The island of New Providence is home to Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas and the center of this island nation’s commercial and cultural activity. It’s also the most popular destination for visitors. And while those who come by cruise ship depart with souvenirs of the Straw Market and Bay Street, anyone who lingers a bit longer will discover a vibrant destination beyond the docks. A place where quiet back streets harbor bistros, galleries and artisanal craft shops, and where Technicolor beaches are overlooked by resorts ranging from glam to intimate.
1 Arawaks, Pirates and Freedmen
Nassau’s cultural heritage draws on the traditions of three continents. Once home to the Arawak people, the island became the haunt of European pirates and wreckers by the late 1600s, and a haven for British Loyalists a century later. The influence of the British Crown permeates Bahamian culture, but equally strong are its African roots. These influences come together in the food, language and music to create what is a distinctly Bahamian experience.
2 The Original Tourism Destination
New Providence Island and the city of Nassau are no strangers to tourism. Cunard ships brought visitors to the Royal Victorian Hotel in the 1860s, and by 1900, the first of many beachfront hotels was up and running. Fast forward a century and Nassau is still the No. 1 resort destination in the Bahamas, with the best-developed infrastructure and the widest variety of dining, lodging, shopping and leisure activities.
3 Fly Right
Nassau International Airport is not only the primary arrival and departure point for international flights; it is also the hub for air travel to numerous Out Island destinations. With more than 120 flights arriving each day, there are direct connections to North American destinations including New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and Toronto, along with numerous daily flights from Miami and other Florida cities.
4 The South Shore
Scene While Nassau occupies much of the island’s northeastern corner, a whole different scene unfolds along the quieter south shore. Here, a sandy plateau lies between deep blue water and the beach, creating an underwater playground that is a favorite with scuba divers and Hollywood filmmakers. When the studios need to shoot an underwater scene, this is where they send the crews, and actors from Thunderball’s Sean Connery to Into the Blue’s Jessica Alba.
5 From Pigs to Paradise
The internationally renowned resort destination known as Paradise Island once went by the unglamorous title of Hog Island. Its first transformation began in the 1940s, when a wealthy industrialist acquired the island to create his personal vacation paradise, which he called Shangri-La. Next came the elegant Ocean Club, which was an A-list destination through the 1960s. Today, the island is home to the Bahamas’ finest resorts, including the expansive Atlantis Resort complex, the One and Only Ocean Club and the quiet Sivananda Ashram.
6 Mail Boat’s a Coming
From Nassau, a fleet of inter-island freight and mail boats sails to the Out Islands, carrying everything from baby formula to auto parts for the remote settlements scattered through this 700-island archipelago. These same boats also accept passengers, and for around $50, you can book passage. Sailing times range from a few hours to an overnight trip, but this is no luxury cruise. You’ll find yourself sharing the decks with backpackers and locals, and cabin space is likely to be simple communal bunk beds.
7 Junkanoo Time
Though the holiday is celebrated throughout the Bahamas, the street parades of Junkanoo are best and biggest in Nassau. Elaborate floats share Bay Street with marching troupes such as the Music Makers and Prodigal Sons, who sport resplendent costumes as they compete for top honors. The processions move to the sounds of goatskin drums, cowbells and whistles, and onlookers soon find themselves keeping time with the infectious rhythms. The party begins on December 26, and repeats on New Year’s Day. If you can’t make it then, be sure to stop by the Junkanoo Museum near Prince George Wharf, where you can try on a costume and make some noise yourself.
8 Art Appreciation
It’s not surprising that Nassau is the cultural capital of the Bahamas, with an art community that is one of the most dynamic in the Caribbean. A walking tour of the city’s gallery scene should begin at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas on West Street. Another must-see is the nearby D’Aguilar Art Foundation, which features more than 75 Bahamian and international artists. For cutting edge creations, try Popstudios and Liquid Courage Gallery, and take time to seek out the street art that enlivens walls and buildings across the downtown.
9 Try the Fry
For an authentic taste of the islands, head to the waterfront of Arawak Cay, where a row of colorfully painted seafood shacks and bars fry up fresh fish and conch dishes, served up with sides like peas-n-rice or baked mac and plenty of cold Kalik beer. Among the perennial favorite eateries are Seafood Haven, Twin Brothers and Goldies. Music rolls from open doorways, and each June the Cay stages a summer Junkanoo festival.
10 Take A Chance
It’s been nearly 50 years since the first players tried their luck at Nassau’s casinos. Today, the island’s gaming scene is bigger than ever, with Cable Beach’s Crystal Palace, and the Paradise Island casino at Atlantis. Also on the horizon is the much-touted Bahama Mar Casino, which is slated to open in December of 2014 as part of a world-class development project between Cable Beach and downtown Nassau.