Turquoise-colored waters, pearl-white sands, and a gentle golden sun. That trio is alone is enough to entice visitors to the Bahamas — but there’s more to the archipelago than idyllic beaches. We visited Nassau in the spring to get a taste of the local culture and immerse ourselves in the Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival — a music-heavy April event spun off from the traditional Junkanoo parade held every year on the day after Christmas.
If you want to attend either event, now's the time to start planning. If you go to the Bahamas in the meantime, though, you can immerse yourself in the Junkanoo culture with a visit to the Junkanoo Museum. The shop attached to it is the local go-to for everything related to costumes for the event, from cloth to glue. The owner, Quinton “Barabbas” Woodside, even offers costume consultation when parade participants start crafting their outfits.
Once you’ve had a browse around the shop, go for a tour into the museum to see what the finished products look like. The sheer amount of effort that goes into these often ostentatious creations is stunning — especially when you realize that, in accordance with festival rules, everything is handmade.
The carnival has two main parts: the parade itself and the evening festivities. The latter are hosted around Arawak Cay on West Bay Street — also known as "The Fish Fry" for its proliferation of restaurants — where different musicians will perform throughout the night. There’s street food available along with plenty of vendors selling sky juice, the tradition local cocktail of gin, condensed milk, and coconut milk or coconut water. Keep in mind that the music starts and ends late, so if you want to see the big acts, you’ll be there until two or three in the morning.
The parade itself is an all-day affair that starts around noon and ends after sunset. Save yourself the hassle of parking and just take a taxi to the front of the parade. It moves on Caribbean time (read: leisurely), so you’re bound to see hours of costumes and festivities. Once you’re in the crowd, it’s easy to find a spot to watch from. The atmosphere is casual, so feel free to walk back through the carnival and take photos with the participants.
Arawak Cay is a core part of the culinary scene in the Bahamas. There are some tourist traps to watch out for, but you won’t go wrong at Drifters at Da' Fry. Here, owners Theodore Clarke and Ricardo Williams have teamed up to produce an authentic Bahamian experience. A lot of the options on the menu pay homage to local food culture, which means you’ll see conch fritters, johnnycakes, and grilled snapper. And it all pairs well with their fun cocktails, which are named after Bahamian slang sayings like “Wap!” and “Well Mudda Sick” (an expression of surprise). Sky Juice is a must-sip for anyone visiting the Bahamas, but Drifters' version has a warm twist — Christmas spices added to the standard recipe, which makes it feel like a very refreshing eggnog. They go down easy, so be careful!
Once you’ve had a sample of Junkanoo, it’s time to get a taste of the rest of the Bahamas. You’ve seen those turquoise waters on the postcards and you can’t leave without dipping in. The Blue Lagoon is an all-encompassing island where there’s fun for everyone in the family — and you can even cross a few things off the bucket list. The dolphin activities are memories you’ll cherish forever (see below for more details) but you can also swim with manta rays, hang with sea lions, relax on the beach, do a Segway tour, and get a bite to eat. It’s the type of place where you can go and spend the day. Adults can unwind at the VIP beach where there is service and serenity, and families can relax on the kid-friendly beach where there are plenty of inflatable water slides and more.
Dolphin Encounters offers the opportunity to get intimate with dolphins — literally. Located on the Blue Lagoon, it gives participants a chance to engage with the brilliant mammals by playing with them, dancing with them, and even getting a kiss on the cheek. Don’t worry: Dolphin Encounters treats their mammals with the utmost respect. These dolphins are native Atlantic Bottlenose that were born on the island and live in an all-natural ocean environment. It’s not every day that you can be up close and personal with these friendly beings. It’s one of the most memorable experiences you’ll ever have.
One of the signature desserts of the Bahamas is rum cake. If you’re looking for a souvenir to bring back for family or if you merely want something for personal binging, the Bahamas Rum Cake Factory is the ideal place to get it. They’re known as one of the originators of this dessert, which is now a local staple. The Factory's version is so good that it has been named by the island government as the official rum cake of the Bahamas. If you’ve never tried it before, swing through to get a free sample. They make their moist cakes in multiple flavors, and you can even look through a window to see the baking process.
The Caribbean islands are known for their rum and one of the new distilleries in Nassau has been making waves — John Watling’s, which has quickly gained a reputation as a respected brand in the premium range. The distillery is a short distance from the beach, but it’s easy to fit into your itinerary. There’s a 15-minute tour for those interested in the history. The tour ends in their tasting room, where the bartenders will take your taste buds on a different type of excursion.
One of the best-known properties in Nassau is Atlantis. While there are plenty of areas to get lost in at this mega-resort, the aquarium is particular fun for families. If you’re not up for the entrance fee, just make your way to the back and you can still see some sea life, like giant turtles, sea lions, and manta rays. If you do dive into the aquariums (there are two of them), though, you’ll see and touch some unique wildlife like crab and starfish. Ask an attendant to hand you a conch shell with the resident still inside. He’ll slide out of his shell and hang out while you hold him — is a fun photo op.
The Bahamas boasts one of our 101 best restaurants in Latin America and the Caribbean for 2017. Check out the rest, too.