Cruise Ports on Your Own: How We Do Nassau, Bahamas

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The straw market in Nassau isn’t what it used to be.

As the rain pelts down on us here in Toronto on a blustery early spring day we have wonderful memories of our most recent cruise through the Caribbean. First stop: Nassau in the Bahamas.

Not strictly speaking actually in the Caribbean (it’s actually in the Atlantic), Nassau is the capital of the Bahamas and isn’t actually an island. The island is New Providence, but no one ever seems to say they’re going to New Providence, rather they say they’re going to be in Nassau since the city does dominate. Nassau has long been a favorite winter vacation spot for Canadians although in recent years that has skewed more toward Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba (yes, there are hundreds of actual resorts in Cuba contrary to the impression you might get from the American media recently) because of the price differential: The Bahamas is much more expensive, but it does make for a nice day ashore when cruising in.

Although it’s sometimes sensible to take a ship’s shore excursion – first-time visits to European ports come to mind – we try to avoid them when at all possible. The reasons will fill a future story, but for now just accept that discerning travelers prefer to be on their own or with a private guide! Avoiding the dreaded shore excursion means that we often like to self-direct our day ashore. Here’s how we did Nassau.

A familiar stop for us, Nassau is like an old friend and we knew exactly where we were headed when we left the ship that day. We do love the chance to walk a distance so we planned our route from the cruise terminal left along Bay Street toward one of the two bridges to paradise Island (one takes traffic in one direction the other takes it in the opposite, but you can walk in either direction on both). It’s about a 1.6 km (about a mile) walk to the bridge – takes about 20 minutes going through the part of downtown that has seen better days. We hadn’t been there for about four years and the recession seems to have taken hold.

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Atlantis, Paradise Island

We then headed up and over the bridge. That end of Paradise Island is dominated by the monstrously large Atlantis Resort complex. We spent a week there a number of years ago and if you haven’t ever been there before, it might just be worth taking an excursion that gives you access to their acres and acres of property, lagoons, beaches, impressive aquariums and the lot. We just walked over and back along the farther bridge that passes over the Potter’s Cay Fish Shacks and back to East Bay Street.

 

We retraced our steps and then went on past the cruise terminal along the part of Bay Street where the requisite duty-free shops and souvenirs are located. There is little about all of this that is Bahamian, but a visit to the storied Nassau Straw Market is designed to make you feel closer to the authentic Bahamas. Sadly, that is no longer true.

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Most of the ‘straw’ isn’t local!

Historically, the straw market showcased the traditional skills of plaiting, braiding and weaving of straw into myriad baskets, hats and other kitschy products. You used to even be able to watch the process. These days you’ll find more ‘straw’ hats from China, T-shirts and hordes of other trinkets from as equally far-flung places than traditional hand-crafted products. But if you look closely, you will find a Bahamian straw product or two. We didn’t spend much time there.

 

We walked along Bay Street as far as the British Colonial Hilton, a hotel where Art stayed too many years ago to even count now! Across the street there used to be a terrific spot for conch fritters, a must-try when visiting the Bahamas. Sadly, it, too had closed, and the space was forlorn and empty.

With that we made our way back to the ship to toast another warm and breezy Bahamian day.

 

If you have a few minutes, we invite you to come on that walk with us…

The relaxation of ‘return’: Cruising well-loved Caribbean islands

Like most people, we travel for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we travel to visit family and friends far away; mostly we travel to experience new and exciting places and cultures. However, from time to time we travel simply for an opportunity to relax, and there is nowhere better to relax than places we know and love for their laid-back ambience. For us that laid-back ambience is exemplified nowhere better than the Caribbean – and the most relaxing way for us to visit islands we know and love is on a cruise line that we also know and love. We’re just back from three weeks doing just that, and it was just what the doctor ordered.

Leaving behind a snowy Toronto (oddly that day it did snow although the winter, by and large, has had very little of the white stuff), we waited with sixteen aircraft in front of our plane for the inevitable de-icing that characterizes any kind of air travel in a Canadian winter, then waited in an equally long line-up to take off. But it was worth it.

After six days in Miami Beach (we’ll tell you about that and South Beach’s art deco history in the next few weeks) we boarded our transportation that would take us back to islands we’ve visited many times in the past. That transportation for this trip was Oceania’s Riviera, an elegant and quiet 1200-passenger beauty. We were bound south and planned to enjoy each of the stops on our own terms – NO shore excursions with gaggles of other people!

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A view of part of the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island from one of the two bridges that connects it with Nassau.

Our first stop was Nassau in the Bahamas where we’ve been many times over a period of some thirty years. Not strictly speaking in the Caribbean – it’s the Atlantic really – Nassau has changed over the years. We took a long walk from the cruise pier through the main street of Nassau and over the bridge to Paradise Island. The first time we visited that little island it was dotted with small resort properties like a Holiday Inn and Flagler Hotel, not to mention Club Med in more recent years. Now, however, it’s been gobbled up by Atlantis, where we have actually spent a week-long vacation in the past, one of the most expensive for this kind of vacation for us. The Atlantis complex has practically taken over the island these days. Back over the bridge, we visited the well-known straw market to find that it has disappointedly changed with hand-made straw products vastly outnumbered by trinkets and T-shirts imported from Asia. And not a single local woman actually making a basket on the premises. Pity.

 

Then we arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico. When we first visited this island, we weren’t impressed – perhaps it had something to do with the ‘shore excursion’-type experience. However, on subsequent visits where we actually stayed on the island, we came to love it for its mix of the new and the old. On this visit we returned to a numbers of spots in old San Juan including Senor Lopez’s wonderful vintage and estate jewelry shop which is now run by his widow. [We wrote about it in more detail here.]

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Old colonial architecture in old San Juan

Next stop was Gustavia in St. Barth’s. The last time we were there we toured the island; this visit we confined ourselves to exploring the town of Gustavia. A little bit of France in the Caribbean, Gustavia is home to a variety of the best-loved high-end French brands. But we were on a mission to visit the French Pharmacie so that Patty could purchase several French drug-store products that you can’t buy elsewhere.  Stuffed to overflowing with brands like LaRoche Posay, Emryolisse, Bioderma, Vichy, Nuxe and Caudalie to name only a few, a French Pharmacie is nothing like drug stores in North America and always worth a visit!

 

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The beautiful little harbor in Gustavia, St. Barth’s

When we arrived in St. John’s, Antigua, we were looking forward to revisiting an island we had spent a vacation on a few years go and that we loved. Unfortunately, it was crawling with cruise ship passengers from several mega-ships and we gave the town short shrift noting that some aspects seem to have deteriorated since our last visit.

 

We then arrived on the scene of our honeymoon some 28 years ago: the island of St. Lucia. The last time we visited the island about four years ago, we took an island tour and noted that Castries, the capital seemed as down-trodden as ever. We were pleasantly surprised on this visit to see that St. Lucia seems to have weathered the recession better than some other islands. The town was vibrant, hopping and wonderfully hot.

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The lovely boardwalk along the beachfront in Phillipsburg

St. Maarten was our last island visit. Having spent several wonderful holidays here before, we were looking forward to our early-morning stroll along the boardwalk in Phillipsburg. Morning is the very best time to do this since most people on cruise ships are off on those shore excursions and won’t return to town until later in the afternoon. So we had it all to ourselves. A quick pop into the Flip-Flop shop where Patty always buys her flip-flops and then we were back to the ship.

 

In spite of this being a kind of return for us – no surprises to speak of – there is still much to tell you about. Stay tuned as we tell you stories about learning new skills while on vacation, Art Deco architecture in South Beach including the Blue Moon Hotel where we stayed, and how we plan independent cruise port visits – eschewing those cattle calls they refer to as shore excursions.