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Red-Hot Bahamas

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.

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