Ahoy, there!

In the bahamas: Nassau, the picturesque capital of the Bahamas layered with tales of pirates and colonial history

Ahoy, there!
Think Nassau and you are reminded of Sean Connery in the 1983 Bond film Never Say Never Again, or the more recent Daniel Craig-starrer Casino Royale. We enjoy an overnight cruise from Port Canaveral to land at the Bahamian capital. It’s daybreak as the liner drops anchor at Prince George Wharf in downtown Nassau.

Even as we disembark, I feel enveloped by an air of expectancy — as if I’m waiting for Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Anne Bonny, Henry Morgan and the host of them, the Pirates of the Caribbean, to materialise before us to unfold an action-packed thriller of which we would all be a part! Of course, that’s not going to happen, but the instant my gaze meets the crystal-blue waters and the long shoreline dotted with quaint little bungalows fringed by swaying green trees, I know I have departed from the routine and arrived at an extraordinary place  — within myself.

Yes, such is the all-pervading beauty and tranquillity of my surrounds that is paradoxically abuzz with activity and awash with colour. We have a day-and-a-half to explore this picture-perfect city on New Providence Island with its tropical breeze, sandy beaches, great shopping, gourmet dining, vibrant nightlife and above all, friendly people. Add to this its salubrious climate and just that dash of lingering aura and mystery associated with piracy and rum-smuggling that once prevailed — Nassau is a perfect place to holiday any time of the year.

In the beginning
Though founded only a few centuries ago, in 1656, as a commercial port, Nassau — then known as Charles Town — enjoys a history that is as colourful as its picturesque landscape. Overrun by lawless seafaring men, the history of Nassau goes back to the times of the legendary pirate Blackbeard who, with his men, plundered and looted cargo ships. The region witnessed destruction by Spanish and French forces. The Spanish first burned the city to the ground in 1684. It was resurrected as Nassau in 1695, in honour of William III from the Dutch House of Orange-Nassau, who later became the King of England, Ireland and Scotland. However, the scars of destruction are barely evident today as many of its landmark structures appear well-preserved.

We leave the pier and head towards Rawson Square, the town centre, a few hundred metres away, to take a coach tour of the island of Nassau and the Atlantis on Paradise Island. We are at once struck by the colonial architecture dominating the island’s landscape, reminiscent of British rule. We pile into a coach to get a glimpse of Nassau and some of its landmark monuments before proceeding to the Atlantis.

Our coach tour is similar to the breezy hop-on-hop-off bus tours the world over, sans the hop-on-hop-off bit. Our first halt, a brief one, is at Queen’s Staircase, considered one of the world’s top 10 outdoor staircases. With one step for each year of Queen Victoria’s reign, the top of the 65-step limestone staircase offers a spectacular view of the surrounds. A few of us with athletic agility decide not to saddle ourselves with our photography equipments, but just make a dash for the head of the stairway to savour the breathtaking vistas.

Fort Fincastle, a short walk from the Queen’s Staircase, is a 126-feet-high fort built in 1793. While the fort is not in itself spectacular, it accords us a spellbinding lookout from where we capture Nassau’s magnificent landscape on our lens. Souvenir shops selling a variety of goods line the road to the fort which supposedly never witnessed a battle, and doubled up later as a lighthouse, and then as a signal tower.

We skim past Fort Charlotte, Nassau’s largest of three colonial forts, and the nearby five-acre Ardastra Gardens, a conservation centre and home to over 300 animals representing a wide variety of the Bahamas’s natural inhabitants. Having arrived late, we narrowly miss the world-famous Marching Flamingo Show in the Gardens. The Botanical Garden in the neighbourhood, a lush 18-acre sprawl, is home to over 600 species of tropical and water plants. We are told that it is a popular venue for weddings, parties and Nassau’s annual Dog Show in March and the International Food Festival in October.

Having had an overview of Nassau, we head towards Paradise Island, which is connected to Nassau by a toll bridge. Once known as Hog Island, Paradise Island is a bustling region, an upscale resort area. Originally the private home of Huntington Hartford, it’s today a fantasy island enticing tourists by the drove for its world-class gaming and gambling attractions.

Three handsomely sculpted horses in galloping mode appear to be in sync with the rhythmic gushing of water from the fountain at the entrance to the Atlantis, an awe-inspiring structure. The edifice takes our breath away with its magnificent décor, unique murals, sculptures, casinos, restaurants and waterscape in Aquaventure. We zip through the Dig, an underground maze of corridors with viewing tanks ridden with marine life, to discover the secrets of the lost city of Atlantis, and catch a glimpse of the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and sea lions at play.

It is close to twilight hours and we are ravenous as we return from the paradise! No trip anywhere is complete without enjoying a taste of its indigenous cuisine. But for us, pure vegetarians, this often becomes a complicated issue, almost a kind of hunt for the veggie fare. Short on time, we decide not to unleash our adventurous spirit to comb the streets of the city for a suitable eatery. Instead, we sate our gustatory urges with vegetarian pizza and wash it down with the native Bahamian Sky Juice, a concoction of coconut water, sweet milk and gin. Our co-tourists, most of who are non-vegetarians, relish with gusto from a vast array of seafood for which the island is famed. I hear from my fellow passengers that the fare at Senior Frog’s — located near the pier on the waterfront — is a fine dining experience. In fact, there are a couple of them raving about the conch salad and Bahamian lobster at the Poop Deck.

We wake up to a sunny morning to savour Rawson Square and its vicinity. The square — with its rows of restaurants, bars and shops — is bustling with activity. In the midst of the buzz we hear the clip-clop of a lone horse-drawn carriage that’s making its way through the Parliament Street, a few yards away. Pastel pink and neo-Georgian architecture is the tone and style of Nassau’s government buildings located here — the Ansbacher House, the seat of Bahamas’s Tourism Office, being a perfect example.

The bust of Sir Milo Butler, shopkeeper-turned-first-governor general of the Bahamas, dominates the square named after Nassau’s governor, Sir R W Rawson. Facing Sir Milo’s bust, across the street on the other side of the square is a statue of Queen Victoria, another reminder of the nation’s colonial past.

Handled by women
We stroll down Bay Street in the heart of downtown, the main duty-free shopping area that’s studded with designer stores. We change tracks and enter a perpendicular street that takes us to Straw Market, a stone’s throw from the port. The rows of shops under a huge tent-like structure is dominated by native Bahamian women who, we learn, took to selling local crafts when the active sponge business in the region declined several decades ago. The atmosphere here is raucous, vibrant and colourful, with bargaining, as visitors walk away with a variety of handmade merchandise, paying as much as 60% less than the quoted prices.

We pick up a couple of souvenirs before getting back to our liner. As we embark on our return journey, I promise myself to return to Nassau to indulge in some of the many aqua activities it offers. The island is a paradise for those who wish to enjoy a tryst with sea creatures — be it by snorkeling, diving or swimming. For the less adventurous, simply take a ride in one of Nassau’s glass-bottom boats or floating underwater observatory, and romance the exotic Piscean species and scintillating corals.

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