Published: April 2009
By David A. Keeps
With splashy resorts, celebrity-filled restaurants, and designer shops, Nassau and Paradise Island are ready for a close-up.
Blame it on Bond...James Bond. In 1965, Sean Connery starred in Thunderball—the fourth installment of Ian Fleming's 007 series—an action-packed movie shot mostly underwater and on the Bahamian island of New Providence. The film's classic moments firmly established the old colonial capital, Nassau, and the beaches of offshore Paradise Island, as the getaway for the jet set: the sight of James Bond dining in a pink linen shirt at the waterfront restaurant Café Martinique, playing baccarat in a black-tie Nassau casino, and diving through coral reefs in a red wet suit proved irresistible. Shaken and stirred, pleasure-seekers began flocking to the white sands and martini-clear waters: by 1968, this 700-island archipelago had more than a million visitors a year. With English-speaking residents and a dollar-based currency, it was a foreign experience that felt like home.
When director Brett Ratner was considering island locations for his new movie,about a retired jewel thief who may be planning one last score, he succumbed to the allure of the nation that James Bond made famous. "The Bahamas offered all the great temptations: casinos, beautiful women, and cheap Rolexes," admits Ratner, who stocked up on the latter. But the director insists he set After the Sunset here more for the island's aesthetic advantages than for its abundant luxuries. "The color, the quality of light and water, the music, and the friendly vibe stimulated my senses," he says. Much of the film, which, coincidentally, stars 007 vet Pierce Brosnan as the thief and Salma Hayek as his co-conspirator, unfolds at Atlantis, the Vegas-style, aquatic-themed resort on Paradise Island. It also takes in many of Nassau's sights and sounds, following the duo aboard a cruise ship in the harbor, through a festive street parade, and into the city square for a sultry samba.
With its intoxicating blend of romance, action, and comedy, After the Sunset—the first big-budget Hollywood movie since Thunderball to use the Bahamas as its principal location—could lure a new generation of travelers. At least, that is the hope of the Bahamas Film Commission's Donna Mackey, whose job it is to roll out the red carpet, providing exotic backdrops and logistical support. "Moviemaking here is back on a roll," Mackey says, explaining that until recently the Bahamas were used mainly by second-unit cinematographers filming underwater scenes. When After the Sunset wrapped, Mackey set to work on Into the Blue, with Paul Walker and Jessica Alba. And next month, Nassau and Paradise Island will play host to the first Bahamas International Film Festival.
Mackey and her grade-school chum Phillip Fisher take me on a tour of New Providence. As we pass the airport, Fisher informs me with glee that a vintage DC-3 once stood out front and that Mackey had it sunk for an underwater scene in the Paul Walker film. Leaving Nassau, Fisher expertly navigates the twisting roads to the out-of-the-way locations where After the Sunset was filmed. Along the way, we pass some of the island's more colorful sights: Fort Montague, with its iron cannons pointed toward the sea, and the Ardastra Gardens, known for flamingos trained to perform marching routines with military precision. We stop at Love Beach, where a decade ago Chris Blackwell, the music mogul who helped bring Bob Marley to the masses, opened a boutique hotel, Compass Point. It is a small cliffside compound of rainbow-colored huts—the kind of place where you'd expect the house band to be the B-52's.
At Old Fort Bay, the new gated expatriate enclave near the equally exclusive Lyford Cay, where Sean Connery has a house, Mackey shows me the cove that After the Sunset's production designers used as the setting for a thatched-roof tiki bar. Throughout our island tour, Mackey and Fisher regale me with Bahamian history like a pair of magpies, in an animated patois. To hear them tell it, Nassau—once a hideout for pirates—was bought, sold, built up, and run down by inept politicians and imprudent millionaires. It was an intersection where scoundrels met opportunity, the port through which Margaret Mitchell's Rhett Butler outran the Yankee blockades to get Southern cotton to England and Prohibition-era rum-runners kept American spirits high.
But the Bahamas were also a long-standing tradition for the wealthy few. Since the turn of the 19th century, they had served as a winter resort for several generations with means, including the Duke of Windsor, who became the governor of the Bahamas in the 1940's, and his wife, Wallis Simpson. The islands also earned a reputation as a sporting ground for playboys during both the Roaring Twenties and the early-sixties embargo of Cuba. And then came Bond, whose legend endures. On the western shore, we pass a mansion that has seen better days. This house, Fisher says, is where Largo, Bond's Thunderball nemesis, tossed incompetent cronies into a pool full of man-eating sharks.
The mansion might be a metaphor for what happened to the Nassau tourist trade in the years after Thunderball's success. Despite its charming pink colonial buildings, the city began to look as if it had seen palmier times, while Paradise Island became overdeveloped, South Beach to Nassau's Miami. By the early nineties, it clearly wasn't "better in the Bahamas," as the ministry of tourism's slogan boasted. The steel-and-glass high-rises and all-inclusive resorts that sprang up in the sixties and seventies had grown shabby, as had their service. Nassau's once chic Bay Street was overrun with tourists looking for a steal on emeralds and diamonds. The country's chief exports were straw hats, Olympic sprinters, and—a few years ago—a pop group named the Baha Men that hit the U.S. charts with the sublimely ridiculous "Who Let the Dogs Out?" The cognoscenti had moved on to St. Bart's and quieter Bahamian spots such as Harbour Island and Eleuthera.
New Providence was old news—and if some of the hoteliers didn't quite deserve to be tossed to the sharks, they certainly needed a little motivation. That arrived with the 1998 opening of the $640 million Royal Towers at Atlantis. Such Hollywood icons as Leonardo DiCaprio and Julia Roberts attended a lavish celebration that generated heated media coverage. The developer of Atlantis, Sol Kerzner, channeled old-school impresarios Florenz Ziegfeld and P. T. Barnum and used modern showbiz cross-promotion to position the resort as a family destination. Regis and Kelly and Oprah filmed there. Ricky Martin made his video for "She Bangs" on the hotel grounds. For their CBS special, NSYNC sang a cappella in the hotel's aquarium tunnel, surrounded by tropical fish. And the Olsen twins set their direct-to-video feature Holiday in the Sun at the splashy property.
It's no surprise that Atlantis serves as a principal backdrop for After the Sunset. The three conch-colored hotel towers pierce the heavens like the tines of Neptune's trident. The Royal Towers are festooned with sea horses and nautilus-shell architectural details and decorated inside with marble floors, gilded murals, and Greek key-patterns. When you see spotted manta rays floating in tanks in front of people eating seafood in a subterranean café, gaze at Dale Chihuly glass assemblages in the casino, or watch tweens bump and grind at their own disco, Club Rush, another movie comes to mind. Maybe it's my own adolescent perversity, but I can't help imagining how cool it would be to set a remake of The Poseidon Adventure here.
In 1994, Kerzner, who had developed the controversial Sun City in South Africa, purchased the prize package of Paradise Island real estate that would become Atlantis. The property had previously been amalgamated by Resorts International and in the eighties had passed through the hands of Donald Trump and Merv Griffin. Kerzner first visited the place in the early seventies, to check out what were then Paradise Island's newest hotels. When he was offered the opportunity to buy the property out of bankruptcy, he returned—to find that it was, as he bluntly puts it, "horrible." He was delighted to see, however, that the beaches and water he remembered so vividly from his visit almost 15 years earlier remained "among the best in the world." Even more impressive was the fact that about 600 largely undeveloped acres were for sale, allowing him to create his own mythical kingdom. Kerzner spent almost four years building Atlantis. After adding lagoons and marine habitats to the grounds of the two existing Resorts International hotels, he conceived the rest of the complex as a surf-and-turf environment, with beaches, water slides built into a Mayan pyramid, and walk-through aquariums filled with sharks and piranhas.
By the time the third building, the Royal Towers, opened in 1998, Kerzner had become the Bahamas' second-largest employer, after the Bahamian government itself. He is now bringing prosperity to the island and is widely admired by the local population as both an astute businessman and a philanthropist. His clout with the authorities is considerable, and since Atlantis opened there has been a noticeable ripple effect throughout New Providence. A college specifically for hotel workers has been founded, roads are being repaired, the airport is scheduled for improvements, and restaurants and shops are springing up in Nassau.
Kerzner's empire in the sun is expanding: he is building a fourth Atlantis tower and an Ernie Els-designed golf course set on its own islet, and he recently acquired an old Club Med on the western end of Paradise Island. In a new village with 65,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, Café Martinique, modeled on the French dining spot in Thunderball, will reopen under the direction of Jean-Georges Vongerichten. A Nobu Matsuhisa restaurant is also on tap for Atlantis.
The acquisition that gave Kerzner control of almost 75 percent of Paradise Island included a smaller piece of property once owned by A&P heir Huntington Hartford. In 1962, Hartford, a legendary spendthrift, purchased a waterfront mansion on what was then called Hog Island for $9.5 million from a Swedish industrialist. He renamed it Paradise Island, turned the former owner's house into the Ocean Club, a small hotel for his friends, and reconstructed a 12th-century European cloister amid the lavish gardens visible from his swimming pool.
Kerzner has doubled the capacity of this idyllic hideaway, where butlers are on hand to cater to your every need. There's a new 56-room wing, three private villas, and Dune, a chic Christian Liaigre-designed restaurant headed by Vongerichten. That night, I drift off to the scent of plumeria wafting in from outside and the sound of chirping frogs between peals of distant thunder. The next day begins at Dune, with a breakfast of smoked salmon and mango French toast. I spend the following hours lolling on the beach, getting a massage in one of the private Balinese spa villas, and taking golf lessons from a pro named Lemon. The Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational is held here, but try as I might, I can't quite get my slices to sail anywhere.
Later, I ignore the Atlantis casino's siren song, with its familiar refrain: "Hey, Big Spender." Nassau exerts a stronger pull. After dinner at the White Door—which recently opened in the house where the late Lord Mountbatten and Winston Churchill were once guests—the proprietor, Harl Taylor, shows me around. "If you want Disneyland, there's Atlantis," he declares. "If you want something a bit more cosmopolitan, there's Old Nassau."
Taylor, a 33-year-old fashion designer, bought the house five years ago, after returning to his native land from Paris, and he has big plans for the town's historic district. Above the White Door, he built a bar and atelier, where his couture clients ("fabulous women like Nan Kempner and Pat Buckley") can see his luxury straw handbags, which sell stateside at Neiman Marcus. In 2006, he expects to turn an abandoned convent next door into a boutique hotel. Taylor is just one of many well-traveled young islanders who are moving to Nassau and fixing up the buildings themselves. "As a nation, we're in the process of changing," Taylor observes. "Until we became independent, in 1973, we were British; then, with the rise of tourism, we became more Americanized. Now, having an appreciation for what it means to be Bahamian, we are discovering our own identity."
That Bahamian identity is a personality divided between old customs and new commerce, authenticity and artificiality. This is evident on a Saturday night in Nassau. The place to be, I am assured, is a club called Fluid,a quick taxi ride across the bridge from Paradise Island. We pass buildings flying the Bahamian flag. "Blue for the water, yellow for the sunshine, and black for the people," the driver explains. Fluid's velvet rope is an anomalous protocol in Nassau. Luckily, the concierge at the Ocean Club has already called ahead, so I am ushered into a VIP lounge and greeted by the platinum-blondmanager, Dolores, wearing a pin-striped man's sports jacket with nothing underneath. Well-dressed men circle around stick-thin local ladies while early-nineties disco singer Lisa Stansfield complains over the sound system that she's been around the world and she can't find her baby. The real action appears to be downstairs. There, in a basement cavern, a DJ is pumping reggae and dance-hall tunesas the universal ritual of mating takes place. Men and women stand at opposite sides of the room, like kids at a junior-high dance, drinking Kalik beer. The center of the floor remains empty well past midnight.
Nightlife in Nassau apparently begins in the small hours of the morning. This particular August weekend is a national holiday, celebrating the 1834 liberation of the slaves who worked on plantations first settled in the 1780's. The big event, a Junkanoo parade, is scheduled for Sunday night (or on Nassau time, Monday morning). Junkanoo is the Bahamian rhapsody, a mixture of ancient African and contemporary island traditions. With more than 150 dancers, drummers, and horn players gathered into "groups," such as the Tribe and One Love Soldiers, the parades are a hypnotic cacophony of sound and spectacle.
Unlike the two downtown Junkanoo events at Christmas and New Year's—which offer huge cash prizes and draw enormous tourist crowds—the Emancipation Day parade is held in Fox Hill, a former slave settlement southeast of Nassau, and there are only small money awards. At two in the morning, the square at Fox Hill is still filling up. Stray dogs, known aspotcakes, roam around the food stands looking for scraps. The bands have lit fires to tighten the skins on their homemade drums, and the dancers, mostly boys and young men in makeup and masks, are adjusting giant headdresses and costumes made from cardboard, feathers, sequins, plastic jewels, and bottle caps. Fisher, who seems to know everybody in Nassau, makes introductions. "Junkanoo is like the other woman," says Kirk Thompson, who was a sponsor of recent winners One Love Soldiers. "There is the love between a husband and a wife, and then there is the love between a man and Junkanoo. The music is so sweet. It's a vibration, a celebration that your body and soul relates to."
Once you get a taste, you want more. Paradise Island may have the flash of the Copacabana, but Nassau has a history that reverberates with a seductive rhythm. In the living room of Graycliff, an ancient hotel and restaurant, you half expect to see Sinatra sidle up to the piano player with one of the hand-rolled house cigars between his teeth. Or Salma Hayek singing a torch song for rapt onlookers. It is all there if you seek it—mindless pleasures and worldly experiences, glitz and grit—waiting to be discovered, whether by design or divine intervention.
On the last day of my visit, I enjoy it all. Driving through the working-class settlements and seaside hamlets of New Providence, I find a different kind of beauty, not the one you are likely to see in movies or glossy brochures. At the beach in the tiny west-shore village of Adelaide, a young girl sitting beside her blind father helps me gather conch shells, handing them to me with a pride that momentarily overcomes her shyness.
This is typical of island life on New Providence. It is slow and easy—and it's not something that most visitors get to experience. To outsiders, Nassau seems like a tiny, untroubled town; to its natives, it is an almost overwhelming metropolis, complete with traffic and urban struggles made more complicated by its reliance on the new colonialism of the 21st-century tourist trade. The main draw is Bay Street, with its rows of shops selling designer clothes, and the Straw Market, a mix of made-in-China junk and handwoven goods. If you prowl the side streets, there are better souvenirs. Small boutiques sell antique maps, English porcelain, and Bahamian Handprints, a line that makes Lilly Pulitzer look a tad pale. There is remarkable architecture, too: an octagonal library with a museum, and Market Street's late-18th-century Balcony House, with its cantilevered second-story porch. At Rawson Square, horse-drawn surreys pass a statue of the young Queen Victoria, who stares stonily at the cruise ships in the distance.
The sky opens and rain falls in noisy sheets, flooding Bay Street. I take off the Ralph Lauren leather slip-ons I just bought for $60 and wade through ankle-deep warm water. I put the conchs from the beach at Adelaide into the empty shoebox. Phillip Fisher had given me detailed instructions on how to clean the shells with a brush and bleach—something, he added, that the hotel staff would do for me. Like discovering the Bahamas, it is something, I decide, that I will enjoy doing myself.
DAVID A. KEEPS is the Los Angeles correspondent for Travel + Leisure.
Born in Mexico, Salma Hayek now has a house in Los Angeles, a farm in Washington State, and a suitcase always at the ready. During film shoots, she spends her downtime taking a crash course in the local culture. Here, her favorite places in the Bahamas (where she was based for three months making After the Sunset) and beyond.
DIVING IN "I'm too curious to like being locked in a spa for two hours. In the Bahamas, I must have gone diving fifteen times. The best spot was the plane they sank for Thunderball. It's been there so long it has become a piece of coral in the shape of a plane."
SOUND BITES "When I visit new places, I'm the first one to dig into food that everybody else is afraid of. I went to Nassau's fish fry, where you can convince yourself that you're eating healthily because it's all fish. And you cannot leave the Bahamas without trying a rum cake. The Bahamas Rum Cake Factory makes a coconut version that is
to die for. Bacardi also makes one that I've never found anywhere else."
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL "When I'm traveling, I adjust and become part of the scenery. While on safari in South Africa, I went to the townships to see how the people lived. They didn't know who I was, but they let me into their houses and danced for me."
STAMPS IN HER PASSPORT "I love Paris, Positano, Capri, Seville, and Madrid. I thought the Park Hyatt hotel in Tokyo was so simple and sexy—and the service was incredible. In Hawaii, I took a boat trip and found some whales, so I jumped into the water with them!"
NEXT STOP "Penélope Cruz and I are going to Mexico to shoot a western comedy, Banditas, about two female bank robbers there. We're hoping to get some time off to explore.
I want to go to Cabo, Oaxaca, and Careyes, and dive in Cozumel. Nothing in the world relaxes me more than a dive."
TRAVEL PHILOSOPHY"I know people who, when they are home, can't think of anything but going on vacation. And when they leave, all they think about is home. The healthiest way to take a vacation is to forget you have a life somewhere else. Try not to make any phone calls, and bring as few items as possible that remind you of home."
WHERE TO STAY
DOUBLES FROM $240
PARADISE ISLAND; 800/285-2684 OR 242/363-3000; www.atlantis.com
DOUBLES FROM $245
W. BAY ST., GAMBIER 800/633-3284 OR 242/327-4500; www.compasspointbahamas.com
DOUBLES FROM $200
DINNER FOR TWO $125
8-12 W. HILL ST., NASSAU; 800/688-0076 OR 242/302-9150 www.graycliff.com
One & Only Ocean Club
DOUBLES FROM $450
PARADISE ISLAND; 800/321-3000 OR 242/363-2501; www.oneandonlyoceanclub.com
WHERE TO EAT
DINNER FOR TWO $150
ONE & ONLY OCEAN CLUB, PARADISE ISLAND; 242/363-2501
A beloved local restaurant.
DINNER FOR TWO $65
BANK LANE, NASSAU; 242/356-7012
Try the house sushi rolls topped with papaya.
DINNER FOR TWO $100
SKYLINE DR., CABLE BEACH, NASSAU; 242/327-2535
Nassau Fish Fry
Colorful shacks on an islet near downtown.
DINNER FOR TWO $15
ARAWAK CAY; NO PHONE
DINNER FOR TWO $140
E. BAY ST., NASSAU; 242/323-7770
For authentic Bahamian boiled fish and johnnycake.
DINNER FOR TWO $15
NASSAU ST., NASSAU; 242/323-4400
DINNER FOR TWO $125
9 W. HILL ST., NASSAU; 242/326-5925
WHERE TO SHOP
Harl Taylor Bag
9 W. HILL ST., NASSAU; 242/356-6782