Judith follows in Bond’s footsteps and journeys to beautiful Bahamas
In the centre of Nassau’s busy shopping district, the slightly ramshackle Pirate Museum which reminds visitors of the town’s links with infamous Pirates Blackbeard and Cap’n John Morgan, is just a stone’s throw from designer boutiques and jewellery stores such as Diamonds International. I stop to think that the marauders would have needed more than a few pieces of eight to carry anything away from here these days, and head for the more affordable straw market.
But I am struck by how comfortably Nassau mixes its old colourful history and its modern tourism offering. There is a jaunty statue of Christopher Columbus outside Government House where once resided the Duke and Duchess of Windsor after the abdication of Edward VIII.To remove him from the public eye, the Duke was made Governor of The Bahamas until 1945. Down the road is the historic 18th century Graycliff Hotel which has hosted Al Capone and Sir Winston Churchill, among others, while over the bridge on Paradise island rise the towers of Atlantis with their casinos, restaurants and marina of ostentatious yachts.
At no time is Nassau’s tropical glamour more evident than in November, when the fizz of champagne mixes with the revving of car engines during Bahamas Speed Week Revival which brings classic cars from the UK, USA, Europe to race around the island. The original Bahamas Speed Weeks ran in Nassau from 1954 to 1966, traditionally in the first week of December and brought together stars from the USA and Europe in an end of season play off.
After years of planning, car enthusiasts from the Bahamas and around the world received the support they needed to revive the Bahamas Speed week in December 2011, and it is now on its way to being an established annual event in the racing calendar, with that held in November 2012 attracting millions of pounds worth of beautiful machines. I was lucky enough to be taken for a spin in 2012 in a 1970 Gold leaf Lotus élan, driven by Lorina McLoughlin, wife of the organiser David McLoughlin alongside a 1957 Ferrari 500, a Delorean DMS 12 and a blue Aston Martin DB5 fit for Mr Bond himself. A modern addition to the original Speed Week circuit is the 007 island Tour – where cars parade around New Providence Island stopping at points of interest with a James Bond theme.
Much of Casino Royale was filmed on Paradise Island and Daniel Craig waded out of the sea at Albany Resort in his Speedos… It was no coincidence that the Concours d’Elegance line up is at the exclusive Lyford Cay Club which just happens to be home to Sir Sean Connery, who obligingly joined the motorists for lunch last year.
No-one can come to the Bahamas without trying conch. Pronounced konk, this tasty mollusc is the most famous Bahamian delicacy eaten in salads and soups all over the islands. Conch shacks are found all over Nassau especially at Arawak Cay where the motorists enjoyed an informal Fish fry and Bahamian feast, washed down with a local Kalik beer or a BahamaMama, the islands’ own take on the traditional Caribbean Rum Punch.
PEOPLE TO PEOPLE
Looking for a taste of the real Bahamas, I took advantage of the Tourist Board’s ‘people to people’ programme which connects local people willing to open their doors to visitors with travellers who want to experience local customs and ways of life. Steven and Janice invited me into their Nassau home for a meal of home cooked grouper, chicken and conch, washed down with Steven’s ‘Sky Juice’ – a fiery combination of coconut, condensed milk and gin. He even arranged for a couple of local musicians to play in his back yard and the party moved outside to dance beneath the stars. If visitors are interested the hospitality can extend to accompanying visitors to church services, local schools, fishing trips and sporting events.
GET OUT: ISLANDS IN THE STREAM
Away from the noise and excitement on Great Providence, there are 14 Bahamian ‘Out’ islands, some of them home to film stars, some of them mere strips of sand. Here are my five favourites…
The Abacos of the Bahamas were settled by English colonists who remained loyal to the crown after the American Revolutionary War, which is why the settlements like Hope Town on Elbow Cay and New Plymouth on Green Turtle Cay have the look of New England fishing towns complete with picket fences and gingerbread trim. Hope Town is home to the famous candy striped lighthouse, a favourite photo subject now, but quite controversial when it was under construction back in 1863 because up until then, the islands residents had been making a comfortable living by salvaging ships that wrecked on the offshore reefs. Many of the off shore shipwrecks still attract divers today but the Abacos are most famous for their fishing.
Some say the fabled lost city of Atlantis is located on Bimini but for such a small island Bimini is laden with heavyweight literary connections Ernest Hemingway came here to fish and his novel The Old Man and the Sea is set on Bimini. Even Martin Luther King found relaxation on these peaceful shores. Surrounded by Hemingway memorabilia, Lionfish nuggets are the local delicacy at the Bimini Big Game Club situated in tiny Alice town, founded as a dinner club in 1936 by Nassau entrepreneur and bon-vivant, Neville Stuart. The eccentric town also has a number of quirky and memorable beachfront bars and its fair share of local characters, including local historian and author Ashley Saunders who is delighted to show visitors round his Mermaid House, built and decorated with salvaged materials.
The famous pink sand beaches of Harbour Island are home to A listers such as Elle McPherson and India Hicks, who own properties here. The colourfully painted New England-style architecture is set against lush palms trees, flower-lined streets and pretty coastline Approximately 3.5 miles long and only 1.5 miles wide, Harbour Island is located just off the tip of Eleuthera, separated by a narrow channel. Regular ferry service shuttles resort and hotels guests as well as daily visitors from North Eleuthera for a day of exploring and shopping in the picturesque village of Dunmore Town. One of the oldest settlements in The Bahamas, Dunmore Town dates back to the 18th century. It was formerly the capital of The Bahamas and second only to Nassau in importance. Dunmore Town was once the summer home of the Royal Governor, Earl of Dunmore.
English adventurers in search of religious freedom settled on Eleuthera 300 years ago and gave the island its name, which means Freedom, in Greek. With sweet pineapple farms dotting the landscape, Eleuthera has miles of secluded beaches and waves just made for surf-lovers The Glass Window Bridge, where one can see the Atlantic on one side and the Caribbean on the other, is a spectacular stop off on the drive to the pretty seaside Governors town. Although it looks sleepy, the twon bursts into life on Fridays with its weekly fish fry. Live music at a beach front joint like the famous Tippy’s restaurant at Pineapple Fields resort makes for a Bahamian evening to remember
THE EXUMAS AND GREAT EXUMA
The Exumas are a 120-mile-long island chain-within-the-chain of the Out Islands, with the Exuma Cays scattered in a long line extending north toward New Providence from Great Exuma. The Cays are the most exotic of the Out Islands, a collection of tiny jewels set in aquamarine waters. Many of the Exuma Cays are private; some operated as luxuriously exclusive private-island resorts and others the ultra-exclusive homes of such stars as Johnny Depp. The hub of the Exuma Cays is Staniel Cay, where boaters gather at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club’s bar and restaurant, and a landing strip serves as the gateway to the northern stretch of Cays. Within sight of the Club is the famous Thunderball Cave – seen in the James Bond film of the same name as well as the movie Splash – where you can put on a mask and snorkel and duck inside a small hollow cay that’s filled with friendly fish accustomed to being hand fed.The anchor of the Exumas archipelago is Great Exuma, Bahamas. Here is the laid back capital Georgetown and a great selection of casual Bahamian restaurants like Iva Bowes’, Big D’s Conch Shack, Eddie’s Edgewater and Peace & Plenty.
NEED TO KNOW
British Airways operates a direct non-stop service from London Heathrow to Nassau, five days a week. Flight time is approximately nine hours (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com)
Bahamas Air flies between the islands (702-4140; www.bahamasair.com)
Bahamas Ferries, known locally as the Bo Hengy, operates service between the islands including a two hour trip from Nassau to Harbour island (322 8185; www.bahamasferries.com)
Time zone: GMT-5
Currency: Bahamian Dollar, aligned to US Dollar
Best time to go: the weather is usually temperate all year round, but there can be storms in the autumn. Junkanoo is the Bahamas annual festival and major carnival like celebrations take place between Boxing Day and New Years Day throughout the islands. The best time to join the fun, is New Year’s Day in Nassau where throngs of costumed characters fill the streets with music and dancing.