BAHAMAS: Nassau, Paradise Island

05/04/2007 1:48 PM

05/07/2007 5:59 PM

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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