If you've got money to burn and energy galore, Nassau is the place to be. Hotels on the island are large, busy, opulent and expensive. The majority of them are just steps away from the beach, shopping and dining. The island is small, and the tourist districts—of which there are just a few—offer a bit of everything. Most of the major hotels offer a number of on-site dining and shopping options, just in case visitors are too lazy to even venture outside.
While it's possible to find mid-range accommodations on the island, budget lodgings are hard to locate. Budget hotels tend to be shabby or in a seedy location. In order to get good prices, the best idea is to book well ahead of time, and to take advantage of special deals or packages. By doing this, you can shave up to 50 percent off the rack rate of even the finest hotels. That will leave you with more money in your pocket to spend at the shops or the bars.
This strip of beach is Nassau's most famous hotel district. While only about five hotels are located on Cable Beach, all of them are large and luxurious. Each one has a distinct personality, so if you don't like the atmosphere of one, you'll probably like another. Sandals, the Bahamas' most famous all-inclusive resort, is the first hotel you'll see when coming from the airport. While it's unassuming from the outside, once you get inside it is a veritable fantasy palace. With colonnaded aquamarine pools, white marble spas and opulent restaurants, this is a honeymooner's paradise. Further down are the three major business-or-pleasure hotels: the Radisson Cable Beach Resort, the Marriott Crystal Palace and the Nassau Beach Hotel. These three are linked together; guests of one can easily enjoy the facilities of another. The Marriott is the most expensive of the three, and the most elegant. With its two shopping arcades, several restaurants and enormous casino (one of two on the island) it is almost like a small city. The Nassau Beach Hotel has a smaller, homier feeling, and is the least expensive. The Radisson lands somewhere in the middle. Cool and elegant, it is the quintessential business hotel. A bit further down is Breezes, a fun, wild, all-inclusive resort that's popular with vacationers of all ages and nationalities. All of these hotels are set on the beach, with restaurants and shops located across the wide, busy street.
Downtown Nassau and Bay Street
Hotels in this district are scattered, unlike the hotels on Cable Beach. They range in price and quality from economy to ultra-luxurious. While some of the hotels are medium-sized, none of them are overly large or busy. Three of Nassau's best boutique hotels are located in this district.
Easily the most famous hotel in downtown Nassau is the stately British Colonial Hilton. With its hundred-year history, opulent décor and serene ambience, this hotel proudly distinguishes itself from the other major hotel franchises located on the island. For business travelers who can't afford to splurge, the Holiday Inn Junkanoo Beach offers pleasant and functional accommodations about two blocks from the British Colonial. The Red Carpet Inn, located a few miles down Bay Street—past the major shopping area—is a great choice for families and budget travelers. It's quiet, clean and close to the center of the action.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are two hotels in and around Bay Street that offer the ultimate in luxury accommodation. Both of these hotels are beautiful, unique, and seemingly set apart from the hustle and bustle of Nassau. The lovely Compass Point Beach Club, which is part of the opulent Island Outpost chain, has a tastefully tropical theme, complete with wooden furniture and bright, cheerful trim. The majestic Graycliff Hotel is set in a 250-year old mansion, in the midst of a lush tropical garden. It is favored by royalty and international luminaries.
Just over the bridge is the Bahamas' little patch of Paradise. While it's certainly a sight to behold these days, just a few years ago it was largely undeveloped, and graced with the title "Hog Island." One resort in particular is responsible for the transformation of Paradise Island, and that resort is also the island's primary attraction.
The Atlantis Resort is in a class of its own in the Bahamas, and there are few places that can compare to it anywhere in the world. With several hundred rooms, seventeen restaurants, a dozen bars, an aquarium and a water park located on the property, it's enough to impress even the most seasoned travelers. On a typical day at the Atlantis, two major pop stars and the entire editorial staff of a world-famous fashion magazine were all guests of the hotel.
Several other fabulous properties are located on Paradise Island. While none of them can match up to the Atlantis in terms of sheer size and theatrics, they offer elegant accommodations and top-notch service. The Sheraton, the Clarion South Ocean Resort and tiny Club Land'Or all have a loyal following among Nassau visitors. Club Med, the original all-inclusive vacation resort, occupies a large strip of property known as Porcupine Island. If you want to take a peek at the fabled Club Med action and see if it's your cup of tea, get an evening pass, which allows you to dine, drink, and take in the entertainment. If you're looking for mid-priced lodging on Paradise Island, the closest you'll come is the Comfort Inn. The Paradise Harbour Club is also reasonable. Many of these hotels have an arrangement with the Atlantis that allows guests to have full access to the Atlantis's guest services. It's worthwhile to find a hotel that has this privilege, as the Atlantis's facilities are unparalleled.
While much Bahamian business is conducted in Nassau, it is well aware of its "tourist attraction" status in the rest of the world. Nassau hotels cater to pleasure travelers, and the results are delightful, if not always economical: while it's almost impossible to place a direct phone call from a hotel, it's always easy to find a good tropical rum concoction and a chaise lounge in the sun.
And it's possible to get a bargain, if you start looking in plenty of time. Remember to book well a month or two early, and be flexible with dates. Check the Web sites of each hotel for special deals and corporate rates—more than likely, they'll be listed. Always ask travel agents for good package deals. Don't forget the various Bahamian hotel taxes, which raise the rates a bit. When quoted a rate, ask if taxes are included—it makes a difference.
Millions of visitors come to Nassau, as part of conventions or retreats, Spring Break and wedding parties, in groups, and alone. No matter what your status or your requirements, you can be accommodated here. It's all a matter of finding the hotel that can best match your needs.
Perhaps the two words that come to mind when people consider Nassau entertainment are Paradise and Island. Developed in large part in the 1970s, it features the Atlantis Paradise Island, a resort that ranks among the largest in the world. It has 3,779 rooms, a mega-casino, golf course, tennis courts and a water-slide pool. And it's growing. If not a resort, it could be its own small city.
Start with its renowned casino—all 1,100 slot machines and more than 90 gaming tables, including roulette, poker and blackjack. But that's only the beginning, because it has what it calls the Entertainment Complex that incorporates nightclubs, restaurants, shopping. Travel agents fawn over Paradise Island, just over a bridge from Nassau proper. The toll is a dollar American.
The Atlantis showroom has the Sunsation, a stage show featuring everything you would find in a cabaret. The Nassau Beach Hotel on Nassau proper also has an exciting stage show where dancers and singers work to make your heart pump. The Palace Theatre at the Marriott does the same type of dinner-theater type thing. Don't forget the smashing casino at the Crystal Palace.
But not all entertainment in Nassau revolves around resorts. Nassau teems with all sorts of fun, from underwater adventures at the reefs to museums to mere window-shopping. It's especially popular with residents of and visitors to South Florida (USA), who have easy access via small aircraft that can be chartered, popular cruise lines, and private vessels that can make the trip in just a few hours.
Quite fun is the interactive museum Pirates of Nassau, where you can get the islands' history from Blackbeard to Anne Bonney, pirates all. Also check out the Pompey Museum, another pirate museum whose building goes back to the 1700s. Folk art and slavery—Nassau's past is intimately tied (unfortunately) to the slave trade—are featured prominently.
On Elizabeth Hill is the Queen's Staircase, so named for Queen Victoria of England. The attraction does, indeed, consist of a structure with 65 steps. There also is a straw market for all things Bahamian, although it's not nearly as substantive as the straw markets in, say, Freeport and Port Lucaya on Grand Bahama. You might want to save your straw-market spending money for the latter two if you take an island trip.
Junkanoo, a musical form unique to the Bahamas, is celebrated at the Junkanoo Expo at the Prince George Wharf, basically an homage to the annual festival marked each Christmas season, when the locals and visitors get down and do some serious partying to celebrate the islands' heritage. However, it's undergoing some renovation, so at this writing, you might find it only nearly close to reopening. Call or stop by to confirm.
When the boat or plane drops you off, what do you think? You think beaches, you think surf. You think diving, you think Jet Skis, you think fishing, you think shelling. There are numerous opportunities for all of that, and operators are more than willing to cater your trip from land to the sparkling water. Are you a family? A newlywed couple? A group of kids on spring break from school? They can make your water experience yours alone.
Part of that experience should be the Dolphin Encounter, at Blue Lagoon. Humans are only slight brighter than marine mammals, and you can find out first-hand here.
And what about The Dig? You will dig this. This is a re-creation of the mythical underwater city of Atlantis. It has an aquarium and more. You can even walk under the aquarium through glass tunnels to look up and see the marine life, a nice play on the usual glass-bottom boats where you go to the reef and look down to see that same marine life.
But you also would do well to see the island and its reefs from the air. In Nassau, give a call to +1 242 363 4016. And bring your Kodak.
OK, so now your day is done. You've gone back to your hotel room, you've napped, you've awoken and showered. You are ready to hit the night. The night in Nassau is ready to greet you, as well. As a certain Internet pioneer says, where do you want to go today? Just change that to night.
You first want to go to anywhere that serves the native cuisine. That consists of conch, of course, and bull dolphin (mahi-mahi game fish, not the Flipper sort), grouper, bonefish and more ocean delicacies. And anywhere means anywhere, from the large resorts to the mom-and-pop local operations.
Then you want music, dancing, drink. You'll find far too many fun places to list here, but a sampling includes, besides Atlantis, the Joker's Wild, a comedy club; the We Place on Thompson Avenue, where locals make up the clientèle for the most part; Kings & Knights at the Nassau Beach Hotel; the Waterloo, a five-bar disco on East Bay Street; Cocktails & Dreams, where you can smush your feet in the sand, since it's the only club directly on the beach. Or if the night still seems young to you but most places are closed, stop into the Drop Off Bar for that last hoorah.
And when you are all done with that nightlife, go to your hotel, kick off the shoes, toss the clothes on the floor, turn out the lights, and get ready to do it all over gain the next day.
The Nassau-Paradise Island probably brings to mind steel-drum music, a take-it-easy attitude, to-die-for conch dishes and lots of tourists. However, what Nassau-Paradise Island is like today is a far cry from how it used to be.
Like other areas of the Caribbean, it has a romantic and bloody history of foreign occupation, piracy, slavery and smuggling. But Nassau's rich history is really the history of the Bahamas as a whole: one of resilience and pride.
Until 1492, when Columbus "discovered" America, Bahamians lived a straightforward life, relying on the bountiful sea and the island land. But in the mid 1500s the Spanish decided they had found a slave-labor force easily put to work which led to the near depopulation of the islands.
In the mid 1600s, English settlers in other Caribbean Islands realized that Nassau's proximity to the recently settled New World provided opportunities. The settlers wanted to use Nassau for shipping and trade, as well as a launch point to the New World to escape from England's religious persecution.
Unfortunately piracy also became common around the same time, and lasted for more than a century. With numerous hiding places in the remote and densely vegetated islands, along with a proximity to mainland North America the buccaneers had found the ideal location.
In 1756, the Seven Years War broke out and trade positively flourished.But when the war ended in 1763 the black-market economy faltered. Piracy again became the primary economic market, including the likes of Blackbeard. Life became tough and difficult for those who weren't pirates.
When 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 could only steam or sail for a few days at a time which made Nassau a perfect stopover to the United States. That meant Nassau's maritime workers flourished. But when Civil War in the United States ended, it ended Nassau's prosperity. Residents turned to working the wrecks from the fleets that sank decades or centuries earlier.
Nassau's economy was unwittingly revived again when the United States enacted Prohibition in 1919. Nassau gained a lively and profitable liquor bootlegging industry. But when prohibition was repealed in 1933 Nassau's prosperity came to an end.
However Nassau was always able to rebound from adversity again. And like its pirate, slave-trading, bootlegging past, it did so through illicit means, by becoming 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. In 1973, the islands gained their independence from England, although they remain a part of the British Commonwealth. This is similar to Puerto Rico, which remains a part of the United States, but has autonomy. Following independence in 1973, Bahamians in general, and in Nassau especially, started exploited the jewel they lived on. No longer would the islands rely on shipping, legal and otherwise, alone. They could rely on the millions of people curious about this most beautiful collection of Caribbean Islands.
They would accept and cater to 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 and stunning coral.
But that's not all. Other nations may have their gambling palaces, but there are few places besides Nassau where one can bask in the sun of the tropics by day while fulfilling one's passion for betting at night. 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 Nassau residents may have finally discovered that their islands' natural beauty is attraction enough.