Nassau’s a popular tourist destination but, as with many tourist destinations, its more authentic side often gets overlooked. It’s worth seeking out.
In a raucous display of neon feathers, sequins and beads, the gate at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport exploded with the sounds of Junkanoo.
The dancers moved to the beat of the whistleblower, all the while beating the drums with the palms of their hands, ringing cowbells, and blowing into trumpets and tubas. It’s the heartbeat of the Bahamian people, this 200-year-old tradition, and Junkanoo ushered in Southwest Airlines’ first direct flight from Fort Lauderdale to Nassau.
“In our 43 years, we have Rhodes Scholars and Olympians. Now we can boast of our pilots,” said the Honorable Obediah H. Wilchombe, the minister of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. “We know the future is bright. We know we can grow.”
It’s this spirit of freedom in the skies and the Junkanoo sounds that personifies the Bahamian attitude of independence. Once a British slave colony, the islands were freed of their shackles in 1834. Then in 1973, the Bahamas became an independent nation, a fact that is glorified in the streets of Nassau, the country’s capital, with its national colors, banners and signs.
Over its 43 years of independence, Nassau has been a major hub for tourism. Cruise ships dock daily, unloading tourists to lie on its sandy beaches or imbibe at bars, restaurants and resorts. Not many South Floridians can say they’ve never set foot in Nassau. But the question is, have they really been to Nassau?
“This isn’t us,” Otis Clarke, a Bahamas native, says of the giant resorts with their casinos, aquariums, and rooms that easily go for thousands of dollars a night to celebrities.
Rather, Clarke took Fort Lauderdale Magazine to the real Nassau.
The Educulture Junkanoo Museum celebrates the heritage of Junkanoo, which was created by Bahamian slaves in 1801. Silbert Ferguson, who has performed Junkanoo for nearly 50 years and is the chairman of the Junkanoo Corporation New Providence, Ltd., explains that the art form began when slaves of different tribes were able to come together over the universal sound of the drum. With their makeshift instruments and costumes, they celebrated their day off on Christmas night with music and dancing.
“Using this as a passive resistance to slavery, they then began to create their parade,” Ferguson says. “Our Junkanoo has just evolved into this mega extravaganza.”
The Junkanoo parade is celebrated on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) and New Year’s Day. Over the years, the parade has exploded in size, lasting hours with larger and more elaborate costumes and displays. The rule has always been that they must be carried by hand, but after a decade of argument, it was finally decided that wheels would be allowed in some cases. “We try not to contain the artists. The artists have to be free to express,” Ferguson says of Junkanoo, which stays with the tradition of freedom the founders of the movement were seeking.
The Bahamas’ slave days are remembered at the Pompey Museum of Slavery and Emancipation, named for the rebellious slave, Pompey. Forced to work on a plantation in Exuma, he rallied dozens of other slaves to protest a transfer to another island. They eventually stole their owner’s boat and demanded that they stay in Exuma.
At Clifton Heritage National Park, visitors can see the ancient homes of the Lucayan people, who settled on the islands before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Also, a row of old slave homes from the Whylly Plantation are still erect. Built with thatched roofs and stone walls, homemade beds and chairs are still inside, forcing reflection on Nassau’s past.
Other historical sites include three forts that provide great views of the island and the water. Fort Montagu, built in 1725, features large cannons still ready at the guard. The largest of the three, Fort Charlotte, was built in 1789 and has a waterless moat, dungeons and ramparts. Finally, Fort Fincastle sits at the top of the beautiful Queen’s Staircase. The 66 limestone steps are surrounded by a jungle of flowers and winding trees and evoke a mystical scene; however, they were built on the backs of slaves in 1793 and later named for Queen Victoria.
Conch and Kalik
Cruise ships spill their guests into downtown Nassau, where bar and restaurant chains are located. For a more authentic time, there’s Fish Fry at Arawak Cay. Here, locals go from vendor to vendor selling drinks, conch salad and of course, fried fish. Painted in colorful pinks, greens, and blues, it’s hard to miss. Conch salad is a Bahamian must-have: a bowl filled with fresh, meaty conch, peppers, onions and tomatoes drizzled with lime juice and spices. Pair it with a bottle of Kalik, the island’s local beer, and you’re set for lunch.
Another popular place to eat is the Poop Deck, which boasts two locations on opposite ends of the island. The east restaurant sits on the water, perfect for a dinner of fresh seafood with views of Nassau Harbor and Paradise Island. For an upscale dining experience, try Luciano’s of Chicago. The Italian restaurant is in the former home of Sir Roland Theodore “Pop” Symonette, the first premier of the Bahamas. The menu features Italian favorites, as well as Bahamian mainstays like conch chowder.
For those wanting to indulge in Bahamian rum, a must-see is the John Watling’s Distillery, housed in the Buena Vista Estate, which was built in 1789. Inside, guests can take a free tour of the home and learn about the story of the pirate the distillery is named for. It opened in 2013 and now produces three different rums (Amber, Buena Vista and Pale) that can only be purchased in Nassau. During the tour, poke your nose into a barrel for a sniff of caramel sweet rum.
Finally, the Straw Market in downtown Nassau is a covered market filled with winding storefronts for visitors to purchase wood carved goods, homewares, clothing, accessories and souvenirs.
Whether visiting the capital city of Nassau by plane, cruise, or boat, the island of New Providence is steeped in history, filled with both celebrations and woe. Look past the rising tourist traps, and see beyond into the many sites that pay homage to Bahamian culture. And most of all, feel the freedom the Bahamian people are so proud of.
If You Go:
Getting there: Southwest Airlines now offers daily, direct flights out of Fort Lauderdale, and JetBlue has flights multiple times a day, also out of Fort Lauderdale, into Lynden Pindling International Airport. The flight is less than one hour; you’ll forget you’re even on an international flight! A number of cruise ships and boat services also connect Port Everglades with Nassau and other locations in the Bahamas. If piloting a boat directly to Nassau, the trip takes about 10 hours. The most direct route passes along the Great Bahama Bank and the Pocket, an area of deep water just off the Bank that’s known for big-game fishing.
Getting around: The heart of Nassau is walkable, but if you’re looking to explore other parts of the island, there are taxis or car companies you can hire for the day. This is especially helpful to learn more about the history of Nassau and get recommendations for where locals hang out.
Accommodations: Paradise Island features high-end resorts such as the renowned Atlantis and Paradise Island Beach Club. For hotels in downtown and in walking distance of many restaurants, beaches and museums, try the historic British Colonial Hilton Nassau or Courtyard Nassau Downtown/Junkanoo Beach.