When one thinks of Nassau, Bahamas, they usually think cruise ship layovers, all-inclusive resorts, and Paradise Island – and they’re not wrong. I spent a few days in the Bahamas’ largest city to see for myself.
The Bahamas is an island nation made up of over 7,000 islands, many of them uninhabited. New Providence is the largest, most densely populated, and contains its only sizable city. Nassau is one of the most popular cruises stops on ships leaving from Miami, New York City, and the Caribbean. The weekend I spent there, at last two large ships has just docked, depositing dozens of tourists into this port city. With limited time at each port, it’s difficult to really get a taste of what’s behind the façade of each port of call.
Blogs and social media have made it easy to create a grocery list of sites of interest that you’d want to visit, so I had perused Instagram and had curated my own. Despite being tourist-centric and tacky in sections, Nassau has several sites to visit that are only a short walk from where the cruise ships dock.
One thing that immediately struck me is that downtown Nassau’s shops were mainly of the duty-free, souvenir, and beach variety. I dipped into a few, seeing what kinds of bargains could be had and if there was anything unique worth taking back to New York with me. There was a time that I thought I had to pick up a t-shirt or shot glass from each country I visited, but realize I was left with a cupboard full of shot glasses I don’t use and a closet of mochilas I don’t need. These days souvenirs are an extremely hard sell for me if they’re not something practical and moderately priced. Nothing downtown piqued my interest or wasn’t something I hadn’t seen elsewhere (including those Tortuga rum cakes, which seem to be sold in every airport gift shop south of Miami.)
One unique – and free! – tourist site that I’d only recently read about are the Queen’s Staircase, which is a functional staircase – or step street – not unlike ones in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx (no Joker Stairs jokes, please.) The Queen’s Staircase is carved into a hill and after time, trees and other botany has grown onto its walls, creating a canopy. It feels almost like a mini jungle smack dap in the middle of downtown and is quite pleasant to waste some time in to get shade from the heat. On the top of the hill is Fort Fincastle ($3 USD for entry and a tour), which I didn’t enter. The fort is surrounded by vendors hawking coconuts, kitschy souvenirs, and tours. There’s a smaller staircase just south of it that I used to make my exit.
Speaking of US dollars, you’d do well to know that USD to Bahamian dollars is 1:1, so there’s it’s a simple calculation. Like many countries heavily tourist by United States residents, US dollars are widely accepted and even if you pay in Bahamian dollars, you’ll often receive a mix of currency, making money exchange all but pointless. I learned my lesson quickly and wish I’d brought cash from home.
Which leads me to another point: the Bahamas is expensive. You’re not going to get a $5 plate of chicken and rice like you might in many countries in the region. I live in New York City and was surprised to see that most of the prices rivaled what I pay for things at home and were even more expensive in many cases. Expect $15 cocktails, $2 bottles of water, and $15-25 fried fish, seafood, or chicken meals near the beach.
On that note, I’m thrifty, if not frugal in some cases, so you won’t find me at $400/night hotels and throwing back $20 drinks with reckless abandon. When I travel, one of the most important things for me to understand aside from the currency exchange and what everyday items cost is the public transportation system.
As you know, New Yorkers can rely on our extensive, 24/7 subway and bus system, so most of us don’t own cars. I’ve been to a few places where the public transportation infrastructure is all but nonexistent or highly unreliable (this can be said of most of the US, really, outside of major cities, as we’re a very car-centric society.) I’ve also experienced intricate transportation systems that take a while to learn but will get you around the cities and to the smallest villages, which is the case of much of Colombia. But I digress.
Prior to my trip, I couldn’t find a wealth of information about public transportation, so I tried it out in daylight hours and made sure I had money for a cab. $1.25 will get you a bus ride on a jitney, a mini bus or maxi taxi. I found the situation in Providence island is that, yes, there is a pretty extensive bus system.
That said, they don’t run on schedules, per se, and they stop running early in the evening. This means that you’ll either need to rent a car, be forced to take expensive taxis at night, or need to find accommodation close to where you think you’ll want to spend the most time, which got most people is Paradise Island or Downtown Nassau. I found a pretty good deal on a studio vacation apartment complete with a kitchen, couch, and coffee table across the street from the beach called The Sunset Stay. It’s in Delaporte, a short drive from Downtown Nassau, but will cost you on taxi rides at night. I paid around $30 for a ride back from Arawak Cay.
Trying local food is always on my to do list when travelling. I couldn’t leave the island without trying its famous fried conch. My first day, I arrived early afternoon, and once checked into the hotel, I found a restaurant nearby where plopped myself down. I found The Poop Deck at Sandyport and ordered conch fritters. They were larger than I expected, had the consistency of a soft, chewy fried calamari, and tasted deliciously salty with a slight sweetness. The pieces were large enough that I could cut one into quarters.
I didn’t think I had room for dessert, yet after finishing my conch, I heard myself rely, “Yes,” to the waiter when asked if I wanted any and soon found a warm plate of guava duff in front of me. Guava duff is the perfect marriage between a sweet fruit pastry and a warm, soupy custard: it’s sweet, messy, and delicious.
In Downton Nassau, you will be immediately ambushed by passengers of cruise ships in who will head to the beaches, gift shops, and bars. Make the best of it and have a few frozen drinks at Sharkeez, because it’s five o’clock somewhere. More than the prospect of the drinks themselves, I think I was drawn in by the Soca music pulsating from the bar. Upon reading the crowd, I decided against a jaunt to Paradise Island. In case you’re curious, no jitneys go there, but there is a small ferry that takes you from Downtown, near the Straw Market to the island for $4 each way.
I missed my calling as a cultural anthropologist. It’s intriguing to visit a place and not only see what’s different about it than my own country, but also see the similarities. It should be noted that, contrary to popular belief, the Bahamas is technically not part of the Caribbean, so I was curious to get a dose of the food and music. I’ve travelled extensively in the region and each island does have its own vibe. I was pleased to stroll towards the beach and be greeted by a familiar DJ Private Ryan soundtrack (IYKYK), though a tad disappointed not to experience something more local.
Just beyond the hotels and tacky gift shops is the West Esplande Beach. The water is turquoise and calm, though do yourself a favor and walk west, as sections of the beach are wall to wall people – no fun. If you came alone, as I did, it may be a good idea to place your personal effects on one of the piers to keep it in plain view.
The edge of the sand is lined with several candy-colored huts selling food and drinks. I opted for the fried fish and plantains at the Crabs-n-Tings kiosk, which cost me $17, plus $3 for a large water. It is my observation that food and drinks are expensive in the Bahamas relative to the region. I’ve travelled extensively throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, and this was definitely at the higher end of pricing. For reference, I live in the Bronx in New York City and I wouldn’t expect to pay much more than $12-15 for a comparable plate of fried fish (in Manhattan and Brooklyn it would be higher.) The point is, this isn’t a cheap locale.
If you’re looking for a less crowded place to swim, continue west for about 10 minutes until you hit Junkanoo Beach. I’ll warn you, though: depending on where you enter the water, watch your feet – some stretches are more pebble/rock than sand and will kill your feet. If you brought water shoes, all the better. Junkanoo is where the locals come to swim and blow off some steam. The westernmost part of the beach is backed by rows of low-scale buildings housing restaurants and bars, known at Arawak Cay. It gets lively on a Friday and Saturday nights, popular with locals and tourists alike. It reminded me slightly of Gros Islet in St. Lucia. The brightly colored, rustic buildings sell food and drinks, like jerk chicken, fried fish, and conch, among other things.
While you’re there, you’ll see “sky juice” being ubiquitously sold and observe people walking by with a whitish liquid served in something that looks like a bubble tea container. Sky Juice is a sweet alcoholic beverage made with gin, coconut water, and condensed milk. It’s sweet, has a slightly milky texture, and you almost forget it contains liquor — go easy! (Note: if you’re a fan of The Tipsy Bartender – who happens to be Bahamian himself – here’s his recipe.)
I’m known to jump when I spot a good airfare price. Thankfully, I’ve mostly landed on my feet, though sometimes the logistics of the “how” can be challenging. I’ve occasionally rolled up on a country only to discover that some local festival was going on, that it was a national holiday, or that borders were only open to foot traffic (true story!) This time, thankfully, only a) and b) were true.
Like the rest of the English-speaking countries in the region, the Bahamas celebrates Emancipation Day, the official end of slavery. Most of the West Indies celebrate theirs at the beginning August and here is no different. What I didn’t realize is that somehow, I’d end up in the middle of a colorful parade complete with costumes, music, and dancing. Most West Indian countries have a carnival, where revelers flood the streets to celebrate, decked out in elaborate costumes. There’s music, dancing, the liquor is flowing, and people fill the streets to partake.
The world famous Bahamian Junkanoo festival takes place on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas. I’d landed on the tale end of the Junkanoo Summer Festival. I exited my jitney at Arawak Cay to find hordes of people crowded around to watch the costumed parade participants and marching bands.
I’d seen the West Indian Day Parade here in New York, so a lot of the imagery was familiar, though the costumes looked more like the older, more traditional costumes I’d seen in photos and less like the glitzier, bikini-like ones that are in fashion now. I’d read about rake and scrape music mentioned in my guidebook, but I had no concept about what it was. I imagined a kind of Country/Bluegrass similar to how they’d use a saw to produce notes. Instead, I immediately recognized the rake and scrape instrument, as I’d seen it dozens of times and called by another name: a güira, typical to Dominican merengue! Mystery solved.
As you may have guessed, Nassau wasn’t one of my favorite trips. In my impulsive state, I’d failed to consider how far my hotel was from most points of interest, that jitneys stopped running early in the evening, necessitating a taxi, and the overall price of things. With as much as I love walking, I didn’t find the island to be very walkable. In fact, there is hardly much sidewalk to speak of in most parts and the shoulder was so narrow, that a car got too close and clipped my right arm – yes. My arm is fine, thankfully, but the situation stunned me a bit.
That said, I have no regrets – I came, I saw, and most of all, I satiated my curiosity. I’d always wanted to see Bahamas, especially with how close it is to the United States. My opinion is that if you’re into easy, pre-packaged family vacations, all-inclusives, or just getting your travel feet wet (literally), this may be the place for you. Besides beaches and cold frozen drinks, I’m not sure it had enough to hold my interest for longer than a few days.