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Visitors to the Bahamas soon discover that instead of arriving at one destination, they've stumbled upon many! Just 50 miles off the Florida coast, the islands of the Bahamas are as diverse as they are lovely. The bustling marketplaces, marinas, and hotels of Freeport and Nassau seem worlds away from the pine forests and mangrove swamps of the Lucayan National Park . The more cosmopolitan islands provide traditional tourist fare, but others offer secluded beaches, tiny palm-lined villages, and stalagmite-filled caves. Stretching from Grand Bahama and Abaco at the north to Great Inagua at the south are 23 inhabited islands and hundreds of uninhabited islands and cays (pronounced "keys"). With six distinct ecosystems and many different adventures to be had, the islands of the Bahamas offer visitors a paradise of possibilities.

The islands' name comes from the Spanish 'baja mar,' meaning shallow sea, and it's true that at times you have to wade hundreds of yards out before the water even reaches your waist. Although associated as part of the caribbean the Bahamas is actually a chain of over 700 islands, starting just off the Florida coast and arcing down over 100,000 square miles of beautiful blue seas to the Turks and Caicos. Most of the islands are deserted, and of the 40-odd that are inhabited, only around half have developed tourist facilities. However, the Bahamas is graced with extensive beaches bleached white by the year-round sun and surrounded by turquoise waters filled with varied and colourful sea life. 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. It's the perfect place for peace, quiet, rest and relaxation - no surprise that the islands' original inhabitants, the Arawaks, are credited with inventing that indispensable chilling accessory, the hammock.

The beaches are glorious - invariably of fine white sand, lapped by the clearest blue waters.

Activities in and around the sea are understandably popular, especially the sailing, diving and deep-sea fishing, which are amongst the best in the world.

The three busiest islands in terms of tourists are New Providence Island, Paradise Island and Grand Bahama, all of which have great hotels, restaurants, casinos and nightclubs. The Out Islands on the other hand (which include Andros, the Exumas, the Abacos, Bimini and Eleuthera), are harder to get to and therefore less crowded. This is where you'll stand the best chance of finding your own deserted beach.

New Providence Island is home to Nassau, the sophisticated, bustling capital, and the highly developed resort of Cable Beach.

Paradise Island (half an hour away, linked by road bridge) is where you'll find the swankiest (and most expensive hotels), the glitziest casinos, the ritziest nightlife and the widest range of entertainment - all at a price, of course.

Somewhat cheaper, Grand Bahama has well-developed facilities, especially round the tourist hot spot of Freeport/Lucaya. There's good hiking here, and some of the Bahamas' best beaches, along with great golf courses and excellent diving.

Andros, the largest island, receives less tourists and isn't as developed - but is a big draw for divers thanks to the world's third largest barrier reef lying just offshore. It also has a range of accommodation choices from large resorts to small guesthouses.

North and South Bimini, close to the Florida coast, are best known for their good yachting, scuba diving and game fishing (Hemingway lived here, in Alice Town).

The Berry Islands, too, are particularly popular with fishermen.

The Abacos are a cluster of small islands that are a favourite haunt of the yachting fraternity.