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Red-Hot Bahamas

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.

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