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On an action-packed Bahamas vacation, off the beach and into high gear

Special To The Washington Post

Our bundle of joy arrived on Christmas Day. He's no complainer, but for 20 years he took a back seat to tinsel, wreaths and extended family. So last December, just for once, we gifted him with a sole-focus 21st birthday. We swore not to even mention the C-word when we whisked him and his sister away to the Bahamas. If your kid, too, was born on a major holiday, you would know that you must sometimes upend tradition.

When our perpetually unavailable 20-somethings agree to a trip with my husband and I, they're the ones who devise the theme and set the pace. So we knew exactly what to expect in the Caribbean: action, action, action.

Our five-day time frame centered us in Nassau, on New Providence. A direct flight, abundant on-site services and the feasibility of day trips to other Bahamian islands clinched the deal. We budgeted about $200 per person per day for the thrills. Luckily, free transportation was provided to the action sites via shuttle pickups at most hotels.

To cut costs, we rented a pretty Airbnb villa in a centrally located Paradise Island compound at $210 a night for four people. Here, we hung out in the early morning and late evening, eating and talking on a wonderful, private patio. The Bahamian grocery store prices ($8 for a gallon of milk) gave us sticker shock, as did the restaurants; nearly all staples are imported. But we were there for adrenaline rushes. Our primary missions were: shipping off to the Exumas with Powerboat Adventures; plunging into the Aquaventure Water Park at Atlantis Paradise Island; swimming with the dolphins at Blue Lagoon Island; and piloting Stuart Cove's personal Scenic Underwater Bubbles, or SUBs.

Multiple speedboats offer trips to the shimmering, turquoise Exumas. Powerboat Adventures provides comfy seating and orange, spray-proof raincoats. On Ship Channel Cay, it also owns a Robinson Crusoe-like lodge (which offers pricey overnight stays). We jumped off at Allan Cay, using sticks to feed grapes to burly iguanas. Then loudspeakers blasted us off to Ship Channel Cay with the "Mission Impossible" theme. The boat swerved dramatically as passengers screamed with glee.

Upon landing at midmorning, we were met inside the cabana by a grinning bartender proffering rum-doused Bahama Mamas and Yellow Birds at a fast clip. Meanwhile, large stingrays skirted the beach nearby. Soon, they were gliding over our circle of lined-up toes, nibbling the mahi-mahi we fed them, and allowing us to touch their bumpy back ridges and satiny bellies.

However, shark fins knifed the vodka-clear water, and we were ordered back to shore. Our guide Remon shouted: "Seventeen today!" Scenes from "Jaws" were filmed nearby, but he said that there are no great whites here. Bahamian seawater is too warm for that, even in December. Ankle-deep in the water, Remon entertained us by pitching mahi-mahi like baseballs, revving up the muscular nurse, lemon and reef sharks. Then he started flinging dried grouper, knotted to a long rope, to draw the terrifying and toothy creatures closer.

The sharks were eventually lured away by staffers. Remon called, "Come, snorkelers!" But after the exhibition, only half the tour group went, even though it was part of the deal. We walked to a spot about 15 minutes away, where the sea life mostly consists of yellowtails and baby tuna nibbling the reefs, though one shark veered in lazily to check out our daughter.

At the cabana afterward, it was time for a bountiful buffet lunch of grilled fish, stewed meats and salads while the bartender got us tipsier by the minute. Remon pulled a table into the water and deftly minced a mound of peppers, limes, onions, tomatoes and fresh conch into a scrumptious salad served in little cups; it was the taste of pure, post-adrenaline bliss.

From practically anywhere in Nassau, it's hard to miss the enormous, conch-pink towers of the Atlantis resort. Although Atlantis prides itself on its inclusive, you'll-never-have-to leave packages, we were there for one reason: We had all-day passes to the 141-acre, Mayan-themed Aquaventure Water Park.

Our impatient progeny charged off, on track to conquer every spine-chilling waterslide. When the 60-foot, near-vertical drop of the Leap of Faith plunged me into the acrylic tunnel that's all there is between sliders and a pool of circling sharks, my eyes were shut so tight that I only caught the fins in the last second.

I did the 200-foot-long Abyss slide, then tubed the crazy spiral of the 120-foot-tall Power Tower before careening down the Challenger slide - at which point my stomach rebelled. Thankfully, I discovered the quarter-mile Lazy River Ride - in a comfy tube - after which I landed exhausted on one of the lounge chairs that overlooked the resort's 11 kid-filled swimming pools.

Our children checked on us sporadically. Otherwise, they water-romped for hours, briefly refueling at one of the many outdoor snack spots. Grateful to have become temporarily inactive, my husband and I enjoyed the traditional pastime of the Caribbean vacationer - sun worship.

The palm-filled beaches on Blue Lagoon Island are dotted with jelly-bean-bright chairs, strung hammocks and free kayaks. My son and I took the three-mile boat ride from Nassau to the island's marina for an interactive dolphin swim accredited by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums. My husband stayed behind to tour Nassau with our daughter, who does not approve of wild-animal attractions.

The two of us had reservations as well, but I had done my due diligence and knew this site settles Atlantic bottlenose dolphins native to the Caribbean in a tidal seawater lagoon. Here, mothers are never forcefully separated from calves, males have forged lifelong friendships and no dolphin is forced to participate in the encounters.

Upon arrival, we were escorted to a lagoon, outfitted with life vests and led to a floating dock. Trainer Antivia gave a strict, if encouraging, lesson to our group of six on manners with dolphins. Don't touch the blowhole; don't pet below the umbilical opening; let them come to you, not vice versa. We began to tread water, and two male dolphins slid under our noses, allowing us to trace our fingers over their silky smooth backs and bellies. Antiva rewarded them with some capelin, herring and squid. They approached again, now eye-to-eye with us, to offer hugs - at least that's what they seemed like - and led us in a sort of dance, shaking their flippers and singing in squeaks and clicks.

After an hour of immersion, our group went to another lagoon where two female dolphins waited for us, one at a time, to lie belly-down in the water, toes pointed. When it was my turn, two short, stubby beaks suddenly propelled me vertical by pushing the soles of my feet, and I found myself zooming across the lagoon as if riding Neptune's chariot.

Afterward, my son and I agreed that our proximity to these magnificent animals had made us more acutely aware of the need to protect them.

A shuttle took us to Stuart's Cove's Dive Bahamas to become SUB pilots for an afternoon. Our moored dive boat was loaded with rows of futuristic, banana-yellow "scooters," so called because you sit on them, legs astride, as on a scooter (even though they're not motorized). They're also called "personal submarines" because that's their effect underwater as you settle into the head bubble, grinning and breathing freely, forgetting that the attached air tank is making this possible. "Looks like a sea horse, yes!" our guide enthused before immersing us in the required half-hour video lesson and practicum on how to hand-navigate our individual SUBs.

Suddenly I began to regret that I didn't acknowledge occasional claustrophobia on the medical-release form. But after the 45-minute boat ride to the coral reefs, when two divers guided my head into the spacious capsule, I felt great, giddy even, as I sank. At a depth of 15 or 20 feet, our group - led by divers - navigated reefs nibbled by parrotfish, snappers, blue tangs and sergeants major. The rounded head bubble created some curious distortion; my hands and feet looked like those of a doll and I wish I'd ordered a wet suit, as I'm shivering. Still, I didn't want to miss a second.

Back on board, my husband was high-fiving the kids. "Can you believe that? Too crazy!" Afterward, we were given time to snorkel around freely and it felt, well, so darn average. We'd become adrenaline junkies.

So, yes, we also cooked and ate in restaurants, walked the wharves of Nassau and Paradise Island, visited the Straw Market, swam off Cabbage Beach in the moonlight and watched the wild Junkanoo float parade, but the action adventures were our family's team trophies.

On the plane, our son said that his favorite moment might have been dancing together to a live band on Arawak Cay. But wait, that was free.

Kids!

Calcagno is a writer based in Chicago. Her website is annecalcagno.com.

IF YOU GO

Where to stay

British Colonial Hilton, Nassau

1 Bay St.

011-1-242-322-3301

hiltoncaribbean.com/nassau

Old-world, elegant rooms with views. Hotel features include a pool and a private beach. Conveniently located near the downtown area. Rooms start at $239.

Compass Point Beach Resort

West Bay Street Gambier, Nassau

011-1-242-327-4500

compasspointbeachresort.com

Dine in colorful upscale "huts" away from the fray or sunbathe on the resort's private beach. Lively musical entertainment offered at night. Standard double room from $200.

Where to eat

Cafe Matisse

Bank Lane, Nassau

011-1-242-356-7012

cafe-matisse.com

This upscale Italian spot offers good service and ambient dining among palm trees. Lunch and dinner entrees start at $25.

Anchorage Market & Restaurant

Arawak Cay

011-1-242-328-0292

bit.ly/AnchorageMarketandRestaurant

One of the last fishermen-owned restaurants. Casual, and located on the waterfront. Entrees start at $15.

What to do

Powerboat Adventures

Atlantis Bridge, Paradise Island Ferry Terminal

011-1-242-363-2266

powerboatadventures.com

Take an Exumas day trip via speedboat to snorkel crystal reefs and encounter wild stingrays, sharks and iguanas. Drinks and buffet included. Adult admission: $213.93; children age 12 and younger: $150.50.

Aquaventure Water Park at Atlantis Paradise Island

One Casino Dr., Paradise Island

888-877-7525; 011-1-242-363-3000

atlantisbahamas.com

A massive, Mayan-themed water park. Open 9 a.m. until sundown. Adult admission: $129; children ages 4 to 12: $89 if booked online. Restrictions apply for children under 48 inches tall. Bring either hotel key or Airbnb email confirmation for admission.

Blue Lagoon Island

Boat departures from Paradise Island Ferry Terminal

866-918-993; 011-1-242-363-1003

dolphinencounters.com

A three-mile boat ride accesses island beaches and marine animal encounters with different durations and price ranges. Royal Dolphin Swim is at 8:30 and 10:30 a.m., and 1:30 p.m. Admission costs $249 per adult or child; children must be at least 6 and accompanied by an adult.

Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas

South West Rd/South Ocean Blvd., Nassau, free shuttle pickup

800-879-9832; 011-1-242-362-4171

stuartcove.com

Offers snorkeling, scuba diving, shark encounters or piloting a SUB (Scenic Underwater Bubble) though coral reefs: for SUBs, daily departures at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Admission costs $138 for adults and children age 12 and older.

Information

bahamas.com

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