Sitting in the Caribbean, only 56 miles from the coast of Florida, Grand Bahama is one of the closest major islands to the United States. Easy access from the North American mainland, idyllic Caribbean beaches and sunny, warm wintertime weather make Grand Bahama a focal point for tourists from more-northern latitudes. The Bahamas are synonymous with resort-centered getaways, but they also hold some of the northern Caribbean's best eco-tourism attractions.

Grand Bahama, one of the nation's largest islands (but not the most densely populated), is full of dive sites, national parks and other protected natural areas, which create a tourism scene that goes well beyond the beach. Despite being home to several major all-inclusive resorts and a busy cruise ship port (Port Lucaya), getting into the island's natural areas, both on land and below the waves, is easy. In fact, Grand Bahama is a great example of a destination that has managed to balance its mainstream aspirations with nature tourism. The result: A vacation on the island does not have to be defined as a resort vacation or an eco-tourism getaway. There can be a little of both.

Go green

Taxis are the most convenient means of transportation on Grand Bahama, especially since numerous vehicles wait for fares outside all major hotels and resorts. However, greener options are available. Renting a motorbike or scooter is a low-gas way to see the island without having to rely on four-wheel transport. Locals drive on the left side of the road (which often creates problems for visiting Americans). Riders who keep this unfamiliar rule of the road in mind won't have too much to worry about. Bicycles, likewise, are a good two-wheel taxi alternative. Bike paths do exist, but are not widespread. However, following some routes, like the Heritage Trail in the Lucaya area, is best accomplished by bike because the journey passes through narrow laneways and dirt paths.

Grand Bahama's bus fleet consists mainly of mini-buses (sometimes called jitneys by locals). These run often between major towns and tourist centers, but the schedule can be irregular (some will not leave for their destination until they are full). Nonetheless, this is how most locals travel, so a jitney journey can turn into a cultural experience as well as a means of getting from A to B.

One final transportation choice is horseback riding. While this is not a practical way to travel, it is possible to tour parts of Grand Bahama on horseback through Pine Tree Stables. The equine outfitter offers two-hour rides along the seashore. Even if it is not a practical means of transportation, nothing could be more romantic than an imagination-come-to-life ride along the sandy Bahamian seashore.

Sleep green

Grand Bahama is dominated by a handful of large, all-inclusive resorts and brand-name hotels. While these places might prove convenient (even for eco-tourists, who can book tours and guides through the resort), there are smaller options on Grand Bahama. If you do choose to go big, Pelican Bay and the Wyndham Resort at Fortuna Beach offer all-inclusive features, but can also provide guests with access to eco-tourism activities like guided hiking trips and kayaking excursions.

Small-scale sleeping spots like the popular Auntie Anne's Bed and Breakfast are less energy-eating options. Visitors don't even have to sacrifice too much in terms of comfort: Auntie Anne's has a pool, a free English-style breakfast and maid service. The seaside Seagrape Bed and Breakfast is another small inn worth considering. The negative aspect of these bed and breakfasts is that they have a limited number of rooms, so the most popular ones can be difficult to book, even if you plan months in advance.

Eat green

Like elsewhere in the Caribbean, eating local food is cheaper and, arguably, greener than dining exclusively at an all-inclusive resort or at tourist-oriented restaurants. One of the more overtly green eating and shopping spots is Cogia's Organic Food and Cafe, a small shop that stocks organic products and serves organic foods. Cogia's is best known locally for its herbal teas, which are said to have health benefits in addition to tasting good.

Seaside seafood places like Pisces Restaurant and Billy Joe's on the Beach are good choices for those interested in fish-based dishes that use locally caught ingredients. However, true local dining means eating at places like Becky's Restaurant, a modest but colorful eatery set away from the beach and major tourist areas. Becky's features fresh ingredients and dishes prepared in authentic Bahamian cooking styles.

See green

One of the advantages of visiting Grand Bahama is that all tourist-related activities are reasonably convenient. All-inclusive resorts and tour companies streamline the process of planning any type of excursion. Luckily, this holds true for eco-tourists as well. A number of tour operators specialize in daylong or half-day nature-themed-tours. One of the most notable of this type of tour company is Grand Bahama Nature Tours, an outfit that offers birding tours, bike trips, history-themed walking tours, and kayak and snorkeling excursions.

For divers, the most important organization on Grand Bahama is the Underwater Explorers Society (UNEXSO), the source for all things aquatic on Grand Bahama. Located in the main port of Lucaya, UNEXSO offers a wide array of water-based experience including scuba diving tours and animal encounters. The organization offers several types of themed dives, with wreck dives, dolphin dives and reef dives all among the list of possibilities. One of the most popular activities on Grand Bahama is UNEXSO's dolphin encounter. These experiences allow tourists to get eye-to-eye with local dolphins, either by swimming with them in a lagoon or in the open ocean.

What about eco-tourists who seek of something a bit more authentic (something that is not associated with a tour company or guided, package tour)? Grand Bahama has three major natural areas that really make it stand out when it comes to eco-tourism. Lucayan National Park is Grand Bahama's 40-acre eco-headliner. It features a diverse set of landscapes, from pine forests to mangrove swamps. The park is home to an assortment of tropical flowers, including a beautiful collection of rare orchids. A system of boardwalks gives visitors access to all corners of the park, even wet and dense areas that otherwise would be inaccessible. Tours are also available in the park's extensive network of caves.

Freeport's Rand Nature Center is an ideal attraction for bird lovers. Tropical birds abound inside Rand, including a flock of flamingos. The best time to traverse the center's 100 acres is during the wintertime, when migratory birds join the year-round species. Aside from the flamingos, residents include owls and blue herons. Rand also boasts more than 100 species of native plants. Finally, Peterson Cay National Park is an attraction that cannot be completely explored on foot: It is a two-acre park off the coast that is made up of sand bars and coral reefs. It is an ideal spot for snorkelers and divers, who can explore the reefs and take in the underwater wildlife.

Another worthwhile solo eco-touring spot is Deadman's Reef. Tourists can rent snorkeling equipment at Paradise Cove (or bring their own) and swim to the reef. Kayaks are also available for rent. While Deadman's Reef is not the only aquatic attraction on Grand Bahama, it is the most convenient swim-to reef.

Grand Bahama is a resort-centered island that draws its share of sun-seekers. However, there is a natural side to Grand Bahama. It wouldn't be incorrect to call the island “a haven for eco-tourists” because of its full slate of nature-themed attractions, both on and off shore.

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Photos: Geoff Livingston/Flickr, MTaylor Devicious/Flickr

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See the best of Grand Bahama (Without the cruise ship)
Sitting in the Caribbean, only 56 miles from the coast of Florida, Grand Bahama is one of the closest major islands to the United States. Easy access from the N