A day in Nassau, Bahamas: What to do while your cruise is in port
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The territory of the Bahamas includes 700 islands and 2,000 rocks and cays spread across 100,000 square miles of the North Atlantic Ocean. Technically, it’s not part of the Caribbean region. It is, however, a warm-weather destination on the edge of the Caribbean and shares many of its cultural traditions, cuisine and music.
When it comes to oceangoing holidays, the Bahamas can accurately be described as the industry’s leading destination, with the capital city of Nassau being cruising’s number one port of call. In 2019, the Bahamas hosted 5.43 million cruise visitors, more than any other global cruise port, and it greeted nearly 1 million more travellers than Cozumel, Mexico, the next most-visited port. Indeed, the modern cruise industry’s first itineraries in the 1970s focused on three- and four-day Bahamas sailings from Miami.
The archipelago’s spectacular natural environment features brilliant blue skies, warm temperatures and exceptionally clear waters. But Nassau, located on 112-mile-long New Providence island, is also a metropolitan centre full of modern amenities and impressive African, Caribbean and colonial cultural and historic sites.
Paradise Island, positioned immediately to Nassau’s north, has large hotels and all-inclusive resorts that offer day packages for cruise visitors, providing access to premium golf (at the Baha Mar resort), casino gaming (at Atlantis) as well as restaurants, shops and nightlife.
Not surprisingly, Nassau is a staple port of call for a wide variety of operators. Carnival Cruise Line, Disney Cruise Line, MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean all sail here, as does luxury line Regent Seven Seas Cruises, premium cruise operators Celebrity Cruises and Oceania Cruises and budget operator Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line. All of those lines will call at Nassau in 2021.
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3 things TPG loves about Nassau
- “Sun and fun” activities
- Historic and cultural attractions
- Distinctive cuisine
What we could do without
Nassau is on an island within a vast archipelago. Many products are necessarily imported and that means prices, including meals at restaurants, can be high. Nassau can also feel a bit “touristy” at times, as the Prince George Wharf cruise ship dock can host as many as five large cruise ships at once. On busy days, cruise travellers are ubiquitous around the downtown area.
Related: Which cruise brand is best for you?
Nassau is extremely popular as a warm-weather getaway destination that’s closer to the U.S. Atlantic Coast than most Caribbean basin countries. As a plus, while technically not located in the Caribbean, Nassau and the Bahamas offers the same splendid sunny skies, brilliant blue waters and amazing culture and traditions.
On the small island of New Providence, Nassau is the capital of the Bahamas archipelago. The port is normally a bustling affair, as disembarking guests walk from the pier to Bay Street, parallel to the water, and the downtown shopping area where you’ll find tour guides and Jet Ski, beach and watersports excursion operators, taxis for hire, scooter rentals, craft and souvenir shops, and hair braiders.
Nassau’s nearby Paradise Island district offers beaches, restaurants and shops as well as the Atlantis megaresort, which is among several properties offering day packages for cruisers in search of a daylong all-inclusive experience. The good news is that, with a little preparation, it will be easy to find the right Nassau activity to fit your personal holiday style.
Cruise ships visiting Nassau dock at the Prince George Wharf within short walking distance of Bay Street and the downtown district. Passengers who are booked on excursions arranged by the cruise line will find providers staged in areas leading from the dock. Private operators, including those who booked tours with guests separate from the cruise line, will be found beyond the first group.
Time zone: The Bahamas operates on Eastern Standard Time.
Language: English is the official language.
Currency: The Bahamian dollar is equivalent to the U.S. dollar. Both are widely accepted, and generally, it’s not necessary to exchange money. If you want to exchange money, you can do so aboard your ship, although you can usually obtain a better rate at a local bank or ATM. Several banks are located on Parliament Street, a short walk from the cruise terminal. Numerous ATMs are also found around downtown.
How to get around
On foot: Many of Nassau’s historic sites and the Bay Street retail district are within walking distance of the cruise ship pier and the downtown area. Bay Street is lined with shops, restaurants and bars, and cruisers so inclined can spend the day strolling the area. Just put on your trainers, disembark your ship, take a few steps and start exploring. There are also ferries to nearby attractions and it’s also possible to rent a car or motor scooter.
By taxi: Taxi operators are staged around the Prince George Wharf area. Taxis are not metered, so always negotiate the fare before entering the vehicle.
By bus: Nassau’s public buses are known as jitneys and offer a thrifty and convenient alternative to car rentals or taxis. The jitneys cost around $1.25 per person and stop at popular spots, including Cable Beach (see below).
Top sights and shore excursions
Nassau is a surprisingly diverse port. Beach lovers and travellers who enjoy water sports, diving or snorkelling will find a wide variety of excursions and activities to suit their tastes. Nassau is also filled with historic sites and shopping opportunities. Yet visitors are missing out on genuine colonial-era history if they don’t also spend time exploring the historic architecture and attractions located steps from the cruise pier. You can book excursions through your cruise line or independently.
Here are some favourite pastimes for cruisers visiting Nassau.
Nassau’s history is closely tied to the Caribbean pirate era of the 17th and 18th centuries, when the town served as a pirate sanctuary until 1718 when British Governor Woodes Rogers expelled the buccaneers. Today’s downtown district offers 20 square blocks featuring architecture and monuments dating to this compelling era, most within walking distance of the cruise pier.
As a result, visitors can take a DIY-approach to exploring Nassau with help from the Bahamas.com website. Or, book a cruise ship excursion highlighting historic forts, Bahamian cuisine, “land and sea” programmes, private island experiences and even Junkanoo-style music and dancing.
Historic sites near Prince George Wharf include Parliament Square, which houses the Bahamas’ House of Assembly, the Senate Building and Supreme Court in pink pastel colonial buildings. A statue of Queen Victoria erected in the early 1900s also stands at the site.
The Queen’s Staircase or “66 Steps” are framed by lush gardens and link downtown Nassau with Fort Fincastle. Ascend to the top of the staircase to reach Fort Fincastle, constructed in the late 1700s atop Bennett’s Hill. Sweeping views from the fort’s bluffs encompass downtown Nassau, the harbour and the cruise ship dock.
Bahamian culture was also shaped by Africans who arrived in the territory as slaves from Sierra Leone and other West African nations. Other Black people travelled to the Bahamas directly from Africa, Bermuda and Haiti, some enslaved by ex-British loyalists from Georgia and South Carolina, and others as ex-soldiers who won their freedom fighting for the British during the American Revolutionary War.
Several historic sites around Nassau recognize this influence, including Adelaide, Fox Hill and Gambier. These three historic villages were settled by liberated Africans in the 1800s and still maintain their African heritage. Cultural and sightseeing tours to these villages can be arranged. Nassau’s Pompey Museum features a permanent exhibit on the African experience in the Bahamas.
Sun and fun: Water sports
Nassau offers a multitude of activities focused around the archipelago’s beautiful blue waters and magnificent natural environment. Just about every conceivable water sport is available to Nassau visitors via cruise ship excursion. This includes sailing, snorkelling, scuba diving, fishing and encounters with sea lions, dolphins, stingrays and pigs (yes, swimming pigs).
Other cruise ship tours feature glass-bottom and jet boat excursions, catamaran sailings paired with reef snorkelling, deep-sea fishing and exclusive beach days with private cabanas.
While the luxurious Baha Mar resort on Nassau’s Cable Beach does not offer day passes, savvy and sybaritic cruisers will reserve a room for the day for access to the property’s premium facilities and amenities, including a private beach and beach club, motorized and non-motorized watersports, a series of pools with shaded lounge chairs, cabanas and waterfall features. You can use 20,000 World of Hyatt points to book a day at the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar. Or, spend 10,000 points plus $140.
The British Colonial Hilton Nassau is another Nassau resort where you can use points. Spend 50,000 Hilton Honors points for a night’s stay (which you’d use as a day room).
You can also look for a resort offering day passes.
ResortPass is currently selling day passes to the SLS Baha Mar for $100 per adult and $50 per child or $400 per Bungalow Pool Cabana or Baha Bay Beach Club Cabana that accommodates up to four people. You can also book day passes at the British Colonial Hilton Nassau for $100 per adult and $50 per child or $325 for a beach cabana accommodating up to four people.
Nassau’s nearby private islands offer a premium beach experience within a 15- to 20-minute ferry ride. Most cruise lines offer shore excursions to Blue Lagoon Island, but travellers can also book a visit through a travel advisor or on their own online. The excursion tends to be popular and does sell out, so be sure to reserve early in your voyage or before you leave home.
At Blue Lagoon, cruisers can swim in a calm lagoon, enjoy kayaking, water-biking or snorkelling tours, play with water toys like floats and inner tubes, or simply relax in a beach hammock under coconut palms. Blue Lagoon offers a gift shop, changing rooms, restrooms and shower facilities.
Balmoral Island, Pearl Island and Sandy Toes also offer private-island experiences near Nassau.
Cruise travellers whose ships arrive early in Nassau may want to take the approximately one-hour drive to Stuart’s Cove, where they can experience snorkelling, diving and swimming with sharks.
Best beaches in Nassau
There’s no shortage of great beaches in and around Nassau. In addition to the nearby private-island beach experiences, there are several local beaches within walking or short driving distance.
Junkanoo Beach is approximately a 15-minute walk from the cruise port, offering travellers an inexpensive and convenient way to enjoy some sun and fun. You can normally see your cruise ship from the nearby beach, and vendors selling buckets of ice-cold Kalik and Sands beer (the local favourites) can be found lining the beach. Don’t forget to bring your towel; chairs are available for rent chairs from vendors. Some will package a bucket of beer with chairs and an umbrella.
Cabbage Beach on Paradise Island is a 20-minute walk or short taxi ride away from Nassau just over the bridge that spans the islands. While beautiful. the beach’s waters can be rough at times and the beach itself does not offer many amenities. However, locals parade up and down the beach offering chairs for rent and beverages sale. A long walk down the beach will bring visitors to Atlantis, where they can pose for their prerequisite Instagram shot.
Cable Beach is about a 20-minute drive from Prince George’s Wharf and is accessible via taxi. A cheaper alternative is the No. 10 bus, which charges around $1.25 per person. The 2.5-mile-long beach is often described as Nassau’s best, but it’s one of hundreds across the Bahamas distinguished by bleach-white sands and remarkably clear blue waters. Cable Beach is home to several top Nassau resorts and offers a full array of watersports activities.
Other top Nassau beaches
Montague Beach is situated east of the Paradise Island Bridge and is home to a historic fort constructed in the 18th century. The beach promenade is a popular hangout on weekends and public holidays, with local vendors offering delicious local food and drinks. The beach is also a preferred spot for wading and picnicking.
Delaporte Beach is west of Cable Beach near the former plantation village of Delaporte. East of Nassau lies Saunders Beach, also popular with visitors and locals, and known for its beautiful twilight views.
The beach at Goodman’s Bay features recreational facilities for children and is popular among joggers and exercise enthusiasts. Sandyport Beach is connected by a small bridge to the Venice-like resort Sandyport development near Cable Beach.
Where to eat and drink
True to its Caribbean traditions, the Bahamas’ indigenous cuisine combines flavorful spices with fresh tropical fruit and seafood. Whether found at a lively outdoor market or gourmet restaurant, Bahamian gastronomy is filled with island flavour.
Conch fritters: A Bahamian delicacy (and fortunately bountiful in local waters), the queen conch forms the basis of the territory’s undisputed favourite dish. Conch fritters are bite-sized flakes of conch meat fried in batter seasoned with goat pepper, hot sauce and sea salt, plus common Bahamian vegetables.
Peas and rice: Referred to locally as “peas n’ rice,” this traditional Caribbean dish, prepared in local Bahamian fashion, features deep brown pigeon peas and white long-grain rice seasoned with tomatoes, onions, thyme, tomato paste, goat pepper and salted pork or bacon. The ingredients combine to provide the rice its signature brown colouring.
Johnny cake: Made of flour, milk, butter, sugar and baking powder, this breakfast food is more bread than cake, with a texture that combines dense bread with a slightly sweet cake. As with other staple dishes, Johnny cakes are found around the Caribbean, with the Bahamas version traditionally baked in a large round pan until lightly browned then sliced and served in wedges.
There are a handful of Nassau food experiences visitors should definitely target during their day in port, from the casual to the exclusive. They include:
Potter’s Cay conch shacks
The Potter’s Cay conch shacks can be found beneath the high-arching bridge that connects Nassau to Paradise Island. Adjacent to lively fruit markets, the brightly coloured conch shacks feature nearly 40 chefs in different shacks cooking fresh conch dishes in myriad ways.
Besides being a great place to sample an authentic Bahamian lunch featuring the freshest conch fritters and local dishes, the Potter’s Cay shacks are a great place to interact with locals, other visitors and the chefs themselves as they chat about the day’s catch and argue over a game of dominoes.
Check first with a local or with a frequent Bahamas visitor (like a travel advisor) to determine which stall is the best for the day. With 25 years in the same location, McKenzie, a former conch fisherman turned restaurateur, is a local celebrity among Potter Cay purveyors, with a shack positioned as the first on the bridge’s west end.
Graycliff Hotel and Restaurant
About a 15-minute walk or a brief taxi ride from the cruise port, Graycliff Hotel is in a historic mansion whose extensive grounds were once an 18th-century pirate’s headquarters. A visitor can spend an entire day exploring the property, which features one of the world’s largest private collections, chocolate-making and cigar-rolling facilities, art galleries and craft shops.
The highlight, however, may be the hotel’s five-star restaurant, an elegant eatery with a menu combining continental and Bahamian traditions. The sumptuous restaurant features four air-conditioned dining rooms and a garden dining area, with each room decorated to reflect the Graycliff’s origins as a private home.
In keeping with its atmosphere, the dress code is strictly enforced at Graycliff Restaurant with required lunch attire described as “elegant casual”.
Where to shop
When you’re shopping in the Bahamas, look for souvenirs like:
- Original paintings, carvings and craftwork
- Handmade garments in bright tropical colours
- Wood carvings
Nassau’s Bay Street retail district is steps of the cruise ship dock, but there are a few hidden shopping spots just a short taxi ride away.
Virtually adjacent to the cruise port is Festival Place, an outdoor bazaar featuring 45 vendors selling crafts, food and drinks. It’s ideal for folks seeking last-minute souvenirs and gifts just before they depart aboard their ship and for arriving passengers in search of shopping close to the port.
Once an open-air affair, Nassau’s long-running Straw Market is located in the centre of the retail action on Bay Street and also offers Bahamian gifts, crafts and souvenirs. Bay Street also features a proliferation of high-end, designer stores selling luxury goods including apparel, jewellery, cosmetics and fragrances.
It’s also possible to take a taxi to reach Nassau’s best-kept secrets when it comes to hand-crafted, original art and crafts, plus apparel and home goods:
Bahama Hand Prints
Established in 1966 by artists Helen Astarita and Berta Sands, Bahama Hand Prints (near the corner of Ernest Street and Okra Hill) offers “bold and brilliant” designs across a wide range of garments, accessories and home furnishings. Many of the colourful and contemporary objects still use the duo’s original designs.
Alannah and David van Onselen, who purchased the company in 2018, have retained Helen and Berta’s signature style and the shop’s collection of vintage designs, while new print designs have been added to the catalogue. All products are developed in-house, crafted by the shop’s talented sewing team and visitors are encouraged to drop in at the factory, speak with the staff and watch the printers at work.
Craft Cottage Bahamas
Craft Cottage Bahamas is the premier showcase for locally made home décor, glassware, jewellery, soaps, clothing and artwork in Nassau. On the grounds of the Doongalik Studios & Art Gallery in Eastern Nassau, the charming shop and gallery features a diverse and eclectic array of Bahamian-inspired items and emphasizes traditional crafting techniques.
The facility is housed in a traditional Bahamian-style home that shares the grounds with a variety of local Bahamian artists who also use the property to work on their own art and products. The shop offers an extensive and impressive array of handcrafted jewellery, painted glass, straw bags and accessories including homemade soaps and bath products.
While Nassau sometimes gets a bad rap as a “touristy” port of call and is often inundated by cruise travellers, the Bahamas’ capital city is actually a diverse port with an impressive array of historic attractions, a variety of beach experiences, distinctive cuisine and extensive shopping opportunities. Nassau’s Caribbean flavour, warm temperatures and beautiful natural environment have made the port a staple on cruise itineraries.
Featured image by Daniel Piraino/EyeEm/Getty Images
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