“THE ISLES OF PERPETUAL JUNE” was George Washington’s impression upon his first visit to the Bahamas in the 1760s. Modern visitors make annual winter treks to this sunny clime for that same reason— the weather is simply sublime. With water that glistens like sapphires and sand so fine it clings to your toes like talc, Nassau offers the Bahamas with a surprisingly international flair. The Bahamas’ 700 “family islands” and cays tempt travelers with a laid-back lifestyle—perfect for an escape from a hurried pace. But Nassau, on New Providence Island, is the country’s capital. With great local foods, historical architecture, and contemporary art, it is as much a cosmopolitan city as it is a barefoot beach lover’s paradise. The real draw in the Bahamas, for returning travelers and people who have taken up residence here, is the Bahamian people. Their lively spirit and gift for making everyone feel at home can be summed up in the local phrase, “All of we is one family.” The Bahamas’ Caribbean-style culture (these islands are actually in the Atlantic) still reflects British influences from the country’s colonial status prior to 1973. Prepare yourself for three charming days in a place where the sun shines more than 300 days a year. And even if it rains, you won’t mind if you adopt the bright attitude of your Bahamian hosts.
Author Tish Johnson Photography Brooke Slezak
DAY ONE / Welcome to Paradise Island, a tiny cay that neighbors New Providence and became de rigueur as a vacation destination for multimillionaires in the 1900s despite its previous existence: It had been called Hog Island and used for raising pigs. And when Huntington Hartford purchased the land in 1962 and built the Georgian-style One & Only Ocean Club, complete with 12th century–style Augustinian cloister, this island gem’s status was elevated to stellar proportions.
Have your breakfast in bed, and take a stroll in the Versailles Gardens, where you can breathe in the sea air and meditate in the lush exclusivity of your surroundings. After a respite in nature, prepare to be whisked away by your driver into the casual bustle of Nassau. You’ll head over the bridge connecting Paradise Island to New Providence and land first at the colorful wooden stalls of Potter’s Cay—a fish and fresh fruit market where, depending on the season, you can sample papaws (papaya), sugar apples, or hog plums and watch local men play dominoes, taking turns slapping their tiles down on the table for theatrical effect.
Don’t become too mesmerized by the new sights; get back in the car and enjoy the winding road east, past mansions of former rum runners to a neighborhood called Mason’s Addition—also known as Junkanoo Village—where a kaleidoscope of painted homes still shares the same water tap. Arrive at the Queen’s Staircase, an impressive climb of 65 steps carved by slaves from a limestone cliff in the 1790s and named to honor Queen Victoria. It leads to Fort Fincastle, built as a lookout for raiders by Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia who became the governor of the Bahamas in 1787. Dunmore was among the British Loyalists who migrated to the island after the U.S. Revolution. Take in the fort’s spectacular harbor view.
It’s time for lunch in the historical quarters off Bay Street, so tell your driver “Bank Lane, please” and he’ll know you’re headed for Café Matisse. This Italian bistro, where you can dine on fresh homemade pasta dishes indoors or alfresco, is located near Parliament and counts many local politicians as regulars. Try the warm parmesan terrine with green salad and nuts for a start, and then move on to the ravioli with green peas and scallops, sprinkled with ginger sauce. Any pasta dish is worthy of note, so pick one—you can’t go wrong.
Walk off your lunch around Parliament Square and continue back in time to colonial Nassau, where you’ll stop in the most curious of buildings: the octagonal-shaped Public Library & Museum. Step inside this former jail built in 1799, where prison cells now house books and offer cozy cubbies for reading.
Head back to your hotel to rest and stroll along the beach before dinner and the evening ritual of champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries. Tonight, dinner is off-property at Arawak Cay, a seven-days-a-week fish fry where you can order traditional conch cevichè in a salad or cooked and seasoned in more than seven different ways. If mollusks aren’t your seafood fare of choice, try other offerings, such as local hogfish or snapper. Beware the goat pepper spice that comes as a condiment unless you like your food really hot.
Afterward, check in at Goldies or Two Brothers, both popular restaurants, and ask for the local beer, Kalick. Or if you want an island-themed drink, try a fresh-fruit daquiri or Bahama mama, a potent elixir containing a hefty dose of 151-proof rum. Stay for the Junkanoo show—a Bahamian variation of Mardis Gras—and be prepared for the massive crowds that follow the costumed brass bands and dancers that celebrate this festive affair, especially during Christmastime and New Year’s Day.