If Nassau is the political centre of The Bahamas and Freeport is the industrial heartland, then the nation's soul may be said to reside in the Out Islands - those 20 populated islands, or groups of islands, in a string of 700 stretching from Inagua in the south to Walker's Cay in the north. Each has its own character, culture and charm.
About the size of Colorado, if Colorado were a lake, The Bahamas is mostly water, 100,000 square miles of some of the clearest and most colourful water in the world.
Life on the islands is getting better all the time as more or better amenities are being installed year by year - reverse osmosis plants are providing high quality water, cable television is available almost everywhere, telephone service is becoming ever more available and reliable.
Some of this is due to the central government's oft-stated policy on Out Island tourism. The idea is to encourage an "anchor" project on each of the Out Islands, one that will offer employment and economic development for residents.
In the southern Bahamas, for example, the Mayaguana Development
Company has begun a 15-year project to develop 10,000 acres, including improvements to the airport, marinas and island infrastructure, as well as a new resort with another marina.
On Rum Cay, developer John Mittens is proposing a $90-million development that includes a hotel complex with a casino, marina and many upscale amenities.
In the central Out Islands, work is continuing this year in Exuma, including a $100 million residential and resort community called Grande Island Villas near Emerald Bay, the recently completed Four Seasons-run complex that includes a championship golf course.
In the north, there are large investments taking place in Abaco, Andros, the Berry Islands and Bimini, where Floridian developer Geraldo Capo is building a large hotel complex with a casino, golf course and marina.
Here's a look at the background of some of the Out Islands - a world away from the world.
Despite Bimini's proximity to Florida it has retained much of its ambience, reminiscent of the 1950s. During fishing tournaments Alice Town jumps but the rest of year the aroma of baked bread and the squawking of seagulls provides most of the excitement.
Bimini consists of a group of tiny islands - North and South Bimini, Gun Cay, Cat Cay and a few other islets - about 50 miles east of Miami.
These islands define the northwestern fringe of the Great Bahama Bank, and lie along the eastern side of the fish-rich Gulf Stream. The shallow waters of the bank, protected by North and South Bimini, spawn mammoth schools of bonefish. The deep waters of the stream produce trophy tuna, wahoo and billfish.
Bimini has earned its colourful reputation. Spain's Juan Ponce de Leon sought the fountain of youth there in the early 1500s. Then he found Florida.
Before the era of lighthouses, Bimini was home to wreckers who plundered the ships that ran aground on nearby reefs. During American prohibition in the 1920s, Bimini was a wide-open speakeasy and the focal point of shipments of liquor to the US. Writers Zane Grey and Ernest Hemingway enjoyed and established Bimini's reputation as a game fishing locale.
At the southern end of the Berry Island chain is Chub Cay, a well-known fishing resort and a port of entry with a full-service marina, airstrip, restaurant and visitor accommodations.
With only 15 square miles of land spread across 380 square miles of ocean along the northeastern rim of the Great Bahama Bank, the Berry Islands are a vacationer's paradise, with great fishing, yachting and diving opportunities.
At the northern end of the chain, which includes about 30 large cays and plenty of tiny ones, is the Great Stirrup Cay Lighthouse (circa 1863), believed by some to house a ghost.
Great Harbour Cay is the largest island, with Bullock's Harbour the chain's largest settlement. The island has a 4,000-foot airstrip, modern full-service marina, grocery store, gift shop, clinic, police station and a few restaurants.
Despite damage from back-to-back hurricanes in 2004, the Abacos remain upbeat and vibrant. Facilities are back on track and visitors are enjoying excellent boating, deep sea fishing, bonefishing, snorkelling and scuba diving.
Abaco is the most northerly island group of The Bahamas, fringing the northern lip of the Little Bahama Bank. Walker's Cay is the site of the northernmost resort. Apart from the main island of Great Abaco, there are some 80 offshore cays and about 200 rocks and outcroppings, including the uninhabited Jump Off Rocks, a mile north of Walker's Cay.
British mainland Loyalists, who fled the newly independent United States in the 1700s, started cotton farming in Abaco and set up plantations similar to those of pre-War of Independence America. The first settlement was at Carleton, near what is now Treasure Cay.
The economy boomed and the population grew from about 600 to more than 2,000. But soil depletion, a devastating insect infestation and the end of slavery in the British Empire ended plantation farming, and the Loyalists turned to the sea. They engaged in boat building, sailmaking, wrecking, salvaging and fishing.
By about 1800, some 200 white loyalists and the same number of slaves remained. The ratio of whites to blacks remains the same today, although the population has grown enormously with an influx of wealthy second-home owners.
Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco Island is the third largest town in The Bahamas, after Nassau and Freeport. It is a bustling hub. Despite the commercial activity, it retains the laid-back characteristics of many of the Out Islands.
The sparsely inhabited cays east of Great Abaco form the protected cruising grounds of the Sea of Abaco, dubbed "the sailing capital of the world," site of summer festivities that see local and visiting yachtsmen competing in ocean racing and fishing derbies. Tourism in the Abacos, unlike in most of the rest of The Bahamas, is at its peak during summer yachting months.
Loyalist settlements include Hope Town, with its picture postcard candy-striped lighthouse; Man O War Cay, famed for boat building, sailmaking and the Wyannie Malone Museum; Guana Cay, with excellent fishing; and Green Turtle Cay, with New England-style architecture and a 150-year-old residence housing the Albert Lowe Museum.
Treasure Cay, 25 miles north of Marsh Harbour, boasts a world-class 3-1/2-mile crescent beach and an 18-hole golf course designed by the late Dick Wilson.
The Exumas sweep down the middle of The Bahamas forming the western rim of deep Exuma Sound. The string of 365 small cays stretches nearly 100 miles from Beacon Cay, about 35 miles east of Nassau, to Little Exuma, near the northern tip of Long Island.
The most northerly populated island in the chain is Highborne Cay. It was once used by the British to re-settle slaves taken from illegal slavers between 1807 and 1838. Just north of Highborne are Allan's and Leaf Cays, where rare indigenous iguanas live.
Further south is Norman's Cay, once the home of the infamous drug baron, Carlos Lehder Rivas, and his henchmen. A small plane lies partly submerged within swimming distance of the beach.
The Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, established by the Bahamas National Trust, is the world's first land and sea area to be designated a national park. It runs from Wax Cay Cut in the north to Conch Cut, 22 miles south. It is illegal to fish or remove any plant life, coral, sea fans, gorgonians, animals, bird or marine life or eggs.
In the central Exumas, popular stops include Sampson Cay and Staniel Cay where you can snorkel into the spectacular Thunderball Grotto, site of much of the underwater action in the 1965 James Bond thriller, Thunderball.
Further south are some smaller islands with high-end upscale developments. They include Cave Cay, Musha Cay, Darby Island, with its mysterious castle, and Little Darby Island. Other exclusive developments are built on Rolle Cay and Crab Cay, both in Elizabeth Harbour, just minutes from George Town.
Towards the south end of the Exumas are Great Exuma and Little Exuma, the chain's two largest islands. George Town is the capital and major settlement on Great Exuma and has been home to the annual Family Island Regatta for more than half a century. This week-long event features races among Bahamian-built sloops from many of the islands. Elizabeth Harbour and George Town throb during this late April event.
The Club Peace and Plenty in George Town was named after the ship that brought the slaves of Lord John Rolle to Exuma in 1783. The British Crown granted Lord Rolle a large tract of land as compensation for land he had lost as result of the American revolution. Most slaves took the last name of their masters after emancipation - hence communities named Rolleville and Rolle Town.
A short drive south of George Town is Little Exuma, where you can visit William's Town, the 200-year-old Cotton House and the ancient salt ponds that once supported a thriving salt farming industry.
North of George Town at Farmer's Hill is the posh Four Seasons Emerald Bay Resort with its mile-long crescent beach and an 18-hole golf course designed by PGA star Greg Norman. The resort's elegant hotel is complemented by condos, residential lots and a large marina.
At 2,300 square miles, Andros is the largest Bahamian island. It consists of a jigsaw puzzle of inlets, creeks, bays and bights, mangroves and a farming heartland. There are large forests of soft and hardwoods, including stands of lignum vitae, mahogany and horseflesh trees. The three major bights separating the island are North, Middle and South Bight, all barely navigable at a few feet deep.
Andros is a centre for diving and bonefishing. Along the eastern shore is the mile-deep Tongue of the Ocean and the Western Hemisphere's second-largest barrier reef. This is the site of the US base for testing submarines at the Atlantic Underwater Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC) at Fresh Creek.
The waters surrounding Andros are littered with blue holes that link the ocean to the freshwater creeks inland. Spectacular stalactites and stalagmites adorn the underwater caves.
Two imaginary creatures spook the island. The Lusca supposedly drowns unwary divers who explore blue holes. The Chickcharnie is a three-toed, red-eyed, bird-bodied creature that brings woe to anyone disturbing its pine tree nest. An Androsian legend says that before he became British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain chopped down trees said to house a nest of Chickcharnies. His sisal plantation subsequently failed and Chamberlain went on to become Prime Minister of England, met with Adolf Hitler in the interests of peace and got the Second World War instead.
The first recorded "discovery" of Andros - or La Isla del Espiritu Santo (The Island of the Holy Spirit) as the Spanish named it - was in 1550 while they were searching for slave labour.
However, in the 1700s the island was called San Andreas, possibly named after inhabitants of St Andreas Island off the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua, who travelled to the island. Seventy Englishmen were given huge tracts of land after being evacuated from St Andreas.
Several plantation systems were tried but the island did not really prosper until Greek spongers arrived in the early 1900s. An area on the west coast of Andros, known as The Mud, produced 25 per cent of the world's sponges until 1939, when a fungus destroyed the industry almost overnight.
Andros is the largest supplier of fresh water in The Bahamas, and ships some three million gallons to Nassau daily. It is also a major producer of vegetables. The village of Red Bays, first settled by refugee Seminole Indians from Florida, still engages in the age-old art of basket weaving. Hand-batiked fabric known as Androsia has been produced by Androsians at Small Hope Bay since 1973.
Bonefishing lodges are sprouting up throughout the island and the fishing is spectacular in the bights that permeate the island and the Joulter Cays off the north end. There are about a dozen lodges dedicated to fishing and bonefishing.
The most striking thing about Eleuthera is nature - the Atlantic pounding into the high cliffs that fringe the eastern side of the island, and its verdant rolling hills. At 100 miles long and barely two miles at its widest, it's hard to get far from Eleuthera's beaches. Along with Harbour Island and Spanish Wells, Eleuthera is dotted with quaint friendly fishing and colonial villages and, at one time, vast pineapple plantations.
A group of dissident English Puritans known as the Eleutherian Adventurers, arrived on the island of Cigatoo in 1648 seeking religious freedom. They renamed the island Eleuthera, the Greek word for freedom.
More than a century later, American colonists still loyal to the British flag left the newly independent nation and arrived in Eleuthera. These loyalists brought their slaves, colonial building skills, as well as their agricultural and shipbuilding expertise, all of which became major influences in Eleutheran life.
To guard against marauding Spaniards, another settlement was then established on the nearby and more easily defended Harbour Island. To solidify their independence, in 1783 the former loyalists, assisted by the South Carolina militia, took up arms and forced the retreat of Spanish forces from the entire region.
Off the north end of Eleuthera, a short ferry ride away, are two island gems. Spanish Wells is a prosperous fishing community. There is a small museum where the seafaring residents' heritage and culture are showcased. Harbour Island is best known for its three-mile pink sand beach. The Harbour Island settlement of Dunmore Town dates back to the 18th century. It was once the summer home of the Royal Governor, Earl of Dunmore, and was second only to Nassau in importance.
Heading south from North Eleuthera are a trio of tiny communities, Upper and Lower Bogue and Current. The Glass Window Bridge, which joins North Eleuthera to the rest of the island, is flanked by the often-turbulent Atlantic Ocean and the serene Great Bahama Bank.
Gregory Town is a famous attraction for surfers. Windermere Island, off the Atlantic shore, used to be popular with the rich and royalty. Governor's Harbour is the island's largest and busiest town. Tarpum Bay is home to the creative, artsy crowd, and Rock Sound offers comfortable facilities for visitors and, at one time, a first-class golf course at Cotton Bay.
The Pineapple Festival in June recalls the era when Eleuthera exported the world's juiciest pineapples.
The pineapple still symbolizes hospitality, and although production has faded in recent years, the festival is celebrated each year.
In the 1790s, loyalists migrated to Long Island from the US and prospered with their plantation societies. Dunmore House, in Clarence Town, was erected by the Earl of Dunmore before the abolition of slavery ended the plantation system.
Clarence Town, the largest settlement on Long Island, has two fine churches. St Paul's Anglican Church was built by expatriate architect-priest Father Jerome. He converted to Roman Catholicism and then built St Peter's Catholic Church.
North of Clarence Town, at Deadman's Cay, is a network of caves featuring stalagmites, stalactites and archaeological evidence of Arawak Indians.
Tourism in Long Island revolves around two major resorts, Stella Maris and Cape Santa Maria.
Until 1926, this was the island believed to have been the landfall of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Many Cat Islanders still claim Columbus landed there first and named it San Salvador.
They do have a legitimate claim in having the country's highest elevation, Mount Alvernia, at 206 feet above sea level. The hill served as the hermitage of Father Jerome. (See also Long Island.) He settled here in 1939 to live out his final days as a recluse. He built a miniature monastery and hand-carved steps out of solid rock, representing the Stations of the Cross.
Most Cat Islanders derive a living from the traditional farming method of slash-and-burn. They also gather cascarilla bark and ship it to Italy where it becomes a main ingredient in the aperitif Campari.
Cotton plantation ruins are scattered around the island. The remains of slave huts dating back to the 1700s and Arawak Indian caves can be explored.
The island also prides itself on producing The Bahamas finest rake 'n scrape music and holds an annual festival dedicated to it.
San Salvador was the first landfall of Christopher Columbus on his initial voyage in 1492. Four widely separated monuments mark the exact spot Columbus came ashore, but it is believed that he landed at Long Bay where a big stone cross now stands. Called Guanahani by the native Lucayans, Columbus renamed it San Salvador or "Holy Saviour."
However, the island subsequently became the headquarters of the buccaneer George Watling and was called Watling's Island until 1925. Watling's Castle at Sandy Point includes the ruins of a main house, cookhouse and slave quarters.
The island has miles of pristine and secluded beaches and underwater visibility of up to 150 feet. The island is dotted with monuments, ruins and other interesting places, including Farquharson Plantation, Dixon Hill Lighthouse, built in 1887, New World Museum, Palmetto Grove and the Gerace Research Center, where research is conducted in archaeology, biology, geology and marine sciences.
Rum Cay, a small, sparsely populated island, is mainly flat but has a few rolling hills rising to about 130 feet. Christopher Columbus named the island Santa Maria De La Conception.
The only settlement is Port Nelson, a picturesque village on the south coast. A new 5,000-foot runway was opened in early 2004.
The wreck of the 101-gun man-of-war HMS Conqueror, built in Devon in 1855, which served in the Crimean War, lies in 30 feet of water off Rum Cay where it sank in 1861. It is the property of The Bahamas government, and none of the contents of the ship may be removed.
Acklins and Crooked Island
Acklins Island is long, narrow and hilly, with numerous caves and bays along its western shores. A ferry links Acklins to Crooked Island. The islands enclose a shallow lagoon known as the Bight of Acklins, a popular cruising ground for shallow-draft vessels. The atoll also includes Long Cay, southwest of Crooked Island and Castle Island off the southern tip of Acklins.
Columbus is believed to have sailed down the leeward side of the islands through the narrow Crooked Island Passage, now an important trade route for ships moving between Europe and Central and South America.
The Bight of Acklins is more than 1,000 square miles of shallow water. This is one of the largest bonefish-flats in The Bahamas. Exploring this system of flats, creeks, channels and mangrove marls could take a lifetime.
Colonel Hill, on the northeastern end of the island, is said to be where the first post office in The Bahamas was located.
The hamlets of Acklins Island carry descriptive names such as Rocky Point, Binnacle Hill, Salina Point, Delectable Bay, Golden Grove, Goodwill, Hard Hill, Snug Corner and Lovely Bay. Some Crooked Island sites have more ominous names, such as Gun Point and Cripple Hill.
Ragged Island is part of a 110-mile arc of islands that includes the Jumentos Cays, stretching from the southern tip of Long Island down
to Cuba. Duncan Town, the only village on the island, has a population of about 80. A thriving salt industry operated in the 1930s trading between Cuba and Haiti. In the 1950s, the island fell victim to Hurricane Donna, which caused extensive damage. Then, 10 years later when Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba, the little trading that existed at the time came to a halt.
Great Inagua is the southernmost and the third-largest island of The Bahamas. Lake Windsor occupies almost one-quarter of the interior. Inagua National Park is the 287-square-mile home of the world's largest colony of West Indian flamingos. Almost extinct some years ago, they now number about 40,000. Nearby, the Morton Salt Company exports more than a million tons of crude salt per year. Despite Inagua's large size, the only settlement is Matthew Town and the population is slightly more than 1,000. Little Inagua lies five miles to the north. It covers 30 square miles and is inhabited only by herds of wild donkeys, goats and bird life.
The least developed and visited, Mayaguana is the eastern-most island of The Bahamas. Mostly farmers, fishermen, children and seniors, all noted for their friendliness, populate the main settlements of Betsy Bay, Pirates Well and Abraham's Bay.
The deep Atlantic waters surrounding Mayaguana are rich in conch, fish and shipwrecks.
Mayaguana's lone airstrip is part of the former US missile tracking station. Some of the base buildings have been renovated for storage use by ERGB, the acronym for Environmental Research Group Bahamas, Ltd. This company has built a Euro-style villa north of Abraham's Bay and has plans for a 60-room hotel to introduce Mayaguana to tourism.