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Graced with extensive beaches bleached white by the year-round sun and surrounded by sparkling turquoise waters filled with varied and colourful sea life, the islands of Bahamas are a major destination for divers, sailors and sun-worshippers alike. Although often thought to be part of the Caribbean, the Bahamas is actually an archipelago of 700 islands with thousands of small 'cays' strung out in the ocean starting 55 miles (89km) from Miami in the Atlantic Ocean.
The islands' first inhabitants were the Lucayan Indians who lived there from the 9th century until after Columbus discovered the islands in 1492, his first step into the New World. The resulting exploitation led to the native population being virtually wiped out. For two hundred years until independence in 1987 the Bahamas was a British Crown Colony and a strong British influence can still be seen in the architecture and culture.
The population of the Bahamas now consists mostly of Bahamians of African descent, who are mainly descended from freed slaves. The strong African cultural influence is evident in everyday life, and in events like Junkanoo, a traditional street festival held every year on Boxing Day. There is also a strong American cultural influence, particularly in the capital, Nassau.
Due to its proximity to the US, the Bahamas has become an offshore banking and financial centre. Tourism however remains its most important industry. The long stretches of empty beaches, clear waters and excellent facilities have made the Bahamas a popular destination throughout the year and the varied attractions of each of the islands ensure that there is something for everyone.
The Bahamas are the quintessence of 'holiday heaven', with things to see and do reaching far beyond sunbathing on the miles of white sandy beaches, or idly frolicking in the translucent turquoise waters.
The islands offer a number of activities and attractions, with everything from Loyalist settlement ruins and the Glass Window Bridge to Christopher Columbus' first stop in the New World. The Bahamas also have the largest underwater cave system known today, and scuba divers can see the mysterious stone blocks in the waters off Bimini, said to be part of the 'lost city' of Atlantis, while Long Island boasts the deepest 'blue hole' in the world.
There are any number of activities for visitors who want to do more than just lie around: bicycling, tennis, cricket, golf and other activities are available on land, along with attractions like casinos, restaurants, bars and clubs. Offshore, you can enjoy exhilerating pastimes like windsurfing, snorkeling, deep sea fishing, parasailing and scuba diving.
Friendly locals, as well as comfortable, sunny weather and a well established tourism industry, make these activities and sights all the more appealing and accessible. Add numerous resorts, restaurants, shops and markets to the mix and it becomes alluringly obvious why the Bahamas are the perfect beach-holiday destination.
Nassau is the business centre of the Bahamas, whose economy is heavily dependent of tourism and offshore banking. Business protocol is fairly relaxed, although appropriate business attire is expected. Meetings are usually held in conference rooms, they begin punctually, and business cards are customarily exchanged. Handshakes on introduction are the norm between both men and women; women are treated as equals in the business environment. Office hours are 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday.
In general the weather is good all year and the trade winds ensure that the temperatures remain relatively mild. The rainy season extends from May to November when there is a slight chance of hurricanes. Peak season is between December and April. Generally the northern and western islands are cooler while the southern islands can get very hot in summer.
The international access code for the Bahamas is +1, in common with the US, Canada and most of the Caribbean, followed by 242. The outgoing code is 011 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 01144 for the United Kingdom). Calls from the Bahamas can be expensive, so if possible use a calling card. VOIP services are a much cheaper and more popular means of communication. A mobile network operates on the GSM 1900 band. Internet cafes are widely available.
The British and African influences on the Bahamas are still obvious, but the island's proximity to the US has resulted in a somewhat Americanised culture. Some of the islands and resorts are very upmarket and require a certain standard of dress. Beachwear should be confined to the beach and smart-casual dress is usually expected for the evening.
Travellers to the Bahamas over 18 years do not have to pay duty on 200 cigarettes, or 50 cigars or 454g of tobacco; 1 litre spirits and 1 litre wine; and other goods to the value of US$100. Prohibited items include firearms and ammunition without a police permit. Pets and dogs from countries with rabies infections are strictly prohibited from entering the country.
Electrical current in the Bahamas is 120 volts, 60Hz. Two-pin flat blade plugs and flat blade plugs with round grounding, are also standard.
A yellow fever vaccination is required by travellers aged more than one year arriving from infected areas, and Hepatitis A immunisation is recommended for visitors over two years. There is a risk of malaria and travellers should take precautions before travel. Food and water is considered safe, though it is advised not to eat fruit or vegetables unless peeled or cooked.
Visitors should note that some types of fish, including tropical reef fish, are poisonous to eat even when cooked. Medical facilities are good in Nassau and Freeport, but expensive and usually require payment in cash on treatment. Medical insurance is advised.
Princess Margaret Hospital in Nassau, where most emergency surgery is performed, is experiencing a chronic shortage of blood so those with rare blood types are advised to know the names and locations of possible donors in the event of an emergency. The Lyford Cay Hospital has a hyperbaric chamber for treatment of decompression illness.
English is the official language in the Bahamas.
The official currency is the Bahamian Dollar (BSD), which is divided into 100 cents. The Bahamian Dollar is equal in value to the US Dollar and both currencies are accepted throughout the islands. Currency can be exchanged at banks, bureaux de change and many hotels.
There are ATMs in the main tourist centres and credit and debit cards are widely accepted in all the big resorts. Travellers cheques can be changed at all banks, although those in US Dollars receive the best rates. Banks tend to be open from 9.30am to 3pm (Monday to Thursday) and 9.30am to 5pm (Fridays).
All visitors must be in possession of a return or onward ticket, plus proof of funds, and with the exception of nationals of Canada and the US, all visitors must hold passports which are valid at least six months after entry. Cruise ship passengers must hold a ticket for their ship.
As part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), all travellers travelling between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean region are required to present a passport or other valid travel document to enter or re-enter the United States. If departing from the USA a valid passport will be required by immigration authorities.
Most visits to the Bahamas are trouble-free though care should be taken in the major cities of Nassau and Freeport. Visitors should take sensible precautions and not carry large amounts of cash or jewellery on their person or wander away from the main tourist areas, especially after dark.
In light of several fatal accidents and serious injuries that have occurred using rented watersports equipment, it is advisable that only those experienced on jet skis consider renting them on New Providence and Paradise Island. The watersports industry here is poorly regulated and visitors should only rent equipment from reputable operators and make sure that they have received adequate training before going out onto the water. Hurricane season is from June to the end of November.
Local time in the Bahamas is GMT -5 (GMT -4 from first Sunday in April till last Sunday in October).
Many hotels and restaurant bills in the Bahamas automatically include a service charge of 15% to cover gratuities, otherwise a 10-15% tip is expected for most services, including taxi drivers. Hotel staff usually receive US$1 per bag.