by Lee Foster
As a nearby, dependable, and affordable tropical island paradise, the Bahamas offers a cluster of rewarding experiences to offer the North American traveler. This 700-island archipelago off the east coast of Florida gets more annual visitors (about 4.5 million) than any of the Caribbean areas to the south.
Dependable sun to thaw out the wind-chilled winter traveler is the Bahamas’ initial appeal. The beauty of the clear turquoise-colored water, the satin-smooth sand beaches, the friendliness of the English-speaking Bahamians, and the relative good value for price offered in the Bahamas are factors that make the destination attractive.
Most visitors enter the Bahamas at the capital, Nassau. Some arrive at the second major city, Freeport. A satisfying travel experience in the Bahamas often combines a visit to Nassau with a look at one of the outlying major islands, such as Abaco, or even a journey to a very small island, such Elbow Cay and its quaint town of Hope Town, near Abaco. Another attractive outlying island cluster to consider would be the Exumas. Such a pattern is typical for a traveler to the Bahamas, starting with the capital and then venturing to remote islands.
Nassau is the metropolis of the region, where 249,000 of the nation’s 330,000 people live. Altogether, people live on 22 of the 700 Bahamian islands.
Nassau hosts the mega-resorts, such as Paradise Island and Crystal Palace. Both resorts boast large casinos for the interested gambler.
In Nassau a visitor experiences the history of the country. You can tour the major British forts, Fincastle, Charlotte, and Montagu, substantial structures built to withstand pirate and foreign threats. The cannons at Fort Charlotte, for example, could hurl a 32-pound ball over 1.25 miles out to sea to intercept an incoming ship. The Bahamas was populated first by religious pilgrims in the 1600s and then by loyalists who preferred to move from the U.S. at the time of the U.S. Revolution in the late 18th century. Britain assumed control, but in 1973 the Bahamas became a member of the British Commonwealth. Throughout its history, the region has prospered at times when contraband needed to be smuggled to the American mainland, including the Civil War and the Prohibition eras.
Today a visitor can walk down the Queen’s Staircase or walk up the Watertower steps to get a perspective on this history. The pink-stucco government buildings of Rawson Square, in the center of town, amount to a classic colonial architecture, with statues to Queen Elizabeth as well as Christopher Columbus. In Nassau there are vestigial effects of the British discipline in government, right down to the straight-backed, white-gloved policemen with crisp British accents, who shepherd traffic through the downtown streets.
Nassau is the main selling point for the country’s straw craft industry, displayed in a famous Straw Market at the center of town. Straw is woven into hats, mats, dolls, and all manner of artifacts for this elaborate market.
Nassau provides to visitors an introduction to the natural history of the country at two of its main attractions, Coral Island and Ardastra Gardens. Coral Island shows the sea life of the region and includes a snorkeling trail to observe ocean life. You can see several interesting aquatic displays, such as a large roundabout tank with representative fish from the region. There is also a submersed area where a visitor walks below sea level. Anyone curious about the nearby oceans will want to see the shark tanks, the flamingos, the bat ray pool, and several aquaria of exotic tropical fish, some placed adjacent to luminescent coral. Ardastra, a noted zoo and botanical center, is famous for its marching flamingos, the national bird of the Bahamas. In addition, at Ardastra, you can get a sense of the bush countryside, populated by parrots and iguanas, before going out to see it.
When dining in Nassau or anywhere in the Bahamas, know that the choice menu items consist of local seafood. Conch, a large shellfish with a meaty body, is universally popular, whether raw with lime, breaded and deep fried as conch fritters, or served in a conch chowder. Beyond conch, the seafood specialty is breaded and fried fresh grouper, a large bass-family fish plentiful in Bahamian waters. The crayfish-size Bahamian lobster is an expensive delicacy well worth trying. The trio–conch, grouper, and lobster–can be prepared with skill almost everywhere in the islands, especially if the ingredients are totally fresh. This abundance of the sea can be enjoyed in the humblest restaurant.
The drink of choice in the Bahamas is the local beer, Kalik. Another favorite drink is rum, combined with various tropical fruit juices.
Visit Nassau for a look at the capital of the country, always instructive if one wishes to comprehend the character of a people. Then proceed to an outer island, where the pace is slower and the expansive island beauty of the region becomes apparent.
Many visitors get their first glimpse of the Bahamas from a cruise ship docking in Nassau harbor, which can handle many ships at one time. Outlying islands also sometimes provide an offshore location from which passengers can be tendered in.
After exploring Nassau, you may want to proceed to one of the inhabited islands in this island nation scattered over 100,000 square miles of open sea. A good choice would be Abaco, the second largest island, and its Marsh Harbor. One dependable lodging is the Great Abaco Beach Hotel, which offers all services and boasts an engaging restaurant and bar, complete with steel band music in the evening.
A satisfying outing from Abaco would be a boat trip to a small island called Elbow Cay. Elbow Cay has an attractive candy-striped lighthouse and a remarkable group of people, such as the Malones, descendants from a Loyalist family. The Malones will guide you around the island so you can meet a wooden-boat builder, see the lovely Abaco beaches, visit the museum, and note the daily life in the small primary-color cottages. The Malones know that the family has all descended from one patriarch who had come here in 1783. A large fig tree on the island is called The Family tree and includes a fisherman’s buoy marker hanging from the limbs for each branch of the family, with the name of the family on the buoy.
The continuity of life and heritage for the well-educated Malones is striking and unusual. Where else are there families that can trace their immediate roots back to the Revolution? The island isolation helped to achieve a completeness of this special sense of place.
On Abaco, as elsewhere in the Bahamas, a visitor delights in the soft tropical air, the endless year-around warmth, the bright colors of hibiscus flowers and bougainvillea, the sand beaches inviting one to go barefoot, the abundant luxury of the tepid sea, and an endless supply of conch, grouper, and lobster.
All these islands are of coral rather than volcanic origin, meaning that they are basically calcium carbonate, difficult to grow crops in, except where the bush vegetation has laid down a sufficient layer of humus. The islands were once covered with tall forests of mangrove and lignum vitae, but most of that was burned off or logged off to create agricultural land. Today’s vegetation is a dense bush of varied plants, which has given rise to a substantial medical subculture, called bush medicine, with steeped potions offered for everything that ails humans. In the bush one of the lovely plants is the national flower, the yellow elder.
The residents of Hope Town, under the watchful lighthouse, have historically derived part of their livelihood from an unusual occupation–wrecking. Wrecking amounts to recovering the remains of various shipwrecks in the region. In earlier days, when piracy and more primitive navigation led to many ships sinking, wrecking was a major undertaking.
The isolation of Hope Town is not for everyone, of course. Even the residents get a little island fever once in a while. As one resident expressed it, “You have to escape every once in a while to Florida to catch a movie, shop the mall, and eat a hamburger.”
Satellite dishes inserted amidst the modest wooden houses and cell phones links to the outside world have altered life at Hope Town and on all the Bahamian islands. The penetration of media, such as CNN, to the far reaches of the islands, changes markedly the former sense of isolation.
Life is not easy on these idyllic islands, despite the rich harvest of shellfish and fish from the sea. All goods brought in, such as food or building materials, have substantial freight costs. Gas, for example, is over a dollar per gallon above the mainland U.S. price. There is, however, a sense of well-being in the country, partly because a national health-care system insures that everyone gets medical attention. The solutions to a livelihood are subsistence farming, small-scale fishing, or taking in tourists.
Other small islands can also be enjoyed from Marsh Harbor, Abaco. For example, Guana Cay, which boasts a hotel, has one of the loveliest beaches in the Bahamas. Man-o-War Cay has the distinguished boat and sail-making tradition of the Albury family. Today the Alburys devote some of their attention mainly to making sailcloth products, such as tote bags.
The more a visitor explores the Bahamas, the greater a sense one feels of the dangerous relationship with nature. Hurricanes are the major worry. There is bound to be a killer hurricane every few years.
“Hurricane Betsy blew for three days straight in 1965,” recalled one of the elder Malones. “The winds reached 150 miles per hour. I realized then the wisdom of holding together our houses with wooden pegs. The pegs got wet, swelled up, and held the houses firmly together.”
If you desire a more remote setting than Abaco, try the Green Turtle Club and Marina at outlying Green Turtle Cay. Fine dining and a relaxed island setting are the specialties. You can rent a small boat to explore the islands on your own, do snorkel or scuba with a dive boat, and rig yourself up for some fishing, even landing a feisty barracuda or two.
When flying out to the Exumas, a chain of islands east from Nassau, the rationale is apparent for Columbus’s choice of the words baja mar or shallow sea as the name for the region.
Right off the dock at the main island, Exuma, a few steps from the main small hotel, you can snorkel in the water. The abundant fish and starfish life gives visitors a sense of the sea as the origin of all life forms. The small hotel also enjoys an endearing name, Peace and Plenty, and who could ask for more?
A visitor gradually becomes immersed in the musical lilt of the English language, as spoken here, and the hypnotic pull of Bahamian music. The Peace and Plenty annual Halloween Party is a choice opportunity to witness locals celebrating. The music is a blend of English folk, Caribbean calypso, and African rhythms. Many black Bahamians were never deprived of their goatskin drums, as were slaves brought to the U.S. Some Bahamian blacks never were slaves. They were put ashore in the Bahamas by British ships intercepting slave-trade ships.
The busiest time in the Exumas each year is the Family Islands Regatta, which is held in April, when local Bahamian wooden boats race. The regatta has helped preserve the traditional craft of wood-boat construction and canvas-sail rigging in the age of fiberglass and high-tech synthetics.
One of the unusual aspects of the Exumas is the surnames of the people. About sixty percent of all the people have the surname Rolle. My guide on the island was an affable Rolle, who lives in Rolle Town, which is different from Rolle Ville, but which is populated with brother and sister and cousin Rolles. This situation originated because slaves assumed the surname of their masters. When slavery was abolished by Britain in 1834, the slaves continued to carry the master’s surname. Absentee landlord Denys Rolle sent his slaves and cotton-farming enterprise there from Florida in 1783. They were transported on his boat Peace and Plenty, now the name of the mentioned island hotel.
Allow two days of touring to see Exuma from a hotel location in the main city, George Town. Get a car and driver unless adept at driving on the left side of narrow, twisting, and potholed island roads, where the horn is a valuable tool to alert oncoming drivers to a vehicle’s presence. A hired driver can also help make introductions to the local people.
A day trip north takes in the agricultural packing sheds, where visitors may meet a noted local farmer, a Rolle, who may be expert at growing onions. Stop for refreshments in Rolleville at a local tavern. Rolleville is home of some noted gospel singers, also Rolles. Along the way, the road passes beautiful stretches of beach, such as Three Sisters Beach, a good place for a swim and lunch.
A day trip south from George Town takes one across a bridge linking the larger and smaller islands, Great and Little Exuma. At the bridge, The Blue Hole Restaurant and Bar is a good place for a Kalik beer and some conch ceviche under the bright sun.
Further south, the road passes Williams Town, where Bahamians scratch out a living in the thin soil, growing onions, pigeon peas, tomatoes, cabbages, and bananas. Most of the work is done by hand because a farmer doesn’t want to blade up the calcium soil over the thin layer of humus. The plots of arable land are also small, nestled in depressions between the rocky, coral outcroppings.
“When your family has been here 200 years, it gets in your blood,” said one young resident. “We had to go to Nassau for a generation to survive, but we’re coming back now.”
The Exumians are a friendly people, easy to meet, and easy-going about life.
“Their approach to life is, ‘Never do today what you can put off to tomorrow,'” said one observer. “They go through life lying under a coconut tree, not worried about clouds on the horizon. They handle their problems when they appear, but they don’t go looking for problems. Even their churches are happy places, full of song and dance, and a good place for the boys and girls to meet each other.”
Tourism is the financial salvation for all these islands, but careful management of all the natural resources, protecting flora and fauna, is critical. The Bahamas National Trust plays a role for ecological advocacy when the inevitable development vs. conservation decisions need to be made. Fortunately, for the Bahamas, the productive wetlands around the islands are immense.
After a congenial visit to Nassau and a couple of outlying islands, it is easy to comprehend why George Washington, one of the first visitors, is reported to have called the Bahamas “the isles of perpetual June.”
The Bahamas: If You Go
The country’s official tourism website is www.bahamas.com.