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    Travel: There’s more to Nassau in the Bahamas than a nice beach
    • May 29, 2024

    If you’re much of a traveler, by now you’ve seen ads or at least heard about the Atlantis Paradise Island mega-resort in the Bahamas with its tall pink towers, 14 pools, 141-acre water park, marine mammal habitat, 21 restaurants, casino, bars, golf course and miles of beaches. This signature resort in Nassau put the Bahamas on the tourism map.

    But there’s much more to Nassau that is not Atlantis. The island nation off Florida’s east coast has a long and rich history that is often overlooked by tourists eager to hit the beach. Cultural and historical sites around Nassau offer a glimpse into the small Caribbean nation with a colonial past whose local people — the descendants of slaves — have kept their own traditions alive.

    Tourism is the main industry in the Bahamas, an archipelago of nearly 700 islands — all but about 30 of them uninhabited — and former British colony. Boating, scuba diving and water sports are popular activities throughout the islands. You can also tour a pineapple farm on Eleuthera, visit a historic red and white striped lighthouse built in the 1860s on The Abacos, or rent a house and hit the beach every day. Fried conch fritters and hot conch chowder are local specialties made with the meat of the Queen conch shell.

    The Queen’s Staircase, also called the 66 Steps, was carved out of solid limestone rock by about 600 hundred slaves between 1793 and 1794 to provide a direct route from Fort Fincastle to the lower city of Nassau. (Photo by Amy Bentley)

    My husband and I took a short cruise to the Bahamas in early April, departing from Miami with stops in Key West and Nassau. In Nassau, we took a city tour in a large, open Jeep accommodating eight guests to discover the island’s past. Our first stop was at the Queen’s Staircase, also referred to as the 66 steps. This landmark was carved out of solid limestone rock by about 600 hundred slaves between 1793 and 1794 to provide a direct route from Fort Fincastle, which is located on the island’s highest point, to the lower city. The steps honor Queen Victoria, the Britain monarch who reigned from 1837 to 1901 and who abolished slavery in the British colonies. We walked down the steps and marveled at the difficult effort it must have taken to carve this monument out of the limestone using only hand tools.

    British Lord Dunmore built Fort Charlotte in Nassau in 1789 to protect the Bahamas from invasion by other European nations and pirate attacks. (Photo by Amy Bentley)

    In the late 1700s, Europeans vied for control of the Caribbean. The British colonized the Bahamas. Fearing an invasion by other European nations as well as pirate attacks, they built forts Fincastle, Montagu and Charlotte, all of which remain standing today. We toured Fort Charlotte, the largest of the three forts. It’s surrounded by an empty moat and is located on a bluff overlooking the harbor and cruise port. We strolled over the drawbridge, explored the claustrophobic underground passageways and store rooms, and photographed the cannons that were never fired. Fort Charlotte was built in 1789 by Lord Dunmore and named after the wife of King George III. There’s also a dungeon and ramparts. The other two forts in Nassau also are open to the public.

    The Educulture Junkanoo Museum in Nassau features costumes used in annual Bahamian festivals that began as a celebration of slaves getting three days off for Christmas. (Photo by Amy Bentley)

    Another noteworthy stop on our tour was the Educulture Junkanoo Museum, a bright yellow little house filled with costumes from the annual Bahamian festivals called Junkanoo. Think Mardi Gras — large, homemade costumes fashioned from paper and cardboard and adorned with sequins, worn by dancers beating drums and shaking cowbells during boisterous parades through the town, with costumes being judged along the parade route. The staff gave a delightful presentation, and we enjoyed learning about this unique Bahamian tradition.

    The Bahamian tradition of Junakanoo began as a temporary celebration of freedom for slaves who were given three days off for Christmas. (Photo by Amy Bentley)

    The museum’s website explains Junkanoo this way: “What once began as a temporary celebration of freedom for slaves who were given three days off for Christmas, soon blossomed into an exuberant, colorful parade called Junkanoo. … The Educulture Junkanoo Museum is the brainchild of Arlene Nash Ferguson, an expert on Bahamian culture and traditions. Having participated in Junkanoo parades from the age of four, and having served on the National Junkanoo Committee for 24 years, she wanted to honor the traditions of her heritage.”

    Instruments used in Junkanoo celebrations are on display at the Educulture Junkanoo Museum and Resource Centre in Nassau. (Photo by Amy Bentley)

    Nash established the Educulture Junkanoo Museum in her childhood home, where visitors can see colorful costumes and learn how they’re made. “Staged from room to room in their repurposed home, the museum’s exhibits depict an informative and interesting history of Junkanoo and the Bahamas, featuring costume pieces, traditional fabrics, music, and more. The Educulture Junkanoo Museum also offers a memorable interactive experience where you can make colorful masks, dance to Bahamian music, and maybe even meet a Junkanoo queen,” the website says.

    The John Watling Distillery, which opened in the elegant Buena Vista Estate in 2013, produces hand-crafted rum and offers tours. (Photo by Amy Bentley)

    Finally, we visited the John Watling Distillery, located in the elegant Buena Vista Estate built in 1789 and featured in the James Bond Film “Casino Royale.” Since 2013, the estate overlooking the harbor has been home to a hand-crafted rum distillery where workers do all the bottling and labeling by hand. The distillery is named for Watling, a 17th century privateer often called “the Gentlemen Pirate.”

    Historic photos show the mansion’s colorful past. It has served as a home for local wealthy and prominent Colonial government officials, a Colonial government building, and in more modern times a restaurant and hotel frequented by royals, politicians and celebrities. Rum has long been a part of life and culture in the Bahamas (like other Caribbean islands), where rum was distilled from sugar cane and smuggled into the United States during Prohibition. After the tour, we visited the distillery tavern. (No way were we leaving the famous distillery without trying the local product.) I enjoyed a refreshing and delicious Piña Colada while my husband savored a fruity rum punch, both made with the distillery’s signature amber rum.

    Workers at the John Watling Distillery do all of the bottling and labeling by hand. (Photo by Amy Bentley)

    As for Key West, we’ve been there previously and love this charming historic town. A great way to experience Key West in one day is on the Conch Tour Train, which hits all the interesting places. The driver discusses Key West’s colorful past, including the history of writer Ernest Hemingway and President Harry S. Truman on the island, the ship salvage “wreckers,” and Henry Flagler’s infamous railroad to the Keys that was wiped out by a hurricane in 1935.

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    Or, you can walk, rent a golf cart or taxi to any of the many historic places and museums to including the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens; the Custom House, an art and history museum; Hemingway’s home; Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park; the Harry S. Truman Little White House; the Key West Aquarium; the Butterfly & Nature Conservatory; the Lighthouse Museum; and the Shipwreck Treasures Museum, among others. For shopping and dining, Mallory Square boasts many unique open-air shops and you can stroll the infamous Duval Street, where Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville store sells fun merchandise.

    Key West and the Bahamas are easily reached by cruise ship or by flying into Tampa or Miami and catching a connecting flight. For history buffs, a city tour in Nassau is a must.

    You can still stay at Atlantis and enjoy the beach.

    ​ Orange County Register