Things to do
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Visit Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island
The towers of Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island rise high above Nassau, and no visit here is complete without a stop at this fantasy resort and water park. Atlantis has something for everyone: a casino, fine dining, nightclubs, whitewater adventures, an aquarium, a golf course, a spa and just about anything else you need.
Even if you’re not a guest at Atlantis Resort, you can still check it out with a tour (about US$40), or get one of the limited day passes to the water park (about US$110). Float along the lazy river, plunge down the heart-stopping waterslides, check out the exhibit lagoons featuring thousands of sea animals, or just relax by one of the resort’s many pools and beaches.
Don’t miss The Dig, a maze of tunnels and displays exploring the mythical history of Atlantis, surrounding a giant aquarium.
While you’re on Paradise Island, venture over to the exclusive One&Only Ocean Club and explore the gorgeous terraced Versailles Gardens where the exquisite foliage was imported directly from France.
Join in Junkanoo
The whistles, drums, cowbells, wild dances and costumes make Junkanoo the main event of the year in Nassau. This big parade travels down Bay Street in the early hours of December 26 and New Year’s Day.
If you happen to visit Nassau any other time of the year, you can still get a taste of the Junkanoo spirit at the Junkanoo Summer Festival. Visit the Educulture Bahamas Centre with its mini Junkanoo Museum, open Monday to Friday.
Explore Nassau’s pirate past
Nassau was once the capital of a pirates’ republic, with more than 1,000 pirates taking up residence here. Learn all about them at the Pirates of Nassau Museum, which is open daily and has interactive features kids will love.
Take a boat ride to a deserted beach to check out the remains of a pirate shipwreck and you might even spot some buried treasure. Or, venture up to the opulent Graycliff Hotel, once home to the famous pirate Captain John Howard Graysmith. Peek behind the original iron pirate door and you’ll find another kind of treasure – one of the world’s greatest wine cellars!
Relax on the beach
Nassau’s beaches are among the best in the world, with soft white sand and warm turquoise waters. Most resorts have their own beaches with loungers and towels for guests and pools with swim-up bars.
If you’re not staying at one of the waterfront resorts, take advantage of the day passes many of them offer. Or you can visit one of the public beaches like Junkanoo Beach, which has colourful sarong vendors and “cookout” shacks nearby.
Visit the Straw Market
Hundreds of vendors pack this chaotic market hall in downtown Nassau, selling everything from made-in-China T-shirts to beautifully handcrafted Bahamian straw baskets and wooden carvings.
The Straw Market began in the 1930s when local women started selling crafts to make up for the collapse of the sponge-harvesting market.
Today, the Straw Market is one of Nassau’s biggest tourist attractions, even though it’s been housed in a temporary structure since a fire destroyed the original market site more than a decade ago. A new building is under construction next door and will open in the fall of 2011.
This is not a passive shopping experience. Vendors are enthusiastic and competitive. Visitors are expected to haggle for the best price.
Go shopping on Bay Street
Buses and taxis jostle for space amid horse-driven carriages on this busy street, and the sidewalks are a free-for-all of shoppers searching for great bargains.
Anyone with an eye for fine jewelry, high-end perfume or designer handbags should hit this tax- and duty-free shopping zone – especially the Bahamian John Bull department store. Please note: Bay Street stores are closed Sundays.
And don’t forget to check out the historic pink-and-green parliament buildings right in the middle of all the action.
Head out on the water around New Providence Island
Shipwreck cruises, dinner cruises, powerboat rides, sailing adventures, ferry boats, kayaks and more! If it floats, you’ll find it here in Nassau. There’s plenty to see on the sea that surrounds New Providence Island as well. Board a glass-bottom boat for a great look at the marine life below. You’ll find information on various boat tour options at any visitor centre or your resort’s lobby.
Go snorkeling and scuba diving in a turquoise ocean
Watch as a yellow- and black-striped sergeant major fish darts before your eyes and disappears amid fingers of coral and a school of silvery grey snapper below. The reefs that surround Nassau are magical and the best way to experience them is to put on a mask and flippers and head underwater.
There are also many snorkeling and scuba diving experiences run by outfits like the highly regarded Stuart Cove’s Dive Centre. Options range from an hour trip to a full day and are available for every skill level.
Explore Nassau’s forts
Nassau is dotted with historic forts built throughout the 18th century for military purposes. Today, Fort Charlotte, Fort Montagu and Fort Fincastle are tourist sites offering great views of the city and harbour.
While you’re visiting Fort Fincastle, be sure to climb the nearby Queen’s Staircase, which was carved out of limestone in 1793.
Go wild at Ardastra Gardens, Zoo & Conservation Centre
The marching flamingos are the main attraction at Ardastra – a quirky zoo and conservation centre. Here, a man in uniform shouts, “Quick march!” and a troop of pink flamingos come high-stepping in proud formation. Young visitors will get a kick out of the parrots, monkeys and other Bahamian wildlife too. Flamingo showtimes are at 10:30 a.m., 2:10 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. daily.
Tax-free and duty-free. These are magic words to any travelling shopper and they’re what retail in Nassau is all about. And don’t forget that the Bahamian dollar is on par with the U.S. dollar, and bank machines throughout Nassau dispense both types of currency.
Walk down busy Bay Street and you’ll come across one jewelry store after another, sparkling with diamonds, emeralds, rubies and enough gold chains to fill Bluebeard’s treasure chests. Everything is at affordable – if not bargain – prices and you won’t have to pay a penny of tax or duty on any of it.
Downtown Nassau is also a great place to find top-of-the-line brand-name cosmetics, perfumes, high-end watches by Rolex and Cartier, cigars, liquor and designer handbags. Just remember that Bay Street stores are closed Sundays.
John Bull and Crystal Court
At the Bahamian department store John Bull, you’ll find top brands like Kate Spade, Dooney & Burke, Kenneth Cole and Gucci at a fraction of what you’d pay at home.
If you’re looking for even more luxury goodies, venture across the swooping bridge to Paradise Island and the posh boutiques of Atlantis Resort’s Crystal Court. Pick up sexy resort wear at Versace, snappy sandals at Ferragamo, gold earrings at Bvlgari and a logo tote to carry it all in at the Gucci boutique.
The Straw Market
If you’re on the hunt for bargains, head to the Straw Market. There you can happily practice your bargaining skills with the exuberant vendors who regularly haggle with customers.
The Straw Market is named for the traditional Bahamian craft of woven straw products. It has been one of the must-visit sites in Nassau since it was first established in the 1930s. Unfortunately, a fire destroyed the original market building in 2001.
At the Straw Market, you’ll find plenty of designer knockoffs, as well as every sort of souvenir. From baseball caps to shot glasses, beach towels to T-shirts – the Straw Market has got you covered. You can even find locally made crafts (especially at the booths outside of the market). Watch as local craftsmen carve wooden masks and weavers make baskets and hats from complex braids of sisal and silver top leaves.
This market is open daily.
Festival Place at Prince George Wharf
Check out Festival Place at Prince George Wharf where the cruise ships dock. It’s a cavernous space filled with stalls designed to look like traditional Bahamian clapboard shacks.
This a fun place to listen to a local rake ’n’ scrape band and nibble on soursop ice cream, made with a spiky, citrusy fruit native to the Caribbean. It’s also the place to shop for authentic Bahamian crafts. You’ll find straw hats and bags, hot sauces, tropical fruit jams, handmade soaps, locally harvested pearls and sponges. You’ll also find remarkably beautiful shell art. These delicate sculptures range from simple conch shells carved and polished into dip bowls to complex collages that sell for thousands of dollars.
If you’re going to make only one purchase, make sure it’s a rum cake from the Bee in the Bahamas booth, where you can sample plain, chocolate, coconut, pineapple, banana and cinnamon rum flavours.
Amici, A Trattoria (Sheraton Nassau Resort) (Italian, $$$)
This restaurant’s simple, elegant decor brings a little taste of Tuscany to the Bahamas. Amici’s menu features classic Italian style favourites such as scampi cocktail, fettuccine alfredo and Caesar salad. Seafood, pizza and pasta dishes are particularly good and there’s also a nice selection of wine.
Bimini Road (Paradise Island) (Caribbean, $$-$$$)
Named for the unique underwater rock formation off the coast of Bimini Island, this loud, bright and cheerful restaurant is a great spot for families to try the most authentic Bahamian cuisine on Paradise Island.
Sample traditional favourites such as crispy conch fritters and succulent grilled lobster tail. Or go for house specialties like tamarind-glazed pork chops. Those with less adventurous appetites can enjoy burgers, chicken wings or salad. And don’t skip the house special mojito or “sweet tings” like the coconut guava tart. Lively rake ’n’ scrape music, roving magicians and an open kitchen provide plenty of entertainment.
Café Matisse (Mediterranean, $$-$$$)
Located in a century-old house with an idyllic patio, tucked behind the parliament buildings, you’ll find this charming downtown Nassau restaurant. A who’s who of Nassau’s government and business community come here to chat, perhaps over the popular calamari with chili jam or wine from the well-edited wine list.
The menu features mostly Italian dishes, many made with Bahamian ingredients such as tender ravioli stuffed with local snapper or the crisp, citrusy salad topped with lobster.
Dune (The One&Only Club, Paradise Island) (Fusion, $$$-$$$$)
Only a few minutes away from the hubbub of Atlantis Resort, you’ll find Dune at the One&Only Ocean Club on Paradise Island. The dining room here is low-key and elegant, with stunning ocean views. The best place to sit here is at the white clapboard bar perched above the ivory sand beach.
International celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten is the man behind the menu, which bears all his signature touches. Asian flavours, French techniques, fresh herbs, a dash of local authenticity and a meticulous attention to detail can be found in every meal. Try the sauteed red snapper with sesame broth and chili oil, or the signature asiago and truffle pizza.
Wine-lovers will adore the terrific French and New World list, which features one of the Bahamas’ best selections of wines by the glass.
Goldie’s Enterprises (Arawak Cay) (Seafood, $)
If you’re looking for an authentic Bahamian dining experience, head straight to the fish fry at Arawak Cay. There are dozens of colourful clapboard shacks serving up seafood here, but Goldie’s is one of the biggest. Its large menu keeps locals and visitors coming back.
Start with the conch fritters, which are light puffs of fried dough studded with deliciously chewy bites of the Bahamian shellfish. Then, try a whole fried snapper, grouper fingers, battered shrimp or tangy conch salad, along with a savoury side of peas and rice. Just be sure to bring your appetite – the servings are generous.
Wash it all down with local Kalik beer or the potent Sky Juice (a mix of gin, coconut water and condensed milk that’s also known as “gully wash”). Feel free to join the locals in one of the ever-present games of dominoes or dance to the live band playing on weekends.
Graycliff (Graycliff Hotel) (Continental, $$$$)
Nassau’s first five-star restaurant is still the city’s most exclusive. This 270-year-old inn is stuffed with art and antiques. You can even enjoy hand-rolled cigars from a facility next door.
Dinner starts with cocktails in the lounge. Peruse the menu before you move into the plush dining room. The menu is rich with caviar, foie gras and classic dishes such as lobster bisque, duck à l’orange and filet mignon.
The real draw here, however, is the wine cellar. With 250,000 bottles worth over US$10 million, this is one of the biggest wine cellars in the entire world! It is also stocked with some of the most precious wines ever produced, so be sure to get a tour.
Indigo (Cable Beach) (International, $$)
This funky joint is a hidden gem in Cable Beach and a solid favourite for those seeking a change from resort dining. Expect simply prepared local seafood, steaks, chicken and sushi – which is the real crowd-pleaser here.
You’ll also enjoy the bright original Bahamian art on the walls and the live music on weekends. If nothing else, stop by the bar for a lively pre-dinner cocktail or two.
Nobu (Atlantis Resort, Paradise Island) (Japanese, $$$$)
Nobu is a must for anyone who loves Japanese food. At all his restaurants worldwide, chef Nobu Matsuhisa puts his own gourmet spin on sushi, sashimi and other traditional Japanese dishes, much of it influenced by his years in Latin America. Here, he adds a Bahamian flavour to dishes like conch shabu shabu and live conch sashimi. Also, sample some of the treasures from his sake cellar.
The Poop Deck (Nassau and Cable Beach) (Seafood, $$)
Don’t let the name fool you. Ask any local where to go for good food and fun times, and the answer is this friendly, affordable joint. There are two locations: the original at Nassau Yacht Haven Marina and a newer one in the Sandyport subdivision west of Cable Beach.
The original is still the more casual of the two, with sailors, travellers and locals in shorts and T-shirts dropping by for cracked conch or grouper fingers. The Sandyport location is slightly more elegant, offering dishes like hog snapper stuffed with baby shrimp, spinach and scallops, topped with a caper butter sauce.
Provence (Old Towne Sandyport) (Mediterranean, $$$)
When you want a break from the hustle and bustle of the city, this quiet, sunny little Mediterranean place in Old Towne Sandyport is just the answer.
Chef/Owner Marc Innocenti prepares a “cuisine du soleil” inspired by his own upbringing in the south of France – though other Mediterranean and some Bahamian flavours also come into play. Start with the tapas or antipasti platter. The saffron-scented bouillabaisse and rack of lamb with sun-dried tomato crust are crowd-pleasers. The wine list features good Mediterranean and Californian.
Golf and spa
Red Lane Spa (Sandals Royal Bahamian, Cable Beach) ($$$)
White sand trickles between your toes and the fragrance of tropical flowers fills the air at Red Lane Spa. Sandals is an adults-only all-inclusive resort whose slogan is “luxury included.” That’s especially true at Red Lane, where classic European spa rituals are given a distinctive Caribbean flair.
Try the signature West Indian Massage, a relaxing full-body treatment complemented with warm river stones, tropical mists and a sensuous white-sand exfoliation for tender tootsies. The spa offers a wide range of body and salon services. Guests who aren’t staying at the resort are also welcome to book appointments here.
Mandara Spa (Atlantis Resort, Paradise Island) ($$$-$$$$)
Dark woods, rich colours, exotic aromas and the soothing sound of trickling water fill this opulent spa. This hushed sanctuary has 32 private treatment rooms, couples spa suites, a salon, a fitness centre and more.
Mandara Spa offers just about any kind of spa service you need, including facials, cellulite therapy, teeth-whitening, scrubs, wraps, massages, hair, makeup and bridal services. Many treatments blend ancient techniques from Asia with traditional European therapies and Bahamian spices, fragrances and minerals for a truly decadent spa experience.
Natural Mystic Spa (Marley Resort & Spa, Cable Beach) ($$$)
If you prefer to avoid the big resorts, you might find your bliss at this charming spa tucked into an historic boutique hotel owned and inspired by Rita Marley, wife of the late reggae icon Bob Marley. The cozy spa features great music and a holistic approach to wellness, with Afro-Caribbean and Asian techniques, hydrotherapy and traditional Caribbean rituals.
Ocean Club Golf Course
Two of the best-known resorts in the Bahamas – Atlantis Resort and One&Only Ocean Club – sit just a short bridge ride from Nassau on Paradise Island. Both resorts share the Ocean Club Golf Course, which was redesigned by Tom Weiskopf in 2000.
The course design combines lagoons, sand and ocean hazards throughout, yet wide fairways allow for excellent shot-making opportunities onto the impressive green complexes.
Participants in Michael Jordan’s annual celebrity golf tournament can attest to the course’s dramatic beauty. But be warned: it can be both difficult and painless, depending on the trade winds. For example, on the 306-yard 17th hole, golfers can be left with a long second shot if the wind is blowing, but catch it on a still day.
As of May 2011, green fees at the Ocean Club range from US$190 per round in low season (July and August) and up to US$260 per round during high season (January through April).
Cable Beach Golf Club
Cable Beach Golf Club is located on New Providence Island. It is the oldest golf course in Nassau and has been around for more than 80 years. As of March 2011, it was reduced to a nine-hole layout.
Once on the course, golfers find multiple water features set in and among the holes. Though not located near the shore, the course offers some ocean views and is known best to locals for its US$35 twilight rate after 3 p.m. Earlier tee-time rates range from US$80 in the summer to US$90 in the winter.
As part of the Crystal Palace Casino property, the course offers discounts to guests staying at both the Wyndham Nassau Resort and the Sheraton Nassau Beach Resort. The course also provides a free hotel shuttle for anyone staying at other Cable Beach resorts.
Sandals Emerald Reef Golf Club
Built in 2004 and formerly part of a Four Seasons property, the Emerald Reef course on Exuma features six holes that run directly alongside the Atlantic. The Exuma islands are just 56 km southeast of Nassau. The vibe on these less-populated, less-visited islands is much more relaxed and, in turn, so is the golf course.
The 7,001-yard, Greg Norman-designed course winds through the seaside dunes for the first nine holes before travelling into the penalizing mangrove forest and up a rocky outcropping for the back nine.
Sandals guests pay a discounted rate of US$175 per round at Emerald Reef, which includes a golf cart and full use of the driving range and practice facility. For 2011, the course offers single- and multi-day instruction programs with the Greg Norman Champions Golf Academies.
Explore Atlantis Paradise Island (all ages)
Atlantis Paradise Island is a landmark resort that can be seen from nearly anywhere in the Nassau area. It is the perfect destination for families looking for sun, sand and sea adventures.
The whole family can enjoy Aquaventure, a 900-million-litre water park filled with thrills for every age. There’s even a waterslide that plunges through a shark tank!
Have the kids spend the hottest part of the day cooling off in The Dig. It’s the world’s largest open-air marine habitat with hundreds of species to watch. The meandering caves are stroller-accessible, with enormous windows peeking into endless habitats. Make sure you walk through the 30-metre-long clear acrylic underwater tunnel to watch the sea life swim overhead.
Atlantis Kids Adventures (age 3-12) is great for kids wanting to ditch mom and dad. There are plenty of activities to burn off boundless energy.
And don’t worry about teens and tweens. When the sun goes down, the teen-only “No Adults” supervised hotspot called Crush starts hopping. Crush (ages 13 to 17) offers the latest in gaming stations, dance floors and social media electronics.
Check the incredible lineup of concerts at Atlantis Live before you go. Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers are just a few of the famous artists who’ve performed here.
If you’re not staying at Atlantis Paradise Island, a limited supply of day passes are available for sale at the Discover Atlantis counters.
Make sure to also check out the dining options in the Atlantis Marina Village. Johnny Rockets serves up great burgers and delicious chocolate peanut butter milkshakes – and every half an hour, the servers break into song and dance.
Ride a Segway or scooter in Nassau (age 10 and older)
Do you want to feel the wind on your face? The whole family can cruise the waterfront on a Segway to explore the island.
Nassau Segway Tours offers 90-minute tours from the centre of town. After a brief introduction, strap on a helmet and within minutes, you’ll be rolling along the pink sand beach, then over to Clifford Park to scoot over the playing fields.
Watch the marching flamingos at the Ardastra Gardens, Zoo & Convention Centre (all ages) Ardastra is the small-scale but quaint zoo home to more than 300 animals and an enormous array of plants you’ll wish you could grow back home. Perfect for families with young children, there are plenty of birds, mammals, snakes and spiders to keep you entertained.
Leading the way is the famous and comical Marching Flamingos who perform three times daily. Children and adults are invited to participate and “act like a flamingo” as the flock marches in the pavilion. Feeding time for all the animals is a hit with small children as well. Ardastra is easily accessible by bus #10.
Walk the plank at the Pirates of Nassau Museum (all ages)
There’s more than just Captain Jack Sparrow in the waters of the Caribbean and the true stories of Blackbeard, Calico Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny are intriguing. Step into the Pirates of Nassau Museum and you’ll step back in time to 1716, on a dimly lit dock next to a full-size replica of the pirate ship Revenge.
Walk the creaky gallows inside the ship and learn how the men and women of the short, but golden, age of pirates ruled the Caribbean. The experience takes less than an hour and you can see the excellent displays of authentic and replica bounty, guns and weapons. The Pirates of Nassau Museum is conveniently located just a short walk away from the Straw Market.
Count your steps up the Queen’s Staircase (all ages)
Explore the cultural side of the island by counting the 65 steps in the Queen’s Staircase. The steps were carved in the 1700s and renamed a century later in honour of Queen Victoria’s abolition of slavery. Watch for chisel marks as you ascend.
At the summit of the stairs, stroll over to Fort Fincastle. The castle was built in 1793 to defend Nassau from invasions, but the old cannons still on site have never fired a single shot. Savour the panoramic views from the lookout of Paradise Island. Just make sure you wear sensible shoes for this trek. If you forget to bring water, stalls at the top sell bottled water and souvenirs.
Learn about the culture of Junkanoo (all ages)
The Junkanoo Mini-Museum and Resource Centre is the place to learn about the boisterous cultural experience of Junkanoo. Local historian Arlene Ferguson has participated in the event since she was four years old and offers non-Bahamians an opportunity to kick up their heels and clang the bells, celebrating the event any time of year at her museum. Kids will love the opportunity to let out their inner junkanoo.
Atlantis Live (Atlantis Resort, Paradise Island) (Live music, $$$)
Some of the biggest names in entertainment are waiting to wow you at Atlantis Live, where entertainers have included Jerry Seinfeld, Sheryl Crow, Avril Lavigne, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber. Expect to see the stars rocking at various venues around the Atlantis Resort, including the beach itself.
Aura (Atlantis Resort, Paradise Island) (Night club, $$$$)
If you’re looking for a good time on the dance floor, Aura is the hot spot for you. This gorgeous nightclub is the epitome of luxury and decadence, all set to a great dance beat. The minute you climb the grand staircase from the casino, you will want to step out on the illuminated glass dance floor. The crowd is mostly tourists and a handful of locals, all ready to groove. Please note: there is a hefty cover charge for non-resort guests.
Bullion Bar (British Colonial Hilton) (Lounge, $$$)
Those looking for style, comfort and great cocktails should head to the new Bullion Bar in this venerable old Nassau hotel. The look is classic colonial-meets-modern elegance, with just a dash of art deco.
Pull up a seat at the long, copper-topped bar and enjoy a properly made classic cocktail, a glass of Champagne or a glass of wine. The bar specializes in rum-based drinks, but expect something much finer than the sticky-sweet premixed concoctions.
Fish fry (Arawak Cay) (Live music, $)
Bahamians are pretty much always ready to break into song, and if you want to get down with the locals, the best place to do it is at the popular Arawak Cay fish fry.
On weekends, many of the food stalls feature live music. Come on down and enjoy the music along with deep-fried conch and local Kalik beer. Sunday is the most popular day for locals to visit – you might even catch some of the Junkanoo dancers practising.
The Green Parrot Bar (Harbour Front Restaurant and Grill) (Waterfront Bar, $$)
Looking for a fun, casual place to hang out with your friends? Then this waterfront bar, with its spectacular views of Nassau Harbour may be just what you’re looking for.
The Green Parrot Bar has an extensive beer list and all the usual tropical drinks as well as great burgers. You can enjoy Bahamian food here along with the made-to-order conch salad bar. Drop by for the famous Friday afternoon happy hour.
Joker’s Wild (Atlantis Resort, Paradise Island) (Comedy Club, $$$)
Have a laugh at Nassau’s only comedy club, the plush Joker’s Wild, located between the beach and Coral Towers at Atlantis Resort.
Comedy acts from around the world perform in this cozy room. There are open-mic nights and other ongoing events, as well as the hilarious hosting of the house comic, Naughty. Dinner and show packages are available and guests must be 17 or older to attend.
Señor Frog’s (Bar, $$)
Señor Frog’s is Nassau’s ultimate party spot. It’s a bright, colourful joint right downtown. You can’t miss it with all the cartoon frogs on the outside. This is the place to come for beer, Jell-O shooters and margaritas, as well as casual pub fare like burgers and nachos.
Nightly entertainment can include DJs, live music, conga lines, contests and the antics of the wild ‘n’ wacky waiters, not to mention your fellow guests. Silliness is the order of the day here, and we’d expect nothing less of a place that states up front: “If we are open, it’s happy hour.”
Take a ferry to Harbour Island
The day trip offered by Bahamas Fast Ferries over to Harbour Island is a perfect introduction to the Out Islands. The high-speed passenger catamaran, Bo Hengy II, sprints daily across the turquoise waters between Nassau and Harbour Island (known as Briland by locals), ferrying visitors to the spectacular pink-sand beach and alluring community of Dunmore Town.
Boarding at 8 a.m. may sound early when you’re on vacation time, but snacks and hot coffee are available as the ship winds through the archipelago past uninhabited islands, cays and the neighboring district of North Eleuthera.
Within two hours, you’re in Dunmore Town on Harbour Island. Stroll narrow streets lined with boutique stores, historic homes and the hideaways of the rich and famous.
You can even take your own tour using the standard mode of transportation of the island – a golf cart. As you putt along, watch for the influence of Canadians on the island. Canadian Linda Griffin co-owns The Sugar Mill fashion boutique. Up on the hill at the Runaway Hill Inn, you’ll find legendary hockey player and former Edmonton Oiler Mark Messier greeting his guests.
Harbour Island is a 300-year-old settlement that includes historic churches, a cave used as a jail, a haunted house, art galleries and much more. You will also find shops to wander through for Bahamian souvenirs, luxurious resorts and the best burger on Harbour Island at the Valentines Resort & Marina dockside restaurant.
Leave yourself time to relax on the almost completely deserted 5-km-long beach washed by the vast Atlantic Ocean. Toss your gear, spread your towel and dig your toes into the soft, powdery sand. With the backdrop of cruise ships passing by on the horizon, the sand castles are stunning works of art.
By the time you walk back to the dock for the sunset sail to Nassau, you will have fallen in love with the sand, the town and the people of Briland. An adult return fare through Bahamas Fast Ferries is US$125 and for children (age 2 to 12), it costs US$85. Golf carts are also available for rent at the dock.
Board a speedboat to Exuma Cays
If you have a need for speed, a daylong excursion with Powerboat Adventures blasts you 38 nautical miles over to the Exuma Cays.
You’ll leave the Paradise Island dock at 9:30 a.m. and slowly move through the harbour. Then, as soon as the no-wake zone is behind you, the boat is put to the test. With its 2,000-horse power motor cranked to the max, it skims across the shallow ocean and you quickly lose sight of Nassau.
The first stop is at Allan’s Cay, where iguanas wait in the shade of sea grape trees until the boat arrives. The crew tosses some nibbles to them so you can get up-close-and-personal with these metre-long reptiles, also known as Bahamian dragons. They are considered an endangered species, and the crew is enthusiastic about their survival.
Back on board, you’ll pass by reefs until the boat slides into the dock at Ship Channel Cay. Enjoy the sun and the sand at this private oasis or take part in the stingray and shark feeding session. Protected by the Bahamas National Trust, the Exuma reefs house a wide variety of sea creatures that you can see clearly if you go snorkelling.
Powerboat Adventures offer a great tour that includes a delicious lunch, drinks and snacks throughout the visit and plenty of free time for you to kick back and relax. A full day of unlimited food, drinks and fun is US$199 per adult and US$140 for children (age 2 to 12 years old).
Set sail on a catamaran to Rose Island
If you’re looking for a relaxing short sail over to Rose Island, step onto the Flying Cloud catamaran and slip quietly away from the Paradise Island Ferry Terminal for a half-day excursion.
As your captain navigates the sails past Spruce and Salt Cays, snorkels and fins are handed out to anyone interested in snorkelling the reef. If you’d rather soak up the sun, the boat lands you safely on the shore before anchoring nearby.
As soon as the anchor is set, the ladder is dropped and you will soon be in the water, searching for reef fish, star fish, turtles and rays. Plenty of time is provided for those who want to explore the entire reef, which spans at least 300 metres under the surface. In low tide, the reef is very shallow. Anyone new to snorkelling will feel safe and confident in this calm inlet.
When it’s time to return to Nassau, the Caribbean tunes are cranked up along with the sails and everyone celebrates yet another great day in paradise. Half-day cruises through Flying Cloud are US$70 per person and include two drinks. The Sunday lunch cruise is five hours long and US$85 per person. The cost for children is half price.
One of Nassau’s most-historic landmarks is the Graycliff mansion – now the Graycliff Hotel – overlooking downtown Nassau. Over the centuries, Graycliff has been home to royalty, soldiers, gangsters, millionaires and the notorious pirate who built it, Captain John Howard Graysmith. It is now one of Nassau’s finest hotels and restaurants.
Graycliff is tucked behind an anonymous-looking wall on the narrow West Hill Street, just around the corner from Government House – the official residence of the Governor General. Step through the simple wooden gate to discover that what looks like a small property from the outside is in fact a sprawling collection of buildings surrounding a peaceful tropical garden.
At its centre is the elegant, colonial-style mansion Graysmith built in 1740 during the waning days of Nassau’s pirate republic. In 1973, Enrico and Anna Maria Garzaroli bought the place. Over the next few years, they plan to turn West Hill Street into a pedestrian-only “Old Town” historical village. They’ve already bought some of the other buildings along the street, including an abandoned convent and the old Lord Mountbatten home.
The complex includes the Graycliff Hotel, with its luxurious five-star restaurant and posh, antique-filled guest rooms. The new buildings around the pool also house even more guest rooms.
Make sure to visit the cigar factory along with the Humidor Churrascaria, a casual Brazilian barbecue restaurant. At the factory, Cuban cigar-makers use top-quality Central American tobacco leaves to hand-roll fragrant cigars. Visitors can take a lesson in rolling their own cigars, or simply pick up a few from the onsite shop. The short, stubby, dark and intense Graycliff Espresso cigar is a popular favourite.
The planned historical village will also comprise a coffee roaster, cafe, hands-on chocolaterie, Bahamian artist studios and shops selling Graycliff’s own line of limited-edition luxury timepieces. For now, the greatest attraction here is still the Graycliff restaurant on the main floor of the mansion, as well as its wine cellar.
Dinner on the main floor of the mansion is a throwback to a more-elegant time. Start with cocktails in the lounge and thumb through the classic continental menu and its rich selection of foie gras, caviar, local seafood and steak. Once you order, you are escorted into the luxurious dining room and lavished with attentive service and exquisite food.
Visit Graycliff’s world-famous cellar, which visitors can tour by appointment only. Enrico Garzaroli is a sommelier here and has assembled one of the largest wine collections in the world, including some of the rarest bottles ever produced. One small section alone, filled with bottles from Chateau Petrus, St. Estephe and the like, is known as the “Million Dollar Deck.”
The 2,400-square-metre wine cellar with its 250,000 bottles is worth a cool US$10 million and sits behind the cellar’s original iron door. It’s not quite pirate treasure, but it seems a fitting legacy for a place with such an intoxicating history.
Graysmith, captain of the fearsome schooner Graywolf, was among the hundreds of pirates who made their home in Nassau. When the new Royal Governor of the Bahama Islands Captain Woodes Rogers cracked down on piracy, Graysmith decided it was time to settle down after a career of plundering treasure ships.
He built his dream house on the site of the community’s first Anglican church, which had been destroyed by the Spanish in 1703. Perched on one of the highest points in Nassau, the Graycliff mansion had views of the harbour but was far enough away to resist attack. Graysmith also built a fortified basement with a heavy iron door perfect for protecting treasure – and, as it turned out, rare wines.
In 1776, the American Navy set up its headquarters at Graycliff mansion and turned the basement into a garrison. Nearly a century later, Graycliff again saw military action of sorts. During the American Civil War, the Bahamas became the headquarters for blockade runners shipping Confederate cotton to British mills and transporting guns to the rebels in return.
In 1919, when the United States enacted Prohibition, the Bahamas, only 90 km off the Florida coast, became the go-to destination for America’s busiest bootleggers. The most notorious of them all was gangster Al Capone, whose friend Polly Leach bought Graycliff mansion and hosted the flashiest parties Nassau had ever seen.
The mansion later passed into the hands of the wealthy Killam family from Montreal, and then, in the 1960s, was taken over by the aristocratic Lord Dudley, Third Earl of Staffordshire. The Dudleys hosted distinguished guests such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Lord Beaverbrook, Lord Mountbatten and Sir Winston Churchill in this historic home.
Calendar of events
Junkanoo Parade (December/January)
Junkanoo is the Bahamas’ most important annual non-religious celebration. The event is similar to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras but is a uniquely Bahamian festival. Drums, horns, whistles and cowbells ring through the Nassau night as thousands of dancers move along Bay Street, their extravagant costumes sparkling with sequins and glitter.
When Junkanoo first began, locals would celebrate with songs, dances, food and rituals from their African heritage. Over the centuries, the holiday has evolved into a joyful costume extravaganza.
Today, there are Junkanoo parades all over the islands, but the two biggest take place in Nassau on December 26 and New Year’s Day. Wherever you are, expect a late night – the boisterous celebrations start at 2 a.m. and last until dawn.
Annual Valentine Massacre Regattas and Bacardi Rum Cup (February/March)
Sailing is the official sport of the Bahamas. In fact, the country won its first Olympic gold medal in the sport at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
There are numerous regattas held throughout the islands but two events that are well worth checking out are Nassau’s one-day Annual Valentine Massacre Regatta in February and the two-day Bacardi Rum Cup, usually held in March. Both feature sailing competitions and plenty of activities for the whole family.
Independence Day (July)
On July 10, be awed by spectacular fireworks, parades and concerts as Bahamians celebrate the day their crown colony gained independence from Britain in 1973.
Emancipation Day (August)
Held in early August, this public holiday commemorates the emancipation of slavery in 1834. One of the biggest gatherings is held on Fox Hill, which hosts an extravagant luncheon, limbo dancing, calypso bands, reggae music, a beauty queen contest and food stalls serving Bahamian delicacies.
Bahamas International Film Festival (BIFF) (December)
With celebrities like Johnny Depp, Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage owning homes in the Bahamas, it should come as no surprise that BIFF is a well-attended event. Each year in December, the festival attracts Hollywood stars, as well as BIFF Career Achievement honorees such as actors Laurence Fishburne and Daryl Hannah.
People-to-People Tea Party (Monthly)
Every month except December, the Governor General’s wife hosts a tea party at the historic Government House in Nassau. Everyone is welcome. Drop by for live music, fashion shows, sandwiches, pastries and of course, a nice cup of tea from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the last Friday of each month.