Nassau – Jewel of the Caribbean

When Christopher Columbus landed in San Salvador in 1492, he christened the collection of islands that are now known as The Bahamas ‘baja mar’ – shallow sea. Over the years, these tranquil waters would see Puritans, pirates, Loyalists, slaves, smugglers and, finally, tourists.

Scattered like precious jewels across 1,500 square miles of clear tropical sea, the archipelago of 700 islands and uninhabited cays that make up The Bahamas, stretches from Florida to Haiti.

Vast, glistening white cruise ships rather than barques flying the skull and crossbones now arrive at Nassau on New Providence Island. Attracting just over two million cruise passengers in 2008, Nassau maintained its position as the busiest cruise port in the Caribbean. Not a day goes by without a new ship arriving alongside the cruise terminal while, at weekends, there can be as many as six leviathans basking under the Bahamian sun.

Such is the popularity of Nassau as a cruise destination, the channel leading to the port is currently being dredged to ensure it is ready to be one of the few ports capable of welcoming the largest ship in the world, the 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas of Royal Caribbean International, which is scheduled to make its maiden call in November.

With a lot more than sun sea, and tax-free shopping, this Caribbean destination is decidedly Brit-popular. Whilst this Caribbean idyll has been attracting the British since the mid-16th century, when British Empire Loyalists fled south after the American War of Independence, the headlines were grabbed back in 1940 when the Duke and Duchess of Windsor arrived to take up the post of the islands’ Governor. No matter that Churchill had packed them off to what was, in terms of prestige, a humiliating post to punish them for their flirtation with the Nazis.

Nassau has been the capital for more than 200 years and its colonial charm still exists. And it is this quality that makes any visit to this popular port so special. Opposite Rawson Square, Queen Victoria gazes down on lobster-red tourists in striped shorts and straw hats. She would certainly be amused at the thought of so many visitors ploughing so much money into the coffers of this outpost of the Commonwealth.

The first taste of The Bahamas for cruise passengers is Bay Street, the commercial, administrative and political hub for more than three centuries. Back in 1695, when Nassau was still called Charles Towne, Bay Street was known simply as the Strand. Some of the shops today are located in buildings that date back to the turn of the last century and earlier. The distinctive louvered shutters, known as jalousies, and wide verandas with railings or balustrades are quintessentially Bahamian.

In its earliest days, the most dominant feature of the old town was Fort Nassau, located at the western end of what is now the landmark British Colonial Hilton Hotel. The fort is long gone, along with the barracks that replaced it in 1837. For many tourists, this hotel is a perfect stopping off point.

Replacing the original Flagler-built hotel that burned down in 1922, this elegant building welcomes you with a statue of Woodes Rogers, a privateer sent by the British Crown to wipe out the pirates who arrived in the early 1700s. He once hanged several of the brigands on what is now the hotel’s harbour beach. Here for $20 you can relax on the sandy beach or enjoy the watersports on offer at the Blue Hole.

Woodes Rogers earned a new coat of arms for the fledgling colony, long since replaced but still appropriate for Bay Street. It bore the Latin motto: Expulsis Piratis, Restituta Commercia, and there are still plenty of Commercia the length of Bay Street, which is the Mecca for most cruise passengers.

Many head for the frenetic mel