The Bahamas is made up of 700 islands spread out over 180,000 square miles of the western Atlantic, although it has a Caribbean feel. They’re all low-lying. The highest hill is only around 200 feet above sea level. Columbus arrived in 1492. Later, pirates took over and then the islands became a British colony in 1718, in an attempt to control the buccaneers. You’ll see lots of pirate references. Today, the Queen remains Monarch, even though the Bahamas gained independence in 1973. There are remnants of UK rule everywhere – they drive on the left – but American influences are strong too. It’s so close.
My flight from Miami took under an hour. But 70% of The Bahamas six million annual tourists come on cruise ships, and they’re mostly American. Nassau, the capital, is a bit run down and unkempt in places and also rather tacky and touristy in parts, with lots of tee shirt shops targeting the day-trippers on their huge cruise liners.
So I decided to get some historical background to my exploring. I went to learn about Bahamas history and taste local food on the Tru Bahamian Bites of Nassau Food Tasting & Cultural Walking Tour. We kicked off the tour next to Nassau’s main landmark, the 1841-built Christchurch Cathedral. The colonists used limestone blocks to build a handsome square tower and it’s reminiscent of a Devon parish church.
Once the crowd was assembled and names were checked off the list, tour guide Alex began by telling us about the church’s interior. And after a brief roam around the centre of the town, the food sampling started. The city centre stroll and stuffing of faces lasted just over three hours with six stops en route.
The guides were friendly and knowledgeable and the food was nice but, if I am being honest, not all of it was that distinctive or local. My own highlight was the rum cake. It is made by a regional chain that recently opened a shop in the cruise shop area. It was delicious and moist.
Just around the corner, we had another stop for locally made preserves and peppery pickles and sauces. Alex warned us only to reach our comfort level and not to try anything too hot! I noticed some of our party’s eyes started to water after they spooned the superhot pickle onto the crackers they were given to try samples with.
I hadn’t expected to end up eating a Greek salad on a food walk in the Bahamas. That course was offered at the Athena restaurant. It was very busy. We crammed into the bustling bar area where visitors on their cruise ship shore leave were cramming in the cheaper cocktails. Some people had theirs poured into plastic containers to go. I was curious to discover why we were eating feta, cucumber and pitta bread in Nassau – not Naxos. Alex explained that the Bahamas is a melting pot of cultures and nationalities. Greek people settled to work the former sponge industry and the restaurant had been a fixture of local life sine 1995.
After lunch, we passed the stately pink and white Government House. Like all good seats of authority it sits on a hill at the top of a long flight in steps leading down into town. I imagine the authorities wanted locals in the town to look up to them. Just around the corner, Graycliff is an interesting collection of terracotta painted stone, colonial buildings set in walled gardens on top of another plateau overlooking Nassau town. A privateer built the mansion 260-years ago and in 1844 it became the first paying hotel on the island. The grounds needed a bit of care and attention when I visited but the hotel looked quite grand.
Graycliff is very much on the tourist trail with commercial businesses onsite including a restaurant, hotel, heritage centre, cigar shop, ice cream parlour and chocolate shop. We filed into a narrow room down the steps from the adjacent shop displaying the confectionary. Eyes lit up as a tray filled with milk and plain chocolates were passed around. One of the chocolates was filled with a key lime flavour – a refreshing Caribbean taste. They make the chocolates on site but the cocoa beans are imported from Jamaica. They are experimenting with growing the beans in the Bahamas but it’s early days for that trial.
The most traditional food on the lunchtime walk, conch fritters, was served up in a back-street family cafe called Bahamian Cookin’. The business employs three generations of locals. I liked them so much, I had them for dinner later!
That evening, I headed to Lukka Kairi. It’s a spacious split-level town centre restaurant, which you access by stairs from the main streets of bars and cafes opposite where the cruise ships berth. The higher level tables and booths, where I headed, are arranged around a mezzanine floor with views over a stage where local bands were performing Caribbean-influenced cover version of the hits. I met with Manager Anushka Roll and she told me that their fritters are the finest in the Bahamas. “The conch comes from a large shell and tastes a bit like calamari. We also serve them in a salad with tropical and citrus fruits.”
There are a few grand houses in Nassau that date back to the earliest days of colonial settlement. After Graycliff, I found myself visiting another estate house, the Buena Vista. When it was a hotel in the 1960s, A-list guests included Robert Mitcham, Joan Crawford and Debbie Reynolds. Today, the mansion is home to John Watling’s Distillery. Their guided tour shares more key events in Bahamas history and you get to peer inside their well. They’re very proud of that. You’ll also learn how rum and vodka is made whilst sniffing the aroma of different types.
At the side of the house is a beautiful cocktail bar complete with polished mahogany floors where you can taste a flight of rums – rather dangerous! Here I met Pepin Argamasilla, who is of Cuban descent – that’s part of his rum-making pedigree. The rest comes from his many years in the global spirits industry. He decided to launch the distillery with his local cousins.
“I had figured out that the Bahamas was the only Caribbean nation without its own premium rum brands,” Pepin told me. “So we decided to take 175 years of expertise to make a brand that the Bahamas can be proud of.” The distillery produces sugar cane vodka, which is gluten-free and it is filtered using the unusual pink sand found in the Bahamas. “The pink sands are the skeletal remains of microorganisms so they remove a certain flavour note that we don’t want in the final product,” explained Pepin. “It makes the vodka extremely smooth.” If you buy a bottle of John Watling Buena Vista rum, don’t let Pepin catch you adding mixers! “When I see somebody putting coke in it’s like a knife to the heart,” he told me, grimacing.
In case you were wondering, the business is named after a 17th-century pirate – one of six men from the Carolinas granted land in the Bahamas by King Charles II. John Watling was an English buccaneer from the 17th century. He landed on San Salvador Island – the first island the Christopher Columbus discovered in the Americas. He renamed it Watling Island. From there he went into the Pacific and came across Robinson Crusoe. “As a pirate nation, which the Bahamas is, we wanted to be able to highlight the pirates who used to live here,” Pepin told me.
The Bahamas plays up to its piracy past, or at least a romanticised version of it. You’ll see lots of pirate paraphernalia in shops – stickers, plastic cutlasses and skull and crossbone flags. Back in town, near the cruise ships, I headed to the Pirate Republic Brewing Company. It’s a nice spacious bar with high, wooden galley tables very similar to a trendy town-centre English pub. When I walked past in the day, when the cruise ships were in, it was packed and appeared to offer standing room only. Later in the afternoon, after the last ship’s sharp horn blasts had reverberated all over Nassau, warning that she was about to set sail, the bar was pleasantly relaxed.
This is not a regular themed pub. They offer tours on beermaking and pirate history. Our guide – Captain Blah Blah – was resplendent in his pirate hat and flowing frockcoat. He boomed out historical facts in an accent that was part East Coast American, part cod-Cornish! He strode through the pub and upstairs into a large room, which resembled an art gallery. Its walls were filled with portraits of pirates. “We are referred to as the Pirates Republic because of this guy,” pointed Captain Blah Blah. “That’s Blackbeard! He was here when it was a major haven for pirates. He tried to make Nassau a Pirates’ Republic.”
Captain Blah Blah’s energetic, enthused and fact-laden talk continued as he shared stories of piracy and royal pardons, pausing at each portrait to offer an insight into the subject’s story. In particular, he recounted the folklore around the female pirates, Mary Read and Anne Bonny. We learned about more buccaneers whose infamy meant their names had been passed down the generations, even though I knew little of their actions – Calico Jack and the infamous Bristol-born Blackbeard, who visited the islands in 1760.
We then marched downstairs and across the yard to enter a newer building filled with massive steel vats and pipes – the brewery. Blah Blah cackled in a piratical manner, and turned to the group. “So you want the grog then?” We did actually get a comprehensive overview of the beer-brewing process as we toured the facility, inspecting the different grains and hops. “This is from Wisconsin and that bag came from Germany last week,” said Blah Blah. Then we saw the bottling facility and learned how the company maintains the purity of the water. And as you’d expect, all of the excellent craft beers are named after pirates – there’s a Blackbeard stout and a Long John pilsner. Clever. Well I laughed. Blah Blah has clearly brewed and I don’t think that any craft beer aficionados would be disappointed with the detailed information shared.
Back in the 18th century, the British were more concerned about the French than privateers. I headed to the 18th century Fort Charlotte, around 10 minutes drive outside the capital. It’s actually three forts, Charlotte, Stanley and D’Arcy, occupying a 100-acre site on a hilltop rising above the island. You enter the formidable stone fortress by crossing the drawbridge over a dry moat.
There I met Raquel Davis of Bahama’s Antiquities, Monuments & Museums department to learn about its history. “The fort was never really used. It was never attacked,” she told me. “Five hundred men would have been based at this fort,” she added. And it wouldn’t have been pleasant. The limestone-lined cellars and spaces where some of the men would have slept were damp and musty. That’s why a second fort was built – thousands of pounds worth of gunpowder was ruined by the damp conditions.
Inside one of the underground spaces there’s a small audio-visual display playing sounds as actors recreate the islands’ past. The role of the colonial masters is portrayed as uncaring abusers of workers. In the performance, a blacksmith is informed that his pay has been docked for the day during which he was unable to work because of injury. It doesn’t make you proud to be British! I considered faking an American accent if anyone struck up a conversation.
We walked through the dank cavernous tunnels into the daylight and climbed the steps of a recently built concrete amphitheatre, where a local band was rehearsing for an evening gig. You can see why the site was chosen for a fort – there’s an expansive view across the island from the highest point almost 200 feet above sea level. The site is interesting – just be prepared for its appearance. The fort hasn’t had the care and upkeep you’d expect a significant national monument to receive.
If you’re more interested in handbags than history, then Nassau could be your shopping paradise. You’ll find plenty of designer shops in the town centre, near the cruise terminal, and it’s all duty free. There’s also quite a few touts flogging knock offs but you don’t expect Oakley sunglasses to be legit when a man approaches you outside a market stall to offer you a special deal, do you?
The Straw Market is on the tourist trail. It is a town centre market hall, filled with mainly mass-produced merchandise, but you will find some local crafts on display. At the side of the hall there are traditional woodcarvers selling their works. Larry McDonald is in his 60s. He has been carving since he was a boy, using mahogany and cedar amongst other woods. He told me two types of carving outsell all the others – fish and eagles
Larry proudly showed me his carving of a grouper. I asked him how long it would take to create this work? “One day to carve the fish and another day to create its display stand,” he replied. The detail was impressive and I was surprised to learn that Larry works from memory, not photographs. “I picture it in my mind,” he told me.
After a day in the capital Nassau, I was ready to leave the busy island of New Providence, where 70% of the country’s 400,000 population live. I wanted to see the sandy beaches and blue seas that the Bahamas are famed for. I had walked to the palm-fringed Junkanoo Beach, set along an old dock. It’s a ten minute walk from downtown but it’s possibly too close and feels slightly industrial. It’s also strewn with rubbish. I think it is the place for beach partying with loud, pumping beats playing and cheap eats from the line of colourful wooden huts.
The closest island to New Providence is called Paradise Island. You reach it from Nassau across one of two, very steep bridges. I guess they have to be high so yachts can pass underneath. Paradise Island is home to the huge Atlantis Resort with its water park rides and casinos. Some of the mega hotels on the island including the Royal Towers, which dominates the skyline for miles around. It features two big, blocky, pink high-rise tower blocks joined by a connecting bridge section. I thought it looked like the city where Flash Gordon lived. Donald Trump apparently once had an involvement with the project, so you’ll understand it’s not overly subtle in appearance.
You pay a toll when you cross the bridge and that makes Paradise Island effectively a gated community, complete with a tollbooth. Celebrities like Oprah have homes here. There were none of the boarded-up shops and urban decay of Nassau. Paradise Island is pristine and manicured. Luckily, I had an escape. I headed to the marina to board a double-decker catamaran for the 20-minute ride to Blue Lagoon Island.
For 63 years, the family of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John T McCutcheon owned this small island. He bought it, unseen, for his new bride in 1916. Kelly Meister is a member of the family who now own the island. You could see how much she cares about the visitor experience. On my outward journey she chatted to passengers to ensure they had all the information they needed – then caught up with them on the way back to ensure they’d had a good time and to gain feedback.
We chatted once the boat had decanted its passengers onto the wooden jetty. “It’s a very beautiful part of the world,” she said, pointing to the turquoise waters. “Our sea, as you have seen for yourself today, is an unbelievable colour. It’s shallow, so the colour you see with the sky being reflected is an aquamarine blue that you don’t really see anywhere else in the world. What sets Blue Lagoon Island apart is that we are so close to Nassau, our capital, yet we’re so removed. So close and yet so far.”
It did feel worlds apart. Kelly told me how the island is eco-certified and undergoes a rigorous annual inspection to make sure that it is being operated in a sustainable way. Its major draw is the Dolphin Encounters, which began as a rescue facility in 1989. Alfred Meister rescued two dolphins that needed help, in a spontaneous act. Princess, the oldest bottlenose dolphin, is fifty this year.
Visitors can get into the water as the dolphins perform dance routines beside them. Watching the mammals tread water and chat to the onshore trainer as he played La Bamba was an incredible thing to see. The guests who were dancing along in the water appeared delighted.
I was heading to the sea lion area. The island started taking in sea lions in 2006 – they were victims of Hurricane Katrina. They were temporarily housed at Seaworld in Orlando and in 2008, the first baby sealion was born.
After watching the sea lions interact with their trainers, it’s clear that some of the group were pretty intelligent. “You have a mixed group – some are like Forrest Gump, some are Einstein,” I was told. They have a similar sense of smell to dogs and can learn words, their names and hand signals.
I got to meet a brainy one – Bonnie. First there were ground rules. Female sea lions can weigh up to 100kg, so I was warned not to make sudden movements or to touch Bonnie without the trainer’s approval. On her trainers’ command, Bonnie gently rested her flippers on my shoulders. And I got a peck on the cheek too. Delightful – although she didn’t half smell of fish! I later learned that Bonnie eats around 11lbs of fish each day, which explains the bad breath. The sea lions even paint works of art, which are sold to raise money for the facility.
The centre also lets visitors swim with stingrays. Trainer George told me that stingrays are related to sharks and both creatures are misrepresented and misunderstood. “They are not aggressive animals. People are nervous at first but we quickly get past that and gradually introduce them. Guests are able to pat them and the stingrays will sit on their hands. We allow them to stroke them. While they are doing this, we give a lot of information about the natural history of the animal. We get a very positive reaction. People enjoy the experience and hopefully go away with some respect for the animals.” George told me that stingrays are tactile animals – they like being touched.
I took a Segway tour along the island’s length. You travel on boardwalks and sandy paths through the shrub and dunes. It took time to master the electric scooter – you need to lean forward to increase speed and bend backwards to slow down. That was a bit scary on the downward slopes!
Our leader, up front, pointed out interesting sights including a five-foot high termites’ nest. We parked the Segways and headed down some the steps towards a small dock where I was shown how to attract sharks – the last thing I’d ever want to do – by banging a pole. We could see their dark shapes gliding under the shallow water. The guide explained that the Bahamas is known as the shark diving capital of the world and it generates $800 million worth of revenue annually. That means a single reef shark is worth $250,000 if it’s kept alive on the reef. If it’s killed, it’s only worth a one-time payment of $60.
We passed the spot where a hurricane in 1991 breached the top of the island’s central lagoon, effectively cutting it in two. As we passed over the wooden walkway bridge, we could only imagine how powerful those crashing Atlantic waves would have been.
At the end of the semi circular run we reached the highest point – around 30 feet above the sea and just across from the dock where the catamaran berths. There’s a three-storey stone tower here. It was used to signal to adjacent islands in emergencies before the phone cable was laid. Visitors can climb the stairs to the top of the tower and it’s worth inspecting the interior stonework. John T McCutcheon has left his mark on the island, Kelly told me. “John and his wife travelled extensively at a time when it wasn’t that easy to travel to distant locations. It was back in the time when you could go to places like the Sphinx and the Great Wall of China and chip off pieces. Inside the tower, you can see some of his collection from around the world.”
As the island was owned by a writer, Kelly is keen to retain a connection to the literary world. “He would invite famous authors to the islands to write. The author of Sophie’s Choice, William Styron, finished the book on the island. Each year we have the Salt Cay Writers’ Retreat. That uses the island’s original name, referring to the salt marsh and lagoon.” Recently, authors Lee Child and Ann Hood have been coaching up-and-coming writers as part of the annual event.
I must mention the food. The island’s café is a sort of open canteen, where you queue up with your tray. But don’t let that put you off – I had not expected much of the veggie burger but I was wrong. It was delicious! Kelly told me that she insisted on good, locally sourced food and she didn’t want the veggie option to be an after though.
I’d recommend a trip to Blue Lagoon Island for a once-in-a-lifetime interaction with sea lions and dolphins, as well as the beautiful scenery. You can buy a pass and enjoy some simple water-based activities or just relax on the clean, white sands in a safe and friendly environment. The staff are by far the most welcoming and polite of any experience I had in Bahamas.
Back in Nassau, I headed to Ardastra Gardens, a botanic garden, which is also a mini zoo of indigenous birds and creatures from the islands. Bonnie Young took me around on a tour. The property was purchased in 1982 and the owner decided to turn it into a zoo. “He did a fantastic job building the animal habitats into the existing garden and maintaining the integrity of the garden itself. We still have this fantastic tropical jungle feel. You don’t see that in a lot of places,” Bonnie told me.
I’d come to see the Caribbean flamingos. They’re native to the Bahamas as well as Cuba and Mexico. Great Inagua Island was designated a national park in 1965 to protect numbers, which had dwindled down to 5,000. Today, the population has soared to 80,000. I was surprised how the flamingos were orange and not pink, as I had expected. “All of the flamingos get their colouration from the food they eat. There are six different species of flamingo. The Caribbean is the most brilliantly coloured. The brighter they are, the healthier they are,” said Bonnie.
I was very smug when I was able to take a photo of the birds crossing the road in front of a warning, ‘flamingo crossing’ sign. The zoo is famous for its flamingo shows and the performances are based on a mating ritual as Bonnie explained. “One of the ways that they court each other is with group marching. They synchronise in a back-and-forth motion. The original owner saw this and it reminded him of soldiers doing drills so he trained the birds to do it. We have a drill sergeant who brings the birds into the arena and he gives commands. They know how to show off. They know how to do right face, left face, forward march, about-face.” The shows are held three times a day, every day, rain or shine at 10.30am, 2.15pm and 4pm.
As I left I heard the shrill squawk of the Malacca cockatoo, Toby. She’s been at the zoo since the 1980s. Apparently this grand old lady likes attention and tends to shriek when people walk away from her. That’s no way to win them back!
After three days, I had mixed feelings about Nassau and the Bahamas. I’m told that if you go to an outlying island you can find paradise lying on a beautiful unspoiled beach. Maybe the Bahamas charm is away from this main island and the capital. If you’re staying around Nassau I would wholeheartedly recommend spending time at Blue Lagoon Island, where you can enjoy the sea life and scenery. You can learn about their visitor pass options at BahamasBlueLagoon.com.
If you’re travelling to Florida and fancy a different experience for a day or two, take a plane over to the Bahamas. You can get a one-way flight from Miami or Fort Lauderdale from around £50.