• A MONTH IN NEW PROVIDENCE, BAHAMAS

    IMG_1276By Anna Wilding
    NASSAU, NEW PROVIDENCE (Herald de Paris) —
    Octagonal. The National Public Library of Nassau, a small pink tower built in 1778-1800, is octagonal. Its history resonates through each preserved panel of wood, through each nook and cranny. In fact, if I were location scout on the Harry Potter films, I would say its perfect. It also appears to take us effortlessly, in one full turn, from the present to the past and back to the present again. Through each small tall dusty dark wooden arch, books line the eight small rooms from top to bottom. The sunlight finds its way through and stops just short of the octagon’s small centerpiece – an old wooden octagonal desk, with three public computers perched on top. Through one archway opposite, a roomful of Bahamian newspapers is stacked neatly into bundles and piles, each edition since its inception. The newspapers take up the entire room. Printed newspapers may be a thing of the past. In the future, this is all that may remain in each city worldwide of the printed newspaper industry. Three local schoolgirls huddle in crisp white shirts near one of the arches. That is about all the school girls that will fit into the small space on this first floor. That, plus the three adult Bahamians sitting at the computers.

    One of the Bahamian women turns to me sheepishly. “You haven’t been to the library before?” I shake my head, smile and say hello. The local woman voluntarily and passionately recounts the story of Library; how it used to be a prison, filled with pirates and buccaneers and all manner of stories. Then it all changed when the new governor came in. The governor freed the country from the slave trade, and turned the prison into library – a place of books and learning. Fascinating stuff for my first day’s adventure in the Bahamas, and one of the many stories we don’t see on film out of this small nation, a nation whose people suffered heavily through years of the slave trade and, some would say, were all but abandoned once it ended.

    I was in the Bahamas for a month. In that time I saw much. I ended up on local buses that went trundling on their way through poor areas, where tumble down houses fell into rough shod roads; and on boats that passed by smartly coiffed estates owned by the likes of Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Chuck Norris, and Tom Cruise. The land in the latter area, is $80 million an acre, that price does not include the mansions built on the land. Oprah has two houses, each sitting on least an acre or two, side by side, with a full time staff, and a large, white, smartly sized motor launch. Contrasting worlds, and this contrast in a relatively small area, in fact creates an uneasy balance.

    If you were to stay in some of the big resorts on Paradise Island,  just a seven minute taxi ride from Nassau, you wouldn’t even know you were in the Bahamas. Your week would be a week of in-house Vegas-style attractions, with some beautiful Caribbean beach and sand thrown in. However, such resorts can provide 6000 jobs for local workers, as will the new Baha Mar resort being built along Cable Beach, on New Providence.

    IMG_1310Of course if you really want to get a feel of both luxury and history, do so at the 300 year old mansion, Graycliff. The Graycliff Hotel was built by a real life pirate, and now houses the best, most romantic fine dining restaurant in the entire Caribbean. It has by far the most interesting and legendary swimming pool, and much more.

    After perusing the public library, the afternoon sun saw us witness several events rolled into one. There is nothing like a national marching band, complete with leopard skin sheaths, to get you into the spirit of a Caribbean island, and in particular the Bahamas. I noted there was one women in the marching band, in a cast of dozens.

    Good on her. The parade was to welcome the new judge, and the changing of the guard. Later that evening, it rolled into the parade for the national public holiday taking place the next day called, “majority democracy,” which marks January 10th, 1967, the occasion of a new era for the Bahamian people. Prime Minister Perry Christie said that, “January 10, 1967 significantly changed the life and history of the country in almost every respect. It marked the transition from the old Bahamas to the new Bahamas and replaced minority government with majority rule. It liberated Black Bahamians from a system of political oppression and economic and social deprivation. It opened up instead a new door of opportunity and equality for all. But that it was also a liberating experience for white Bahamians too because it freed them, from a morally corrupt ideology based on race and privilege.”

    By the evening sun, it was time to return on foot, along the crowded downtown Nassau street, to the Colonial Hilton for our first stop before moving to a luxury, private oceanfront apartment. The Colonial Hilton has a grand and restored foyer. It is a small and comfortable, upscale hotel centrally located in downtown Nassau. Some rooms have incredible views. There is a great private beach with good and reasonably priced poolside menu. Forgoing one of the resorts on Cable Beach or Paradise Island, or indeed a 7 night sailing adventure, the Hilton is a pleasant place to stop a while, and figure out your next move. It’s rooms are also reasonably priced if you hunt for a deal. The Hilton has a grand view of the cruise ships coming in to port. The downtown port can berth up to six large ships at a time.

    IMG_1330Cruise ships very much dictate life in Downtown Nassau. Therefore, expect hustle and bustle on the main street from the hours of 8am to 6pm, and then expect an almost bizarre quietness. Everything, save one or two local restaurants and the Hard Rock Cafe, is closed. Night falls and it’s time to leave the main strip. Souvenir, designer, and jewelry shops line bustling downtown Nassau. It’s where local items such as tourist goods, found at the Straw Market, meet with luxury Western designer goods. Caribbean style.

    The next day, I went on a tour of more of the island. I had an excellent private tour guide and driver, Mackey Tours, which was certainly handy for stopping off at interesting sights enroute, that I might not have visited otherwise. Of course, some of the sights could have been visited by local bus. The jitney costs $1.20. Chances are, for comfort and/or safety reasons, you will mainly take the jitney West from Downtown Nassau to Cable Beach. Don’t be surprised if the music is blaring and the bus driver stops to pay for gas, or in one instance I experienced, when due to a change of route due to roadworks, a driver actually swung off the main streets and drove to his padlocked home, in a rather dubious area called, “Over the hill,” to pick up a package of documents. Another time, the local bus came replete with an unofficial tour guide, hawking for tips but with some great local stories to tell. This is all the Bahamian way, things may take time, but you will get there and sometimes surprisingly quickly, and if not, definitely with a story to tell.

    I recommend taking some time to see some of the historic highlights of New Providence. It really helps one to understand the culture and the way of life. The Bahamas are comprised of 700 islands and cays. Nassau, New Providence is the seat of government. The government buildings – some with pretty and colorful “Bermuda-style” architecture. These buildings dot the downtown and local landscape.

    IMG_1316I recommend seeing Fort Charlotte, which was a British colonial area fort but on a hill overlooking the harbor of Nassau, and offers a great view from the stone ruins. The fort was constructed in the late 18th century by British Governor, Lord Dunmore, after the end of the American revolution. It was never used in battle. Its stone cold walls sadly did, of course, house prisoners and soldiers and pirates, and it is well worth a visit to walk up and down to see conditions were like in long gone days, and to hear what the fort’s tour guide has to say.

    The Junakanoo museum is a riot. Musty and small it may be, but it houses the entire history of Junkanoo on the island. Entering, it is not long before it’s cheerful friendly guides will get you into the Junkanoo spirit, and you find yourself clanging noisy cowbells, blowing whistles and trying to eek any sound out of a conch shell, with the best of them .A fascinating and colorful look into Bahamian culture and history, the Junkanoo Museum is certainly worth a visit.

    Junkanoo is a street parade that happens every year in the Bahamas, and is drawn from West African traditions. It is a cultural dance that features incredible, brightly colored, and heavy costumes that take months to make. It started in the 16th or 17th century and and one of the parades happens around Christmas time. Historically, the slaves in the Bahamas were given a special time around Christmas when they would be able to leave the plantations and be with their families to celebrate with African dance music and consumes. Some slave owners were kinder than others.

    IMG_1340One of my favorite journeys was to the Clifton Heritage Park, a national park. It is at the site of a former plantation, owned by one of the kinder slave owners. Set on the edges of the ocean, this park is probably one of the best kept secrets on the island. The park combines easy to walk nature trails, historical ruins, desolate beaches, excellent snorkeling, and guided tours. The journey there is also pleasant, taking you past Sean Connery’s home to some of the most exclusive historic luxury real estate on the island. Whereas Paradise Island, five minutes from downtown Nassau, houses the “MccMansions” of Oprah Winfrrey and the past two decades of rich listers, Cable Beach and beyond to the West is old school, and as romantic as any postcard you could find. Colourful bougainvellia slidea down the gates of graceful terra cotta, pink, yellow, and golden houses. It’s the Bahamas when it was featured in the Bond movies; Bahamas in the hey day; Bahamas when it was cool and indeed it still is. Full of style and grace.At Clifton Heritage Park you will bear witness to history. The plantation owner who defied the law and actual gave his slaves permission to build their own houses and live with their own families. Learn about the Lucayan Indians, who stood over 6 feet four inches tall but who sadly easily submitted to Christopher Columbus and his men. One of the most profound and touching moments of the whole trip is to see the “Sacred Spaces” sculpture exhibit, housed permanently in the park. A stunning portrait of African women who came to certain areas of the park, overlooking the ocean, to gather and look out to the lands they left behind – Africa – their homelands. The figures are carved from the Casurina tree by sculptor Antonius Roberts. They are tall, elegant and deeply moving. Though each face is blank, the emotions the sculptor achieves are profound. “Sacred Spaces” does have to be one of the most accomplished sculptures and artworks I have seen. It is a fitting and moving tribute to these women and their families, each who endured so much.

    IMG_1346One of the guides said my photos were better and more moving than even the official park photos and enabled here to see the sculptures in a new light. I photographed only what I saw. The sculpture was moving and evocative.

    Walking past the “Sacred space” you come to the steep, narrow, original steps, carved directly into the native rock, where pirates landed, where traders disembarked, and where slaves were shuttled upwards, in chains, to their new destiny. The steps are steep and chunky, still used today by local sailors who use the platform nearby for oil, gas and other deliveries.

    Bahamas history is rich, exotic, rife with fascinating stories that are important to retain and to tell. However, my journey was still ongoing. A long day tour meant a fitting time to relax in Nassau’s most legendary and most romantic property, Graycliff.

    Indeed, Graycliff houses the first ever five star restaurant on the island, and is now a landmark also synonymous with some of the best cuban cigars in the world, and some of the finest handmade chocolates.

    Graycliff, with its sprawling grounds and cozy living rooms, bars, lounges, and restaurants is a favorite haunt of visiting nobility, foreign dignitaries, film and music stars such as Nicholas Cage, George Clooney, Jay Z., and Beyonce. It is steeped in glamorous stories of yesteryear, and also good old fashioned, traditional service that is rare to find anywhere. Graycliff’s history, spanning 300 years, is palpable the minute you walk up its vast stone steps, onto its tiles and through its welcoming doors. Graycliff is owned by Enrico Garzarolo, a charming, colorful and energetic bear of a man, who with one swipe of his paw can whisk you into a world of legendary stories spanning his own forty years as resident and personable host. Enrico and Anna Maria Garzarolo, seemingly unintentionally, bought the property off Lord and Lady Dudely, the Earle of Staffordshire, through a family friend. The way Enrico tells it, when he arrived from Lake Como, Italy, to visit his new acquisition in 1973, he found, to his surprise, that the sprawling grounds and buildings of Greycliff came with 17 or more staff. The place was huge. Enrico offered visiting bankers a place to stay in the upstairs rooms, and food to eat downstairs. Gradually, this generous hospitality paved the way to a formal hotel being established and before he keow it, Enrico and his wife found themselves as hotel owners, illustrious hosts, and they haven’t left since. History has it that Graycliff was built in 1740 by Captain John Howard Greysmith, a famous pirate of the Caribbean. When Graycliff was captured by the American Navy in 1746, it became the Navy headquarters and garrisons. Of course, there were many different legendary and known owners throughout the years, and each one has left an indelible mark, be it priceless antiques, or in the pirates and subsequent navy’s case, a sprawling concrete basement, with many rooms,nooks and crannies.

    wwThis basement area now hosts one of the most renowned wine cellars in the world, and indeed the third largest wine collection in the world. Enrico is a wine collector, wine hoarder, and “wine hunter” rolled into one. On my private tour of the wine cellar by the friendly and informative sommelier, I was shown the oldest bottle of wine in the world, an ice wine, 1727 Rudeheimer Apostlewein from Bremen Ratskeller in the Rheinghau region of Germany. There are over 275,000 bottles of white and red wines and champagnes and ports, housed in these cellars from over 400 vintners in 15 countries. For those adventurous in nature, for an extra thousand dollars or so, you can have a beautiful antique table set in the cellar for you and 8 special guests. Greycliff is about fine wine and an excellent mix of Bahamian and European hospitality and dining. Soon my senses were to be delighted at dinner.

    Dinner started in the main living room, with Graycliffs signature cocktail being thrust into my hand, a magical blend of alcoholic elixirs and secret notes that lulled me into a perfectly happy mixture of relaxed complacency and awe, at the natural romance and elegance of Graycliff. I then was escorted to sit in one of the most romantic of restaurants one could possibly imagine, and was waited on by three to four well dressed, black tie servers, each possessing equal doses, of charm, politeness, professionalism, friendliness and humor. Good staff and, some of whom have been there forever, make the place as much as the food.

    I must admit that though I wanted to try all the fresh lobster and crab that was on offer, in all reality, due to allergies I instead had a fresh piece of Bahamian grouper – Graycliffs famous Grouper Dijoinaise. It was delicious. The Grouper Dijoinaise is sublime in its comforting, old fashioned mellowness, but the added zing that makes the dish unique is due to its Bahamian roots and spicy flavor. Every dish i tasted at Graycliff was the perfect and delicate mix of fine European cooking, richness, and flare, combined with Bahamian flavor, spices, and naughtiness. For me, this mouthwatering mix of Western and Bahamian was important, as yet I had not been that impressed with the food on the islands, save for some local fare, which i will discuss more of later.

    The restaurant was becoming fuller – a healthy mix of local Bahamians all dressed up to the nines, and those visiting the islands. I had rather been looking forward to my petit fours, but Enrico sitting down to meet and join me for the latter part of the meal, put an end to that for which i am several hundred calories grateful. In all honesty, this is a place that is perfectly pleasurable alone, but even greater to share. I sat enthralled as we spoke, and as Enrico recounted story after story and I chuckled along with him at the incredible and wonderful thing called life, full of of people and humanity that we all share.

    eg 2I urge anyone visiting the Bahamas to visit and take a tour of Graycliff, and enjoys any one of its rooms or restaurants. It gives you a slice of history from pirates to American Revolution to the Colonial era to present day, that is rare to fine anywhere. It is an engaging, living historic museum and modern romantic adventure all rolled into one. I returned once more and I intend to return again.

    After a few days rest, it was back to some adventure on my final few days. I returned to an area called Fish Fry, a short bus trip from downtown Nassau and popular area filled with several colorful shacks and restaurants. Here locals and tourists mix eating local Bahamian fare. I ate first at Water Grill, that is its own stand alone restaurant behind the main area of Fish Fry, and then one other evening tried one of the colorful restaurants on the main strip. It is at the Fish Fry area that you will find excellent fresh conch salads, conch fritters, fried local fish, and local deserts such as the delicious guava duff. It’s easy, relatively cheap by Bahamian standards at around $12-15 per person.

    The cost of living is high in the Bahamas, most goods are imported so you will learn to value the 2-3 local supermarkets in Cable Beach, and the Fish Fry, if you are staying longer than the generic 5-day packaged holiday. The minimum wage is about $6-7 per hour, the cost of living high as I said, and all restaurants include 15 % gratuity.

    In the last few days, I was invited for a dolphin excursion and my beau, who joined me on the island, was able to come. Dolphin Encounter is by far the best and most ecologically aware place to swim with the dolphins, and cozy up to sea otters. We are not big fans of dolphin enclosures, but this one is as much a place of conservation as it is for tourists. If we were going to go to a dolphin park, this was it. The dolphins had large natural ocean lagoons and pools to swim in and through, and were well looked after. Like Clifton Heritage Park, half the fun was getting there. Take a small informative and jaunty local taxi ferry from downtown Nassau ($4.00), or taxi ($10.00), over to Paradise Island. Then buy the ticket at the jetty for whichever Dolphin Encounter program you wish, and if you desire – as we did – include the day at the Blue Lagoon beach – that’s right, the same Blue Lagoon from the Brooke Shields/Christopher Atkins movie. Afterwards, get on board the boat. Soon you will be off over crystal blue and turquoise waters to the Blue Lagoon and Dolphin Encounter.

    dolphinThe Encounter sits right on and in the ocean so the few dolphins there have very large natural ocean lagoons to swim in and through. The dolphin pod is comprised of a few gathered from the local area about 20 years ago, with government permission, to form a natural pod for the original few dolphins rescued from a poorly-maintained (and now closed) dolphin park. Since, a few dolphins have been born at the Encounter, itself.

    The Dolphin Encounter is staffed by proud and informative locals, as well as by knowledgeable scientists. It was an interesting experience. Despite not actually being fish, the dolphins smell “fishy” of up close, but that winning smile and their antics, though trained, gently in this instance, do end up making you melt.

    After the dolphins, I was quite taken by the sea otter, Madge, her multi-hued skin and her moves were so sleek and swift and elegant. She and her siblings were rescued from a Mississippi facility destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The facility also offer a wide range of marine conservation program and educational outreach. Many questions can be answered on the dolphinenounters.com website.

    After the encounter, we walked over to the Blue Lagoon for a swim, on a topaz clear swimming beach. The day included a delicious Bahamian style lunch. We thoroughly recommend the Blue Lagoon and Dolphin Encounters for a day trip. Yes it may sound touristy but its not really, and if you get there early, as we did, you can have the luxury of the both places almost entirely to yourselves. It was fabulous. The beach and outer beach are large, clean untainted and perfect for swimming, though there is a strong current in the Lagoon. Buy a pass for both the encounter and the beach and you will have a wonderful few hours filled with additional knowledge about marine conservation, dolphins, and sea otters. You really just have to take it for what it is – a private island and lagoon catering to tourists, but first and foremost a place of conservation and refuge. I saw a picture of a beaming Kevin Costner and his daughter on the wall. You can smile here, almost everyone does, knowing these mammals are well looked after. Thanks to Kelly Meister for providing us such a wonderful excursion.

    The Bahamas are really whatever you wish to make of them, and even if is simply a few days sun and the beach, then you will be guaranteed here of having some of the best beaches in the world on offer.

    bahamas.com
    dolphinencounters.com
    http://www.bchiltonnassauhotel.com
    http://www.nassauparadiseisland.com/
    http://www.educulturebahamas.com/?page_id=7
    graycliff.com


    Comments
    richard February 20, 2014

    wow

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