuma Islands, I wondered if the James Bond-famous cave would live up to the hype. Above me, where moments before had been crystal clear skies were now ash-gray clouds, the result of a sudden breeze; I paddled along, thoughts of a cold Kalik beer and a warm, dry towel swimming in the back of my mind. 

From the outside, Thunderball appeared to be little more than a humble coral cay covered with greenery, which clung on rather desperately in the increasing wind. But as I paddled around the corner of the outer wall and swam into the grotto’s yawning maw, I found myself blown away.

Thunderball Grotto, Bahamas
Thunderball Grotto in the Exumas | Mariano Villafane/Shutterstock

The light that filtered in from holes in the cave’s ceiling made the placid water inside glow neon green, as vivid as a Vegas welcome cocktail; I dove underwater, where schools of striped sergeant majors and schoolmaster snappers swirled tornado-like all around me. I followed the light to a narrow ledge on the other side of the cavern and emerged into a full-on downpour, the steady stream of rain broken only by the distant sight of a rainbow—a perfect technicolor arc in a patch of blue on the horizon.

Any way you cut it, travel takes a little more work these days—but it’s well worth it to experience the bliss of exploring underwater paradises and drinking rum cocktails along the shores of the Bahamas. And now that the islands’ crystal blue cays have reopened to travelers, we’re guessing you may want to put in the extra effort to visit. Here’s what to expect.

What’s open in the Bahamas and how to get there 

Right now, all international travelers over 18 must apply for a Bahamas Travel Health Visa online before arriving—even if they’re vaccinated. It’ll cost between $40 to $60 depending on the length of your stay and takes just a few minutes to fill out. 

If you’re vaxxed, you’ll just need to upload proof of vaccination and trip details along with your filled out travel health visa, and you’ll hear back in about a day with approval. If you’re not vaxxed, you’ll need proof of a negative test taken no more than five days before arrival. For stays longer than four nights, you’ll also need to take a rapid antigen test and complete a daily online health questionnaire during your stay. And remember: all travelers need to test negative again no more than three days before re-entering the US.

Nonstop daily flights to Nassau are currently operating from Miami, New York, Atlanta, Orlando, and DC, often for less than $400 roundtrip. Or, as a treat, you could hop on a Tropic Airways seaplane from Fort Lauderdale to Bimini.

Restaurants on most islands are offering indoor and outdoor dining, and face masks are still required in all air and sea terminals, taxis, hotels, and businesses. Curfews are currently in effect on Nassau, Paradise Island, and Grand Bahama Island from 10 pm to 5 am. Stay up-to-date with Covid-19 protocols here.

Underwater is where it's at in the Bahamas 

Whether you’re an advanced scuba diver or still mastering the art of zen-like breathing through a snorkel tube, you’ll want to check out the low-lying coral reefs beneath the waves of the Bahamas. From shallow ship and airplane wrecks (like Pablo Escobar’s crashed drug plane on a sandbar off Norman Cay) to dives with sharks and dolphins, the list of where to enjoy aquarium-like waters is essentially inexhaustible. Or, if you’d rather keep your head above the surface, head to Big Major Cay: there, you can swim with the famed giant pigs and piglets at the aptly-named Pig Beach.

private yacht and people on jet skis
If you really want to do it up, take a yacht for a spin | IYC - The International Yacht Company

Do the private island or yacht thing 

If money is no object (or you and your friends are having a quarter-life crisis), book the ultimate rockstar week aboard a charter yacht—many with room for a dozen passengers plus dive gear, jet skis, hydrofoils, and other water fun at the ready—or try out a personal submarine. Other serious spenders might also consider renting out Royal Island off North Eleuthera for a private stay in South Pacific-style bungalows fronting the sand.

And even if you’re not Daddy Warbucks, no worries: We’ve got quite a few private island options you and your pals can rent for the low.

people at Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat Bahamas
Center yourself at Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat | Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat Bahamas

Hit a yoga retreat on Paradise Island 

Atlantis Bahamas and the newly opened Baha Mar resort complex steal the spotlight on Nassau and Paradise Island with their glitzy spas and casinos. But when you want a more low-key wellness trip, join the off-duty yacht crews and undercover millionaires taking a breather at Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat on Paradise. Getaways include classes, meditation sessions, healthy meals, and more. Who couldn’t use some of that right now?

people kayaking in Andros, Bahamas
Journey out to lesser-known islands like Andros | Bahama Out Islands Promotion Board

Break for the Out Islands

Most visitors to the Bahamas don’t make it off New Providence or Grand Bahama. But Bahamians will tell you the true spirit of the islands is found in the Family Islands—also known as the Out Islands—which include the Abacos, Long Island, Harbour Island, San Salvador, and a few others you’ve probably never heard of.

Out there, the good life is served in the form of freshly cracked conch salads alongside frosty drinks, and options for bedding down include everything from exclusive resorts like Caerula Mar Club on Andros to family-style, easy-on-the-budget hotels like Cat Island’s Greenwood Beach Resort. For something truly local, go Out Island-hopping aboard The Mail Boat and devote a week or more to getting to know the Bahamas beyond Nassau’s cruise ports and mega-resorts.

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Terry Ward is a freelance travel writer in Tampa, Florida, who has lived in France, New Zealand, and Australia and gone scuba diving all over the world. Follow her on Instagram and find more of her work on terry-ward.com.
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