Whether you prefer hippy chic hotels or high-octane water sports, this northern Caribbean island chain has a turquoise-fringed, white-sand beach for you. Rhiannon Batten reports

WHERE SHOULD I GO?

Start at the beach. These islands boast great swathes of powdery white sand, but some of the best is quite far off the beaten track. The Bahamas comprise around 700 islands and 2,000 cays, only one per cent of them inhabited, running in a scattered, 650-mile line down the northern Caribbean.

Although formerly a British colony, the country takes its name from baja mar, Spanish for "shallow sea", a reference to the reefs and sandbars that snake through its emerald waters. Over the centuries, infinite numbers of ships have found themselves snagged on this jagged, watery landscape but today the same features sustain a lively tourist industry.

There are three main centres. The first is the capital, Nassau, on New Providence, where most international flights arrive. Next is Paradise Island, just offshore from Nassau and linked by two bridges. Finally, on the island of Grand Bahama, is Freeport. Nassau has more colonial charm than Freeport, which is only a 40-minute flight from Miami, so has been heavily Americanised.

YOU PROMISED BEACHES...

All three commercial hubs can provide them. New Providence boasts Cable Beach, but if this fails to impress you, then the northern coast of Paradise Island provides plenty of decent, if busy, stretches of sand. Should you find yourself on Grand Bahama and want some sand in your toes, try Old Bahama Bay or Paradise Cove, both in the west of the island. For Paradise Cove, if you book beforehand ($35, or £20), a bus will come and pick you up from your hotel in the morning and drop you back in the afternoon. The price includes a burger lunch and access to a small but pleasant white sand beach, where you can also rent snorkel equipment and kayaks (001 242 349 2677; www.deadmansreef.com).

At the opposite extreme are the "Out" islands, some of which are now well set-up for tourism. These include the Abacos, highly regarded for fishing; Andros, the closest the Bahamas gets to jungle; historic Eleuthera; and the yacht-packed Exumas. Most are characterised by quiet tropical landscapes, tangled mangroves and the odd resort pushing up, incongruously, from the sand.

I WANT SOMETHING QUIETER

Much more dramatic, but harder to get to, are the shores of Stocking Island, just off Great Exuma's George Town (boats there cost $8, or £4.50, return). Quiet and picturesque, the island also boasts several under-sea caves and some of the world's most peculiar creatures. The dozens of large humps that lie partly buried below the water here are giant stromatolites, thought to be the oldest living organisms on the planet but found today only here and in Australia's Shark Bay.

If you want to stay, Stocking Island also features one of the Bahamas' most appealing small hotels. The comfortable and stylish cottages at Higgins Landing (001 242 357 0008; www.higginslanding. com) are all eco-friendly and the affable owners are the sort who greet you with homemade cinnamon buns and fresh lemonade. Rates start at $165 (£92) a double, room only.

THE BEST BEACH OF ALL?

Head for Harbour Island, or "Briland", as the locals call it, and in particular Pink Sands. So perfect is this three-mile stretch of sand that you won't see a single strand of seaweed encroaching on the fantasy, just pink-tinged powder shelving into opalescent turquoise. One of the beachside hotels here is the glamorous Pink Sands (001 242 333 2030; www.islandoutpost.com). It is owned by the Island Records music mogul Chris Blackwell and offers upmarket hippy chic for $750 (£417) a double, including breakfast and dinner. Cheaper yet sophisticated is Coral Sands (001 242 333 2350; www.coralsands.com), which has an excellent restaurant overlooking the beach. Doubles from $185 (£103), room only.

There's more to glamorous Harbour Island than sand. The Eleutheran Adventurers were English settlers who arrived in the mid-17th century searching for religious freedom. They formed the first British colony on Eleuthera, just south of Harbour Island, and gradually spread out. As a result, "Briland", just to the north, still has a sleepy New England-in-the-Tropics look.

On the harbour side of the island, several of the old houses have been turned into retreats that have found favour with celebrities such as Zara Phillips. The Miami-style Rock House (001 242 333 2053; www.rockhousebahamas.com) has doubles from $300 (£167) including breakfast. The Landing (001 242 333 2707; www.harbourislandlanding.com), which was co-designed by India Hicks, has a more colonial feel; doubles start at $215 (£120) including breakfast.

NOT BACKPACKER TERRITORY, THEN?

No, but there are some budget options to be found on Harbour Island. These include the Bahama House Inn (001 242 333 2201; www.bahamahouseinn.com), a pretty pink gingerbread house featuring original stained-glass windows and some characterful rooms; doubles start at $125 (£69), including breakfast. More rustic but closer to Pink Sands beach is Tingum Village (001 242 333 2161), an eccentric family-run place with double rooms from $150 (£83), room only.

If you simply want to sample Harbour Island, fast-ferry day trips here from Nassau cost $159 (£88) and include a stop at Pink Sands beach (001 242 323 2166; www.bahamasferries.com).

ANY FAMILY FRIENDLY RESORTS?

The big hotels strung along Cable Beach outside Nassau are looking a bit tired these days, although a £9m refurbishment package is about to start. Elsewhere, "Our Lucaya", a Westin and Sheraton joint project on Grand Bahama, has been completely overhauled since the last hurricane (Jeanne in September 2004) and has more character than your average resort. It's also on a lovely white sand beach. Doubles here start from $199 (£110) at the Sheraton and $229 (£127) at the Westin, without breakfast (00 800 325 35353; www.ourlucaya.com).

Further afield, but on a similar scale and with an even better scythe of sand in front of it, is the* * new Four Seasons (00 800 6488 6488; www.fourseasons.com) on Great Exuma. Detractors dismiss it for destroying the ecology and infrastructure of what was formerly one of the sleepiest Bahamian islands. Others say it has brought new life - and employment - to the Exumas. Whatever your take, there's no denying it has one of the best settings in the country, with swish doubles overlooking the sea from $325 (£180), room only.

I WANT TO GET OUT ON THE WATER

Most water sports are organised by the local hotels. For the castaway feeling with full frills, glamorous Kamalame Cay (001 242 368 6281; www.kamalame.com), off North Andros, is a small, private island resort with rates from $560 (£312) per double, all-inclusive. Further south, the Emerald Palms resort (001 242 369 2713; www.emerald-palms.com) on South Andros has clean, luxurious rooms right on the beach. This huge resort was built on the expectation of large-capacity flights. They haven't materialised and, with only the tiniest of planes flying in, it can sometimes feel too quiet. Doubles from $185 (£103).

Simpler but more characterful is Tiamo (001 242 357 2489; www.tiamoresorts.com), not so much down the road as down the bight since it's only accessible by boat. Chic but ecologically friendly, it boasts solar showers, compost toilets, great food and some of the best beds in the Bahamas. Prices start at $572 (£318) for a double, all-inclusive except for drinks.

As well as the usual water sports, the big resorts offer all kinds of boat trips, undersea explorer tours and even trips on underwater scooters. Ask around for advice on the most reputable operators and always double-check yourself that any equipment you will be using is up to scratch. Also, make sure that your insurance covers the relevant water sport. The Foreign Office advises against hiring jet skis, however, because of a number of fatal accidents recently: "The water-sports industry in the Bahamas is very poorly regulated," it explains. "We advise you not to rent jet-skis in New Providence and Paradise Island unless you are experienced jet-ski users."

I WANT TO DELVE BELOW THE SURFACE

Head to Andros - although you mustn't mind midges too much; the island is infamous for them. This massive but sparsely populated island gives access to one of the northern hemisphere's largest barrier reefs, revered among snorkellers and divers. A big offshore attraction is Toto ("Tongue of the Ocean"), where the reef plunges 6,000ft to a narrow drop-off. Others are the numerous blue holes formed when subterranean caves filled with seawater, causing their roofs to collapse and exposing pools of clear, cool water surrounded by marine life and coral.

WHAT ABOUT SAILING OR FISHING?

The two often go together in the Bahamas. Hemingway headed out to the Biminis in the 1930s, setting his book Islands in the Stream there. Along with their quieter sister islands the Berrys, the Biminis still play host to several big game-fishing resorts and exclusive retreats. If you just want to drift around in a yacht, the Abacos and Exumas are better bets. Fly over the Exumas and, from above, they look like a batch of fresh mint being folded into vanilla ice cream. White sand beaches, emerald coves and almost neon turquoise shores melt gooily into each other, peppered by little scrub-covered atolls. The big draw here is the Exuma Cays National Land and Sea Park, and the Moriah Harbour Cay National Park, which is more easily reached. Starfish on Great Exuma organises trips to both, sailing or kayaking (001 242 336 3033; www.kayakbahamas.com).

WHERE ELSE CAN I PADDLE?

For the next few months Kayak Nature Tours, on Grand Bahama, will be capitalising on the country's buccaneering history during its usual kayaking trips to Gold Rock Creek. These take you through peaceful mangroves and out to a pretty cove for lunch but, from November, you might also catch a glimpse of Johnny Depp while you paddle. He'll be in the area, filming the sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean, with the Black Pearl anchored just off the Creek. Trips cost $79 (£44) including transport, equipment, guides and lunch (001 242 373 2485; www.grandbahamanaturetours.com).

IS THERE MORE TO THE BAHAMAS THAN BEACHES?

How about bird-watching? On New Providence, a long-term British expatriate named Carolyn Wardle runs excellent birding tours, on foot or by bike, for $59 (£33) for a half day, binoculars provided (001 242 362 1574; www.bahamasoutdoors.com).

If you are after some history, Nassau, the Abacos and Eleuthera have some atmospheric old buildings. There are, though, few formal structures in the Bahamas. San Salvador, the easternmost island in the archipelago, has a good claim to fame as the isle where Columbus stepped ashore in 1492, believing it to be the East Indies. There isn't a lot of local evidence, however. Most visitors come simply to enjoy the facilities at the island's Club Med (001 242 331 2000; www.clubmed.com) rather than to focus on history.

WHEN'S GOOD TO GO?

As Vincent, a Nassau taxi driver, told me, there are three seasons in the Bahamas: "last summer, this summer and next summer". It's certainly true that there's plenty of sunshine year-round - but there can also be tropical storms at any time between June and November (with August and September particularly susceptible).

High season generally applies between December and April, when temperatures are slightly less steamy and the hurricane season has passed. Another reason to go in winter is for Junkanoo, the local answer to Mardi Gras. Carnival-goers dressed in African-inspired costumes, shimmying to goombay music and tucking into plates of hot fried fish give the Bahamas a real party buzz. Junkanoo takes place throughout the country on Boxing Day and New Year's Day but the main parade centres on Bay Street and Shirley Street in downtown Nassau. A smaller Junkanoo event also takes place on Saturday evenings in June on Arawak Cay, just to the west of the town centre (001 242 324 1714; www.junkanoo.com).

HOW CAN I GET THERE?

Two airlines offer direct scheduled flights to Nassau. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies five times a week from Heathrow, and Virgin (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) flies once weekly from Gatwick. Fares on both start from £400 return. First Choice also operates charter flights from Manchester (0870 850 3999; www.firstchoice.co.uk) to Nassau.

If you'd rather go on a package, operators include Caribtours (020-7751 0660; www.caribtours.co.uk), Discover The Bahamas (01737 218 803; www.discover-the-bahamas.co.uk), Kuoni (01306 747733; www.kuoni.co.uk), Sunset Faraway Holidays (020-7498 9922; www.sunset.co.uk), Thomas Cook (0870 443 4447; www.thomascooksignature.com) and Thomson (0870 160 7438; www.thomsonworldwide.co.uk).

GETTING AROUND?

All the inhabited islands are connected by air. Most of the flights are operated by Bahamasair (001 242 377 5505; www.bahamasair.com) and cost around $70 (£40) per hop but there are several independent airlines. For a list see the tourist board website or ask a local company such as Majestic Holidays in Nassau to book transport for you (001 242 322 2606; www.majesticholidays.com).

Apart from the fast ferry between Nassau and Eleuthera/Harbour Island (see above), local ferries are only really useful for getting out to the more remote islands. One exception is the regular, half-hour ferry between Nassau's Rawson Square and Paradise Island. This costs $6 (£3.50) return and runs from 9.30am to 4.15pm daily. If you have more time, there's always the mail boat, bookable through the Dockmaster's Office in Nassau (001 242 393 1064). Typical trips include Nassau to Abaco, which takes 12 hours and costs just $45 (£25).

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

From the Bahamas Tourist Board in London (020-7355 0800; www.bahamas.co.uk).

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