Imagine sitting on a deserted beach in the crystal clear water with a stingray tickling your toes, the palm trees swaying.

That was after a  beach picnic lunch of the fish we’d just caught that morning. Talk about catch of the day! 

Welcome to The Bahamas

Summer is a great time to visit, with hotel rates as much as 40 percent less. 

Watch more from Eileen Ogintz.

And if you thought all there was to the Bahamas was Atlantis and the Nassau you see when your cruise ship stops there, think again.

I actually had my toes tickled by a stingray on a deserted beach in the Abacos Islands. This is the real Caribbean—calm waters, warm breezes, spectacular white sand beaches --and no people.

I’ve gone bone fishing and gotten up close and personal with swimming pigs in the Exumas,

I danced with local kids and got a lesson in making conch salad on a Friday night at Port Lucaya Marketplace on Grand Bahama Island.  I was hosted by a local Abaco family for a Bahamian feast through the People-to-People  Experience that connects visitors with locals—at no charge.  Cruisers can sign up to spend the day with a local Nassau volunteer when their ship is in port and see a different Nassau.

This year, you can join in the Bahamas’ 40th anniversary celebration of independence. Independence Day is actually July 10,  but there will be celebrations and special events all summer long—concerts, regattas, parades and more.

I just got back from touring some of the Bahamian Islands.  Here’s how to make the most of your time: