It would be hard to travel to the Caribbean and not have fun. Nassau, the capital city of the island chain that is the Bahamas, is one of those places. Situated on the island of New Providence and attached by a bridge to legendary Paradise Island, Nassau is brimming with tropical sun, colonial history, natural beauty and attractions that effortlessly blend all three. Beaches are close enough for bumming, but downtown Nassau itself is buzzing with cultural and culinary energy.
Getting up close and personal with stingrays is a nature-lovers dream. Sting-free Southern Rays, which frequent the warm shallow waters around New Providence Island, are especially gentle. At Stingray City, a marine park just off-shore from Nassau at Stirrup Cay, you can snorkel and swim with rays during an hour-long encounter that also includes feeding and photographing them.
Bahamian rum is world-famous and has a major narrative in the islands' colonial history. You can test drive that theory at the Buena Vista Estate in historic downtown Nassau. Home to a distillery that handcrafts dark rum and other local spirits, John Watling's hosts tours and tastings of its potent products. There's a gift shop and an on-site tavern for further exploration of Bahamian rum culture.
Spread over 141 sprawling acres, Aquaventure Water Park is part of the world-famous Atlantis hospitality complex, which also features a 5-star hotel, a Tom Weiskopf-designed 18-hole golf course and casino. Some of Aquaventure's must-rides include a mile-long lazy river complete with rapids and wave surges, multiple pools, and the park's trademark Mayan-themed water slide. Private cabanas and 5 miles of white sand beaches make this the ultimate aquatic playground.
Cheesy in the way only pirate culture can be, the immersive exhibits at the Pirates of Nassau Museum are enjoyed within a replica pirate ship circa 1716. Located in historic downtown Nassau, the museum is a great introduction to the history of piracy in the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow notwithstanding. Real pirates such as Blackbeard and Charles Vane are the stuff of regional legend. But lesser-known female buccaneers Anne Bonny and Mary Read also get a hearing.
The Bahamas have a vibrant visual arts culture, and it's on abundant display at the National Gallery. Housed in a restored 1860s colonial mansion called Villa Doyle, the Gallery features Bahamian artists such as abstract expressionist Kendall Hanna and collagist John Cox. While mass-produced art is for sale on every street corner and beach around Nassau, at the National Gallery contemporary art sits comfortably beside traditionally executed paintings of Bahamian life.
Arawak Cay, or The Fish Fry as locals call it, is a gathering spot for Bahamians and visitors looking for an authentic Bahamian experience. Built on sand reclaimed by dredging Nassau Harbour, the Cay features inexpensive casual dining of the seafood variety, as well as special events and concerts. On Sunday evenings it's a great place to stroll after a gut-busting dinner of fried conch and other Bahamian goodies.
One of the most popular day excursions in the Bahamas leaves from Nassau Harbour daily. A 10-minute speedboat ride away, Blue Lagoon Island—also known as Salt Cay—is a private island with a calm lagoon for swimming, white sand beaches, and the well-regarded Dolphin Encounters, an interactive program featuring dolphins and sea lions that you can swim beside and touch.
Graycliff is an elegant estate in downtown Nassau with a storied past and a delicious secret. Now a 5-star hotel and world-class restaurant, the main mansion was built by a pirate, Captain John Graysmith in 1740. It was Nassau's very first inn and the extensive grounds served as a base for the West Indian Regiment during the American Civil War. The estate has also served as a party palace for the British Royals and guests of Lord and Lady Dudley. That delicious secret? An on-site chocolate making facility, where guests can learn about the primary Caribbean export of cacao and sample handcrafted chocolate bonbons.
Foodies will find lots to love in Nassau. Not surprisingly, Bahamian national cuisine revolves around seafood, with conch and rock lobster on every menu at beach shacks; it also incorporates tropical fruits and dishes we might associate more with the American South, such as peas and rice. Bahamian beer is refreshing, as are local drinks like Switcha, made from local limes and lemons, and Sky Juice, a popular cocktail made with gin, coconut water, and condensed milk. Don't forget to try the islands' signature Bahama Mama, made from rum, grenadine, and pineapple juice.
There are numerous public beaches within striking distance of Nassau via cab or jitney. One of the world's most famous is just a couple of miles to the west: magnificent, crescent-shaped Cable Beach. It's busy, for sure, a popular place to stroll, soak up the sun with a locally brewed Sands or Kalik beer in hand, or goggle at the luxury resorts and casinos set back from the sand.