What better way to beat the winter doldrums than a spur of the moment beach getaway? When an unexpected opportunity arose to travel to the Bahamas, we grabbed it. We’d be staying in the timeshare section of the famous mega-resort Atlantis on Paradise Island. To be quite honest, we were not looking forward to that aspect of the trip. We envisioned a Bahamian version of Disney with tourists we had nothing in common with participating in activities we weren’t interested in and dining in fancy places we couldn’t afford. As ungrateful as it sounds, we expected to have to do a fair amount of grinning and bearing it in our attempt to see a different side of Nassau and Paradise Island.
Arriving on Paradise Island
After a short, barely two-hour flight from Atlanta, we arrived. The best option from the airport, which is on the other side of New Providence (the main island across the bridge, where the city of Nassau is located) seemed to be a taxi, so $32 got us to our lodging. Harborside at Atlantis is part of the Starwood Vacation Network, a vacation timeshare program similar to that on many of the larger hotel chains. We were issued ID cards that served both as room key, and pass to enjoy all of the facilities and amenities at the nearby Atlantis complex. The walk over to Atlantis takes 10 minutes or so, and you can cut through the “Marketplace” of restaurants and shops on the way there. There are free shuttles available as well for those who’d rather not walk. We surveyed part of the 171-acre complex. It’s HUGE. For as much as it may not be our style, it is very well-maintained and laid out. It’s easy to find your way around, and there’s so much space that we never felt overly crowded. There are spots to get out of the melee a bit and just lie on a beach chair and relax.
The Atlantis Mega-Resort
Only 10% of Paradise Island is owned by the government. The group that owns Atlantis owns 40% and the rest is privately owned. The Atlantis “campus” consists of 5 or so separate hotel buildings, numerous restaurants, the shopping and eating area at the Marketplace, docks for mega-yachts, pools, lagoon marine habitats, aquarium exhibits, a casino, kids clubs and more.
The Aquaventure water park/pool area with numerous steep slides and not-so-lazy river for tubing was more fun than we expected. I screamed my way down the “Surge” on a double tube with Donny behind me, but let him enjoy the “Leap of Faith” on his own. That one is almost vertical, and passes you through a pool of sharks before dumping you out the other side. We were capsized several times on the tubing river, but the two afternoons we spent on the resort side of the property were admittedly enjoyable. On the downside, beers go for $6.75 and don’t even think about having a mixed drink or a bite to eat. We’re not afraid to spend on food, but the rates on Paradise Island (not just Atlantis) were tough to swallow. We resorted to filling our biggest water bottle with, ahem, whatever we wanted to drink for the afternoon, and used water fountains for other hydration. No eating allowed until we got back to our unit at Harborside.
Marine Habitats and Exhibits
At Atlantis we also enjoyed seeing the extensive marine habitats and aquarium exhibits. There are 14 lagoons around the property, 8 million gallons of salt water and over 50,000 aquatic animals of 250 different species! Atlantis runs several breeding programs and has had success with animals such as the endangered alligator gar, mantas, the smalltooth sawfish, sharks and rays. The baby sharks and rays in the Estuary Lagoon were so amazing to see! We were also happy to see Atlantis’ involvement in The Blue Project, working toward education, preservation, research and restoration of coral reef systems throughout the Bahamas. At Dolphin Cay, tourists have the opportunity to swim with dolphins and learn While education is important, we are against the display of captive dolphins in general, and felt sad seeing the dolphins in their enclosure.
Paradise Island Beaches
The Bahamian beaches we saw are beautiful. The shallow water of the Atlantic here means absolutely gorgeous water with all the classic shades of blue one ordinarily associates with the Caribbean. Our favorite stretch was all the way at the end of Paradise Island, furthest away from Atlantis Beach before turning the corner at the end of the island. It’s called Cabbage Beach, and we had great walks in this section of the island, without seeing hardly anyone. Looking out from one volcanic rock outcrop we spotted five nurse sharks swimming just next to the rocks. Someone we spoke with later said it was quite common, and we could have jumped right in with these friendly sharks, but for us it was quite exciting just to see them so close to shore.
Day Trips and Activities
Rose Island with Sandy Toes
Rose Island lies three miles to the east of Paradise Island, a 20 to 30-minute boat ride. We lined up a day-trip there with the friendly folks of Sandy Toes. Our guide for the day, Morgan, welcomed us aboard the Sandy Toes boat, which took off not far from Harborside, a 5 minute walk. He chatted about the owners of some of the homes along the channel leading out between Nassau and Paradise Island as we got underway. We saw the homes of Tiger Woods, Oprah and Nicholas Cage to name a few, as well as the Beyonce/Jay Z complex. We learned that while docking fees on Nassau are $.50 per foot, on Paradise Island they are $25 per foot! This really is the land of the bigwigs. Also along the way we saw a private island owned by Eddie Murphy.
Rose Island is mostly owned by the government. The rest is privately owned. The family that owns Sandy Toes owns 11 acres, stretching from one side of the island to the other. The operation is family-owned. One parent is Bahamian, the other Canadian. They’ve now turned over operations to their children, who seem to be doing a nice job of it. The crew seemed to have a good rapport, and we heard it mentioned that a number of them had grown up together. The operation has been around for about 3.5 years. There is a dock for Sandy Toes’ boats on the same side as a reef for snorkeling. On the opposite side is a swimming beach with white sand, a few palapas, beach bar and volleyball net. After a welcome drink, and a short walk, there was time to explore or relax on the beach. There is a casual beach bar, where you can buy additional drinks if you’d like. The beach is beautiful and calm with sparkling aqua water for swimming. A time is given to meet for those who want to snorkel. The snorkeling was decent, and we saw quite a few fish, conch and other creatures. At the end of the snorkel we got a close-up look at a cool white or West Indian Sea Egg, a type of sea urchin. Sandy Toes then served up a nice lunch of fried fish, rice and peas, salads, hot dogs and some sides. It was filling and tasty, just the kind of basic spread we enjoy. After lunch there was more beach time, and for the sportier in the group, a game of beach volleyball. We were back on Paradise Island by 4:30 pm. The day passed by quickly, but it was a nice getaway for the day, and very well-executed by the staff. $79 was a reasonable price for the excursion. Our group was 25-30 people, which was a good size. We were told this was about average for their day trips. Rose Island can accommodate many more. For Spring Break, the Sandy Toes operation is dedicated exclusively to organized groups (think college party time), so check to make sure of the schedule.
Exploring Downtown Nassau
A water taxi runs between Paradise Island and downtown Nassau, leaving you close to the cruise ship docks. It’s $4 each way, and worth doing once for the views on the ride across the harbor. Once on the city side, we oriented our exploration of downtown around a couple of geocaches we wanted to find in the area. Most of the activity of downtown is focused on Bay Street. We skipped the Straw Market. We are completely not shoppers ourselves and have heard that the market is full of the typical “made in China” selection to be found near every cruise ship dock in the world. There may well be some nice things to be had, but we’re on a minimalism track and couldn’t think of a single thing we’d want much less need. Before heading away from Bay Street, we walked through Pompey Square, named for a slave by that name who heroically fought for freedom in the early 1800s.
Geocaching in Nassau
We enjoyed looking at the colorful buildings around Parliament Square. One geocache was a micro cache near the Christ Church Cathedral on George Street. This Gothic structure is a historic landmark, and is built from limestone blocks held together primarily by gravity rather than cement! Our next cache was set on the Frederick Street staircase. These stairs have long been used by locals to get between Downtown Nassau for work to the more residential “over the hill” at the end of the day. On this hill, Mount Fitzwilliam, sits Government House, another landmark. One cool aspect of the staircase is artwork by local Bahamians. There are two pieces mentioned in the cache description: “The first is ‘Rake n Scrape’ by Tyrone Ferguson. Rake n Scrape is a local music tradition in The Bahamas that utilizes household items as instruments. Common items include a drum, spoons, saw with screwdriver and harmonica. The other piece . . . is a set of wooden sculptures by Antonius Roberts . . . a magnificent sculptor with notable pieces over The Bahamas and around the world.”
Queen’s Staircase and Fort Fincastle
Queen’s Staircase leads up Bennet’s Hill to Fort Fincastle (built in 1793). The stairs were carved from solid limestone by slaves in the late 18th Century using hand tools and axes, an amazing feat of construction. The stairs were renamed a century later in honor of Queen Victoria and her 65 year reign (there’s a step for each year). The views from the top are worth the walk.
Diving with Stuart Cove’s
Stuart Cove’s is by far the best known dive operator in Nassau. They’ve been around since the late 1970’s. I dove with them on my last visit in the late 90s, and they’re still going strong. Since that time, the operation seems to have grown quite a lot, and seemed even more glossy and commercial than I remember. Everything was highly organized and professionally run, though it felt a bit impersonal at times. We were picked up from our hotel early, and made it to the Stuart Cove complex in an hour or so. The operation occupies a space that was originally built for the filming of the movie “Flipper.” There was staff everywhere to help get people’s payments processed, paperwork filed and gear distributed.
The company’s most popular trips are the standard two-tank dive and a shark dive. Since we’re not 100% sold on the idea of shark feeding, and prefer to see sharks coincidentally while diving rather than attracting them to the area with food, we opted for the two-tank morning dive. This option includes a deeper “wall dive” and a more shallow reef or wreck dive. Highlights of our wall dive were a beautiful lionfish, spotted moray and green moray eels. Our second immersion was at a spot called “Hollywood Bowl” for the many movies and documentaries shot here. This dive was shallow and easy, and we had plenty of time to explore on our own. In the hour or so we were underwater, we saw countless reef fish, grouper, a nest of lobsters and a big ray gliding by in the distance. Group size was great for such a large operator, and there were only 6 of us certified divers assigned to a dive master. There were two instructors aboard as well, one certifying a couple and one with a single client doing his checkout dive.
What to Eat
One of the benefits of staying in a timeshare is a full kitchen. We walked to the Super Value grocery store the morning after we arrived, and cooked-in four of the nights we were there. We always had coffee and fresh fruit or yogurt in the morning, and a slice of guava cake accompanied most every meal. Best dinner-in was a coconut peas and rice, spicy stewed mustard greens and roasted calabaza (pumpkin). We also purchased a bottle of rum and some beers that kept us happy for the week. Our favorite brew was a rich, dark Bahamian stout, Strongback. We ate out one night at a restaurant at Hurricane Harbor on Paradise Island called the Green Parrott, casual and fun with a good mix of boaters and people who’d just gotten off work at the resorts. Their signature conch po’boy was delicious. Prices were within reason, but still a splurge. Special note on food: we met a guy when we stopped in for a drink at Hammerhead’s Bar on Bay Street who made lobster bread. He happened to have multiple loaves outside in his car, and kindly gave one to us before we left. It was absolutely delicious, and we’re searching for his business card to see if there’s somewhere you can buy it. Our favorite place to eat was over the bridge in Nassau. There are two bridges that connect Paradise Island to New Providence, one carries traffic onto the island, the other off. Potter’s Cay is located on the Nassau side off East Bay Street, beneath the bridge that leads away from Paradise Island.
This area is a commercial dock and home to a lively market with fresh produce as well. The catch that comes in is usually dominated by conch, crabs, rock lobster and local fish. In the late afternoon, rows of stalls with names like Tall Boy, Blue Wave, the Burning Spot and Danny’s Under the Bridge come alive, serving up fresh seafood and cold Kalik and Guiness. Most are small, single owner spots, while there are a couple of larger outfits like Twin Brothers, which has a location at the famous Fish Fry just west of downtown. For bargain prices, we feasted (not all the same day) on conch salad ($10), whole grilled snapper in foil with vegetables, sauce and seasonings, grilled conch and conch fritters. Other specialties on the menus were rock lobster, cracked conch (battered and deep fried) and fish. Conch salad was our favorite, along the lines of a ceviche, with diced conch mixed in with onions, hot chilies, garlic, tomato doused in lime and other citrus juices. Our favorite was made by the young but proficient Azure (pronounced Ah-zoo-ree). Needless to say, Potters Cay was our go-to food spot when we didn’t cook. After eating, it was fun to take a walk out to the eastern edge of the cay and see the big yellow and blue mail boat preparing its cargo to take to the Out Islands.
Out Islands Plan
On a future trip, we’d love to explore some of the Out Islands of the Bahamas. Of the 700 or so islands that make up the Bahamas, about 29 are populated. Three quarters of the population lives in Nassau. What the Out Islands purport to offer is exactly what we seek, an authentic Bahamas experience away from the hi-rise hotels, cruise ships and crowds. We met with a friend one day who works with the tourism board for the Out Islands, and he let us know about just what we were missing. Each of the Out Islands has its own history and character, unique from all the rest. Some specialize in eco-adventures, others diving and water sports, others are purely for beach lovers. There are some great specials going on currently to encourage visitors to explore the Out Islands and all they have to offer. One offers a $250 credit when you book several nights at one of the participating Out Island properties; another is a fuel credit for boaters arriving on their own. It seems like a great deal, one we’d love to take advantage of sometime in the (near) future!
In the end we had a lovely week. While we did feel isolated in the bubble that is Paradise Island, we found plenty to do and see.
Money Tip: Bahamian dollars are worth the same as USD, and either can be extracted from the ATM. Use up your Bahamian dollars before you leave the islands, as you won’t be able to get the same rate for them back home.