GETTING THERE: Nassau (on New Providence Island) and Freeport (on Grand Bahama) are the two main points of entry in the Bahamas. From the Washington area, several airlines fly nonstop to Nassau International and Grand Bahama International Airport in Freeport. USA 3000 Airlines (877-872-3000, www.usa3000.com) goes from BWI to Nassau from $178 round trip. AirTran (800-247-8726 www.airtran.com) flies to Nassau from $198 round trip and to Freeport from $301. US Airways (800-943-5436, www.usairways.com) has nonstop flights from Reagan National to Nassau starting at $296 round trip.
From Nassau, Bahamasair (800-222-4262, www.bahamasair.com) offers flights to all the Out Islands several times a week, and many on a daily basis. A one-hour-45-minute flight from Nassau to Long Island, for example, is $170 round trip. Since most flights are morning departures, however, traveling to the Out Islands via Nassau means that you may have to spend a night there, which can add $250 or more per person to your trip. If you're headed to remote islands, travel via Nassau may be the only practical option.
In Abaco, pedal leisurely through Hope Town on Elbow Cay.
(Bahamas Ministry Of Tourism)
Commercial carriers serve the better-known Out Islands -- Abaco, Eleuthera, Andros, Bimini, the Exumas -- on a regular basis, with flights departing from Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. US Airways flies round trip from D.C. to Andros, for example, for $540, connecting through Nassau, while AirTran services Bimini for abut $440 round trip via Fort Lauderdale.
Hands down, the best way to arrive in the Bahamas is aboard one of Chalk's Ocean Airways' vintage Grumman Mallards -- true sea planes -- which make the run daily from Fort Lauderdale to Alice Town, Bimini, and on to Nassau and Paradise Island (800-424-2557, www.chalksoceanairways.com). Cost starts at $61 each way. There is nothing lovelier than a Chalk's Mallard -- blaze white with purple engine cowlings -- skidding through the emerald waters of Bimini Harbor. Flying boats vividly recall a time when these truly were sleepy and remote islands. Hemingway, Bogey and Bacall, and countless bootleggers took this flight. In the final scene of "The Silence of the Lambs," Anthony Hopkins talks on the phone as his next meal climbs out of a Chalk's plane in Alice Town.
Cruises and Ferries
Discovery Cruise Line (888-213-8253, www.discoverycruise.com) sails from Fort Lauderdale to Grand Bahama. The cost is $110 for a day cruise or $169 round trip for longer-stay cruises.
Most islands have local ferry service, with varied prices and schedules. The local docks usually post information. Bahamas Fast Ferries (242-323-2166, www.bahamasferries.com) runs trips from Nassau and Eluthera for $65 each way aboard an indoor catamaran that travels 40 mph. Service to Abaco, Andros and the Exumas is also available.
The cheapest but slowest option is to take a mail boat, which lugs cargo and passengers between Nassau and every Out Island once a week. The Tuesday trip from Nassau to Exuma, for example, is 14 hours and $40. Call the dock master in Nassau (242-393-1064) to have a schedule faxed or mailed to you.
WHEN TO GO: The Bahamas, especially the southern islands, are pleasant year-round, though the winter months can bring an occasional chilly spell. The fall is wonderful but there's always the threat of hurricanes. Mid-summer can be uncomfortably hot. April, May and June are usually the top months in the islands: It's not too hot, the water is warm, and island flora are blooming riotously.
WHERE TO STAY: For a look at lodging options in three price ranges on 10 Bahamian islands, see chart on Page P9.
INFORMATION: Bahamas Department of Tourism, 800-224-2627, www.bahamas.com.
-- Elissa Leibowitz Poma and Marvin Hunt