Don't Miss in Nassau
Though not quite as varied or option-plentiful as major duty-free destinations like St. Thomas and St. Maarten, shopping is a mainstay on Nassau. The Straw Market is a Nassau tradition, and you'll find all sorts of souvenirs on sale, from thatched purses to hair-braiding. The market officially reopened in its original location in December 2011. (It was destroyed by a fire in 2001 and relocated until a new $12 million facility could be built.) You'll find the rebuilt market, which houses more than 450 vendors, on Bay Street.
Duty-free shopping, centered on Bay Street, features the usual suspects, such as Diamonds International, Colombian Emeralds and Bacardi. Other retailers familiar to cruise travelers include Del Sol (for merchandise that changes color in the sun), Gucci, Harley Davidson and Tortuga.
Head over to the man-made island of Arawak Cay, a beach dusted with pastel-colored shacks, incredibly fresh conch from vendors cracking the mollusks right before your eyes, fried fish and grits, lime-marinated conch and plenty of coconut milk laced with gin. The strip known as Fish Fry is popular, especially with the locals, and it gets very crowded, especially on weekend evenings from 5 p.m. until midnight. It's located on the harbor, across from Fort Charlotte.
Pink flamingos, honey bears and peacocks, oh my! You'll find all this and more at Ardastra Gardens, Zoo and Conservation Centre. Wait until you see the flamingos parade in drill formation (10:30 a.m., 2:15 p.m. and 4 p.m.). It's open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (last entrance at 4:10 p.m.) and is located on Chippingham Road.
If you'd rather just spend the day as a guest at the showy, 34-acre Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, consider purchasing a hard-to-come-by day pass, which gets you access to most of the must-see sights at the resort, such as the Dig, the marine habitats and their beach. What you won't get is the fun stuff around the pools and waterslides. You'll see a kiosk selling the passes by the cruise terminal -- or you can try to purchase one at the resort.
One of many scenic spots with a history on the island is the balcony of 18th century Balcony House, which also happens to be Nassau's oldest wooden structure. Step inside this island landmark to see the mahogany staircase, said to have been salvaged from a shipwreck in the mid-1800s. (Trinity Place at Market Street; open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursdays)
For dolphin encounters of the bottlenose kind and seven stunning beaches, head for Blue Lagoon Island (aka Salt Cay). If it looks a bit familiar, you saw it in the film Splash. (The beach scenes were filmed there.) There are plenty of water sports to try and hammocks in which to idle, but for all things dolphin, make sure you plan ahead. You'll find plenty of amenities, such as showers and changing rooms, too. Catch the ferry from the cruise terminal.
One of the most popular cultural stops on the island is the 18th-century Fort Charlotte. It's fun to roam the dungeons and underground passageways and see the waterless moat -- but some say the amazing views of the harbor from the ramparts is the real attraction. Two other forts worth checking out are Fort Fincastle (overlooking the town from Bennet's Hill) and Fort Montagu (E. Bay Street), but Fort Charlotte is the largest. (Chippingham Road; open Monday through Saturday, with tours available from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; admission is free)
If you're in port on a Saturday, you might get to see the changing of the guard at the Government House (every other week) from 10 a.m. to noon on Duke Street, accompanied by the music of the Royal Bahamas Police Force Band. The official residence of the governor-general of the Bahamas since 1801, this bubblegum-pink mansion is an excellent example of Bahamian-British and American Colonial architecture.
Kids love the Pirates of Nassau, an interactive museum filled with pirate stuff. They can walk through a 75-foot, three-masted pirate ship, too. (Marlborough Street; open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 9 a.m. to noon Sunday; tours are scheduled every half-hour)
We dare you to take a royal climb up the 66 steps of the Queen's Staircase, which was carved out of calcareous -- a coral-based sandstone -- at the end of the 18th century. The stupendous view is the prize for such athleticism. (Elizabeth Avenue)
Hop aboard the Seaworld Explorer for a 90-minute submarine tour. Think underwater observatory as you descend five feet below the water to observe the "sea gardens" through large glass windows. It's open daily and offers a tour at 11:30 a.m.; they add an additional tour at 1:30 p.m. from December through June. You must make reservations. (Bay and Elizabeth streets)
For an easygoing pool/beach day, the British Colonial Hilton
offers a day pass for $40 that includes beach chairs, use of nonmotorized water toys, towels and a $30 credit for food and beverages. (So you wind up paying $10 for the beach.) The hotel is an easy stroll from the ship.
The Cloisters -- right in front of the Ocean Club -- is a 14th-century structure, built in France by Augustinian monks and reassembled in Nassau, stone by stone. Huntington Hartford, the A&P grocery heir, purchased the cloisters from the estate of William Randolph Hearst in San Simeon, California. This is one of only four cloisters to have been removed from France. It's located on Paradise Island.
Under the heading of Mardi Gras fun, check out the museum dedicated to the flashy Junkanoo Festival (a middle-of-the-night event the days after Christmas and New Year's Day) at the Junkanoo Expo. It's a chance to see the humongous costumes and floats. Check them out daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Prince George Wharf.
The conch vendors are just part of the scene at Potter's Cay, a Bahamian marketplace beneath Paradise Island Bridge. There, you'll find plenty of vendors selling goods to both locals and tourists.
If you're curious about Bahamian food, culture and history, check out Tru Bahamian Food Tours. The company offers a three-hour walking tour around the main streets of Nassau and includes seven tasting stops, along with informative talks on local culture, history, architecture and more. Even if you're not all that into the learning part of the tour, the yummy conch fritters, jerk chicken, salted caramel dark chocolates and rum cake make it worthwhile.