(I don’t know what happened to this post from last year, but it never went live! I figured better late than never, right… I often get put into the ‘travel’ blog category even though I’m more of an expat than a traveler. So here’s a post from my travels!)
What can you do with just five days in the Bahamas? Actually, a lot!
I made a quick trip to Nassau in the Bahamas last year when I was in Florida to try and get a visitor B1/B2 visa for the US so that I could work on foreign yachts that were entering US waters. Side note: my visa got denied, if you’re trying to get this visa do not listen to anyone else – you have to apply at the US embassy in your HOME country, not any other country. So while I loved seeing the Bahamas, this was a pretty expensive waste of time for me. But I figured I might as well make the most of it while I was there!
Where I Stayed
Junkanoo Beach Resort is an unpretentious hotel right across the street from Western Esplanade Beach (also called Junkanoo Beach…in Roatan English, junkanoo means a scarecrow or someone acting ridiculously stupid… not sure if it has the same meaning here!) – not the best beach in Nassau by any means but accessible with nice sand, palm trees and plenty of beer and snack stands right on the beach. I picked this hotel for its downtown location so I could walk to restaurants (and the US embassy!) It was more than adequate for the price (a beach view room with queen size bed was around $100 US per night with wifi and A/C). Very clean, great view and friendly staff.
|the view from our room
The only issue was construction going on next door but I’m sure that’s completed by now, and some difficulty in getting towels a couple times. Nothing major. Best of all, it was very easy walking distance to the Fish Fry (more on that later) and some lovely beach promenade walking. I thought it was a nice touch that the resort offered rotating daily activities like karaoke, PS3 contests, BBQs, movie nights and more. The restaurant in the bottom served a decent inexpensive breakfast around $5. We spent a few afternoons on the beach watching the cruise ships going in and out and a few early evenings on the hotel deck by the pool. I found it to be pretty relaxing despite the main thoroughfare of downtown running between the hotel and the beach. Honking was minimal compared to other countries I’ve visited. Be warned: they drive on the left in the Bahamas – this made crossing the street an adventure for the first couple days!
Where I Played (or: Where I Got Stressed the Hell Out)
Obviously, I had to go diving! I was traveling with a friend who was a novice diver and we booked a two-tank morning dive with Stuart Cove’s, the biggest dive operation on New Providence Island where Nassau is located. We booked online and the cost was $125, which was a little expensive to me since we had all our own gear, but I am spoiled by cheap dive prices on Roatan. (An Open Water course was over $1000!!! I’ll be mentioning that the next time I hear someone complaining about $400 courses here.) The dive shop does a daily route pick up in a big bus for divers which was great – they picked us up right on time at our hotel. After check-in (a somewhat overwhelming process due to the sheer volume of people…this is a big dive operation) we were directed to our boat, which was loaded with tanks. We had to set up our own gear (again, totally spoiled in Roatan with valet diving service) and then we waited for the divemaster. Once he got on board with the captain we did a roll call, which was necessary – there were 16 divers on the boat with one divemaster! (The max at my shop is 8 divers per divemaster, usually with an assistant divemaster at the back of the group.) He did a really short, basic dive briefing. I was totally fine as I’m a dive instructor, but I wondered about the experience level of the others on the boat and if they were comfortable with such a large group and unable to get personal attention. Divers are always taught to listen to their gut, and I didn’t do it here.
We went to the first site and I slid to my preferred position at the back of the group with my buddy….I can’t stand the clusterfuck that divers turn into when they’re following the divemaster and all cram in together trying to look at the stuff he’s pointing out. I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to guide this dive for my buddy since the group was so large and the divemaster so far up front, and began pointing out stuff for him. My buddy was a little nervous and ended up getting relatively low on air a short distance before reaching the drop off at the wall. I watched the divemaster and the rest of the group disappear over the wall without us, so I had to decide what to do. I was uncomfortable with the idea of sending up my safety marker and surfacing there because I’m not familiar with the area or if boats respect the markers and stay clear of them. I decided that I had a close enough idea where the boat was tied up, so I led my buddy back towards the boat.
On the way, I found a lady and her 10 year old son in full-blown underwater panic as they had been separated from the group without noticing it (they were brand new divers) and they lost the group, and she didn’t know what to do. She was crying in her mask when I found her and her son was clutching her arm. They had less than 500psi left in their tanks and were down at 50ft (this could have been dangerously low on air in a few short minutes with their rapid stressed breathing). For my non-diver readers: this was an underwater disaster just waiting to happen. Thankfully I had my slate, and I wrote to her, “I know where the boat is and I’m taking my buddy back. Follow me.” I immediately worked us up to 20ft, found the boat quickly and on our 3 minute safety stop I had to give her my primary air source, gave her kid my alternate, and I took my buddy’s alternate (he was low on air as well, but less so, and I knew I would breathe less than panicky stressed divers, so that’s why I took his and gave them mine).
Once we surfaced and got on the boat (to a very surprised but helpful boat captain) she apologized over and over and was visibly shaken, but they were okay. They refused to get in the water on the second dive and I later heard they canceled the rest of their diving reservation. You guys, I think about this woman and her kid every single time I teach a course or take new divers out. All the time I think, what would have happened to them if my buddy hadn’t ran low, if I hadn’t made the decision to turn back? I’m so grateful I was in the right place at the right time, and I use this story as an example now when I’m teaching a course so that hopefully other new divers can learn from it. You have to stay with the group, but you also have to know what to do in the unlikely event that you get separated. Paying attention to your air and staying calm at all times when diving is essential.
After the captain picked up the divemaster and the other divers, I tried to explain to the divemaster what happened – he was a super happy and polite local but really didn’t seem to care that he had lost four of his divers (including 2 brand new divers, one of which was a 10 year old who had special depth restrictions) and he just kept on going with the other divers. What if we had an accident? To me he seemed a bit blasé about it… not sure if this is a regular occurrence or what. On Roatan if you lose a diver, you lose your job. I can understand why he wasn’t super concerned about me (I had told him pre-dive when he asked that I was a dive instructor with over 500 dives, but I’m still a paying customer!) but to not know where two brand new divers are on a dive is seriously bad business. On the second dive, the divemaster made it clear that he was going down for 20 minutes, circling around a small shallow wreck so whoever wanted to follow him could do so, and then going up to the boat and waiting for us all to come up. We were told we could stay down as long as we had air. The bottom was at about 45 ft. and it was just a plateau with no wall, so nowhere for people to really go. I told my buddy we were doing our own thing and we jumped in. We went around the little wreck (and I went through it) and it was okay, nothing special. My buddy was low on air after 30 minutes so I sent him up and watched him do a safety stop and get on the boat. I decided to stay down since there were plenty of people around that I could have reached if necessary, and I had paid for two dives and didn’t even get to enjoy the first one.
I moved over to the hard coral on the plateau to try to see what kind of macro (small) life this reef had to offer. It was mostly dead and not terribly interesting, but I just tried to relax and enjoy it. I saw that I had gotten a bit far from the group (I could still see them, but without a buddy they were farther away than I would have liked) so I started moving back, and then I saw a flash of gray beside my eye – I was suddenly face to face with a Caribbean reef shark!
|not the actual shark, but you get the idea! (source)
All I could think about was what my instructor had told me during my Shark Diver specialty course: “Stay with your buddy because sharks are always interested in things that are by themselves”. Ha! A little late for that. I looked a the shark moving around me, remember that she’s just interested in me and wants to know what I am, exhaled and thought about how lucky I was to get to hang out with this little girl underwater by myself (she was a juvenile, only about 4ft). Sharks can totally sense your energy so I just stayed calm, finned slowly toward the group while keeping and eye on her and cursed myself for not having a camera. It was a pretty incredible experience, just me and the shark by ourselves. She kept up and swam beside me, and I wasn’t scared (I’ve done the shark dive on Roatan over 20 times and seen hammerheads and nurse sharks while on dives) but I wasn’t sure if anyone had seen that I was over there by myself so I inched towards the group and the shark took off. When I got back on the boat the other divers were yelling and said they had all seen me swimming side by side with the shark and wondered if I was a little bit crazy 🙂
We headed back to the shop and unloaded our gear, rinsed it and packed it up to get back on the bus. The divemaster was not shy about asking for tips for himself and the captain. I tipped the captain who was great, but not the divemaster as he did absolutely nothing for me on either dive. (Note: I tried to speak with management that day and again via email about my experience and never received a response.) It seems like there are plenty of people who enjoy a big operation like this and have great diving experiences, but I am not one of them. Since I only went for one day, I wouldn’t base your decision just off my experience, but if you are a new or nervous diver I recommend getting a private guide if you’re going to dive here. I always recommend smaller and more personal shops for new or nervous divers though. Stuart Cove’s is probably a great operation if you have a large group of all experienced divers. On the plus side, the retail shop had awesome products and by far the nicest dive shop shirts for purchase I’ve ever seen!
What I Saw
After my travel buddy left (he just came for the weekend and I stayed 5 days) I had some pretty long days to fill solo. The first place I explored was Ardastra Gardens. I do not like supporting zoos normally, but this one has endangered animals and focuses on conservation, so I guess it’s not the worst? I was very pleased to see the cages were large and well-kept and there weren’t any big non-native animals like lions, giraffes or elephants. Also within reasonable walking distance of my hotel for fit people – about 30 minutes. You have to go down some winding roads but I never felt unsafe and had several people and signs pointing me in the right direction. I paid the entrance fee, was given a map of the grounds and set out on my adventure.
The first place I arrived was the lory parrots – you can go into their cages with them and feed them! It was a really controlled process with a guide to make sure we were interacting safely with the lories. They were so colorful and cute!
I also watched their famous ‘marching flamingoes’ show, which I left halfway through. They are Caribbean flamingos that are still considered threatened because of how many were killed for meat in the 1940s and 50s. Apparently they’ve been doing this marching show for years….it’s mostly just a guy running around after flamingos yelling “left turn”, “halt”, etc. and they do what he says. It was the first time I’ve ever seen a flamingo up close though, so that was kind of cool.
|i’m sure you can’t tell this oversaturated mess is from instagram
After Ardastra Gardens, I headed over to Ft. Charlotte because I am a ridiculous historic site nerd. This one was a bit of a challenge to find on foot. I had to ask about 15 people for directions and walk over a hill that appeared to be someone’s yard but I made it. I was the only person at the whole site and was heavily pressured into paying $5 for a guide (after the $5 entrance fee). I didn’t know if I needed one and I figured I was supporting the local economy so I got a guide and away we went. She took me through the site, which was small with plenty of signs and I quickly realized I could have saved that $5. They said it was 100 acres, and maybe the land is, but the building is not very big. She went on in a monotone speech and rushed through places before I had a chance to look at/photograph things. At then end I ended up just going through it backwards and reading all the signs. I really liked seeing the original 18th and 19th century ‘graffiti’ of ships and initials carved into the walls. It was worth an afternoon visit, but if I did it again I would go without a guide.
Yes, I Went to Atlantis
It would be weird to go to Nassau and not visit Atlantis. We reached this absolute behemoth of a resort & waterpark by a cheap and short ferry ride near the cruise ship dock. Our ride was peppered with a local guy droning on and on about the history of Nassau and pointing out places that had been used in James Bond movies, and then asking for tips when the ferry docked. (Typical of a massive cruise ship call port, the locals are not shy about asking for tips in Nassau, a practice I understand but absolutely abhor.)
Once arriving at the resort, we checked out the maps and tried to fit in as much as possible during an afternoon/early evening. We toyed with the idea of dropping some cash for a day pass, but for over $100 we figured we’d just go around and access what we could without one.
You guys, this place is MASSIVE. I can’t even describe how big it is. We walked around for hours and hours and only covered about a quarter of it. The main building is as big as an airport, with a movie theater, comedy club, spas and restaurants galore, retail shops, arcade, casino and clubs. There is a dolphin cay, huge aquarium, stingray experience, waterslide that goes through a shark tank (!!), golf course, fitness center, tennis courts, approximately seven million swimming pools and tons more. I could not get over the size.
We wandered around the Aquaventure waterpark, the aquarium, unused ballrooms, indoor and outdoor lagoons and then stopped for a game of outdoor ping pong near the waterslide. It was close to the end of the day and I wanted to find The Dig, a marine habitat where you wind through pathways underground to see into the lagoons and aquariums and visit a touch tank with conch, crab & sea cucumbers. Obviously this was right up my alley! We went in circles trying to find it and after an hour finally realized it was right next to where we started searching. I guess because it was at the end of the day there was no one there to check wristbands (this exhibit and many others are free for resort guests, but visitors need a day pass) and we went straight in, and no one asked us for a pass or wristband (there, or anywhere that we went!) As much as I don’t like the idea of aquariums these were large and well-tended.
|in my defense, i had just been attacked by a moray eel on roatan before this trip. so i was harboring a little resentment when i saw these guys.
After finally finding the Dig, when we exited we found ourselves at the high-end Japanese restaurant Nobu (yes, that Nobu) where my traveling partner completely spoiled me with some very expensive dinner and drinks. We sat at the sushi bar and got to interact with the chefs which was cool. I didn’t take many photos here because I didn’t want to look like a hillbilly with my iPhone in this gorgeous restaurant, but I will never forget this sushi as long as I live:
After dinner we did some evening strolling around and then walked back downtown to the hotel (no issues at all with that – it was only 20 minutes and very safe with many people around).
What I Ate
While I wish I could have eaten at Nobu for every meal, I am sad to report that I ate plenty of Subway, Starbucks and McDonalds on this trip. The food at the restaurants in Nassau is extremely expensive, a 15% non-negotiable gratuity is added onto everything (with piss-poor service to boot) and I just didn’t find the price justified anywhere we ate. I was a little sad about that. Other than Nobu, I didn’t have a good meal anywhere. I made a few grocery store trips and stocked up on non-perishables that I could snack on, and ate a few inexpensive meals at the restaurant in the bottom of my hotel. Food is an important part of my travels, and this place was a flop for me. Bummer.
We did do some exploring over at the Fish Fry on Arawak Cay, which is a collection of harborside shacks and restaurants all about FOOD (so, my favorite place). I had some amazing ‘conch salad’ (which I guess more accurately would be conch ceviche, as it’s not cooked) made fresh right in front of me, washed down with the omnipresent local beer, Kalik…and served with a smile:
There are lots of fresh conch stands around, as well as full-service restaurants featuring lobster and shrimp, and bars (get a Sky Juice, thank/hate me later) and while it was a bit touristy there were still plenty of locals rounding out the place. Prices were more reasonable than downtown – I guess we can thank the cruise ship port for that. Overall, it was a tasty and fun way to spend an afternoon and it’s one of those things you just have to do if you’re here. I got a kick out of eating so much conch – it’s a protected species on Roatan and is illegal to harvest so I never eat it here. Imagine my initial shock at seeing an entire mini-island made of conch shells behind a restaurant!
What I Thought Overall
Maybe I would have enjoyed Nassau more if I was a cruise ship traveler doing packaged excursions or had plenty of disposable income. I thought the beaches were drop-dead gorgeous (much nicer than on Roatan) but the reef was in worse condition and the water was colder! The prices in many stores and restaurants were ridiculously high, and that 15% non-optional gratuity for terrible service at restaurants really jerked my chain. I was a bit disappointed in the nightlife – there didn’t seem to be any. Maybe it was outside of town more, away from the tourists, but everything seemed to close up around 6pm and we couldn’t find anything to do at night. We asked local taxi drivers, people in stores, people in restaurants, but couldn’t get an answer. Maybe they didn’t want the gringos invading their off-the-clock space, which I totally understand. But it was pretty boring at night. It seemed to be a town catering solely to cruise ship tourists, who descend in hordes during the day and then leave before dinner.
Generally, I found most local people extremely pleasant and polite in Nassau which is quite common in the Caribbean. It was interesting to hear a different style of local patois in contrast to the island creole I’m used to hearing here on Roatan. No one harassed me when I was out by myself which was so nice – even on Roatan I (and every other female over 13) am catcalled, hollered at, propositioned to and all kinds of other crap any time I go anywhere solo. No one bothered me at all in Nassau and everyone I passed had a smile and a “good morning/afternoon/evening” which was really pleasant. The men were very respectful and the women (who all seemed to be stunning by the way, what an amazing gene pool!) were so friendly.
Overall, it was a decent trip, but I would do a lot differently if I went again. The scenery was beautiful but it was just too expensive for my taste for what I received. I bet this was a great destination before the cruise ships got a hold of it – I wish I would have seen it before.