New Providence is in the centre of the Bahamas archipelago and is one of the smallest major islands, at only 80 square miles, yet two thirds of the population live here. The centre of Nassau has some fine historic buildings and there are some good beaches, but most of the island is covered by sprawling suburbia, scrubby woodland or swamp.Paradise Island, just off the north coast, is 826 acres of tourist resort. Once known as Hog Island, a legacy of New Providence settlers who used it as a pig farm, it was developed in the 1950s by Huntington Hartford as a resort. The name was changed after a bridge was built to connect the island with Nassau and the first casino licence was granted. For a history of the island, read Paradise Island Story, by Paul Albury (Macmillan Caribbean).
Nassau: Nassau is the capital of the Bahamas. It looks comfortably old-fashioned with its white and pink houses: by-laws forbid skyscrapers. Bay Street is the main shopping street, which is packed with cruise ship visitors seeking duty-free bargains during the day, but deserted at night. Parliament Square is typical of the colonial architecture with the Houses of Assembly, the old Colonial Secretary’s Office and the Supreme Court clustered around a statue of Queen Victoria. On the north side of the square, more government buildings overlook the bust of Sir Milo B Butler, the first Bahamian Governor-General. To the right, 25-minute surrey rides can be taken through the town. US$10 per person (horses rest 1300-1500 May-October, 1300-1400 November-April). Walking up Parliament Street you pass the Cenotaph on the left and the Parliament Inn, built in the 1930s, on the right. The octagonal pink building bordering on Shirley Street is the Public Library, built in 1798, which was once used as a prison. Inside you can climb stairs and look out from the balcony, but unfortunately the old dungeons below are no longer open to the public. T3224907. Monday-Thursday 1000-2000, Friday 1000-1700, Saturday 1000-1600. Opposite the library is the site of the Royal Victoria Hotel, the first hotel in the Bahamas, built in 1859-61, which closed in 1971. It was built by the Government to accommodate the influx of visitors during the American Civil War, but sold in 1898, after when it changed hands several times. There is not much to see and it looks like a park with some lovely tall trees providing shade, while much of it is used as a car park.
On Elizabeth Av on the corner with Shirley Street is the Bahamas Historical Society, which organizes monthly talks and houses a small museum. There is a collection of old pictures, historical documents, a few old household items and things brought up from the sea, not all of which are well-labelled; it is an old-fashioned display with little information. Monday-Friday 1000-1600, Saturday 1000-1200, closed Thursday, T3224231. Nearby is the Queen’s Staircase. The 66 steps (102-foot climb) at the end of a gorge (thought to have been cut out of the limestone by slaves in 1790, the canyon is now lined with palm trees and there is an attractive waterfall alongside the steps) lead to the ruined Fort Fincastle. Ignore men offering information on the history of the area unless you want to pay for it. They are very persistent, even when confronted with this text. The Fort itself was built in 1789 in the shape of a ship’s bow. The Water Tower beside the fort was declared a water landmark in 1993. Take the lift (US$0.50) or the stairs to the top to see the shape of the fort. This is the highest point on the island (216 feet above sea level) and gives some lovely views of the island. There is another guide at the top who also expects a tip. Be warned: the area is heavily visited by cruise ship tours and there are lots of souvenir stalls.
Government House in traditional Bahamian pink (built 1801) is pretty. Gregory’s Arch is an overpass to Government House. On alternate Saturday mornings at 1000, the Royal Bahamian Police Force Band plays in front of the Christopher Columbus Statue at the top of the flight of stairs. Balcony House on Market Street is the oldest wooden residence in Nassau, built in the 18th century. T326-2568/2566. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 1000-1600, closed 1300-1400, donations required. On West Hill Street is a plaque set in the rock which claims the site as being that of the oldest church in Nassau. Further along the street you pass several old houses including the Postern Gate on the left and the Sisters of Charity Convent on the right. Turning down the steps to Queen Street you pass by some of the oldest and prettiest houses in Nassau (no 16 is said to be 200 years old). The St Francis Xavier Catholic Cathedral is on West Street and down the hill is the quaint Greek Orthodox Church in blue and white. Christ Church Cathedral (built 1837) stands on the corner of George’s Street and immediately to the south is Lex House, thought to have housed the Spanish Garrison in 1782-83.
Vendue House on Bay Street, close to the British Colonial Hotel, was the site of slave auctions, and has now been restored (with a grant from Bacardi to commemorate 1492) and converted into the Pompey Museum. It has drawings, artefacts and documents relating to slavery and emancipation in the Bahamas. The collection is limited but well displayed and interesting. Upstairs there is a permanent art exhibition of paintings by Mr Amos Ferguson, who uses house paints. Monday-Friday 1000-1630, Saturday 1000-1300, adults US$1, children under 12, US$0.50. The renowned Straw Market has the offices of the Ministry of Tourism above. Almost all the straw work is imported from East Asia and is no longer native (better prices upstairs); they also sell carvings, jewellery and T-shirts. Bargain with the saleswomen but do not expect to get more than 15 percent off the originally stated price. Running behind the market is the enormous Prince George Wharf which can take up to 11 big cruise ships at once (peak time Saturday). A duty-free shopping area is planned here and construction work to increase facilities for visitors is under way. Redevelopment to enlarge the terminal will allow the mega-cruise ships to come to Nassau. The Junkanoo Museum on the waterfront shows the colourful costumes used in the parades, see Festivals. Highly recommended, good chance to see the workmanship up close. 0900-1700 daily, closed on holidays, US$2 for adults, US$0.50 children, T3562731. Guided walking tours of old Nassau start from Rawson Square, daily at 1000 and 1400, US$2, contact the Tourist Information Centre, T3269772.