Nassau

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Home to over half of the Bahamian population, Nassau brings to mind many things to many people. To some, it is the fine sand that ribbons the coast -- so pure that it makes some think of baby powder, how smooth and white it is. To others, gambling comes to the fore, as the Bahamas are known for their world-class casinos. Others dream of their retirement in a colonial island paradise whose government increasingly recognizes that its inherent beauty is its economic strength. Yet for others, thoughts turn back to the 1980s, the days of the illegal substance cowboys exemplified by Don Johnson, Phillip Michael Thomas and the TV show "Miami Vice." The modern-day smugglers in high-speed chases from the American mainland to The Bahamas. Romance on the high seas. All this makes for a plethora of water sports and activities, superb shopping, excellent historic sites and a hopping nighttime scene.

But of course, the island of Nassau is so much more - it is an antidote for people needing relief from the day-to-day hassles and stress of life in "the real world," where the concern is not which reef to visit but which bill to pay. So the question is ' where do you go to best enjoy all these things?

Downtown

Downtown is the hub of activity in Nassau. Thousands of people visit daily, to shop, dine, sightsee and enjoy the bustling atmosphere of this port city. While the busiest part of Downtown is the Bay Street thoroughfare and the Woodes-Rodgers Walk, located across the street from the port and parallel to Bay, the area actually extends for several blocks in each direction. It starts at West Bay, around the Junkanoo Beach area. A few hotels and restaurants are located on West Bay, most notably Compass Point, Holiday Inn and Chez Willie. The next landmark is the British Colonial Hotel, which marks the beginning of Bay Street proper. Pirates of Nassau museum is just across from the British Colonial Hilton. Just across the street from Pirates lies duty free shopper's heaven. The next few blocks of Bay Street are wall-to-wall boutiques, with a few restaurants and clubs interspersed throughout the retailers. Famous historical landmarks are all around, including Vendue House and the Christ Church Cathedral. Although the tourist part of Downtown peters out after about seven blocks, smaller, more local stores are found all the way down Bay Street, to the foot of the Paradise Island Bridge. At this point, Bay Street becomes East Bay. There used to be nothing here, but recently an enclave of decent restaurants has sprung up, among them the Pink Pearl and Outback Steakhouse. The Red Carpet Inn, one of Nassau's best budget hotels, is located on East Bay.

The pace in this district is busy ' frantic at times. Without a doubt, it gets ' inch for inch ' the most foot traffic on the entire island. This place is perfect for recreational shoppers, sightseers and first-time visitors.

Cable Beach

If Downtown Bay Street is known for its shopping, Cable Beach is the recognized hotel district. Five enormous hotels ' two of them all-inclusive ' are located on this strip. The area is also known for its dining options, the magnificent Crystal Palace Casino, and of course the golden sands of Cable Beach itself. Most of the area's restaurants are located either in the hotels or across the street. BBQ Beach, Androsia and Capriccio are three of the best dining options on Cable Beach, offering unique d├ęcor, a serene atmosphere, and distinctive cuisine. There is little to no nightlife. People frequent this place during the daytime hours, relaxing at hotel pools or on the beach. There is a bit of shopping; most of it located in the Marriott Crystal Palace. Two small arcades are in this hotel. One is above ground and one is in the walkway between the Marriott and the Radisson.

This is a quieter, calmer place then Downtown. It's harder to walk from one place to another, and no one really wants to bother. It's much nicer to relax at a pool bar or splash in the waves. If things get boring, it's easy to catch a cab or a Number 10 bus and go to Bay Street.

Paradise Island

Nothing can prepare one for the sight of the Atlantis, an enormous hotel/resort/aquarium/ water park modeled after the legendary sunken city. The rest of Paradise Island isn't at all shabby either. In fact, it is a veritable man-made oasis, built over what used to be a lackluster patch of ground known as Hog Island. The first resort to draw people to the island was the venerable Club Landor. While this tiny club is very much in the shadow of the Atlantis, it still has many loyal fans. Golfers should check out the Clarion South Ocean Resort and Golf Club, while wealthy travelers desiring quiet will appreciate the Sheraton. Shopping on Paradise Island is either very expensive or not very interesting. The Crystal Court in the Atlantis features a dozen of the world's best ' and most expensive ' designer boutiques. On the other end of the spectrum, Paradise Plaza and Hurricane Hole have a number of shops that sell inexpensive beach gear and souvenirs. Fine dining is everywhere, most notably at the Blue Lagoon and at Fathoms. For a family dinner, Anthony's is a good choice. Choosing a daytime activity is easy: the beach is everywhere, and it's gorgeous. Many aquatic excursions depart from the Paradise Island Port instead of (or in addition to) Nassau Harbor.

Paradise Island is stunning in some parts, lovely in others, and in some, well, it's not finished yet. There is constant construction and even more constant renovation as hotels strive to match up to the world-famous Atlantis. This is easily the most expensive and tourist-oriented place in all of the Bahamas, but no one would deny that it's a lot of fun. There's no bus over the Bridge. Drive, or take a cab or bus to the foot and walk.

There are other parts of Nassau ' many of them. However, they are strictly for locals; there's nothing in the way of attractions, and very little interesting shopping. Anyone looking for a stereo, a pair of jeans or some inexpensive groceries can hop on a number 18 bus from the transit center and head to the Marathon Mall.

However, for sheer energy, activity and entertainment, a visitor could remain in the main three districts of Nassau for an entire vacation without ever getting bored.

History of Nassau

The Nassau/Paradise Island of today'steel-drum music, take-it-easy attitude, to-die-for conch dishes cooked by both world-class chefs and the working folks the travellers never see is a far cry from the Nassau that preceded it.

Like other areas of the Caribbean, it has a romantic history - both centuries-old and decades-old of foreign intervention, foreign occupation, piracy, slavery and smuggling. But Nassau's rich history is really the history of the Bahamas as a whole one of resilience, one of pride. It all culminated in 1973, when the islands gained their independence from England, although they remain a part of the British Commonwealth, not unlike Puerto Rico, remaining a part of the United States, but with autonomy.

Until 1492, yes, that 1492, when Columbus "discovered" America, Bahamians lived a life so uncomplicated and straightforward, relying for sustenance on the bountiful fish the sea virtually washed to their shores. Mix that with a healthy diet of fruits and berries, and you had an organic diet that some would consider oh-so-trendy in this, the third millennium. Theirs was a life, quite simply, that was quite simple.

But not all was idyllic for this island paradise.

Go back to 300 or 400 AD, which drawings and other artifacts indicate the Bahamians date back to. It was a life of living off the island land, and not much else. And it was a life destroyed when the Spanish decided they had found a slave-labor force easily put to work. This led to the near-depopulation of the islands, in the mid 1500s.

Now fast-forward to the early and mid 1600s, long after Columbus discovered the sun-drenched cays. English settlers in other Caribbean Islands realized that Nassau's proximity to the recently settled New World provided opportunities never before seen in terms of shipping and trade, as well as an escape from England's religious persecution.

However, the unfortunate time of piracy reared its ugly head around the same time, and lasted for more than a century. With numerous hiding places in the remote and densely vegetated islands, the buccaneers had found a crime-friendly place few of them could have dreamed. The proximity to mainland North America was the primary reason.

In 1756, the Seven Years War broke out and trade - not only illegal but legal, as well positively flourished. The war pitted France, Austria, Russia and Sweden against Great Britain, Prussia and Hanover. Issues were colonists from North America and India. The fighting led to prosperity in trading on Nassau. But peace, as it often does today, flattened the economy, black-market and otherwise - when it was achieved in 1763. Piracy again became the primary economic market for those who were successful at it, Blackbeard perhaps the most famous. For those who weren't, it was a life so tough and difficult.

Then the slave trade was discovered, in the 1800s, and Nassau/Paradise Island and other islands were used as weigh stations for ships transporting slaves to North America. The large ships not only for slaves but cargo, as well -- could steam or sail only for only a few days at a time. This made Nassau a perfect stopover to the United States. That meant Nassau's maritime workers flourished. But the end of the Civil War in the United States came, and with it the end, again, of prosperity for Nassau. Residents turned to working the wrecks from the fleets that sank decades and centuries earlier.

Nassau's economy was unwittingly revived due to the US Congress, which enacted Prohibition in 1919. Born was a lively and profitable liquor bootlegging industry. But Prohibition was deemed a failure largely due to the bootlegging and Nassau's prosperity came to an end with the end of the liquor ban in the US At the time, bootlegging was a major industry in Nassau, and island residents were left somewhat impoverished when Prohibition came to an end in 1933.

But Nassau, always able to rebound from adversity, did so again. And like its pirate, slave-trading, bootlegging past, it did so through illicit means as a stop-off point for drug runners and for setting up offshore corporations so illegally gotten gains could be hidden.

But that is only part of the story. Following independence in 1973, Bahamians in general and in Nassau especially - Nassau holds the majority of the nation's residents'realized the jewel they live on, and exploited it. No longer would the islands rely on shipping - legal and otherwise alone. They could rely, they reasoned collectively, on the millions of people curious about this most beautiful collection of Caribbean Islands.

They would accept and cater to, in large part - the tourists.

Yes, the Bahamas are still an attraction to the smuggler. Downed DC-3s litter the waters surrounding the islands, remnants of cocaine shipments gone bad in the 1970s and 1980s. But now they are attractions, wrecks to explore for the scuba divers who want to get up close and personal with the tropical fish, the coral.

But that's not all. The United States, Monaco and other nations may have their gambling palaces, but there are few places where those willing to wager cash on the turn of a card, the roll of a ball, the fall of the dice can do so where they can bask in the sun of the tropics by day while fulfilling their passions for betting at night. That, they can do in Nassau. Of course, shopping, a fun nightlife and the rest of the trappings of an island paradise await, as well.

With a thriving tourism economy - and a government that recognizes that environmental protection is crucial to that economy - the Bahamians generally and Nassau residents specifically - may have finally discovered that their islands' natural beauty is attraction enough.

 

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