On New Year’s Day 2013, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted from the International Space Station: “The beauty of the Bahamas is surreal; every blue that exists.”
With 700 islands and thousands of cays, the archipelago offers immense variety in ecotourism, water sports and nature activities. While superb golf courses, glitzy resorts, lively marine life and state-of-the-art casinos are also major attractions, a number of Bahamian traditions add unique dimensions. These include the Native Fish Fry, Junkanoo and People-To-People Experience.
The Bahamas have long been popular with celebrities, many of whom own homes and islands there. These include Sean Connery, David Copperfield and Sir Sidney Poitier—the first Bahamian and African-American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor.
Joy Jibrilu, director general, Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, points out that the islands’ proximity to the Toronto and Montréal gateways has made Canada their second-largest market after the U.S. “We also work continuously on developing incentives and packages that will keep Canadians returning year after year.”
The Native Fish Fry is a perennial favourite throughout the islands at eateries strung along the water. Visitors and locals alike devour grilled, fried, steamed or raw seafood straight from the ocean, as well as barbecued or jerk meat and other delicacies such as panny cake. A regular at Smith’s Point Fish Fry on Grand Bahama is a pony-tailed expatriate Montréal kitesurfer who comes to socialize, listen to music, drink Sands beer—and dine on Terry Edden’s fresh conch salad. Every venue boasts conch-salad maestros whose loyal fans come for signature versions of this flavourful ceviche-like dish.
Originally a random Bahamas-wide street festival, Junkanoo Carnival is now an annual spring event that attracts thousands of participants and onlookers. It is noted for wildly artistic costumes crafted from colourful crêpe paper—and yes, rain on parade days does pose a problem. Launched in the 18th century by slaves on their three days off a year, Junkanoo has become a celebration of everything Bahamian.
Locals love reaching out to visitors on a personal level. The decades-old People-To-People Experience gives volunteers an opportunity to connect with guests by becoming island “ambassadors.” The free program pairs hundreds of ambassadors with tourists interested in exploring the culture and lifestyle beyond the hotels and resorts. My Nassau ambassador was Yvette Johnson, a banker who in the off hours hosts dinners at her home and takes guests on insider tours of local highlights. She reported that the program gives her and her husband an enjoyable social activity to do together, and that it has yielded many international friends. Visitors can register for the program at their hotel tour desk, any tourist office or online at bahamas.com/people-to-people.
Each island also has a unique personality, and from my cushy home base on “The Level” at Meliã Nassau Beach Resort, I took day trips to Grand Bahama Island and Harbour Island, located off the northeast coast of Eleuthera.
GRAND BAHAMA ISLAND (GBI)
A 45-minute flight from Nassau, GBI offers everything from a 1,858-square-metre Las Vegas-style casino to one of the world’s longest systems of underwater limestone caves in Lucayan National Park, framed by the vast expanse of Gold Rock Beach. The popular filming and photography location provided backdrops for scenes in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. After filming, Pirates star Johnny Depp bought the 18-hectare Little Hall’s Pond Cay.
On my drive along the sparsely populated “outlying settlements” on the eastern coast, I stopped in Mather Town for drinks and conversation at the beachfront Margarita Villa Sand Bar. According to patrons perched on bar stools, the area was a hideout for rumrunners during Prohibition, and centuries ago a favourite spot for pirates who lured ships onto the nearby reef and plundered them.
A highlight of my GBI visit was a “dolphin encounter” at the UNEXSO facility, which houses the adorable mammals and offers a range of experiences. Sitting on a dock splashing my feet in shallow water, I watched the dolphins cavort, kiss the kiddies and pose for pictures. This facility is within a credit card’s throw of Port Lucaya Marketplace, where shops and eateries entice cruisers and tourists.
A rustic and hilly spot off the coast of Eleuthera, Harbour Island is a 10-minute water taxi ride from North Eleuthera airport (a 20-minute flight from Nassau). Boasting an amiable blend of laid-back decadence in tony resorts and restaurants, pink-sand beaches, colourful British colonial architecture and charming Bahamian cottages, this spot is an ideal getaway for a day or a lifetime.
My guide and I lunched at Sip Sip (Bahamian for “gossip”), where the crowd could have been sailors and cottagers from Nantucket and the New England coastline. Zooming around on our golf cart (the main mode of transportation), we rumbled past historical churches, homes and public buildings in Dunmore Town. And our tour of the luxury boutique Rock House Hotel, owned by Kingston, Ontario, native Don Purdy, sent pink sand-encrusted sugar plums dancing into my head.
Taking up most of New Providence Island, Nassau is the capital of the Bahamas and a popular cruise-ship port. A bustling, beautifully maintained city with exotic resorts, restaurants and history, Nassau has something for everyone. Once dubbed the “Republic of Pirates,” it had been commandeered by pirates including Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
In the heart of downtown Nassau is the legendary Graycliff estate, built in 1740 by the dreaded pirate John Howard Graysmith. It comprises a hotel, five-star restaurant, cigar factory and chocolate factory. The main mansion’s extensive basement, where pirates once stored their plunder, now houses the world’s third-largest collection of wine and spirits, valued between US$15 and US$20 million according to our guide. Modern riches in a modern commonwealth.
Direct flights to the Bahamas depart from eight Canadian gateways. A new program, “Experiences by Sunquest,” offers packages to Abaco, Eleuthera, Harbour Island, Bimini and Exuma in addition to the existing program to Nassau/Paradise Island.
For more information, contact your travel agent or visit:
Bahamas Ministry of Tourism: bahamas.com
Experiences by Sunquest: sunquest.ca/experiences
Meliã Nassau Beach Resort: melia.com
People-To-People Experience: bahamas.com/people-to-people
Underwater Explorers Society (UNEXSO): unexso.com