Many first-time visitors to the Bahamas arrive by cruise ship, docking in Nassau and experiencing an enchanting taste of the country that piques their desire to explore the rest of the islands.
For many would-be retirees who have enjoyed vacationing there, the burning question that remains is not whether to retire in the Bahamas but where to retire in the Bahamas. (For more, see How Much Money Do You Need to Retire in the Bahamas?) Luckily, some of the decision-making process has already been sorted: Out of 700 islands, only 30 are inhabited. Furthermore, locals refer to all of the islands other than Grand Bahama and New Providence islands as the Out Islands.
On the island of New Providence – home to 70% of the islands’ total population – Nassau is the beating commercial and political heart of the Bahamas. The islands’ most lucrative industries – including tourism, investment management and international banking (otherwise known as offshore finance) – are headquartered here. (For more, see The Top 10 Caribbean Tax Havens.)
True to its history as a British colony, the Bahamas is still a Commonwealth nation, and Nassau is its capital city. It’s the de rigueur port of call for cruise ships, and for good reason: It’s known for upscale duty-free shopping, horse-drawn carriages and enough luxury resorts to lend the place an atmosphere of eternal vacation. Nassau residents appreciate that they don’t need to leave town to hit the beach. The area isn’t solely made up of American tourists; expect a vibrant mix of Haitian, English and West African cultural influences.
Twin cities that straddle the water’s edge on the island of Grand Bahama, a favorite port among cruise ships, these towns offer an appealing dual mix of resort living (Freeport) and local culture (Lucaya). The beaches are another draw. The farther you get from the cruise ships (and you don’t have to go far), the more likely you'll find a serene stretch of white sand on which to stroll, sun or snooze. Outdoor enthusiasts will be at home on Grand Bahama, which is home to Lucayan National Park, featuring one of the largest underwater cave systems in the world.
While it’s less well known than Grand Bahama or New Providence, the island of Eleuthera may outrank both in sheer beauty. Eleuthera is one of the Out Islands, known for their gorgeous beaches, turquoise waters and friendly communities. While tourism has a significant presence, the atmosphere is far from touristy.
At 100 miles long, Eleuthera claims good infrastructure and amenities while retaining the serenity for which the Out Islands are beloved. With good access to municipal water, power supplies and local lumberyards, Eleuthera is a good spot for those interested in building a new home. Gardeners will also appreciate the fact that while the rest of the Out Islands are predominantly rocky, this island has enough soil to grow flowers, fruits and vegetables.
With just 8,000 people on the whole island, according to the 2010 census, which is the most recent available, expect to know your neighbors and immerse yourself in local life. Even the biggest town, Governor’s Harbour, is home to just under 700 people.
There may be no “best” Bahamas island, but there may be a best island for you. The first step to narrowing down ultimate location is the simplest: Do you want to spend your time on one of the country’s two most populous islands, which also offer the most choices in terms of health care, shopping, dining and recreation? Or are you inclined to venture a bit farther out to the more sparsely inhabited Out Islands, where natural beauty and serenity may make up for access to the amenities of Nassau and Freeport?