Nassau, Bahamas

My father is from Hollywood, Florida- just south of Ft Lauderdale. His whole family still lives there. Almost every year around the holidays, I would visit them. Now that I’ve started working full-time, I am in control of my own vacations, albeit with the approval of the company. Since I haven’t seen my family there in a year, I decided to go to Florida for a week (the rest of my immediate family was actually in India, but I didn’t get the invite). However, just going  to Florida would be boring, so I decided to tack on four days in the Bahamas . Despite being only 50 miles off the Florida coast, I have never been. Additionally, if I intend on going to every country in the world, I have to visit the Bahamas.

The Bahamas are a group of a few hundred islands (separated into a bunch of different smaller groups) just off the southeast coast of Florida.The climate is identical to that of Miami. It turns out that the Bahamas are an extremely not budget-friendly place. In fact, there were only 2 places listed on HostelWorld in all of the Bahamas when I looked. Both were in Nassau. One was a hotel that costs $120/night and the other got horrible ratings for being far from everything. So I decided to book an AirBnB, something I’ve never done before for about $50/night. It was the cheapest accommodations I could find anywhere in the Bahamas. Because of budget constraints, I decided to limit my stay to just Nassau, as it was difficult to find places to stay on other nearby islands for less than $200/night, which is probably a month’s rent in some of these places.

Flying over the Abacos en route to Nassau
Flying over the Abacos en route to Nassau

My flight from Florida to Nassau left at noon on New Year’s Eve and took all of 32 minutes. Whew! Since the Bahamas are primarily a resort vacation destination, the customs hall was very easy to navigate and had a calypso band. Taxi fares were fixed with no room for negotiation, as there was a board on the wall describing the fares. Unfortunately, there was no public transportation whatsoever- again making the Bahamas a not-budget-friendly place. My taxi driver, Tyrone, pointed out all the sights as we crossed the island. I asked him what to do for my 4 days here and he said to “let the rhythm of your soul dictate the trip”. “If you have plans, don’t follow them. Be spontaneous.” As a result, I cancelled all the plans I never had in the first place. It also put me in the laid-back island mood.  While everyone drives on the left in the Bahamas, most cars are left-side drive and imported from the US, which makes for interesting road dynamics. The drivers are aggressive (nothing like Panama or India) and mostly follow the road signs. At one point Tyrone got fed up with a red light and ran it. Most of the cars appeared to be old and well past their street-legal years in the US. After about 30 minutes of driving, we arrived. The taxi officially cost a whopping $35 (Bahamas has a currency that is pegged to the USD- both currencies are accepted) although it ended up being $40 because the driver didn’t have change (of course). “It’s Christmas” Tyrone said with a smile. I decided to not argue with him and leave it there. I had an entire vacation ahead of me.

I knocked on the door of the blue single-story duplex and my hostess Maradona opened the door. She was a beautiful 5’8” Bahamian woman with a slight Caribbean accent. She gave me a quick tour of the apartment. It was a 1 bedroom. She shared the bedroom with her sister and cousin and I had a daybed in the front room. While there wasn’t air conditioning, I did get a huge fan blowing relatively cool air right on my face, which was good enough.

My AirBNB
My AirBNB
My bed. It was too warm for covers, but the fan made it comfortable.
My bed. It was too warm for covers, but the fan made it comfortable.

Now it was about 2pm and I still had the entire day ahead of me, so I quickly set out to see as much of Nassau as I could before the 5:15pm sunset. Downtown Nassau was about 3 miles away, so I decided to take the public bus. Maradona said to walk outside to the left and look for a #11 bus. I didn’t know where the bus station was, but I figured my best bet was to walk to a nearby busy intersection and hope for the best. Lo and behold, a few minutes later, a #11 bus drove right by me. It stopped in a nearby dirt parking and got in. 15 minutes later, I started seeing white people walking around so I figured I must be in downtown Nassau. So, I paid the driver $1.25 and hopped off.

What Bahamian public transit looks like
What Bahamian public transit looks like

Most of the buildings in downtown were brightly painted. The streets were two-laned with well-dressed police officers in white directing traffic. It appeared that most of the buildings here are very old.There were also large stands set up for the Junkanoo parade tonight. After wandering for about 15 minutes, I discovered the Pirates of Nassau museum. Admission cost $13 or 104 pieces of eight. The exhibits were of a high quality and were very informative. The golden age of piracy lasted from the 1650’s-1780’s and was centered in Nassau. Virtually every pirate in the Caribbean came here at some point. In fact, Nassau was actually a pirate republic (called the Republic of Pirates) from 1706-1718 before being retaken over by the British.

While many of the stereotypes of pirates are false, many are actually true. While only once did someone actually walk the plank, marooning on a Bahamian sand bar was a common form of punishment. Many pirates had wooden limbs and eye patches from sun damage and from battle. Pirates also often had parrots as pets and flew the Jolly Rodger. What I didn’t know was how democratic pirates were. A pirate ship was more or less a democracy. Each pirate who signed on was subordinate to the captain and beholden to the strictly enforced code of conduct, but did have a vote in all major decisions. Additionally, the treasure was distributed more or less evenly to the crew with the captain getting 1.5 shares of the treasure and the officers getting 1.25 shares. Compare this to how modern day corporations distribute wealth. You wouldn’t see a CEO today taking a salary of just 1.5 times the average worker.Most pirates burned the money pretty quickly on alcohol and wenches, so they had to keep working. If pirates were caught by the Crown, they would be hanged in the harbor as a warning to people who were considering becoming pirates.

After the pirate museum, I asked how to get a ticket to Junkanoo, the big New Year’s parade. They told me to go to a building on Frederick Street. Eventually, I saw a sign that said Junkanoo Tix and it led to a courtyard with a huge line. I waited in line for about an hour before reaching the window. I bought a ticket for $45. The start time- 2 AM. I got out of the line around 5 and walked around for another 30 minutes or so before catching the bus back to Maradona’s- I did not want to walk around here at night after all the cruise ship tourists left.

Abandoned buildings near downtown Nassau
Abandoned buildings near downtown Nassau

I then slept until about 10pm then got myself ready and headed out. I tried stopping by some of the local fast food restaurants to eat something since I didn’t know what was in store at Junkanoo. Unfortunately, all the stores were closed. Since the busses had stopped running (they stop around 6pm- ridiculous? absolutely), I had to hoof it to downtown Nassau. Luckily I remembered the way from the bus trip and it took me about an hour and a half. Along the way, I stopped to hear a late night church service with beautiful Calypso-gospel singing. “This be Bahamian, This be Bahamian, This be Bahamian praise to the Lord”. After they stopped singing and started preaching, I moved on. I also passed by a gas station and bought a Snickers bar for $3 figuring that this might be my only food for the night.

Around 11:30, I made it back to downtown Nassau. The place was empty- it felt like a ghost town. Even the bars including Senor Frogs were empty. What was going on? Were people still resting up for Junkanoo? Eventually I wandered past an Anglican church and decided to walk in because nothing else was going on. There were about 100-150 people there. Apparently Bahamians are quite religious and prefer to ring in the New Year with worship. I sat there in a church pew as the pastor gave a really boring sermon until about 12:02 AM before proclaiming Happy New Year. Quite anticlimactic. I then shook hands with everyone around me and walked out of the church onto the streets with the people.

Happy 2016!!!
Happy 2016!!!
Mediocre firework show for New Years. Nobody cares because the real party starts at 2.
Mediocre firework show for New Years. Nobody cares because the real party starts at 2.

It was still 2 hours until the parade and things were still quiet- people were probably returning home to change out of their church clothes. Seizing the opportunity, I found an open patch of sidewalk and slept for about an hour using the plastic ticket-holder as my pillow.

When I woke up, things were picking up. It was still mostly white and Asian tourists walking around, but now the parade crews were getting ready. Humongous- 20ft-tall wooden and cardboard costumes were being assembled. I have never seen anything like this. The intricacy was mind-boggling.

Posing with a float around 1:20 AM.
Posing with a float around 1:20 AM.

Because the parade hasn’t started yet, I was able to get up close to all the floats and watch the last-minute adjustments take place. These people were pros and handled the minor problems with ease. At 1:45, a voice over the loudspeaker told everyone to leave the streets and head to the stands so the parade could begin. Since my seat was very far from the action (row 19), I decided to find an unreserved spot in the middle of the massive crowd, closer to the action.

At 2AM, the parade (which took months and months of preparation) finally began, although it took until about 2:15 for it to reach me. The first float I saw was a giant castle, which symbolized the Saxons- one of the groups competing for the best Junkanoo crew. There is no limit to the number of people participating in a group, so the large groups contain a few hundred members. The initial float was followed by a series of smaller (but still 10-15 feet tall) costumes followed by dancers followed by a brass marching band followed by the grand finale float. This first crew took about 10 minutes to pass. Each person participating wore an unbelievably ornate costume that would have won any costume contest anywhere in the world. The Saxons theme was wizardry, so they had a Harry Potter float, an Egyptian temple float (Egyptian wizardry from the Bible I guess?), Merlin conducting the marching band, and at least 200 brass players and another 100 dancers. As they marched through the streets, supporters yelled the Saxons cheer. Other crowd members yelled “Showtime!” or “Music” hopping for the performers to step up their game. The brass band and especially the drum beats shook the entire street as the crowd grooved into a frenzy.

Who are we? SAXONS
Who are we? SAXONS

IMG_8532

After the Saxons, there were at least 6 other teams of a similar size and 6 small groups that only had one float and a small brass band. One small group was a political group calling for capital punishment of convicted murderers. Unlike the other groups, this one got no applause. My favorite group was called the Warriors and was apparently a new splinter group of the Saxons. Their theme was Bob Marley and they had lots of reggae goodness. The band played hits such as Buffalo Soldier, Three Little Birds, and Redemption Song. The Carribbean audience knew all the words- who doesn’t- and were jamming along. Here’s a link to a YouTube video of the entire Warriors Performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNixmSwMokc

Leader of the Warriors interacts with a fan.
Leader of the Warriors interacts with a fan.
Dancers!!!
Dancers!!!

The winning group was called the Valley Boys. Their theme was birds. With the population of the Bahamas somewhere around 350,000 there must have been at least 20% of the entire population of the country at this parade. While the parade ended around 10am, I left at 6:30-walked home and made it back by 7:30 AM. It was by far the best New Year’s celebration I have ever experienced. My feet and legs hurt from 6 miles of walking and 7 hours of standing, but it was well worth it!!!

Junkanooing
Junkanooing
Birds!!!
Birds!!!
Made it to daylight!!!
Made it to daylight!!!

I woke up later that day around noon- determined to still do something that day. I decided to check out Atlantis and Paradise Island. Because of the sparse public transportation on New Year’s Day, it took me an hour and a half to get a ride to downtown Nassau and to walk over to the bridge to Paradise Island. On the way, I stopped by the ferry terminal that sold tickets to other islands in the Bahamas. The only day-trip offered was to Harbour Island- east off the coast of Eleuthera. It sounded fun, so I decided to go. However, I didn’t book my ticket just yet, because I figured something might pop up- maybe I would sleep in and the ticket was $155.

I then walked over the bridge to Paradise Island- previously known as Hog Island until 1959 when it became a resort island. Paradise Island definitely sounds better to tourists. Nowadays, the island is most famous for the Atlantis Resort, opened in 1998. Atlantis is massive- covering the entire western half of the island and contains 6 large hotel tower complexes. Additionally, there is a huge waterpark, casino, and aquarium. I walked over to Atlantis via the Marina Bay outdoor shopping center that reminded me of Disneyland or any theme park. All of Paradise Island felt like a theme park with its wide pedestrian causeways, abundance of musicians and abundance of poorly-dressed tourists. I will say that the Caribbean definitely gives Disney World a run for its money for the worst dressed tourists on earth. I walked up to the entrance of Atlantis. It costs $50 to see the aquariums for the day and $150 for the waterpark. Since I have no intention of going back to Atlantis and because it’s famous for the water park, I splurged. The waterpark closed abruptly at 5pm, so I had just over 3 hours to go big.

The Bridge Suite at Atlantis- rumored to be the world's most expensive hotel room.
The Bridge Suite at Atlantis- rumored to be the world’s most expensive hotel room.

I started with the Leap of Faith slide at the famous Mayan Pyramid modeled after the main pyramid at Chichen Itza. This slide went over the pyramid and through a shark tank. I waited about 30-40 minutes for the 6-second slide. To be honest, it was kind of a disappointment because the splash was so strong, I couldn’t see the sharks. Luckily there was another slide that went through the shark tank at a slower pace where I could see the sharks.

Leap of Faith slide
Leap of Faith slide

Over the course of the three hours, I went on almost every slide in waterpark including the Power Tower, more slides on the Mayan Pyramid, the jungle slide, and the mile-long lazy river. The highlight was definitely the lazy river, which includes fast-moving rapids and one section that I can only describe as a lazy-river wave pool hybrid. Every 15 seconds, a large amount of water is released from a tower that turns into a huge wave causing the inner tubers to move through the lazy river. Another highlight was the Abyss slide, which drops riders 120 feet down through darkness into a cenote. The fake Yucatan theme is funny for me since I was there last year. The clientele at Atlantis was actually fairly diverse. I met people from all over the US, Spain, Australia, Japan, and Mexico. I did not see a single Bahamian (or black person for that matter) who wasn’t employed by the hotel. I definitely got a weird feeling on Paradise Island and I think that the racial and the “Disney”-fication aspects made me feel that way.

While I definitely could have stayed another hour or so, I feld content with my time at the waterpark and don’t feel any pressing need to go back. That said, this is by far the best resort I have ever been to. As a West Coaster, I used to go with my family to the Grand Wailea in Hawaii. This blows it out of the water. No comparison, Atlantis is better.

After the waterpark closed, I went for a walk along the beautiful beach. The sand was very fine and the water was warm. I walked to the end of the island and watched the sun set as a cruise ship departed for other ports.

Paradise Island sunset
Paradise Island sunset

I then walked across the island to the One and Only Ocean Club to get a drink. Along the way, I got stuck in a short rainstorm and had to find shelter underneath a palm tree that kind of blocked the rain. Wet, I stumbled into the hotel. The One and Only Ocean Club is famous because James Bond got a drink there in Casino Royale. Therefore, I ordered the only acceptable drink: a martini shaken not stirred. Their Caisno Royale Martini ($22 including tax) had a lot of lemon and was delicious. As I sat at the bar and tried to stare down the rich older white American couples and families in my best James Bond impression. I got a lot of strange looks back. Eventually, a pianist started playing calypso renditions of older pop songs including “Daniel” by Elton John. I’ve found that getting a fancy cocktail is a great way to experience a fancy hotel without having to eat or stay there. $22 is probably the most I’ve ever paid for a drink, but when a Johnny Rockets hamburger on Paradise Island is $20, it’s not that that bad.

My best Bond impression...with a napkin fail. I clearly don't fit in with this fancy crowd.
My best Bond impression at the One and Only Ocean Club…with a napkin fail. I clearly don’t fit in with this fancy crowd.

I definitely was not going to eat here, so I went back to the Atlantis and ended up eating at Quizno’s which was the only reasonably priced place around- I could have walked across the bridge to go to the local places but I heard that the bridge to Nassau is the murder capital of the island at night. Didn’t want to press my luck. Quizno’s cost $12 for a 9 inch sub and actually was full of local Bahamians. In fact, it might have been the only place on all of Paradise Island where I saw locals.

In the interest of safety, I decided to try to catch a cab back to Maradona’s. I went to the main taxi dispatch station at Atlantis and asked for a cab. The catch was I only had $10 of cash on me- I did have credit cards on me and I did have an emergency $20 in a hidden pocket in my clothing in case i get mugged so I can get home. However, in my opinion this situation did not warrant using the emergency money so I tried to get a deal on the cab (what if this cab took me somewhere remote and left me). I offered to give them $10 and have them take me as far as $10 could take me and I would walk the rest of the way, which i knew from my previous walks. Oftentimes this is a really powerful bargaining technique and serves as a final “take it or leave it” offer. However, this time it didn’t work. The dispatcher and cab driver said it actually costs $11 just to go over the bridge. The dispatcher then gave the cab driver $5 out of pity for me. Right before the cab driver left, he came up with another idea. He would have another family get into the cab and he would take them to their destination and then would take me home. Kind of like an UberPool.

Soon enough a family of 7 or 8 got into the giant cab with me and we took off. We had a brief conversation. The main guy, Dan, was a real estate developer in Southwest Florida (couldn’t really see everyone else in the cab). I told him I was in real estate too so we hit it off as well as you could for a 5 minute cab ride. At the end of the ride, we ended up at a fancy restaurant. He asked if I wanted food- I told him I already ate, so he then offered for me to go on a boat with his family tomorrow. The boat was called the Mucho Gusto and it was leaving the East Bay Marina at 9pm. I said I would be there as he left the cab.

On the second part of the cab, I asked the cab driver what to do. I now had a choice- to go on the boat or go to Harbour Island- very glad I didn’t buy that ticket. He said that Dan has a good heart and that I should go on the boat. I then asked Maradona and she said that I would be missing the “real Bahamas” if I didn’t go to Harbour Island. I then got a Facebook from my friend Lisa who said that Eleuthera (next to Harbour Island) was the best place in all the Bahamas (what a coincidence). I then thought back to my original cab driver Tyrone and he would say go on the boat as it was going with the flow. It appeared I had a tough decision to make- two great choices but a tough decision nonetheless.

The ferry for Harbour Island left at 8, while Dan’s boat left at 9. Still undecided the morning of, I decided to walk over to the marina at 6, getting there around 7 when the sun came up in a stunning sunrise.

Epic sunrise- an omen for a great day!!!
Epic sunrise- an omen for a great day!!!

I first walked over to the ferry terminal. The price was still $155. What I didn’t realize is that the island is 3 hours away. I would only have 4 hours on the island, which might be enough time to see it all since it’s not very big, but that most of my day would be spent on a ferry. I then walked over to the Mucho Gusto- it was actually a huge 50-ft yacht. I saw there was a crew preparing for the day. I also figured that since Dan was in real estate, maybe I would learn something. I then walked back to the dock, sat down and thought about my choices. I can return here and go to Harbour Island anytime, but it’s not everyday some random person invites you on their yacht, so I decided to go on the boat with Dan. I stopped by a local food truck and picked up ham and grits for $2 and a bunch of bananas from a roadside vendor before wandering back over to the Mucho Gusto.

Around 9:15, Dan and crew showed up. They were pleasantly surprised that I actually showed up. We got in the boat and were immediately greeted by the 2-man South African crew. They served us fruit and drinks. I got a Kalik beer and watched as we cruised out of Nassau Harbour and over to Rose Island, an idyllic coral island about 30 minutes away. There we dropped anchor in the stunningly azure water. Very soon after dropping anchor, a jetski pulled up next to the boat and we now a jetski to use for the day. I took the snorkeling equipment and headed over to the nearby reef and then onto the white-sand island.

Dan and I
Dan and I

Besides Dan, there were 7 other people on the boat: Dan’s rowdy two kids aged 10-12ish, his much-younger blonde bombshell wife (2nd marriage), his mother, his brother and sister-in-law who live in Santa Barbara and their daughter who goes to Santa Barbara City College. Everyone was very friendly to me. I spent a lot of time talking to the mother who was collecting shells for her frame-making business. She had a very intimate knowledge of all the different shells and sand types in the area. I didn’t end up spending that much time talking to Dan because he was trying to go jetski fishing. Overall, it was an awesome day- there wasn’t much to talk about-just a lot of enjoying the water.

At 2pm, we were ready to go back. We got back at 3 then got lunch before Dan and crew took off on their private plane back to Florida. I still had a few hours of daylight left so I decided to explore more of Nassau not on a holiday when everything was open. I first went to the Government House aka the White House of the Bahamas. I then stopped by the Greystone Cigar Factory where I saw cigars being made. The factory is in the back of the Greystone Hotel, a fancy hotel originally built as a pirate’s mansion. Fidel Castro’s former personal cigar roller (yes that’s a position) used to work here until he died 2 years ago. Still, there were 12 master cigar rollers working on their craft. Personally, I couldn’t stand the smell of tobacco, so I left after just a few minutes.

I then made my way over to the John Watlings Rum Distillery. The self-guided tour was free and quickly explained how the rum turns from sugarcane into the firewater including the multiple aging steps. To be honest, I don’t remember much about it because right after the tour, they had the tastings. For $6.50, I got three double-shots of rum: the pale rum, the amber and the Buena Vista aged for 5 years. I felt pretty good by the end of it. While drinking the rum, I met a tourist from Virginia Beach. She gave me some advice on places to go tomorrow on my last day. She recommended the queen’s steps and the fish fry. Afterwards, I walked back through town. I stopped by one of the many seafood shacks on the dock to get some conch salad, a delicacy of the Bahamas. After ordering it, the guy opened up a conch and cut it up to put in my salad! Talk about fresh. The locals in the shack (it was all locals) were getting into some kind of argument, I tried to stay away. The shack owner tried to get them to leave first by arguing at them but then he realized it was useless, so he started blasting Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” on the speakers. I ate my conch salad drunk from the rum, simultaneously clutching my backpack between my legs for safety, bobbing my head and shoulders to Iggy Azalea, and trying to avoid a confrontation with a rowdy local (I was only somewhat successful). Although it doesn’t sound good, this was one of my favorite and most vivid memories from the entire trip.

At da conch shack
At da conch shack

Around 6, I walked over to the bus station trying to catch a bus. A local told me I was out of luck as it was too late. I said I would wait a little bit and see. 15 minutes later, there were busses but no 11 bus, so I decided to walk back. 30 seconds after I started walking, an 11 bus speeds right by me. I tried to flag it down, but was too late. Alas. So, I walked the hour back to Maradona’s and fell asleep pretty quickly-still tired from Junkanoo.

The final day, I woke up and said goodbye to Maradona and headed into town. I took the fellow tourist’s advice and went to the Queen’s Steps- carved into an artificial canyon by slaves, Fort Fincastle (the highest point on the Island), Junkanoo Beach (named after the festival of course), and Fort Charlotte, the largest fort on the island. There is a lot of cool history on this island. The Bahamas had the strategic location of being the gateway to both the North American continent and the Caribbean. As a result, it was often fought over. The English, Spanish, French, and Pirates (twice!) all have ruled over Nassau and New Providence Island.

At 11, I headed over to Arawak Cay and its famous Fish Fry- a collection of 35-ish restaurants that all specialize in fish. Usually, I will go to where the people are going, but since the restaurants all just opened up, that wasn’t going to work. As I walked by, employees from the restaurants causally asked if I wanted to sit down- that’s usually a sign that the restaurant isn’t busy. A great place doesn’t need that. Still unsure of where to go, I asked some police. They said Oh Andros has the best food and is usually packed. So, I went to Oh Andros and ordered the snapper. For $15, I got 2 whole fish, rice, and two sides. It was a great bargain given the huge amount of food. It was really spectacular. As I was eating, a local Bahamian pop singer was filming a music video for her new single. The theme of the video was Junkanoo. I laughed as all the tourists stood in awe of the single junkanoo costume. Little did they know that this was one of hundreds.

The most unassuming, yet busiest restaurant at the fish fry
The most unassuming, yet busiest restaurant at the fish fry
Junkanoo-themed music video
Junkanoo-themed music video

As the song played on the loudspeaker, I sat down to reflect on my trip, as this was it. I really had an awesome time and will definitely miss it here in Nassau. While I probably won’t come back- I’d like to see some of the other islands first, I really think that Nassau is a great destination in its own right. It takes a bit of digging around to get out of cruise-ship land but once you do, there is a great culture, lots of history, friendly people, and can be done on a medium budget. I am looking forward to my next trip to the Bahamas and to the Caribbean.

%d bloggers like this: