Nassau – the capital of pirates, cruise ships and conches

It takes only 55 minutes to fly from Miami to Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, but the actual flight time is unpredictable – Bahamas Air is famous for being always late. It didn’t disappoint, though the delay in my case was only one hour. Indeed the flight was announced as “on time” until the moment of boarding, notwithstanding the pesky watches and their nonsense. Everyone participating in this performance – the passengers, the flight attendants, the airport personnel – kept a complete and solemn calm, walking around as if on a beach promenade in Cannes.

Most Bahamians are black, as you would realise boarding my flight. The Bahamas is not a poor country though – on the contrary, prices in Nassau are very substantial, and hotels in mid-price category are nowhere in sight. They’re actually near impossible to find! Eventually I discovered a guesthouse kept by an elderly Greek couple that cannot be booked online – you can only call and shout for half an hour hoping that they’ll finally hear you and note your arrival! But it was a nice and homey place.

Nassau lives to the rhythm of the cruise ship. A giant vessel or two enters port every day, and for the hours it’s there Nassau is like an ant mound, its Main Street shops are full of tourists, restaurants serve kilograms of overpriced American fare to American visitors, museums are open and the town lives. As night falls and the ship leaves port, all of a sudden a silence reigns, everything appears closed, and a rare empty restaurant boasts of one or two visitors at most.

The main sight of Nassau is probably the Pirate Museum.

Or so I decided towards the end of my stay in the Bahamian capital. Initially I had no intention of going there – hearing as it was supposed to be superficial family entertainment. And so it is – and isn’t. It was actually fascinating and engaging to learn about the times of the pirates, and of course I’d read all the Captain Blood books in my childhood and so the seeds fell on fertile soil.

In 17-18th centuries Nassau was one of the primary centres of piracy. A pirate saying from those days claimed that whenever a pirate sleeps, he dreams not of paradise, but of Nassau. The port of Nassau is rather shallow, so it can easily accommodate light pirate schooners, while it’s impassible for the large vessels of imperial fleets – a perfect place for a hideout.

You see a pirate city first – and as you pass certain window, a sudden cry startles you, you hear a prayer or a sound of moving feet. Fun!!

Afterwards it’s onto the ship – or inside it, rather. The pirates’ life was not easy. Food was scarce. The provisions would be renewed in case of a successful attack – a rather rare occurrence. The medicine standards were of course extrmely law – oftentimes the cook was also the doctor. The pirates signed a contract which stipulated every member’s share. The division of spoils was very democratic, the captain rarely got even two standard shares – usually it was only 1.5.

The pirates’ way of punishing the breaker of pirate law. Leaving the culprit on an isolated island with only some water.

Tolerated by England, pirates thrived for a while, hunting the Spanish galleons. As the British colonies in North America gained economic weight, pirates started to threaten them – and Britain promptly laid end to piracy. A governor with a fleet was sent to the Bahamas, and the British ships efficiently pursued pirates in various corners of the Atlantic, killing or executing most.

The first governor of the Bahamas, who played a key role in destroying piracy.

Using this iron concoction the hung pirates were demonstrated to the populace. The body was covered in tar and so it could hang for a year.

The first Bahamian coat of arms. The motto says “Expulsis piratis, restituta commercia”. Pirates gone, commerce restored.

Let’s walk around Nassau just to get a feel of the cityscape. The main street and the lifeline of the city – the cruise ship.

One more ship from the boardwalk at night.

The main square – including the Parliament and the statue of Queen Victoria.

Bay Street – that’s where all the tourist shops and restaurants are. The Bahamas use the Bahamian dollar, equal to the U.S. dollar. Both are circulating at the same time. Indeed I only saw a local banknote on the third day of my stay!

A typical house:

A very curious Museum of Slavery and Liberation on the main street – this pink building.

Most slaves brought to the Bahamas were either from yoruba tribe in Nigeria, or from Congo. The related slaves were purposefully dispersed during the trip over the ocean. And yet in the Bahamas the two communities assembled anew and became antagonists. In our days though these differences have disappeared.

The Museum is appropriately proud of African heritage. A lot of stands educate you about the high level of development of African states before the arrival of the Europeans. I think it would give a very strong new perspective to someone who doesn’t know much about the history of slavery.

The Columbus statue in front of the Government. You go up and down all the time in Nassau – lots of hills.

I climbed one of the hills to visit the local Cathedral. A view of the local Hilton, the centre of local glamour.

The Cathedral – the old part is being restored currently.

The new part in the back:

Looking through the glass:

Walking around Nassau during the day you feel totally safe. As night falls though a certain unpleasant sensation sets in, especially as you walk into groups of rather shady characters. In a shuttle bus on the radio I heard a report that two armed men had just attacked a shop and shot the shopkeeper. The Bahamas have a high murder rate. The owner of my hotel without hesitation advised not to go “upstreet” at night.

The Art Gallery by the Catherdral was closed.

There are three fortresses in Nassau – one faintly crazy governor erected all three. Nobody ever attacked Nassau in actual fact. I climbed one of the fortresses, Fort Fincastle, that encloses the highest point in the city.

It’s plan is a triangle.

How it looks in practice:

The entrance fee is $1.08. Prices like this are everywhere in Nassau. The reason: on 1 January a new VAT tax was introduced, at 7.5%. And so the locals simply add the VAT to the existing price – no matter how clumsy it looks. The postcards too cost $1.08.

The top of the Fort:

The water tower:

And the view of the city. On that day there were two cruise ships in port.

A very impressive construction next to the fort is called the Queen’s Stairs. It was built inside the rock to mark the abolition of slavery during the reign of Queen Victoria.

Quite an unexpected sight in a Caribbean town!

It is rare for visitors to Nassau to stay downtown. Most of them would come to the exclusive resorts, the most famous of which is on the so-called Paradise Island. Half of that island is occupied by a megaresort Atlantis. The island is connected to Nassau by a bridge and for 4 dollars you can jump into a shuttle bus to reach it. This is the Atlantis as seen from the bridge:

I walked into the Atlantis. You can visit all kinds of aqua parks there, tickets start at 100 dollars. I opted to skip.

A couple of more hotels on the island:

The marina in front of the Atlantis is full of glamorous yachts:

But my goal was to see the so-called Cloisters. It is an actual monastery that was moved in 1930-s from France piece by piece by a local enthusiast. Surprising and enchanting to find it here.

The view onto the sea from the Cloisters.

At that moment a fashion shoot was performed inside the Cloisters.

Through the garden inside the island you get to another exclusive hotel (closed for simpletons).

The garden is he backdrop for the statues of the favourite figures of the enthusiast who created it all. This is president Roosevelt (in the background).

The discoverer Livingstone:

Usually in the Bahamas you’d bathe on the beach of your own hotel. As my guesthouse was downtown, I decided to visit a city beach. It’s several km to the West and you go there using a jitney – a special Bahamian local minibus driven as a rule by a Rastafarian with long dreads and a portrait of Haile Selassie on the windshield. Entrance to the beach:

Someone was building castles in the sand very recently:

Perhaps this couple?

An exhibition of sea shells:

Atlantis in the distance:

Private boats passing by:

And a cruise ship slowly sailing to its next destination:

Two words on local cuisine. The main ingredient here is conch – it is a part of everything. For example I tried out a fresh conch salad. Very fresh indeed – they were raw – simply cut and sprinkled with spicy and bitter sauce. Very tasty, though it was a bit frightening to eat such an obviously fresh fare!

Conch fritters is the most popular local starter. Conches are cut and baked in dough. Having eaten 6 out 8 fritters which were my starter, I realised I’m done and the main dish is out of the question. Caribbean dishes are WAY too large – every time!

I also tried the third local preparation of sea conch – the main one – but neglected to make a photo. I did take a pic of a typical local cocktail – HUGE! Lots of rum in it too.

The traditional Fish Fry market is to the West of the centre. It consists of lots of small booths where the locals gather and consume sea conch dishes. I arrived there on a weekday and the booths were closed – but a nearby restaurant was open and so I visited it.

One more future Bahamian dish looks at me through the aquarium wall:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *