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Nassau, with its blend of influences from West Africa to England and from Haiti to the United States, is one of the most popular (and often congested) cruise ports in the Caribbean and Bahamas.
The yellow and blue stripes on the Bahamian flag represent the nation's sandy beaches and surrounding ocean, while the black triangle stands for unity and the people's determination to develop the land and the sea. With endlessly developing hotels, resorts and shopping areas, it isn't hard to make this connection in Nassau, the capital of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas.
Nassau is located on the 21-mile-long-island of New Providence and is connected, via bridge, to Paradise Island, another popular Bahamian destination.
The city of Nassau features tropical, tree-lined streets, filled with horse-drawn surreys, ruled by policemen in white starched jackets and colorful pith helmets; soft-sanded beaches for kicking back and catching ocean breezes; lavish, Vegas-type casinos; and a decent range of duty-free shopping stops. But, as much as this vibrant town center is a cruise visitor's first impression, most head out on beach adventures at massive hotel and resort complexes like Atlantis or on boating adventures that range from dolphin encounters to booze cruises.
Nassau's central location, just off the coast of Southern Florida, is one of its chief pluses, making it an easy mini-cruise port of call for ships passing through on the way to the Caribbean islands.
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Other Bahamas Cruise Ports:
Castaway Cay • Charleston • CocoCay • Freeport • Great Stirrup Cay • Half Moon Cay • Jacksonville • Nassau • Norfolk • Princess Cays
You can find Oswald Greenslade, once Bacardi Bartender of the Year, at the Poop Deck in SandyPort (near Cable Beach). Author of the book One More Cocktail (available for purchase at the Poop Deck), Greenslade is also the mixologist behind our favorite Bahamian concoctions. Splish Splash is a heavenly drink made from Bacardi Select, Nassau Royal Liqueur, pineapple juice, bananas, cream and sugarcane syrup, but his colleagues insist he is best known for his Bahama Mama. If your ship offers an evening call, try happy hour from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. (closed Mondays) -- complete with complimentary treats. Your best chance of catching Greenslade (and maybe even an autographed copy of his book) is on Friday nights.
Junkanoo handicrafts are always a sure bet and can be found throughout the island.
English is spoken in the Bahamas.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Legal tender is the Bahamian dollar, which is equivalent in value to the U.S. dollar. Both U.S. and Bahamian dollars are accepted interchangeably throughout the island. European currency is not, so exchange it as necessary at a bank or ATM. (You'll find them at Rawson Square, Bay Street and at the casinos.) All banks and their branches are generally open 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 5 p.m. on Friday. For more currency exchange information, visit www.xe.com or www.oanda.com.
Editor's note: Some hotels and restaurants add a fee for cashing traveler's checks.
Where You're Docked
You'll dock at Prince George Wharf, near Rawson Square and the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism -- great for picking up maps, brochures, etc. -- in the heart of Nassau.
Passengers must pass through Festival Place to exit the port facility, and it's one of the more impressive we've seen in any port of call. Counters are staffed by tourism folks, who will provide maps and answer questions, as well as by companies that offer boat trips, over-land tours and taxi services. There's also a small Internet cafe. Beyond that is a small, but colorful, shopping mall that specializes in artisan boutiques. A steel-pan band offers a musical welcome, and a food court features stalls that sell local conch.
Renting a Car: There are a handful of car-rental companies, such as Dollar, Avis, Thrifty and Budget at Prince George Wharf, as well as on Paradise Island and at the airport. But, they're pretty expensive, ranging in price from $55 to $110 for the day. There's also that pesky left-side-of-the-road driving to deal with.
Taxis are plentiful and can be hailed everywhere, be it right by your ship or at all the hotels and restaurants. Count on sharing the taxi with other tourists and locals. Fares should be established before getting in a taxi, as meters aren't run. Check in advance for the estimated price for where you want to go. Typical fares to Paradise Island are $4 per person, plus a 15 percent gratuity. Expect about a $15 fare to Cable Beach. A taxi tour is a great way to familiarize yourself with the island -- with your driver serving as something of a local guide -- but expect to pay more. These types of fares are negotiable.
By Bus: The jitney buses run every few minutes between the downtown area to Cable Beach from about 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Fares vary (though they're generally about $1.25 per person, each way, $1 for small children), depending on the route. Exact change is required. Jitneys do not go over the Paradise Island bridge.
By Water Taxi: The Nassau Water Taxi departs every 30 minutes from behind the Festival Market to Paradise Island, operating daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The roundtrip cost is $8, or $4 each way. Notes: Though the trip takes just 10 minutes, the water taxi may not depart on time. Because the operators tend to give you a bit of a "tour" along the way, expect to be approached for a gratuity.
By Horse-Drawn Surrey: These can be found around Rawson Square and sometimes along Bay Street. They run about $15 per person for 25 minutes, but the price is usually negotiable. Note: From May to October, the horses rest from the sun from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Watch Out For
While there's no need to be especially alert, it does pay to leave valuables and excess cash in your stateroom safe and keep an eye on your surroundings.
Though not quite as varied or option-plentiful as major duty-free destinations like St. Thomas and St. Maarten, shopping is a mainstay on Nassau. The Straw Market is a Nassau tradition, and you'll find all sorts of souvenirs on sale, from thatched purses to hair-braiding. The market officially reopened in its original location in December 2011. (It was destroyed by a fire in 2001 and relocated until a new $12 million facility could be built.) You'll find the rebuilt market, which houses more than 450 vendors, on Bay Street.
Duty-free shopping, centered on Bay Street, features the usual suspects, such as Diamonds International, Colombian Emeralds and Bacardi. Other retailers familiar to cruise travelers include Del Sol (for merchandise that changes color in the sun), Gucci, Harley Davidson and Tortuga.
Head over to the man-made island of Arawak Cay, a beach dusted with pastel-colored shacks, incredibly fresh conch from vendors cracking the mollusks right before your eyes, fried fish and grits, lime-marinated conch and plenty of coconut milk laced with gin. The strip known as Fish Fry is popular, especially with the locals, and it gets very crowded, especially on weekend evenings from 5 p.m. until midnight. It's located on the harbor, across from Fort Charlotte.
Pink flamingos, honey bears and peacocks, oh my! You'll find all this and more at Ardastra Gardens, Zoo and Conservation Centre. Wait until you see the flamingos parade in drill formation (10:30 a.m., 2:15 p.m. and 4 p.m.). It's open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (last entrance at 4:10 p.m.) and is located on Chippingham Road.
If you'd rather just spend the day as a guest at the showy, 34-acre Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, consider purchasing a hard-to-come-by day pass, which gets you access to most of the must-see sights at the resort, such as the Dig, the marine habitats and their beach. What you won't get is the fun stuff around the pools and waterslides. You'll see a kiosk selling the passes by the cruise terminal -- or you can try to purchase one at the resort.
One of many scenic spots with a history on the island is the balcony of 18th century Balcony House, which also happens to be Nassau's oldest wooden structure. Step inside this island landmark to see the mahogany staircase, said to have been salvaged from a shipwreck in the mid-1800s. (Trinity Place at Market Street; open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursdays)
For dolphin encounters of the bottlenose kind and seven stunning beaches, head for Blue Lagoon Island (aka Salt Cay). If it looks a bit familiar, you saw it in the film Splash. (The beach scenes were filmed there.) There are plenty of water sports to try and hammocks in which to idle, but for all things dolphin, make sure you plan ahead. You'll find plenty of amenities, such as showers and changing rooms, too. Catch the ferry from the cruise terminal.
One of the most popular cultural stops on the island is the 18th-century Fort Charlotte. It's fun to roam the dungeons and underground passageways and see the waterless moat -- but some say the amazing views of the harbor from the ramparts is the real attraction. Two other forts worth checking out are Fort Fincastle (overlooking the town from Bennet's Hill) and Fort Montagu (E. Bay Street), but Fort Charlotte is the largest. (Chippingham Road; open Monday through Saturday, with tours available from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; admission is free)
If you're in port on a Saturday, you might get to see the changing of the guard at the Government House (every other week) from 10 a.m. to noon on Duke Street, accompanied by the music of the Royal Bahamas Police Force Band. The official residence of the governor-general of the Bahamas since 1801, this bubblegum-pink mansion is an excellent example of Bahamian-British and American Colonial architecture.
Kids love the Pirates of Nassau, an interactive museum filled with pirate stuff. They can walk through a 75-foot, three-masted pirate ship, too. (Marlborough Street; open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 9 a.m. to noon Sunday; tours are scheduled every half-hour)
We dare you to take a royal climb up the 66 steps of the Queen's Staircase, which was carved out of calcareous -- a coral-based sandstone -- at the end of the 18th century. The stupendous view is the prize for such athleticism. (Elizabeth Avenue)
Hop aboard the Seaworld Explorer for a 90-minute submarine tour. Think underwater observatory as you descend five feet below the water to observe the "sea gardens" through large glass windows. It's open daily and offers a tour at 11:30 a.m.; they add an additional tour at 1:30 p.m. from December through June. You must make reservations. (Bay and Elizabeth streets)
Been There, Done That
For an easygoing pool/beach day, the British Colonial Hilton offers a day pass for $40 that includes beach chairs, use of nonmotorized water toys, towels and a $30 credit for food and beverages. (So you wind up paying $10 for the beach.) The hotel is an easy stroll from the ship.
The Cloisters -- right in front of the Ocean Club -- is a 14th-century structure, built in France by Augustinian monks and reassembled in Nassau, stone by stone. Huntington Hartford, the A&P grocery heir, purchased the cloisters from the estate of William Randolph Hearst in San Simeon, California. This is one of only four cloisters to have been removed from France. It's located on Paradise Island.
Under the heading of Mardi Gras fun, check out the museum dedicated to the flashy Junkanoo Festival (a middle-of-the-night event the days after Christmas and New Year's Day) at the Junkanoo Expo. It's a chance to see the humongous costumes and floats. Check them out daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Prince George Wharf.
The conch vendors are just part of the scene at Potter's Cay, a Bahamian marketplace beneath Paradise Island Bridge. There, you'll find plenty of vendors selling goods to both locals and tourists.
If you're curious about Bahamian food, culture and history, check out Tru Bahamian Food Tours. The company offers a three-hour walking tour around the main streets of Nassau and includes seven tasting stops, along with informative talks on local culture, history, architecture and more. Even if you're not all that into the learning part of the tour, the yummy conch fritters, jerk chicken, salted caramel dark chocolates and rum cake make it worthwhile.
With 52 free and natural beaches around Nassau, you don't have to pay to sunbathe in Atlantis. Junkanoo Beach is the closest to the cruise terminal.
Best for Active Types: Visit Paradise Island, where you can find all manner of water-sports rentals and eateries. Some say the most beautiful spot there is Cabbage Beach, on the north shore. Another good choice, closer to downtown, is Cable Beach, with all the usual beach amenities and dazzling resorts along baby-powder-soft sand. For great snorkeling, try Love Beach near Gambier Village, about 12 miles west of downtown Nassau, but be advised: Love Beach is the only officially designated nude beach on the island.
Best for Peace and Quiet: South Ocean Beach, close to Adelaide Village, is where it's at if you want an option that's a bit less-visited. Caves Beach in Rock Point (close to the airport turnoff on Blake Road) is another good out-of-the-way choice. The name is derived from the bat caves located directly across the street.
Conch Fritters Bar and Grill, located across from the British Colonial Hilton, offers a TGIF-style dining experience at very reasonable prices. (Local island fare, from conch to lamb, is priced around $10 for a full meal.) There's also a full bar. (Marlborough Street; open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily)
On Paradise Island, Anthony's Caribbean Grill is casual-chic and offers gourmet-type pizzas, topped with jerk chicken; excellent ribs, doused in an awesome barbecue sauce; and giant warm-weather cocktails. The per-person cost for three courses, including wine, will run about $20. (Casino Drive on Paradise Island; open 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily)
Crocodile's Waterfront Bar & Grill offers waterside dining under thatched tiki huts and island drinks galore. Consider this place if you're looking for funky-casual. The Bahamian-style fried chicken is excellent. The per-person cost for three courses, including wine, will run about $20. (E. Bay Street; open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily)
Cafe Matisse is our favorite spot on the island for a relaxing, languid lunch. Despite being named for a French artist, the food is Italian, and it's fresh and beautifully prepared. If it's a nice day, ask to sit out back in the serene courtyard. It's a five-minute walk from the cruise terminal. (Just ask for the police station; it's right next door.) The per-person cost for three courses, including wine, will run about $32. Reservations are recommended, but walk-ins are welcome. This is perhaps the island's most popular restaurant for locals, so it gets busy. (Bank Lane; open noon to 11 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday)
Graycliff is an eccentric, glorious, 20-room hotel with a gourmet restaurant that claims a 250,000-bottle wine cellar, a humidor and an onsite cigar-rolling facility. (Don't miss it -- it's fascinating, and you can buy the stogies at the onsite boutique.) It offers a wine luncheon, featuring continental cuisine with Bahamian influences, Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday lunch is for hotel guests only. Reservations are a must. (Call 1-800-476-0446 in the U.S./Canada or 1-242-302-9150 from other places.) The per-person cost for three courses, including wine, will run about $75. Graycliff is located across from Government House on W. Hill Street; it's within walking distance from the port.
Staying in Touch
There is a small Internet cafe in Festival Hall. The cost is about $5 per half-hour. For travelers who want to use their own Wi-Fi-equipped laptops, the cost is about $5 per day. There are also scattered cybercafes throughout downtown Nassau.
Best for First-Timers: See the city's highlights and explore gardens, a zoo and conservation center (featuring the famous marching flamingos) with the Ardastra Gardens, Zoo and City Tour. During about three hours, see Nassau's historic sites including the parliament building, Fort Charlotte, National Art Gallery and more, along with a view of its lush wildlife. It's a great walking tour for families.
Best for Aspiring Mermaids: Combining the chance to interact with dolphins with access to the exclusive water park in Atlantis resort, the Atlantis Aquaventure and dolphin swim should bring out the kid in anyone. Spend about 30 minutes in the water meeting Nassau's aquatic residents in Dolphin Cay, then spend the rest of your day on Paradise Island at Aquaventure, a spectacular 141-acre water park. Atlantis is home to the largest open-air marine habitat, with more than 50,000 sea creatures. The excursion lasts from four to 10 hours.
Best for Beach Bums: So much to see and do, but sometimes you just need to do nothing near the sea. Accessible by a 40-minute ferry ride from Nassau Harbor, spend the afternoon on Blue Lagoon Island with a lazy day of leisure. Hammocks, tropical drinks and a picnic lunch are the only things on your agenda. Water sports are available.
For More Information
On the Web: The Islands of the Bahamas
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Bahamas
IndependentTraveler.com: Caribbean Travel Guide
--Updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief, and Brittany Chrusciel, Editorial Assistant