A laidback tropical island with copious amounts of candy-pink colonial (and sometimes funky) charm, Nassau is the capital of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas — and the largest city on New Providence, one of its smaller islands. In fact, more than half of the Bahamas’ 300,000+ residents live on New Providence. Famous Cable Beach, the hotel district and Paradise Island — a satellite island developed specifically for tourists — are but a stone’s throw from downtown Nassau.
A city with a vibrant swashbuckling pirate past, Nassau offers tropical tree-lined streets filled with horse-drawn surreys and ruled by policemen in white starched jackets and colorful pith helmets. In addition to preserved colonial mansions, cathedrals and 18th-century fortresses, there are lavish Vegas-type casinos with attractions to match, dozens of obscenely good restaurants, and enough duty-free shops to please even the most jaded of fashionistas.
The city streets fill with wild colors and rhythms each New Year’s Day for Junkanoo, a festival similar to Carnival. Parades of people dressed in colorful feathers and bright sequins dance to the sound of cowbells, brass horns, drums and whistles. Junkanoo parades take place on other islands in the Commonwealth, but none compare to those on Nassau.
Yet Nassau’s true beauty is its soft-sand beaches, perfect for kicking back and catching ocean breezes. Snorkeling and swimming with dolphins and sea lions is a way to get even closer to nature in the Bahamas. Truly a tropical playground, Nassau offers distraction day and night, on the land and in the water.
There have been some reports of increased crime in the less populous parts of the island recently, so visitors to Nassau should stick to the beaten path, take tours with tourist board recommended operators and always be aware of their surroundings.
Head over to the man-made island of Arawak Cay (known to the locals as “Fish Fry”), a local beach dusted with pastel-colored shacks, incredibly fresh conch from vendors cracking the mollusks right before your eyes, fried fish and grits, lime-marinated conch and plenty of coconut milk laced with gin. It’s very popular, especially with the locals, and very crowded, especially on weekend evenings from 5 p.m. until midnight. It’s on the harbor, across from Fort Charlotte.
Pink flamingos, jaguars and peacocks, oh my! You’ll find all this and more at Ardastra Gardens. You can even hand-feed the lory parrots. Wait till you see the flamingos parade in drill formation.
If you’re not staying at the showy 34-acre Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, you can still check it out by purchasing a day pass (offered on a first-come, first-served basis at the resort). The pass gets you access to most of the must-see sights at the resort, such as the Dig, the marine habitats and the beach. What you won’t get is the fun stuff around the pools and waterslides. An alternative to purchasing the pass is to stay at the nearby Comfort Suites Paradise Island, where guests have full access to most Atlantis facilities.
The number one photo op on the island is the balcony of 18th-century Balcony House, which also happens to be Nassau’s oldest wooden structure. Step inside this island landmark to see the mahogany staircase said to have been salvaged from a shipwreck in the mid-1800’s.
For dolphin encounters of the bottlenose kind and seven stunning beaches, head for Blue Lagoon Island (a.k.a. Salt Cay). There are plenty of water sports to try and hammocks to idle in, but for all things dolphin, make sure you plan ahead with Dolphin Encounters. You’ll find plenty of amenities such as showers and changing rooms too. Catch the ferry from the cruise terminal.
One of the most popular cultural stops on the island is the 18th-century Fort Charlotte. It’s fun to roam the dungeons and underground passageways and see the waterless moat — but some say the amazing views of the harbor from the ramparts is the real don’t-miss here. Two other forts worth checking out are Fort Fincastle (overlooking the town from Bennet’s Hill) and Fort Montagu (on East Bay Street).
For those who love British pomp and circumstance, see the changing of the guard at the Government House every other Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon, accompanied by the music of the Royal Bahamas Police Force Band. The official residence of the governor general of the Bahamas since 1801, this bubble-gum-pink mansion is an excellent example of Bahamian-British and American Colonial architecture.
Kids love the Pirates of Nassau, an interactive museum filled with pirate stuff. They can walk through a 75-foot, three-masted pirate ship, too.
We dare you to take a royal climb up the 65 steps of the Queen’s Staircase, which was carved out of calcareous, a coral-based sandstone at the end of the 18th century. The stupendous view is the prize for such athleticism.
If you’re curious about Bahamian food, culture and history, check out Tru Bahamian Food Tours. The company offers a three-hour walking tour around the main streets of Nassau that includes seven tasting stops, along with informative talks on local culture, history, architecture and more. Even if you’re not all that into the learning part of the tour, the yummy conch fritters, jerk chicken, salted caramel dark chocolates and rum cake make the tour totally worthwhile. For more about this tour, see Nassau: So Much More than Sun, Sand and Shopping.
Hop aboard the Seaworld Explorer for a 90-minute semi-submarine tour. Think underwater observatory, as you descend five feet below the water to observe the “sea gardens” through large glass windows. Reservations recommended (they can be arranged directly with the company or through your hotel or cruise ship).
The Cloisters — it’s right in front of the Ocean Club — is a 14th-century cloister, built in France by Augustinian monks and reassembled here stone by stone. Huntington Hartford, the A & P grocery heir, purchased the cloister from the estate of William Randolph Hearst at Sam Simeon in California. This is one of only four cloisters that have ever been removed stone by stone from France.
Don’t forget to spend a day or two enjoying Nassau’s beaches. Some say the most beautiful one here is Cabbage Beach, on the north shore. Another good choice is Cable Beach, with all the usual beach amenities and dazzling beachfront resorts along baby-powder-soft sand. For great snorkeling, try Love Beach near Gambier Village, about 12 miles west of downtown Nassau.
Nassau’s dining scene offers everything from upscale restaurants serving fine European cuisine to casual beach bars where you can nibble on fried conch fritters as you look out over the sea. Seafood abounds here, particularly conch, rock lobster and boiled fish stew. And be sure to try Kalik, “the beer of the Bahamas,” which is brewed at Nassau’s Commonwealth Brewery.
The food at Graycliff is great, they have more than 250,000 bottles of wine (worth millions of dollars) and they make their own cigars. What’s not to love? We say go all out and order the Perigord goose liver with black truffles! Dinner reservations are essential.
Everyone loves Cafe Matisse for its excellent Italian food. The pumpkin gnocchi topped off with taleggio cheese fondue is amazing. Reservations are recommended.
The oceanfront restaurant at the Compass Point Beach Resort offers West Indian dishes like Bahamian cracked conch and lobster salad. We love the ultra-colorful dining room and the beautiful sea views.
Think T.G.I. Friday’s … Caribbean style. At Anthony’s Grill, you’ll find grilled or fried grouper sandwiches, excellent ribs doused in an awesome barbecue sauce and warm-weather cocktails bigger than a house. It’s located in the Paradise Village Shopping Centre.
Shopping in Nassau
Nassau is one of the Caribbean’s premier duty-free shopping destinations, with visitors flocking to the shops on Bay Street to seek out deals on jewelry, crystal, fragrances and other upscale items. Keep in mind that all duty-free goods are not necessarily good deals; if you have a particular item in mind for purchase, be sure to research prices at home before your trip to make sure the “deals” you see in Nassau really will save you money. If you’re looking for more traditional souvenirs of your trip, visit one of Nassau’s street markets to find local handicrafts and artwork.
The Straw Market is perhaps Nassau’s most popular attraction. You’ll find all things straw, including shopping bags, handbags, hats and wonderful dolls, made by locals. You’ll also see plenty of cheapie sunglasses, tacky trinkets and knock-off purses. Those who are willing to browse — and barter — may come up with some great finds.
Just near the Straw Market is Bay Street, where you’ll find tonier shops like Gucci as well as a variety of upscale duty-free goods. This area is well frequented by the island’s many cruise ship passengers.
The conch vendors are just part of the scene at Potters Cay, a Bahamian marketplace beneath Paradise Island Bridge. Here, you’ll find plenty of vendors selling locals goods, especially seafood, to both the locals and tourists.