New Providence is surrounded by classically turquoise tropical sea and white sand, and in Nassau you’re never far from a breathtaking beach. Cabbage Beach on Paradise Island is a tourist favourite, and Cable Beach, with its luxury hotels and resorts, is world-famous, but some of the island’s loveliest stretches of coast are further out along West Bay Street, away from downtown Nassau. Caves, with its shady sea grape trees, and Orange Hill Beach, popular with Bahamian families on weekends and holidays, are blissfully quiet mid-week. Love Beach, fifteen miles from Nassau, has no clear public access, but it’s worth the effort to find your way onto its soft sand, if you’re a snorkelling fan — the shallow reef just offshore teems with colourful fish.
Nassau’s heart remains the downtown area around the harbour on the north-eastern coast of New Providence Island. Bay Street is the traditional centre of Bahamian commerce, and lent its name to the Bay Street Boys — the heads of the old white families who once dominated the city. Just west of downtown is the historic British Colonial Hilton, grande dame of the island’s hotels. Nearby are the bright pink Government House, longtime home of governors and governors general, and the Victorian Christ Church Cathedral, whose wooden ceilings were crafted by boat-builders. Eighteenth-century Fort Fincastle, perched on the island’s highest point, is connected to downtown by the Queen’s Staircase, carved from solid limestone by enslaved Africans.
Paradise Island, across the harbour from Bay Street, and the long stretch of Cable Beach to the west are Nassau’s main tourist zones. South of the city centre, the neighbourhoods known collectively as Over the Hill have long been home to black working-class Bahamians. Elsewhere in New Providence, middle-class housing estates have sprawled over what was once agricultural or grazing land.
Cracked conch — i.e conch fritters, fried in a lime-spiced batter — with peas and rice is indisputably the national dish of the Bahamas. Where to try it? Every Bahamian will give you a different answer, and comparing the recipes and flavours of different restaurants and food shacks is no hardship. Some swear by King’s, the always-crowded food shack. Others nod to the Twin Brothers chain, still others to Goldie’s Conch House. All three are in the popular Arawak Cay area, west of downtown.
When Nassau’s famous Straw Market was destroyed in a fire in 2001, it was almost a national crisis. Eventually rebuilt, the Straw Market continues to welcome tourists as Nassau’s home for traditional craft. Baskets, bags, hats, and other souvenirs handwoven from palmetto straw and sisal became popular in the 1940s, and at its height, many hundreds were employed by the industry. Today, much of the straw craft sold in Nassau is imported, but the market remains a fixture on visitors’ itineraries — perhaps combined with a shopping trip to the numerous duty-free luxury goods emporia on Bay Street.
March is a great month to survey Nassau’s crop of large and small art galleries, thanks to the Transforming Spaces programme, now in its twelfth year. Over one action-packed weekend — this year, 12 and 13 March — a guided bus tour takes visitors on a curated gallery circuit, showing off the work of dozens of Bahamian artists. Year-round, the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, housed in a historic mansion near Government House, exhibits a small but intriguing permanent collection alongside temporary exhibitions, talks, performances, and other events. Meanwhile, the Popopstudios International Centre for the Visual Arts hosts artists’ studios alongside an exhibition gallery, with a focus on innovative contemporary work.
Sibling to Jamaica’s Jonkonnu (note the spelling difference) and cousin to Carnivals across the Caribbean, the Bahamas Junkanoo has its roots in masquerade traditions brought to the islands by enslaved Africans in centuries past, which survived and evolved in their new home across the Atlantic. Traditionally celebrated in the Christmas season, with parades on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, Junkanoo is a spectacle of colourful costumes made of crêpe paper, and masqueraders who “rush” through the streets of Nassau to the music of drums, cowbells, and satirical songs. A more recent addition to Nassau’s calendar is the Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival in May, a new festival combining Junkanoo traditions with Carnival elements borrowed from Caribbean neighbours, with a lineup of parties and concerts to build anticipation.
Originally founded as an English privateers’ base in the seventeenth century, known as Charles Town, the settlement on New Providence Island was raided and burned to the ground by the Spanish in 1684, reoccupied by a party from Jamaica two years later, then refounded by the Dutch in 1695 and named for the royal house of Nassau. For decades it remained a pirates’ hangout, till the English sent in a new governor in 1781.
The town’s fortunes took off during the American War of Independence, which led to an economic boom for locals and a building spree. The Spanish managed to invade once again, but by 1783 Nassau was back in British hands, where it remained until Bahamian independence in 1973. If trade and piracy were the economic mainstays in earlier days, by the early twentieth century the growing tourist market began to transform Nassau. Today, the city’s beachfront areas are home to hotels, resorts, and the villas of the rich and famous.
25.07º N 77.33ºW
Caribbean Airlines operates regular flights to Lynden Pindling International Airport from Kingston, Jamaica, and Port of Spain, Trinidad, with connections to other destinations across the Caribbean