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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:   

  • 1. Explore the sea

    Head to the beach to snorkel or scuba dive in some of the most beautiful reefs anywhere. Stuart Cove’s  Aqua Adventures  is the largest operation in the Bahamas in Nassau.

  • 2. Eat and drink like a local

    Sample local food like conch fritters and conch salad,  peas and rice and baked macaroni and cheese. You’ll find weekly fish fries on all of the islands that draw locals as well as tourists—and  one every night of the week at the restaurants  and  stands at Arawak Cay in Nassau.  Take a food tour on Nassau with  Tru Bahamian Food Tours.  Also, try the local drinks—virgin and otherwise. A Goombay  Smash, please!

  • 3. Go on a shopping spree

    See how good you are at bargaining when you shop for local  goods like a straw bag or hat (you can get it customized with your name!) and Conch shells. Bring home some local rum as a gift. 

  • 4. Go wild

    Have an adventure, whether horseback riding in the ocean in the Abacos, getting in the water with Dolphins or kayaking through the mangroves.

  • 5. Learn some history

    There are four different forts in Nassau to explore. In the Abacos, visit Hopetown where those columnists  loyal to Britain settled after the American revolution.

Eileen Ogintz is a nationally syndicated columnist and creator of TakingtheKids.com. Her new  Kids Guide to Boston is available online and from major booksellers, along with the Kids Guides to NYC, Washington, DC, Orlando,  LA and Chicago. Coming  later this year: San Diego, San Francisco and Denver.