Overview

Located on the island of New Providence, Nassau is the capital of the Bahamas. You'll find the islands' best sightseeing and historic buildings there. Also expect to find a crowd: Nassau is a very busy place, thanks to the high volume of cruise-ship passengers. In addition to the attractions in Nassau proper, there are a number of tourist sites on Paradise Island, a small but developed island off Nassau that has been transformed into a high-rise gambling and leisure haven. It's connected to the capital by two arched, one-way bridges.

To have a good time in Nassau, approach the port with an open mind. Even though it's an international city and commercial center—and firmly a part of the present—it still maintains its old-world island flavor. Things may take a little longer than you're used to. Slow your pace as you explore Nassau's rich history, tranquil beaches and turquoise waters—one of the best commodities of the Bahamas.

Geography

Nassau is situated on the northern coast of New Providence, dominating the bay between the main island and Paradise Island. Bay Street and its perpendicular side streets and arcades are the focus of the town's tourist activity. The area constitutes the main shopping center of the island. Bay Street extends along the seashore to the tips of the 21-mi-/33-km-long island.

The historical part of Nassau is bordered by the Queen's Staircase and Fort Fincastle to the south, Villa Doyle and St. Francis Xavier Church to the west and Bay Street to the north. The district encompasses Parliament Square, where the government buildings are located.

About 4 mi/6 km west of town, Baha Mar is an animated area distinguished by high-rise resorts. The resort campus includes three luxury hotels, the largest convention facility in the Bahamas, the largest Vegas-style casino in the Caribbean, a flagship spa, many restaurants, an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus golf course and a 1,000-ft/305-m stretch of beach. Cable Beach's main road, West Bay Street, has been redeveloped with lush sidewalk parks and boardwalks that frame the bordering wetlands.

Farther west you'll see pretty beaches along the shore. Two bridges connect New Providence with Paradise Island, a pedestrian-friendly tourist center.

History

The Lucayans were the original inhabitants of the islands of the Bahamas. Not much is known of their history, but the Spanish encountered the Lucayans when Spain's fleets landed in the Bahamas in the 16th century. The island remained largely uninhabited until around 1666, when it was settled by people from Bermuda and by English who were seeking refuge from religious disputes. In 1695, the settlement was named Nassau in honor of William III of England, Prince of Orange-Nassau.

Thanks to Nassau's strategic position, it became a base for pirates and privateers. Combined Spanish and French forces took Nassau in 1703 and plundered and burnt the town to avenge the pirate assaults they had suffered. The first royal governor, Sir Woodes Rogers (the street that runs along the port is named in his honor), offered a pardon to any pirate who renounced his evil ways and helped rebuild the city. Those who did not cooperate were hanged at Fort Nassau.

Spain, Britain and the U.S. all laid claim to the Bahamas, but the islands were officially assigned to Great Britain by treaty in 1783. Blockade-running during the Civil War and rum-running during Prohibition in the U.S. brought periods of prosperity to Nassau. By the early 20th century, the pineapple, sponge, sisal and salt industries—mainstays of the island's economy—were in decline. Tourism quickly saved the city: In the 1950s, the Ministry of Tourism began actively promoting the Bahamas as a tourist destination. The development of Paradise Island started in the 1960s. In 1973 the islands gained independence from Britain and formed their own nation.

Tourism and the banking industry are the main staples of the economy. Nassau attracts tourists and businesses with its favorable climate and laid-back way of life, and there seems to be no limit to new development.

Sightseeing

Nassau's streets and shopping arcades are often mobbed with visitors, but you can see most of the city's historical sites on foot. If you don't feel like walking, a pleasant way to get oriented is to take a horse-drawn surrey ride around town. There are several lined up along Woodes Rogers Walk. However you tour Nassau, you'll see lots of picture-perfect late-18th to early-20th-century buildings—from pink neoclassical government edifices on the central Rawson Square to pastel-colored houses with inviting balconies. Following main Bay Street will take you past several squares and the Straw Market.

There are several forts in Nassau, reminders of the days when the island was attacked by pirates. Of the 12 old fortifications on New Providence and Paradise Island, three—Fort Charlotte, Fort Fincastle and Fort Montagu—are of major historical interest and are worth a visit. Nassau's heritage is best explored through its architecture and forts. There are, however, a few interesting museums, including the Pirates of Nassau.

Nightlife

Nassau is a relatively small town and has not maintained an appealing nightlife over the years. Cozy spots once enlivened Bay Street, but there are fewer now, except for some spring break hangouts. The downtown area has become a commercial center, and it's the hotels and casinos that offer the major entertainment.

The Arawak Cay area is known for its authentic Bahamian conch salad stands and other Out Island-style restaurants. It's also a good place to hang out with locals, shoot pool and hear live music or karaoke.

The liveliest evenings for Nassau's nightlife are on weekends, when people meet in bars for happy hour and move on at a later hour to the nightclubs.

Dining

Except at the very finest of restaurants, the quality of the food and service in Nassau can be unpredictable, with the laid-back attitude manifesting itself in a tendency toward overcooking. Local food is usually prepared well: Any conch or fish dish is an excellent bet. For a quick meal, pick up some fresh and tangy conch salad from Arawak Cay or at Potter's Cay Dock at the foot of the bridge to Paradise Island. In most places, service tends to be on island time. Go in with the idea that eating is going to take a while and just relax.

You can find just about any type of food you want: Chinese, Italian, French, English and American—often at 25%-50% more than what the same meal would cost at home. Even the fast-food chains that have invaded the Bahamas are expensive.

Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$25; $$$ = US$26-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.

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