With idyllic beaches, crystal-clear turquoise waters and a culture that radiates relaxation, the Bahamas is one of the few countries that instantly evoke a summer-holiday vibe all year round. Travelers from around the world flock here in search of a blissful escape from the ordinary.
Yet this time, on my second visit to the Bahamas, I visited with the intention of discovering a different side of this archipelago. Instead of focusing on the famous highlights and indulging in refreshing cocktails, my goal was to catch a glimpse of the local culture and experience the places where Bahamians live, sleep and travel.
To embark on this adventure, I chose to explore the Bahamas by mail boat – an unfamiliar method of transportation for visitors, yet one fundamental to this island nation.
Mail boats are more than just vessels in the Bahamas: they serve as vital lifelines for one of the most geographically dispersed countries in the world. These boats connect communities, and facilitate the transportation of various goods from the capital, Nassau, from essential supplies like water, toilet paper and food to larger items such as construction materials and vehicles.
Unleashing my inner explorer
I first learned about mail-boat cruising from locals several years ago, and later from adventurous travelers exploring the archipelago. Since this is something anyone in the Bahamas can do with a bit of patience and planning, it was an idea that immediately caught my attention. As I thought through the trip, I realized this wouldn’t be a typical Caribbean vacation, where you simply make a reservation, sit back and relax. Exploring the Bahamas by mail boat began to feel more like a quest in which I became the main character, encountering little puzzles that propelled me forward.
Keep in mind that this journey is not for everyone. The Bahamas has gained a reputation for luxury, attracting many travelers on the high end. Yet only travelers who go deeper will see the country’s two facets: one that dazzles with resorts and fancy restaurants, and the other, which locals experience in their daily lives.
My first puzzle was deciding where to go. With mail boats serving all the major islands, I had to determine the most convenient destination. Questions like how much time I wanted to spend on the water, the frequency of departures, the ability to connect with each boat’s captain and the reliability of departure dates were factors I had to consider.
During my research, I learned the main mail-boat routes and durations from Nassau.
- To Eleuthera (Governor’s Harbour): 5–7 hours
- To Andros (Fresh Creek, Stafford Creek, Blanket Sound, Bering Point): 5–9 hours
- To Grand Bahama (Freeport): 8–12 hours
- To South Cat Island (Smith’s Bay, New Bight): 10–15 hours
- To Exuma (George Town): 14–20 hours
- To Acklins & Crooked Islands (Spring Point, Cornel Hill, Long Cay): 30–48 hours
Planning an adventure you can’t plan
Unlike with other boat rides in the Bahamas for which you can book a ticket, securing a spot on a passenger mail boat requires a step-by-step process. First, you need to reconfirm departure times and ask for availability. This can be done by reaching the dockmaster’s office at +242 393-1064 or by contacting the port department at +242 326-7354. Sending an email to the Port Department at firstname.lastname@example.org might also work. Keep in mind, however, that obtaining a response via email can take days, and that boats depart only once every week from Nassau.
Once you’ve confirmed the essential details regarding departure times, prices and timings, the next step is to get your ticket. In the case of traveling to Eleuthera with the M/V Bahamas Daybreak, I paid a visit to the boat’s office in Potter’s Cay in central Nassau to acquire my ticket two days in advance. Additionally, multiple phone calls were necessary to ensure a smooth process.
I should mention that while it is possible to travel without a pre-booked ticket, availability in the M/V Bahamas Daybreak is limited, with only 20 to 30 passengers per weekly boat. Fortunately, you can follow the M/V Bahamas Daybreak official Facebook page, where I found helpful updates on departure times, capacity and last-minute changes – all invaluable when the alternative is repeated phone calls from abroad.
What to expect on board
With my ticket in hand ($40 one way), I arrived at Potter’s Cay at 12pm, about five hours before the scheduled departure – something the captain had recommended while booking my ticket. This early arrival, however, isn’t something I would recommend. As the crew was busy loading numerous heavy boxes under heavy sun, I passed the time reading and listening to music in the only shade I could find: under a container truck.
An hour prior to the scheduled departure, we were finally allowed to board the boat. Inside, the three-bench cabin was cozy and modest, providing a comfortable setting for families and children. (While on board, I learned that there were private bed options available, yet with only three rooms, they get booked well in advance.) There were a few electrical outlets, tables for placing food or bags, and a large screen showcasing blockbusters from the early 2000s. Alternatively, I could choose to be outside and enjoy the fresh, salty air of the Caribbean Sea.
Though the crew provided a complimentary meal (grilled chicken, rice and fried plantain) on the boat, I’d recommend bringing your own snacks and drinks for a more comfortable journey. Once the boat sets sail, there won’t be any opportunity to purchase additional beverages or snacks. (Bringing an extra six pack of beers is a great way to meet people, too.)
In contrast to the quiet interior, where most people were occupied with their phones or trying to sleep, the atmosphere outside bustled with activity. Passengers were more talkative and often had beers and snacks to share. Here, I had the opportunity to connect with Bahamians traveling between these islands. Since I was the only visitor aboard, my choice to travel by mailboat sparked curiosity and served as a good conversation starter.
I hardly noticed the length of the ride and the monotony of the sea views. Over the course of six hours, I witnessed one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen; discussed family, relationships and travel experiences from around the world; listened to debates about which island I must visit next and why; and relished the tranquility of being alone with the wind and the vast blue ocean before me.
At around 11pm, the M/V Bahamas Daybreak finally arrived in Eleuthera, several hours later than scheduled – something that is quite common.
It took me 11 hours from my arrival in Potter’s Cay to finally disembark in Eleuthera – 10 hours and 30 minutes longer than if I had taken the plane. Nevertheless, the experience was unforgettable. I learned that the journey sometimes can indeed be more worthwhile than the destination, and that Bahamians travel by mail boat by choice, not out of necessity.
Traveling by mailboat in the Bahamas offers neither luxury or comfort, yet it cultivates a spirit of adventure, community and relaxation that can only be found in this corner of the world.
And if you want a faster option to Eleuthera…
By air: Bahamasair and Southern Air offer regular flights from Nassau’s Lynden Pindling International Airport to either Governor’s Harbour Airport or North Eleuthera Airport in Eleuthera. Prices for a one-way ticket range from $90 to $150.
By ferry: Bahamas Ferries operates a daily 2.5-hour ferry service from Nassau to Eleuthera on the Bo Hengy, departing from Nassau and arriving at Spanish Wells and Harbour Island in Eleuthera. Prices for a one-way ticket start at $100.
By private charter: For a more personalized experience, you can charter a small plane from Nassau to Eleuthera, with companies such as Air Flight Charters and Air Charter Bahama charging from $500 to $1000 per hour.
Alternatively, private boat charters from such companies as Bahamas Yacht Charters and Powerboat Adventures are also available, with prices ranging from $500 to $2000 or more, depending on the vessel’s size, the journey’s duration and any additional services provided.