Big-screen stars have known for years that New Providence and Grand Bahama are not only natural movie sets, they're Oscar-quality escapes. Hollywood films from the 007 classic Thunderball to the thriller Into the Blue have used the islands' beaches as backdrops, and major celebs have cavorted here since the days of Sinatra and the Rat Pack.
New Providence is commonly known as Nassau, even though the Bahamas' capital city occupies only the northeast tip of the island. Just across the harbor lies its little sister, Paradise Island, which -- after going through its Merv Griffin and Donald Trump phases -- is now best known as the site of mega-mega-resort Atlantis.
Freeport is to Grand Bahama what Nassau is to New Providence: main town, cruise port and more popular moniker.
New Providence and Grand Bahama are the country's flagship islands -- the other 700 or so are Out Islands. And to compile the following guide, we hit every beach on both in order to find the softest sand, liveliest bars and best oceanfront rooms.
Paradise Island is home to a spectacular three-mile stretch of powdery white sand and clear, aquamarine water at Cabbage Beach. WaveRunners and parasailing boats zip along the coast; cocoa plums, sea grapes, palms and casuarinas anchor its clean, crisp dunes. People-watching is superb near the Atlantis resort, and celebrity-spotting is likeliest near the One&Only Ocean Club to the east, where the beach is less crowded.
Where to Stay: Atlantis, on Cabbage's west end, is like a cruise ship that doesn't sail. It boasts a whopping 2,317 rooms in three towers, with 38 restaurants and bars, nine swimming pools and a glitzy casino. As many as 14,000 guests and visitors a day explore the 11 million gallons' worth of saltwater aquariums, home to 50,000 sharks, groupers, rays, eels and other sea creatures. One&Only Ocean Club is an ultra-exclusive playground for the stars, with impeccable service and prices to match. Michael Jordan hosts his celebrity golf tournament here each year, drawing marquee sports names like Barkley and Gretzky. Hip-hoppers like Diddy and 50 Cent also enjoy Ocean Club's opulent British Colonial beachside accommodations.The all-inclusive Hotel Riu Paradise Island has 379 rooms on Cabbage Beach, within shouting distance of Atlantis' casino.
Where to Play: Water sports are available through the hotels, and WaveRunner rentals and parasailing can be arranged with entrepreneurs on the beach. Both Atlantis and Ocean Club have bars overhanging the sand that serve up fruity cocktails and amazing beach views.
Hot Stuff: Atlantis has set the scene for everything from feature films like After the Sunset to music videos to live broadcasts by Oprah and Regis. Public access to the sand is found next to Riu; for good snorkeling, traverse the spit of land at the east end of Cabbage to Snorkeler's Cove.Dune restaurant at Ocean Club, with the finest dining on Paradise Island, has a view over Cabbage Beach and a tantalizing menu with to-die-for dishes like Cromer Crab Cake and Roasted Veal Chop.
DOWNTOWN NASSAU The closest beach to downtown, Western Esplanade, is a coarse blend of sand and small stones. It's not gorgeous, but it is within walking distance of the cruise ship piers and attractions of Prince George Wharf. It's mainly a local hangout and a quick beach break for shopaholics short on shore time. Minutes west by cab is Saunders Beach, where a line of tall, wispy casuarinas is the only barrier between West Bay Street and the soft, white sand. What points it loses for traffic noise it wins back with pleasant conditions for sunning, strolling and watching children play.
CABLE BEACH AREA
The flashing neon lights and slot machines along the Cable Beach strip, New Providence's resort capital, are enough to induce a seizure. A four-mile stretch of compact, grayish sand is broken up by rock jetties and large hotels, most of which have seaside bars and eateries. On the east end, Cable Beach connects with Goodman's Bay, a half-mile crescent of white sand separated from a park by feathery casuarinas. Sandyport Beach lies minutes west of Cable, straddling the canal to Sandyport Marina. It's the nicest beach in the area, gentle and kid-friendly.
Where to Stay: SuperClubs Breezes and Sandals Royal Bahamian are the traditional all-inclusives. Thirty-six of Breezes' rooms are beachfront, and the upscale Sandals ferries guests to its offshore cay for sunbathing and snorkeling. Radisson Cable Beach & Golf Resort packs 700 spacious rooms on its palm-lined stretch, and gamblers seek the jackpot at the 35,000-square-foot gaming area of the Wyndham Nassau Resort & Crystal Palace Casino. The smallest Cable Beach accommodations, the Georgian-style Nassau Beach Hotel, was originally built in the 1940s and played a part in two James Bond movies.
Where to Play: Since reefs around New Providence are all far offshore, it takes a boat ride to find great snorkeling. Cable Beach Watersports Association (a tent on the beach east of the Radisson) arranges excursions along with parasailing, banana boats and WaveRunners. Bahama Divers (242-393-5644), a shack in the sand east of Wyndham, also runs snorkel tours ($30). Coco Loco's at Sandyport Bar & Wood-Fire Grill (242-327-4287) is the only true beach bar to be found on New Providence. They light up pizzas and more on a wood-fired grill, serve up entertainment Thursday through Saturday (Friday is Bahamian night) and even supply free beach chairs. The unfortunately named Poop Deck at Sandyport dishes a fishy bill of fare at its salmon-colored beachside eatery, with tables in the sand.
Hot Stuff: Cable Beach got its name because it was where the first telegraph cable from the U.S. to the Bahamas came ashore here in1892.
Short spits of sand at Rock Point and Caves Beaches hug West Bay Street (west of Sandyport). Reefs lying offshore both gentle the waves and make these spots good for swimming. Massive sea grapes at Caves provide shade at the upper beach. Just beyond Caves Point is the lengthy Orange Hill Beach. This out-of-the-way beach is deserted during the week, but local families head here for swimming, long walks and picnic lunches on weekends. The white sand is streaked with sea-grape runners fingering their way down from the road. If the number of private homes dotting a beach is any indication of its quality, then Love Beach ranks high on the scacale. Its stunning turquoise water, sugar-fine sand and distance from Nassau's hustle and bustle make it one of the most blissful spots on the island. The best snorkeling is found around the rocky outcroppings.
Where to Stay: Orange Hill Beach Inn nestles 32 quaint rooms on a hillside just across the street from the sand. It's a quiet retreat from the crowds of Cable Beach and the only beachside hotel on the west end.
Hot Stuff: You'll have to blaze your own trail through vacant lots to Love Beach -- there's no designated public access. Look for the path near the crumbled cinderblock wall near the pull-off where West Bay Street curves south.
The exclusive residential enclaves of Old Fort Bay and Lyford Cay have swallowed the western tip of New Providence. The well-to-do from around the world own homes here and, unfortunately, the three beaches behind the guarded gates are reserved for residents and their guests. Jaws Beach is the only west end strand accessible by visitors. South of Lyford Cay the sand is unkempt and trashy, but it's popular with locals, especially on Sundays, when barbecue smoke and loud reggae music drift across the sand.
Hot Stuff: In Lyford and Old Fort Bay, expect to pay at least $25 million for an 8,000-square-foot beachside mansion with de rigueur marble floors and a three-bedroom guest house. Celebrities like Sean Connery are among the lucky few.
The gold-sand beaches on New Providence's south shore aren't much to get excited about. At the widest points, there's not enough room for a beach towel. But they are quiet, secluded and lapped by gentle waves. To the east, Blue Hole Road runs out of downtown Nassau and turns into South Beach Road, ending up at South Beach. On the far eastern tip, Yamacraw Beach is surrounded by a private neighborhood and doesn't offer public access.
An almost continuous ribbon of soft white sand that changes names more often than Sean Combs, Freeport's south shore is broken only by waterways. One of the longer stretches, Lucayan Beach, is home to the fraternal twin Our Lucaya resort hotels.
Where to Stay: Our Lucaya Beach and Golf Resort pairs the elegant Westin Our Lucaya and the family-friendly Sheraton Our Lucaya with the Isle of Capri Casino on 375 beachfront acres. China Beach (Asian) and Prop Club (airplane hangar-themed) are the resort's eateries, with prime seating overlooking the sand.
Where to Play: Live reggae and calypso bands jam Thursday through Sunday on the sandy deck at Billy Joe's Restaurant and Bar (242-373-1333), next to the Sheraton. After fueling up on Bahamian classics, head across to Ocean Motion Watersports for a selection of adrenaline-pumping toys. Snorkel excursions leave at 10 a.m., 12:15 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. The Bubba Gump of Grand Bahama, Zonk the Conch Man knows how to handle his mollusk. Grilled, stir-fried, scorched, cracked -- 11 styles of conch in all, cooked over a wood-fueled fire in a 55-gallon drum. His eat shack, roofed with a blue tarp, sits on a small beach east of Island Seas Resort, accessible via Beachway Road.
Hot Stuff: Joggers and walkers race to Lucayan Beach, which connects to Coral and Silver Point Beaches to form a miles-long stretch. They stop for refreshment and breakfast at the only outpost on Coral Beach, Blackbeard's Landing (242-373-5757), which also rents beach chairs and thatch palapas.
West of Lucayan and closest to Freeport, Xanadu is the touristy stretch to which landlocked resorts shuttle their guests for a day at the beach. It's calmer and the sand is nicer to the west where it meets Bahamas Princess Beach.**
Where to Stay: Frequented by a who's-who list of celebs in its day, and owned by The Aviator, Howard Hughes, in his final years, Xanadu Beach Resort & Marina is still a pleasant resort -- and the only digs near the beach. Water sports can be arranged through the hotel, and its grill serves reasonably priced sandwiches on the sand.
Where to Play: Tranquility Shores' huge double-decker wooden bar on Taino's soft white beach is packed with cruise ship cargo on Mondays. Fill up on Bahamian fare and hop in a paddleboat, or let lunch settle in the comfort of a beach lounger. A patch of sea grass with lots of tropical fish is a fin kick from shore (Tranquility rents equipment), and a flag-lined pier attracts yachties. The Stoned Crab (242-373-1442), found just next door, dishes up fresh local lobster, seafood pasta and Bahamian stone crab on its deck and patio overlooking the beach. Farther east, Toni Macaroni Roast Conch has a simple white deck, where Toni parks his mobile kitchen during the day.
Taino and Smith's Point Beaches pick up east of Lucayan. The creamy, tree-lined stretch packs in the best beach brewhouses on the island. Every Wednesday night, as light fades over Smith's Point Beach (at Taino's east end), a hungry line of seafoodies stretches from the open-air hut next to Outriggers. Once the sun is a fond memory, music kicks up, launching the fish fry into full gear. Weekly regulars and first-timers chat over plates piled high with fried snapper, peas and rice and potato salad, and after the food is packed away, partiers hit the dance floor.
Another lengthy stretch of perfect white sand and unbeatable blue and green water spreads east of Taino. Secluded Churchill Beach, lined with private homes, is connected to Fortune Beach's rich swath of wealthy homes in the east by quiet Mather Town Beach.
Where to Stay: All-inclusive Viva Fortuna Beach, on a palapa- and palm-lined plat of sand, is the sole resort on the entire Fortune-to-Churchill length. Its 276 rooms either overlook the garden or have gorgeous turquoise water views.
Where to Play: Margarita Villa Sand Bar is smack in the middle of the neighborhood along Mather Town Beach. It's a typical beach boozery with a lively group of locals always willing to welcome and tease a newcomer, and a hunger-battling bill of fare, including Konk Fritters and Cracked Conch. (In the air-conditioned main bar, a sign reads, "If your wife drives you to drink, have her drop you off here.") Tuesday night's lively bonfire party rocks a colorful deck overhanging the beach out back, and Wednesday nights get rowdy with a younger crowd. Follow Doubloon Road south and take a right on Spanish Main Drive. Swing left at the first road and follow the sign for Club Caribe.
Hot Stuff: In 1965, when divers found a shipwreck loaded with $2 million in treasure just offshore, Fortune Beach found its name.
The lazy area east of the Grand Lucayan Waterway is mostly pine forest with a long road tooling out to McLean's Town in East End. Tiny island towns are the only diversions along the way to Barbary, Gold Rock and High Rock Beaches.
Just past the Waterway (follow the battered signs south through two roundabouts), Barbary Beach is a nearly deserted spit of silky white sand where lobstermen make their catch. Bring a picnic lunch, then go snorkeling right off the beach.
Undoubtedly the most fantastic ribbon of sand on Grand Bahama is Gold Rock Beach, within Lucayan National Park (east of Barbary). The short trail from the parking area leads through a mangrove swamp to wooden tables and a gazebo on the beach. It's the perfect place for a picnic; hike east for an even more private setting. Low tide unveils a breathtaking blanket of sand beneath ankle- to knee-deep crystal-clear water out to almost 75 yards from shore. Tidal flow ripples the sand in long, gentle rows, like the shimmery surface of an Impressionist painting.
Farther east, High Rock Beach fringes the town of High Rock, the self-proclaimed "home of hospitality." It's a friendly Caribbean-like-it-oughta-be kind of place, with a sandy expanse good for beachcombing and long walks. Bishop's Bonefish Resort (from $100 per night; 242-353-5485) has seven simple but spacious rooms located right along the beach.
Where to Play: Big Boy's Bar is part of Bishop's little empire. He serves only drinks and rents snorkel gear from this waterside hut, but his restaurant across the parking lot offers food. Just down the beach, Diamond Sunrise Restaurant & Bar ($; 242-353-4224), serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks, and also rents kayaks and wave runners.
Hot Stuff: Gold Rock Beach is most spectacular at low tide, especially on the east end, where Disney filmed Pirates of the Caribbean 2 & 3. Check with your hotel for daily tide information.
West End, only 56 miles from Florida, has a history steeped in piracy, rum-running, bootlegging and general lawlessness. That's all gone the way of Prohibition, and now the only rum-running is between beach towel and bar. The two main strands are The North Beach at Old Bahama Bay and Paradise Cove Beach to the southeast.
Where to Stay: Classic pastel-colored Bahamian buildings and palm trees dot the pristine beige beachfront Old Bahama Bay Resort & Yacht Harbour. Luxurious digs include large marble bathrooms and British Colonial furnishings with a back door that opens to the sand just steps beyond. Straw Bar, a thatch-roofed hut, slings Bahama Mamas, rum punches and snacks at its spot on Old Bahama Bay's private beach. Seven snorkel trails pick up near the bar (the resort provides maps and gear).
Hot Stuff: John Travolta and wife Kelly Preston own beachfront condos at Old Bahama Bay.
Where to Play: If you're dying for great snorkeling, do the float on Dead Man's Reef, about 50 yards off Paradise Cove Beach. Paradise Watersports and Red Bar will provide nourishment and equipment for your snorkel trip. They also arrange snorkel excursions from Freeport hotels, including transportation, lunch and a reef orientation.