Bahamas a ‘must visit’ … READ BELOW NEWSPAPER CLIPPING:
By Christalee Froese
You know it has been an outrageous vacation when unpacking efforts exhume an unrecognizable ball of clothing that is still soggy, and smells of the sea. It takes a moment for the realization to set in … this is your ‘good dress.’
The Bahamas, named after the Spanish phrase ‘baja mar’ or shallow ocean, offers such inviting waters true to their name, it is impossible not to be drawn in—metaphorically and physically.
The night in question starts off at one of the many festivals Bahamians throw to celebrate the cultural pride and joyous spirit of the over 400,000 who call these 16 populated islands home.
This particular celebration is the Goombay Festival in Freeport, Grand Bahamas and this one is even more momentous as it falls in the 50th anniversary year of the Bahamas securing independence from Britain in 1973.
Tonight, the appalling Bahamian history of colonization efforts since the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, the subsequent enslavement and extermination of 400,000 indigenous Lucayans and the centuries of plunder of the country’s human, land and sea resources by the Spanish and British will be forgotten to recognize the resilience of modern-day Bahamians, 85 per cent of which descend from purchased African slaves brought to the islands to work unpaid.
It is a scene of pure revelry as the ocean-side Goombay venue teems with vendors selling Bahamian delicacies from conch fritters and cracked lobster to fried plantains and passion fruit duff. With the intoxicating tingle of goat pepper sauce and lobster on my lips, I scramble down an embankment to take in the merriment proceeding down the street toward me.
A rhythmic explosion of horns, goat-skinned drums and cowbells reaches me first, carrying my eyes into a cataclysmic scene of colour and dance until I am cavorting in the street alongside the decorated dancers, performers and musicians.
This uniquely Bahamian tradition is called Junkanoo, its roots dating back to the 17th century when African slaves, with their faces hidden under a flour paste, celebrated the day after Christmas as a show of defiance against their captors who often treated them like animals.
“Because animals don’t have festivals, so the fact that you recreate your festivals from back home (in Africa) illuminates and reminds—if not only you—that, ‘No, you are not an animal,’” says Arlene Nash-Ferguson, founder of the Nassau-based Educulture Junkanoo Museum.
The modern-day Junkanoo has replaced flour paste with elaborate head pieces, masks and regalia that can take a full year to make, and can cost thousands of dollars to bring to life. Because for Bahamians, this ancient tradition is so much more than just a parade.
“It was a way our ancestors connected with their past, with their history and their heritage and it enabled them to renew their spirit in a very negative environment,” says Nash-Ferguson, adding that the same can be said of today’s Junkanoos. “There is something that makes your feet move involuntarily when you hear the beat of the drum … it is a cultural memory coming out that says Junkanoo is us, and we are going to break down all of those walls that have been put up to confine us and define us.”
In Freeport, as Junkanoo is coming to a close, and bands are taking to the main stage, several fellow journalists and I decide to take in the remainder of the celebration from backstage—which just so happens to be in the bath-water-warm Caribbean Sea of Taino Beach.
While we have brought our bathing suits, we have not thought about towels, and so the ‘good dress’ I am forced to wear back to the hotel explains the sea-soaked ball of clothing in my suitcase. Memories of the star-lit evening floating in the sea while taking in all that is the Bahamian spirit is so worth the price of one fancy dress, if not a hundred.
Our Freeport visit also finds us sitting down for supper at the home of Collette and Sam Williams as part of the Ministry of Tourism’s inspired ‘People-to-People’ program. This immersive cultural experience pairs travellers with local volunteers who take you into their every-day lives.
On this day, we are treated to a traditional Bahamian feast of grouper, steamed chicken, peas and rice, mac and cheese, Bahamian-style warm potato salad, coleslaw and the crowning jewel of the glorious meal … Collette’s buttermilk rum cake infused with a coconut-rum-laced syrup so delicious it leaves your tastebuds intoxicated.
“I believe this is what I was born to do,” says our effervescent host as she packs up a ‘tote’ of mac and cheese and her home-made hot sauce for us to take with us. “I love people and if I can make one person have a memorable experience of the Bahamas, I would not have lived in vain.”
The remainder of our Freeport experience features a swim with the dolphins, a Wednesday night fish fry at Smith’s Point and a memorable e-bike tour with super-host Alfredo who introduces us to the must-experience Tony Macaroni and his demonstration of all things conch. To leave the Bahamas without knowing about and eating conch would be down-right un-Bahamian, and Tony is the most qualified to show you how to crack a conch shell, pull the giant sea snail from its ornate pink housing, slice it, dice it and turn into one of the most delicious and fresh salads created.
It is hard to match an authentic experience like the one offered to us by Freeport, but Nassau—the economic engine and tourism epicentre of the Bahamas—gives it a whirl. I don’t want to like Nassau, with its five-start hotels, pricey swim-up bars, wave-pooled water parks and international menus, but … I do.
Sipping a passion fruit mojito in an infinity pool at the unparalleled Baha Mar—a sprawling resort opened in 2017 featuring 1,800 rooms, 45 restaurants, and a 15-acre water park—quickly convinces me that I can indeed endure a posh vacation lifestyle.
As the Minister of Tourism, I. Chester Cooper, tells of the $6 billion invested in tourism over the past 18 months in the Bahamas and of resorts that “run the gamut of luxury travel,” I understand his direction. Nassau features amenities to attract the most well-heeled travellers in the world, as an afternoon in the swim-up aquarium pool observing sharks, sting-rays and giant turtles impresses upon me.
But stepping outside the confines of the luxury Baha Mar, and the other famous Nassau resort the Atlantis, reveals an accessible Nassau with shops, markets, restaurants and tours that bring an authentic Bahamian cultural experience back into view.
From the moment Captain Ron introduces me to my first bowl of conch chowder, I am sold. I follow him around this colourful city of about 250,000 on his three-hour ‘Tru Bahamian Food Tour’ like a cat following the scent of tuna. He plies us with ‘conchy’ conch fritters, ‘rummy’ Bahama mamas and lime-filled chocolates at six stops that loop through the historic downtown.
Our Nassau time concludes with the 50th anniversary People’s Junkanoo Rush featuring thousands of performers dancing and playing through the streets, banging traditional drums and exclaiming what Bahamians have known all along—independence is that of the soul, not that of the state.
Back home as I unpack, I sniff my sea-drenched dress a second time, confirming that yes indeed, the Bahamas did gift me one of the most memorable experiences of my travelling life.
For more information, visit www.bahamas.com which features 50th anniversary special occasions happening until the end of 2023.