A weekend in Nassau
The laid-back island has lots to discover beyond the resorts
Sunset on Cable Beach. Photograph: Damon Winter/The New York Times
A chef prepares a conch salad at waterfront restaurant Twin Brothers in Nassau. Photograph: Damon Winter/The New York Times
A moped zooms by a colorful downtown backdrop. Photograph: Damon Winter/The New York Times
A conch merchant pulls out a haul out of the sea at Potter's Cay seafood market. Photograph: Damon Winter/The New York Times
Most tourists arriving in the capital city of the Bahamas head straight across the bridge to the aptly named Paradise Island, where a glitzy resort scene is anchored by the Atlantis mega-development, known for its water park rides, casino and celebrity chef restaurants. While the sensory appeal there is undeniable, those looking for a cultural allure that’s subtler than, say, a 200-foot water slide, would do well to venture beyond the resorts. In addition to serving as port of call for cruise lines (and as a rowdy hub for spring breakers), at its heart Nassau is a laid-back island town. European influences blend with centuries-old Bahamian traditions here, anchored by an innovative dining scene, unique small hotels and, of course, miles of white sand beaches.
1. First Things First
Between Paradise Island and the Bahamas’ more secluded outer isles, the title of best beach in this country is up for endless debate. But if the goal is reaching the most pristine aquamarine ocean water in the least amount of time, it’s difficult to top Cable Beach. Just under three hours from Kennedy Airport and a 10-minute taxi ride from Nassau airport, the main island’s most popular strip offers powder-fine white sand, see-through blue-green water, and – post-spring-break anyway – plenty of beach blanket space. Enjoy this relatively crowd-free stretch while you can; the sprawling Baha Mar resort is scheduled to open here next winter.
2. Fish Fry
Taxi drivers and hotel concierges inevitably cite Arawak Cay as the go-to spot to dine like a local which, of course, means that the simple seafood shacks here are now filled mostly with tourists. Move past the identical colourful stands, all the way to the strip’s western edge and the tiny, no-frills King Restaurant and Bar, where a local crowd sips Sands beer ($3/€2.17) while playing backgammon and dominoes. There’s no printed menu, but Styrofoam plates are piled high with the catch of the day (fried snapper, most likely) alongside heaps of rice and beans, sweet plantains and (very) thick wedges of mac-and-cheese ($12/€8.71). (The US and Bahamian dollar are at par; either can be used on the islands.)
3. Rum Runners
The only locally owned distillery in the Bahamas, John Watling’s, opened last year on a grand 1789 estate in downtown Nassau. Friday nights find a buzzy crowd sipping Bahama Mamas ($10.35/€7.51), or going straight for the good stuff: the five-year-aged Buena Vista rum ($10.80/€7.84). Take home a bottle for $55/€39.93, it’s not available anywhere outside the country.
4. Ocean-Facing Dog
Salute the sunrise with a morning yoga class at Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat, an incongruous sight on flashy Paradise Island, adjacent to the Atlantis resort. Catch the free ferry over from Nassau for a two-hour beginners session ($10/€7.26), followed by a hearty vegetarian breakfast feast of curries, salads, breads and yogurt ($10/€7.26). After the meal, leave via the back of the ashram, where you can head straight for an ocean dip along the very serene Paradise Beach.
5. Art Stop
Now that your consciousness is centred, get back to the favoured pastime here: shopping. Set in a colourful clapboard house designed by the acclaimed Bahamian artist Jackson Burnside, Craft Cottage sells artisan handicrafts that are a cut above the trinkets found at stalls throughout the island. Recent finds range from cuff links made of Bahamian coins ($20/€14.52) to vinyl record bracelets ($15/€10.89) and hand-stitched straw bags ($50/€36.30). Mr Burnside’s widow, Pam, sells local artwork at the adjacent Doongalik Studios & Art Gallery, and the complex hosts a farmers’ market most Saturdays, where you can cool down with a non-alcoholic tamarind ale ($3/€2.17).
6. Under the Bridge
Get a glimpse of freshly caught conch peeking out of their rosy shells at Potter’s Cay, a seafood market on the Nassau side of the Paradise Island Bridge. Then taste them “crack conch” style (battered and fried, $12/€8.71) at Moby Dick Restaurant, a sliver of a spot set within the market, directly below the bridge. For a more scenic setting, grab a waterfront booth at Twin Brothers, which serves a stellar conch salad – a ceviche-like concoction made to order with onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and citrus ($10/€7.26). Wash it down with an afternoon “sky juice” – coconut water, gin and ice ($6/€4.35).
From glass-bottom kayaks to snorkeling, diving and undersea walking, there is no shortage of ways to get up close and personal with the copious marine life here. One of the easiest and most rewarding is aboard Seaworld Explorer ($45/€32.66; $25/€18.14 children), a semi-submarine that leaves from downtown Nassau and takes riders below the sea’s surface via a glass-walled observatory that glides over the coral reefs surrounding the island while sharks, rays and an array of colourful tropical fish dances around you.
8. Low Country
Taste a slice of Nassau’s European side at Van Breugel’s, a Dutch-owned dining spot in a restored historical home decorated with original Bahamian artwork. The chef and owner Freddy van Breugel strolls the airy porch where romantic couples feast on blackened jumbo shrimps from the grill, while a local crowd sips mojitos amid live jazz inside. Dinner for two runs about $100/€72.59. Beer geeks will want to save room for perusing the unusual selection of lambics (from $16.50/€11.97) at nearby Brussels Bistro, which also serves a full dinner menu and tempting house-made desserts like guava cheesecake ($6.95/€5.04).
9. Tongue Twister
Set on an unappealing avenue uphill from the main tourist strip, the Shoal offers all the ambience of a suburban Denny’s, but the restaurant is widely agreed to serve some of the best authentic Bahamian fare around. For breakfast, that means sheep tongue souse ($8/€5.80), a peppery, piping-hot soup served with a hearty portion of tongue meat and a cornmeal “johnnycake.”
Less adventurous eaters can opt for stewed snapper and grits ($11/€7.98), or more familiar egg dishes.
10 Bird Walk
Get close to the local bird life at Ardastra Gardens, Zoo and Conservation Center ($16/€11.61; $8/€5.80 children), where the primary appeal is that much of the diverse avian collection wanders freely around, including flamingos, peacocks and parrots (cages hold trumpeter hornbills and other more exotic creatures). Time your visit around one of the thrice-daily flamingo walks.
11 Farm Fresh
Get a last taste of the islands at Goodfellow Farms, set on a quiet road near the airport where you can lunch in a shady garden overlooking a working farm. The daily-changing menu offers items like grilled house-cut lamb chops and curry pumpkin soup; lunch for two runs about $30/€21.77. Afterwards, shop for arty souvenirs and locally made take-homes like mango dressing ($6/€4.35) and sea salt scrub ($25/€18.14) at the on-site country store.
© 2014 The New York Times/Distributed by The New York Times’ Syndication
WHERE TO STAY
A colonial mansion in the heart of downtown, Graycliff Hotel (8-12 West Hill Street; graycliff.com, from $325/€236) has 20 guest rooms, a pool cottage where Winston Churchill once stayed, and tobacco-rolling sessions at the on-site Graycliff Cigar Company.
A picturesque collection of villas set among a gated marina community near Cable Beach, Sandyport Beaches Resort & Hotel (West Bay Street and Island Lane; from $186) has both hotel- and apartment-style rooms with waterfront views and a serene atmosphere.