Some changes happen on purpose, and some are by accident. That was my takeaway when recently revisiting Nassau, 27 years after getting acquainted during a short cruise to the Bahamas.
In 1990, a cruise (on the Mardi Gras, Carnival’s first ship) meant seasickness in a budget room with no porthole and too much rum punch served in sturdy pint jars. Sunbathing meant lounging on unpadded beach chairs, scattered around the teak-covered lido deck.
Little boots from the trip, woven from straw, still go onto my Christmas tree. They are modest souvenirs from the Nassau Straw Market, where vendors weaved placemats and purses while cheerfully hawking their wares as tourists browsed. Prices for handmade straw hats, ornaments and much more were all about bantering and bartering.
The backstory: Locals first wove baskets for practical reasons, such as to carry food, then realized tourism was another outlet for income. The straw market, an easy walk from the dock, opened many decades ago and even carriage-hitched horses wore a straw hat.
Nassau kick-started lovely memories from simpler times, but my how things have changed. Bigger ships, better stabilizers and smart technology to avoid churning waters mean much smoother sailing. The modern-day straw market is enclosed and enlarged, but gone are the authenticity, charm and energy. Long before sunset, an alarming number of booths are closed.
An arsonist destroyed the market and momentum in 2001. Now most of the 400-some stalls stock the same kind of cheap mementos, it’s hard to find crafts made with straw and harder to find a vendor who weaves.
When a cruise ship is docked in Nassau, the Bahamas’ capital and on New Providence island, shore excursions favor adjacent Paradise Island, home to the mega resort Atlantis. I remember gambling there, and that’s certainly still possible, but now additional draws include seaside golfing, miles of beaches, a 141-acre waterpark and 15 lagoons with 50,000 marine animals.
“World’s largest open-air marine habitat” is how Atlantis bills its unusual menagerie, but the resort is not the only worthy Nassau attraction.
A five-minute taxi ride from the Nassau cruise terminal is Ardastra Gardens, home to around three dozen flamingos, national bird of the Bahamas. Some of these federally protected “ballerinas in pink,” as National Geographic described them in 1957, prance in unison during daily shows in a little arena. Nearby, visitors pay to hand-feed gorgeous lory parrots.
The four-acre and non-profit tropical garden is a nature and wildlife conservancy.
A 10-minute walk from shore is Graycliff, a hotel and restaurant in a 1740 colonial mansion with lush gardens. Small-batch production of wine, chocolates and rum happen here – but the best show is the complicated business of cigar rolling.
It costs $10 to see master cigar rollers at work, or pay more for a 1.5-hour rolling lesson with rum tasting. Each of the 16 master rollers is an expert in at least one part of the cigar-making business. It’s a fascinating tour, but be prepared: Some smoke as they work.
Size up the menu of other tours, cooking demos, massages and day stays at graycliff.com.
Across the street from Graycliff is the Heritage Museum of the Bahamas, whose collections include an extensive and alarming array of slavery artifacts.
For the stories that go along with these items, check out Pompey Museum, near the straw market, a repository that burned twice but survives to revisit the tales of Bahamas slavery and emancipation.
In the Bahamas are 700 islands, most not developed for tourism. The port at Nassau is among the Caribbean’s biggest for cruise ships, and the city was left relatively unscathed after the 2017 hurricane season.
Havoc from hurricanes Irma and Maria still affects tourism in roughly 30 percent of the Caribbean, whose 7,000-plus islands stretch from Cuba to Trinidad and Tobago (a two-island nation).
“The best way to help the Caribbean is to visit the Caribbean” is an ongoing mantra from the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association.
Among the islands still recovering: Anguilla, Barbuda, British Virgin Islands, Dominica, Puerto Rico, St. Barts, St. Croix, St. John, Sint Maarten, St. Martin and St. Thomas. Track their progress at caribbeantravelupdate.com.
How does a captain decide when to reroute a ship and when to resume the original itinerary? Evaluation teams routinely assess ports in precarious situations, severe weather to political unrest, says Capt. Edward van Zaane of the Nieuw Amsterdam, which accommodates 2,106 passengers on the Holland America Line.
“It’s all based on safe navigation,” he says.
Many factors come into play, water depth to passenger safety on shore. Pier damage and changing water depth matter. So does the ability for visitors to walk or be transported somewhere interesting while ashore.
“The whole infrastructure has to be available” before cruise ship business resumes at a port, the captain explains.
Cruise through winter vacation homework with:
Cruising.org – to learn about cruise vacations.
Cruisecompete.com – to easily compare cruise prices.
Cruisechatlive.com – to see what’s new on cruise ships. Go to Twitter.com from 1-2 p.m. Tuesdays for a real-time #cruisechat.