Story & Photos by Ron Bernthal
The islands of the Bahamas are the closest Caribbean islands to the U.S. mainland, and have long been a favorite winter weekend flight destination for sun-starved Northeastern residents, or for year-round cruise passengers from U.S. or European seaport cities.
In the past few years however, the historic city of Nassau, the Bahamian capital located on New Providence Island, has made great strides enticing more visitors to stay for longer periods of time. In 2018 the island nation of the Bahamas hosted 6.6 million visitors, the most in any year, including 4.9 million cruise passengers, another new record.
Atlantis, on Paradise Island, connected to Nassau by a road bridge, has been bringing in thousands of visitors since opening in 1998, adding new accommodations and amenities ever since. Another mega-resort, the $4.2 billion, 1,000-acre Baha Mar, opened in 2017-2018, with three hotel properties, 42 bars and restaurants, a 100,000 square-foot casino, 11 swimming pools, tennis, golf and spa facilities, and dozens of retail outlets, just six miles outside Nassau along Cable Beach. A new water park and other facilities are expected to open late 2019. The three hotels in the resort include the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar, the SLS Baha Mar, and the Rosewood Baha Mar, offering a total of 2,300 rooms, suites and villas.
Fred Lounsberry, CEO of the Nassau Paradise Island Promotion Board said that the new Baha Mar hotels and an ongoing revitalization project in downtown Nassau called The Pointe, are expected to attract additional visitors from the U.S. and Europe. “Baha was barely open a year when we saw tremendous increases in North American visitors coming to New Providence,” said Lounsberry. “These properties, along with the increase in air lift and new development in downtown Nassau, have helped the Bahamas in general to increase visitor arrivals by 21% in mid-2019 over the same period in 2018.”
“People were becoming more and more jaded with the retail shopping strip along Bay Street in Nassau, so they wanted new experiences” said Dionisio D’Aguilar, Bahamas Minister of Tourism & Aviation, during the International Travel Partners Conference, held in Nassau with airline and tour operator representatives. “We felt the time had come to really give that refresh, to invest resources into reinvigorating the Port of Nassau’s stature in the Caribbean.”
Private and public investment in downtown Nassau is revitalizing parts of the city center that has not seen new hospitality projects of this size in decades. This sun splashed port, founded in 1670, has had many of its historic, blue and pink stone houses beautifully converted into boutique hotels, restaurants, and art galleries. The Graycliff Hotel & Restaurant is a stunning, mid-18th century, colonial mansion set in lush tropical gardens with 20 lovely guest rooms, two swimming pools, the Graycliff Restaurant (the Caribbean’s first 5-star restaurant), and, with over 250,000 bottles of wine, the world’s third largest wine cellar. At Graycliff’s sophisticated/casual restaurant a recent lunch menu offered grilled octopus with sweet potato salad, tuna tataki with sesame seeds and prime filet with Graycliff coffee beans.
The property is located in the center of Graycliff Historic Village on West Hill Street, and includes the heritage museum, and small workshops that sell and produce handmade cigars and chocolates. A few blocks away is the 288-room British Colonial Hilton Hotel, originally opened in 1923, now offers newly renovated rooms and suites overlooking the harbor entrance where cruise ships sail past bedroom windows entering and leaving the port.
Adjacent to the British Colonial is where The Pointe project is quickly progressing, with local residents anticipating a slew of new employment opportunities, and the Bahamas Tourist Board expecting even more additional visitors in 2020 with the opening of the $250 million Margaritaville Beach Resort, Jimmy Buffett’s first residential resort in the Bahamas. Other new projects at the seven-acre The Pointe will be One Particular Harbour luxury oceanfront residences, as well as new retail and entertainment options. Owners at the 126-unit One Particular Harbour development will have access to all the attractions and amenities at Margaritaville, which will be the second Margaritaville resort in the Caribbean, joining the Margaritaville Beach Resort in Grand Cayman.
“The Bahamas, one of the most beautiful places in the world, is an absolutely perfect location for a Margaritaville lifestyle destination,” said John Cohlan, chief executive officer of Margaritaville. “We’re excited to combine our casual-luxe brand with the local Bahamian culture, known for its warmth and hospitality, to create a one-of-a-kind paradise to vacation, visit, live or just kick back and relax. Nassau is an ideal destination for our lifestyle brand as we continue to expand our global hospitality footprint.”
The Pointe project One Particular Harbour, of course, gets its name from Buffett’s popular song One Particular Harbour and the album by the same title. The venue celebrated its topping off ceremony in late April, 2019, a milestone that included the debut of the new Seven Entertainment Center at The Pointe, which includes a movie theater, bowling lanes, a bar and a karaoke lounge.
The Pointe is Nassau’s most visible transformation, but the city’s new art galleries, cafes, and upscale restaurants have captured the attention of resort guests in other areas of New Providence Island, as well as cruise passengers who have always strolled among the gift shops of downtown Nassau, and will soon have a new and more exciting environment for their port call. “It’s been a gradual change,” said Fred Lounsberry, about the new development projects in Nassau as well as the newly opened Baha Mar resort complex. “If you had taken pictures of these areas five years ago, then looked at them today, you would say ‘wow.’”
Much of Nassau’s restoration projects is due to a group of community leaders and organizations that joined together almost four years ago to create Historic Charles Town (the city’s original, 17th-century name) to restore and revitalize the historic quarter. Not only did the organization help improve resident and visitor safety in the downtown area, but gave the tree-lined neighborhoods a walkability that wasn’t there before.
The transformation of Nassau has certainly revitalized the city, a big plus for Bahamas tourism, but it may also be a model for other Caribbean cities where similar revitalization and historic preservation projects are sorely needed.