BAHAMAS: Nassau, Paradise Island

 

VISITING NASSAU AND PARADISE ISLAND

* Getting there: Several airlines fly nonstop from Miami and Fort Lauderdale to Nassau, a trip of about an hour.

WHERE TO STAY

* Atlantis on Paradise Island, 800-ATLANTIS; www.atlan tis.com. Rooms here range from unremarkable to nice. What you're paying for is the sprawling water playground and aquariums. Plus there's a casino, the Discovery Channel Camp for kids, tennis, golf, spa and marina. Rates before Dec. 21 range from $225 ($499 at Christmas) in the Beach Tower, the oldest section, to $315 ($599 at Christmas) in the Royal Towers, the newest addition.

* Comfort Suites on Paradise Island, 242-363-3680; www.choicehotels.com. With foldout sofas, rooms can sleep four. A noisy, cheerful family-oriented hotel with its own pool, it gives guests free access to Atlantis' water park and other facilities just a block away. Rates from $150 for two. ($295 at Christmas.)

* Graycliff, 8 West Hill Street, in the heart of Old Nassau; 242-302-9150; 800-688-0076; www.graycliff.com. This lovely old British Colonial estate was built in the 1700s and renovated into an elegant 20-room inn. Its five-star restaurant, handcrafted cigars rolled on the premises, tropical gardens and excellent service draw celebrities - and command a high price. Rooms $325-$450.

* British Colonial Hilton, One Bay Street, Nassau; 242-322-3301; www.hiltoncarib bean.com/nassau. At the foot of Bay Street near the Straw Market, this was once the grande dame of New Providence hotels. Opened in 1900, this stylish hotel has a nice beach, tropical landscaping dotted with hammocks and a soaring lobby with paintings depicting Bahamian history. Rooms from $175.

* Cable Beach Resorts, 800-222-7466; www.cable beachresorts.com. Cable Beach was once the hot, happening spot on New Providence. Now this trio of hotels - the Radisson, Wyndham and Nassau Beach - are showing their age. They are operated as one resort and are slated for upgrades before they are replaced in 2010. Casino, beach, snorkeling and frequent deals, including specials for Florida residents. Rates from $95, although at the oldest, the Nassau Beach, rooms are sometimes as low as $49 a night.

WHERE TO EAT

* The Poop Deck, East Bay Street in Nassau, just east of the Paradise Island bridge, 242-393-8175; www.thepoop deck.com. Get an outdoor table overlooking the Nassau Yacht Haven. Burgers, lobsters and traditional Bahamian food including cracked conch marinated in lime and spices, fried grouper fingers and steamed fish with tomato, onion and peppers. Burgers and sandwiches, $6 to $12.75; entrees, $16.75 to $22.

* Anthony's Caribbean Bar & Grill, Paradise Village Shopping Center on Casino Drive, Paradise Island; 242-363-3152. Pizza, salads, burgers, ribs and Caribbean dishes such as jerk chicken and Junkanoo Steak in a brightly colored setting with Bahamian art. Pizza, burgers, $9.75 to $12.25; entrees, $11.25 to $39.95.

* News Café, Hurricane Hole Plaza, Harbour Road, Paradise Island; 242-363-4684. Small, friendly café; indoor and outdoor tables. Serves newspapers, muffins, coffee drinks, salads, sandwiches, ice cream. Breakfast, $4 to $11; lunch, $5 to $12.

* Graycliff Hotel, 242-302-9150; www.graycliff.com, has two restaurants. The 5-star Graycliff Restaurant (entrées, $38-$60) features a noted winelist and sophisticated cuisine crafted from local ingredients. Humidor Churrascaria (dinner, $39.95) offers a more casual and less expensive alternative, with meat served Brazilian style, with skewer after skewer of different cuts brought to your table.

* Seafire, Marina Village, Paradise Island; 242-363-2000. A butcher's counter just inside the front counter clues you that this is a serious steakhouse. Signature dish is an extremely tender spit-roasted prime rib. Emphasis is on beef, but there are seafood and chicken, too. Entrees, $38-$44.

WHAT TO DO

* Ardastra Gardens, Zoo and Conservation Center: 242-323-5806; www.ardastra.com. The zoo is open daily; call for times for the marching flamingo shows and the Lory parrot feedings. Admission $12 for adults, $6 for children 4-12, three and under are free.

* Fort Charlotte, West Bay Street & Marcus Bethel Way; 242-325-9186. Built in 1788 to defend the western harbor, it has a moat, battlements, original cannons and a dungeon that you can tour.

* National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, West and West Hills Streets; 242-328-5800; www.nagb.org.bs. Opened in 2003, this is the first Bahamian government-sponsored art museum. Exhibits range from colonial to contemporary art. Admission, $3 adults.

* Pompey Museum of Slavery & Emancipation, Vendue House, Bay Street; 242-356-0495. The Vendue House, once the site of slave auctions, has exhibits portraying slavery and post-emancipation eras of The Bahamas, plus paintings by noted Bahamian artist Amos Ferguson. Closed for renovations until early 2006.

* Discover Atlantis tours, 242-363-6328. Tour includes the Ruins Lagoon, Predator Lagoon and The Dig; $29 adults, $21 ages 3-12, under 3 free. No access to beaches, pools or waterslides. Go to a Discover Atlantis kiosk in the Coral Tower lower lobby, adjacent to the Dig in the Royal Towers

Originally published Sunday, November 13, 2005

It is a humid Sunday morning, and a large black pig lies on the walkway at Ardastra Gardens, sleeping. In the sticky heat, few people come to see the marching flamingos - the signature event at this small zoo - and the pig sleeps on, undisturbed.

At Ardastra's tiny arena, about two dozen flamingos are briefly flustered when a peacock unexpectedly joins them, but they follow a human drill instructor into the ring, obediently turning, stopping and marching for a small but enthusiastic audience.

Flamingos have been marching here for more than four decades, a bit of old-fashioned entertainment that stands in sharp contrast to Paradise Island's high-gloss Atlantis Resort, with its snorkeling lagoon, Mayan Temple and a water slide that zips you through a shark-filled lagoon.

These are the two sides of New Providence, capital of the Bahamas and home to two-thirds of its residents: Nassau and Paradise Island, connected by a great arcing bridge.

Nassau is a longtime cruise-ship port of call with both luxury inns and down-at-the-heels beachfront hotels. You can sunbathe and snorkel, take a party cruise, golf, gamble in the Crystal Palace Casino, buy cheap souvenirs in the Straw Market or emeralds on Bay Street, visit old attractions like Ardastra Gardens and the Pompey Museum of Slavery & Emancipation, or new ones, like the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas.

PARADISE ISLE

Paradise Island has a clean-scrubbed Disney-like resort feel, with few quirks that distinguish it from any other tropical beach. Most of the beaches are private but its main strand, Cabbage Beach, is open to the public.

Atlantis has its sprawling water park and The Dig - underwater views of marine habitat where rays glide past at eye level and lobsters walk in conga lines below them. If that doesn't keep the kids busy, Atlantis has a day camp, movies, and a nightclub for the soda pop set.

There are a golf course and casino here, too - although with higher table minimums - and a cigar shop where a man rolls fat cigars by hand. Paradise Island also has the exclusive One&Only Ocean Club, where Jason Priestley got married and Martha Stewart spent her last weekend of freedom before going to prison. There are no errant peacocks or napping pigs.

Atlantis has a self-contained feel; you never need leave the property, unless to go to shops and restaurants at the adjoining Marina Village - built in part to accommodate the overflow from the resort's pricey restaurants.

Few Bahamians live on this side of the bridge; you're more likely to mingle with them going about their daily business in Nassau. One local I encountered on Bay Street, on learning that I planned to take the ferry to Paradise Island, scowled and said: ``Only the tourists go there.''

But Paradise Island clearly has what tourists want. Atlantis' 2,300 rooms are often sold out, sometimes weeks in advance. Owner Kerzner International, citing demand from its guests, is building a fourth tower of nothing but luxury suites.

Atlantis ``was a huge success,'' says David Johnson, deputy director-general of tourism for the Bahamas. ``It drove up the occupancy and average rates at unprecedented levels all over New Providence, especially Cable Beach. It led to a huge comeback for tourism.''

ON NASSAU

Once Nassau's main tourist draw, Cable Beach had suffered a decline in tourism blamed on poor service and aging hotel rooms. Today it's lively, if not jammed.

Behind the Wyndham Nassau Resort and Casino on Cable Beach on a pleasant afternoon, there's a noisy volleyball game in the pool. Next door, snorkeling lessons are underway in a lagoon protected by coral rock barriers. A large party boat motors by, its loudspeakers blaring Kool and The Gang's Celebration.

``It's party time, party party time,'' a DJ by the pool says over his competing music, and declares happy hour. Bahama Mamas, a fruity rum drink, are going cheap at the outdoor bar. Minutes later, the DJ announces he is turning off the music out of respect for a wedding taking place on the beach. ``We'll be back in 10 or 12 minutes,'' he says.

You can still play blackjack for $5 a hand here - at least by day - and sometimes find a room for as little as $50 at the Nassau Beach Hotel.

But the days of cheap rooms and blackjack hands are numbered. In May, Baha Mar Development Co. bought three Cable Beach hotels and the Crystal Palace Casino, with plans to replace them with a 1,000-acre resort by 2010. It will include hotels by Caesars and Starwood, an enormous Harrah's casino, a new beach and an entertainment and dining complex designed to compete with Atlantis.

``Right now tourists go to Paradise Island,'' a security guard says, pausing on his rounds behind the Radisson, ``but when this gets built, they will all be coming here.''

TURNING POINT

So Nassau is clearly at a turning point, on the brink of going upscale, though that is hardly evident from behind the thicket of tropical foliage at Ardastra Gardens.

The collection of animals is small and their quarters cramped by U.S. standards, but I see some endangered species that Ardastra is working to conserve and breed: the Caribbean flamingo, the Bahamian rock iguana, the Bahamian boa constrictor.

Just down the road is another bit of old-time Nassau: Fort Charlotte, built in 1797 to defend the western harbor. You can tour the dungeons and see some of the original cannons.

But I am headed for something more modern: the Bahamas' first national art gallery, which opened two years ago in a grand old house with a wide second-story veranda and a view of the cruise-ship port.

Much of the older works, mostly Bahamian scenes, are by U.S. and British artists. A sign explains that art was rarely taught and artists rarely encouraged here until the mid-20th century. The more modern works on display are predominantly by Bahamian artists, often colorful, bold social commentaries.

Outside, as I pause in the street to photograph the building, an older man stops to tell me about the museum and the building, more than a century old, that houses it. He encourages me to go inside, clearly proud of the gallery. Pleased when I tell him I've just come from there, he wishes me a good day and goes on his way.

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