It had the look and feel of the quintessential beach thriller blockbuster.
The sharks swirled a mere oar’s distance from our goggle-clad faces in the crystal blue waters off the Exumas, excited by the fish entrails flung out by our tour guide, an ebony-skinned Bahamian diver. Then, as if on cue, a handful of stingrays appeared, moving lithely between half-a-dozen sharks. The whole situation, coupled with our guide’s devil-may-care attitude, put the perfect finishing touch to our disaster scene.
“Now listen up!” boomed the diver in a thick Caribbean accent. “Stay as close together as you can and leave no gaps between your bodies, or the stingrays will swim behind you. Second, if you see any sharks coming towards you, run! Don’t just lie there because you will get bitten!” The emphasis he put on these last few words should have sent me back to the alternative dangers of sunburn and sweet cocktails at the adjoining beach cabana, but it didn’t. Not only was I intrigued, but I was under the debilitating spell of cold and unmitigated fear.
An American tourist put her hand up nervously. “What if they get behind us?” she asked.
“If the stingray gets behind you, don’t panic!” the diver bellowed. “If you fall on top of the stingray, it will attack you with a poisonous barb. If it strikes you, there is little we can do to help you out here.” As I tried my hardest not to think of a certain Australian naturalist, a handful of our thrill-seeking group moved towards the beach cabana. The two dozen or so of us that remained clung together and prayed for the best.
“Now, if you are absolutely sure you are ready to do this, lie flat on the ground, put your heads in the water and prepare to be amazed.”
The next 20 minutes were some of the most breathtaking I’ve ever experienced underwater. Stingrays sailed past us, completely unfazed by our presence. Their billowy black exteriors rippled along the water surface, their underbellies caressed our outstretched hands. In the background, a host of sharks thrashed back and forth, competing for the fish dangling at the end of the diver’s rope, allowing themselves to be dragged closer to shore. One compliant specimen came up near the sand, writhing in the shallows, giving us a chance to see the shark’s powerful jaws snap at the bait before it retreated to deeper reaches. Fifteen minutes later, the spectacle was over, and only a fish head remained at the end of the diver’s rope.
The islands known as the Exumas, off Nassau, are renowned for their ability to entice visitors to a lifestyle packed with beach-lazing, snorkelling and marine life adventures: In fact, the earliest visitors from Spain and Greece, way back in the 1800s, were so bowled over by the sun and the sand that they never left. Their days, like those of the indigenous people’s, quickly came to be filled up with bonefishing, boating, hiking and exploring the islands’ exotic flora and fauna. Visitors today can still enjoy all of the above, if in powered boats or on sophisticated bicycles.
Subject to Spanish, French and British incursions over the centuries, Nassau’s streets and buildings still bear British names. Otherwise the island is decidedly an Afro-Caribbean affair with eateries, bars and clubs giving away free rum cocktails on calypso and dub nights and loud reggae booming from car stereos in traffic. Every cluster of shops was punctuated with a liquor store and there was no doubting the main attraction in each: rum!
Only fitting, because Nassau’s history is strewn with stories of rum-swigging corsairs who arrived on the islands to make merry. From the days of prohibition to now, rum has played an important part in the history, economy and tourism of Nassau, not in the least because of the island’s reputation for fuelling contraband trade into the US in the early 1900s. Nowadays, though, it is difficult for tourists to get Bahamian rum off the island because their 140-proof (70% alcohol) labels put them in the decidedly “explosive” category.
Away from the beach, Nassau bore all the features of the classic colonial retreat. Wooden houses lined Bay Street in downtown Nassau, complete with columned verandas, white porticos and flamingo pink exteriors. Uptempo tunes of ragga and reggae boomed from shops and side streets, diners looked on from latticed balconies. A short walk away, the popular Straw Market by the harbour housed fast-talking mamas selling everything from shawls and handcrafted masks to beaded jewellery and giant seashells. In between rows of ramshackle huts and sleepy palm trees, were signs for homemade Bahamian rum cake, sponges soaked in generous lashings of liquor: the perfect takeaway from the islands.
With tourism as its primary economic activity—two-thirds of the country’s gross domestic product comes from visitors—it’s no coincidence that the one thing Bahamians are serious about is having fun. “Just see how we dance,” said one local as evenly tanned holidaymakers twisted by the DJ pool. “All they do is shake their hips and shoulders all the time. We shake everything we own, honey!”
A few hours later, after standing in a queue of Bahamian revellers in downtown Nassau, we entered a basement club that seemed to hold up miraculously against the onslaught of sound. The music, we were told, was a Caribbean concoction of reggae and dub known as “culture”. On entering, we began to receive a crash course in the local dance scene.
For starters, the male to female ratio seemed to be 1:3. The majority of girls in the club were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, facing one another in a large circle. With their backs to the rest of the club’s patrons, the girls simultaneously jiggled and bopped their derrières in an attempt to out-bop or out-shake their friends and fellow dancers. As the music grew louder and the beats more frenzied, the ferocity with which these girls shook their behinds defied belief. From time to time, a particularly adept dancer would push aside a member of her group in order to demonstrate the correct method by which to perform the jiggle-and-shake.
Amid clapping and cheering, the act seemed more like a public rite of passage for the women assembled than the “mating ritual” psychobabblers like to describe social dancing as. Once the boys and girls got together and partners paired up across the floor, the dance moves got more complex, languid and positively inimitable. After a few poor attempts at trying to get into the groove of Bahamian dancing and downing several Bahama Mamas —regular rum, coconut-flavoured rum, grenadine syrup, orange juice, pineapple juice and lots of crushed ice—we quietly slipped away. Unlike the early Greeks and Spaniards, we were carrying return tickets.
How to get there
Visas for the Bahamas are issued by the British high commission in Delhi and the deputy high commissions in Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai. Documents may also be submitted to the 12 visa application centres for processing. Visit ‘www.vfs-uk.co.in’ for details on the centres. Visas cost Rs5,015 and take up to 4-6 days to be issued.
There are no direct flights to the Bahamas from India. The most convenient option is to fly to London and connect directly to Nassau. Round-trip economy tickets on British Airways will cost from around Rs81,000, including taxes, from Bangalore, Mumbai or Delhi.
What to do
The Bahamas comprise 2,000 cays and some 700 islands in the Atlantic Ocean. A visit is all about exploring the islands, absorbing the local culture and taking in the breathtaking beauty in each corner of this Caribbean retreat. There are miles and miles of lush forest across the Exuma islands, where you can go on nature trails to discover everything from the famous Allen Cay rock iguanas to flamingos to 1,370-odd species of trees and plants. Powerboat Adventures (‘www.powerboatadventures.com’) offers a number of services. Snorkelling and scuba diving are absolute musts, with variegated reefs and shipwrecks to discover in the ocean.
Nightlife has several options: Fluid on Bay Street (’www.clubfluidbahamas.com’) is recommended by locals and Aura on Paradise Island (‘www.aurathenightclub.com’) is chic and trendy.
Over the New Year period, the Bahamas host a fiesta called Junkanoo (‘www.junkanoo.com’), complete with street parades, floats and wild carnival-style outfits.
Where to eat
Downtown Nassau and Bay Street offer a variety of restaurants and diners. There are many cheap and cheerful burger, grill and barbecue options. The more readily recognizable international cuisines—Italian, Greek and Mexican—are available as well. Café Skans on Bay Street does some mean beef steak sandwiches and bacon, cheese burgers and local beers. Packed to the brim, Nobu at the Cove Atlantis was spectacular.
Where to stay
There are several three- or four-star hotels and umpteen bed and breakfasts to stay at all over the islands, but if you’re travelling all the way across the world, you may as well go for broke and stay at the Cove Atlantis Spa and Resort (‘www.thecoveatlantis.com’) on Paradise Island, which is supposedly the peak of hotel luxury. The Cove offers everything from spectacular restaurants, a spa and a self-contained water park to a world-class casino and a buzzing nightclub. Rooms for upwards of $590. The Atlantis Paradise Island Coral Towers, also in Nassau, offers accommodation for $370, while the Atlantis Beach Tower, more geared towards kids, has rooms for upwards of $335.
Photographs by Govind Dhar
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