SIGHTSEEING IN NASSAU
The Bahamian capital has a long and intriguing history that’s reflected in its colonial buildings and breezy public squares. Though its narrow streets are often mobbed with visitors, you can see most of the city’s historical sites on foot. A pleasant way to get oriented, however, is to take a surrey ride around town. You can usually find several around Rawson Square, which is the heart of downtown Nassau, or on Woodes Rogers Walk. (Expect to pay about US$10 a person for a 30-minute ride.)
If you decide to tour the local attractions on your own, you can easily see the major sights in a few hours. At the very least, stroll through Parliament Square, where a statue of Queen Victoria presides over an assortm ent of Georgian-style government buildings that went up in the early 1800s. A few blocks to the west, on Hill Street, is the regal yet undeniably pink Government House. Among others, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor lived there when he was governor during World War II. Check to see when the Changing of the Guard ceremony is—it can be quite fun to watch. (It’s usually on alternate Saturdays.) Just south of Parliament Square is the octagonal Public Library, which was originally a prison (it was built in 1798).
For the best view on the island, climb the 66-step Queen’s Staircase to Fort Fincastle and go to the top of the adjacent water tower (open Monday-Friday 9 am-4:30 pm and Saturday 9 am-3:30 pm).
You could duck into the Pompey Museum on Bay Street, former site of the slave market—it’s now dedicated to the history of slavery. Don’t miss the paintings of unschooled artist Amos Ferguson on the second floor (open Monday-Friday 10 am-4:30 pm, Saturday 10 am-1 pm; US$1 adults, US$0.50 children). As long as you’re back on the waterfront strolling along the mosaic promenade known as Woodes Rogers Walk, check out the Junkanoo Expo with its displays of outlandish costumes used in the festival (open daily 9 am-5:30 pm; US$2 adults, US$0.50 children). Then you could stop at the Straw Market to buy straw hats, bags and mats, wood carvings and T-shirts.
SIGHTSEEING ON PARADISE ISLAND
Once a scrubby feedlot called Hog Island, this spot of land off Nassau has been transformed into the high-rise gambling and leisure haven of Paradise Island, which is connected to Nassau by a bridge. The center of it all is the Atlantis Resort, which South African developer Sol Kerzner has turned into one of the most complete resort-casino complexes in the world. The huge property includes a 14-acre/6-hectare waterscape with cascades, a lazy river for tubing and—the highlight—a giant outdoor saltwater habitat filled with sharks (you walk through a glass tunnel i n their midst). In addition, there’s a lagoon for snorkeling—all just off a gorgeous white-sand beach. Both the Atlantis Casino and the waterscape are public areas, open to nonguests. The tunnel through the aquarium is free; you pay fees to rent tubes or mats for the attractions that require them. There is so much to do that you could easily spend the day there going from one activity to another. The complex includes two resort hotels as well as numerous restaurants.
If you need to get out of the sun and are interested in formal gardens, the nearby Ocean Club resort (also owned by Kerzner) contains the Versailles Gardens and French Cloister. The original developer of Paradise Island, an heiress of the A & P Company fortune, not only re-created a formal European terrace garden, but also imported a 14th-century Augustinian cloister stone by stone—and threw in an eccentric assortment of statuary besides. Admission is free. Cab fare from Rawson Square runs about US$5 a person each way. Or take the ferry from the dock on Woodes Rogers Walk for US$2 each way. Or walk across the toll bridge for US$0.25.
Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas
Beyond the crowds on Main and Back Streets is a Charlotte Amalie rich in history. If you venture along the less-traveled streets and brick alleyways, you’ll stumble upon lovely old churches and Danish homes. Pastel-pretty Charlotte Amalie was built by the Danes in the 1600s as a haven for seafarers and—despite the intrusion of people and commerce—the town has maintained some of its 17th-century charm. The best way to see the sights is on a walking tour—pick up a free map from the visitors information center at Havensight or in Charlotte Amalie.
Fort Christian, painted red with a clock tower on top, is one of the oldest structures in the Virgin Islands, dating from 1672. Only part of it is open, but there is a s mall museum in what used to be a dungeon. Open weekdays 8:30 am-4:30 pm, but the fort is being restored, so call ahead in port: 340-776-4566. Near the fort is the pastel green Legislative Building, where visitors can observe the Senate when it’s in session.
Seven Arches Museum on Government Hill is an impeccably restored 18th-century Danish residence filled with mahogany furniture from Barbados and other Caribbean islands. Leave yourself plenty of time for this museum, as owner and restorer Philbert Fluck is as fascinating as the museum itself. (The fruit punch he serves isn’t half bad, either.) admission fee US$5. Up the hill from the museum is Blackbeard’s Castle, once the site of a pirate lookout, later a fort and, until recently, a hotel. There’s still a stonework look-out tower that’s in good repair, though off limits to visitors. Even so, the view from the hill makes the climb well worth it: Take the Street of 99 Steps, a relic from the early 1700s. (Try counting the steps on your way up or down: I tallied 103...lol .)
The town has some distinctive old churches and synagogues, all worth visiting. Beracha Veshalom Vegmiluth Hasidim, for instance, was built in 1833, making it one of the oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere. (Note its sand-covered floors.) The Dutch Reformed Church, built in 1846, is a striking example of Greek Revival architecture. You can also stop in the Gothic-looking Frederick Lutheran Church, which was built in 1826, and the Memorial Moravian Church, built in 1884 of blue-colored volcanic rock.
On the outskirts of Charlotte Amalie is Frenchtown, a fishing village established by the French Huguenots. A cluster of restaurants make the town a pleasant place to spend an afternoon or evening (it’s not just popular with tourists—you’ll see plenty of locals, too).
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Old San Juan is stunning. Narrow streets lined with colorful Spanish colonial buildings are punctuated with shady plazas. Giant wooden doors grace the facades of the oldest buildings (some date back 500 years), most of which have undergone facelifts recently. Bougainvillea spills off balconies. Around every corner, you’ll find a new treat: an old Spanish wall, a tiny chapel, intricate street statuary or a marker noting an historic event that took place at that spot. There will be organized tours from the ship but you could easily walk the cobblestone streets for hours and not be bored. But you’ll likely miss something you’d regret later. So arm yourself with a map and select a few places that interest you most; then walk or catch a trolley to as many sights as you can visit without rushing. You can also join an organized walking tour arranged on the ship. Allow time to rest in one of the shady parks or plazas and enjoy a pineapple piragua (snow cone).
From the port, head west to La Casita, a little pink Spanish colonial building that houses a government tourism office where you can pick up brochures, maps and a complimentary welcome cocktail made with Puerto Rican rum. (Outside La Casita, look seaward in the opposite direction of the cruise berths and you’ll see the Customs Building, a much larger pink structure with Moorish touches.) From the tourist office, walk west along Paseo de la Princesa, a 19th-century esplanade lined with benches and mini-plazas with outdoor sculptures and large open areas where concerts are performed during island holidays and festivals. Before you reach the giant outdoor fountain, you’ll pass the gray colonial building known as La Princesa, once a prison and now the headquarters of the government-run Puerto Rico Tourism Company. Although La Princesa does not have a permanent art gallery, it frequently hosts special exhibits of Puerto Rican art and handicrafts. (The building is open weekdays 8 am-4 pm.)
The lovely promenade winds alongside the old Spanish wall to its end at the San Juan Gate, one of the original seaside entrances to the city. Completed in 1639, this gateway known in Spanish as “La Muralla” used to open each morning to let in merchants and people on government business and then close at sunset to keep out pirates. Once through the gate, you enter a delightful neighborhood of cobblestone streets. To your right is the side entrance to La Fortaleza, the governor’s mansion. This magnificent colonial building is the oldest governor’s home still in use in the Western Hemisphere and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Free guided tours through sections of the mansion and its grounds are offered Monday-Friday. The main entrance is at the end of Calle Fortaleza.
To the left (and uphill) as you pass through the gateway is La Rogativa Plaza, which contains a sculpture commemorating a day in 1797 when the women of San Juan averted a siege by British ships. The women, led by the bishop, carried torches in a religious procession in honor of St. Ursula. The invaders, believing the torches were carried by Spanish military reinforcements, fled. (The plaza offers splendid views of the harbor.)
Just above the plaza is the steep walkway into the grounds of Casa Blanca, built in 1521 as the home of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon (the first Spanish governor of Puerto Rico). Ponce de Leon died before the building was finished, but generations of his family called the estate home. Today it is a museum depicting life as it was in the 1500s-1800s. (Open Tuesday-Sunday 9 am-4:30 pm; admission to the grounds is free; US$1 admission to the museum.
You can follow the paved path running northwest through the estate and emerge in view of Fuerte San Felipe del Morro, better known as El Morro Fortress. Even if you’re not interested in military history, the view alone from this UNESCO World Heritage Site makes it worth a visit. (Be aware that it’s a long walk from the street to the fort on ragged cobblestones.) This sprawling military complex, which has guarded the entrance to San Juan Bay since the 1500s, is the most photographed site in Puerto Rico. Walk along its 20-ft-/6-m-thick ramparts or enter one of its distinctive sentry boxes, which have become the symbols of San Juan. Within the fort are six levels of tunnels, dungeons and passageways that invite exploration. Be sure to climb to the lighthouse level for a bird’s-eye view of the city. If you haven’t had your fill of forts, proceed east on the palm-lined streets overlooking the ocean to the larger Fort San Cristobal, which was built to protect the city from a land invasion. The views of El Morro and the old city are quite spectacular from San Cristobal. (Both forts are open daily 9 am-5 pm; a single US$2 National Park Service ticket gets you into both.
As you walk from El Morro to San Cristobal, you’ll pass the north side of the Plaza del Quinto Centenario (Quincentennial Square). This giant plaza frequently hosts outdoor music and dancing extravaganzas and is a favorite spot for skateboarders, government workers taking a lunch break on a bench and mothers out for a stroll with their toddlers. It opened in 1992 as part of the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. Its centerpiece, a 40-ft/12-m totem pole-style sculpture, has drawn criticism as being too modern for the old city. At the south end of the plaza, two needle-shaped columns point to the North Star, the guiding light of the early explorers. Nearby is the Cuartel de Ballaja, a colossal barracks built as home for the Spanish troops and their families. Today a handful of its rooms serves as galleries for the Museum of the Americas, with its marvelous permanent exhibit of Latin American folk art and its changing exhibits dedicated to the work of Spanish and Latin American painters and sculptors. Open Wednesday-Sunday 9 am-4:30 pm; no admission fee.
In the block to the east of the art museum sits Plaza de San Jose, marked by a statue of Ponce de Leon made from melted-down cannons that were captured from the British in the late 1700s. This popular colonial plaza is surrounded by historic buildings, including the San Jose Church, the second-oldest church in the Western Hemisphere (open Monday-Saturday). Also nearby is the Museo de Pablo Casals (Pablo Casals Museum). The Spanish cellist’s mother was Puerto Rican, and he spent the last decades of his life on the island. The museum contains his manuscripts, photographs and videotapes (open Tuesday-Saturday 9:30 am-5:30 pm, free admission). Also on the plaza is the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture bookstore, but don’t think books are the only thing it sells. This restored building displays everything from coffee and hammocks to mango jam and top-quality crafts. Calle Norzagaray at Plaza San Jose
Head downhill on Calle Cristo from Plaza San Jose and you’ll pass the Catedral de San Juan. The original cathedral went up in the early 1500s, but the current structure dates to 1852. Inside on the left side of the church is the dramatic white-marble tomb of Ponce de Leon. (The cathedral is a popular spot for society weddings.) Across the street is El Convento, a 17th-century cloistered convent that has been converted into a hotel. If you have time, take a look inside at some if its artifacts: The bell that once perched over the Carmelite nuns’ chapel is displayed in the foyer, along with some lovely Spanish colonial art and furniture. A couple of blocks away is the Plaza de Armas, the pulse point for Old San Juan. Centuries ago, Spanish soldiers practiced their drills on this square. Today, children chase pigeons across the plaza, retirees grab a bench under a shade tree, young couples sip coffee at the plaza’s outdoor cafe and people head in and out of City Hall, an 1813 structure that has recently been restored. (An information desk on the ground floor has walking maps of the old city.)
On the eastern edge of the old city is Plaza Colon, dominated by a statue of Cristobal Colon—the man that English speakers know better as Christopher Columbus. Bronze tablets on the pedestal tell of Columbus’ life.
The plaza marks the edge of Old San Juan: Roads heading east lead to the trendy shopping, restaurant and hotel districts concentrated along the beaches in modern Condado and Isla Verde. Hato Rey is the city’s financial district. In between are residential neighborhoods, which run the range from luxury high-rise condos with ocean views to urban slums.
The Bacardi Rum Distillery, one of the most popular attractions outside San Juan, is in Catano across San Juan Bay (could it be the free drinks?). Said to be the world’s largest, the rum plant distills up to 100,000 gallons a day. Many tours feature the distillery, but you can also visit on your own by taking the ferry from Pier 2 to Catano (they run every half hour; US$0.50 per person) and then a cab or publico (US$6) right to the plant. (Open Monday-Saturday 9:30 am-3:30 pm