Tricks help visitors find the "real" Bahamas

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If your idea of a good vacation involves nice beaches, upscale resort hotels and gambling casinos, you'll probably like Nassau. On the other hand, South Floridians can drive a few miles to a hometown beach and find the same thing, except for the gambling.

And that's the problem. When I travel out of the United States, it's to visit a foreign place to meet its people and observe its lifestyle, not a place so much like home it's hardly worth the trip. I don't expect to find Miami Beach East.

You can find "the real Bahamas" in Nassau, the way it was years ago, but you have to work at it.

Americans who want to feel at home can stay in a Nassau Holiday Inn, Marriott, Sheraton, Radisson or Comfort Inn. Even Nassau's landmark hotel, the dowdy, aging British Colonial Hotel at 1 Bay St., is now the British Colonial Hilton, gentrified with a $68 million renovation. The site in the middle of downtown was once a pirate haven, then held a fort. There have been hotels on the site since 1900, the current one built after its predecessor burned down in 1929.

You have to look for the charm. Bahamians are naturally relaxed, with a mellow, mañana frame of mind, and casual about promptness. The bustle and efficiency expected of the staffs at resort hotels is just not their style, although they try.

On a trip there last summer to attend a meeting, I stayed at a resort hotel on Cable Beach where most guests seemed content to visit the casino, play on the beach, shop in a straw market across the street and eat in restaurants that serve steaks, seafood and pasta.

One day we drove around Paradise Island, just offshore and linked to Nassau's New Providence Island by a bridge. The island, studded with glittering resorts, is the former Hog Island, where old-timers kept their livestock. Then A&P heir Huntington Hartford bought the place and named it Paradise. Its showplace, the Atlantis resort, is built around what it claims is the world's largest outdoor aquarium. Given a choice, I'd rather stay at a small bed and breakfast; some are family owned and operated places listed on the Bahamas Web site, such as Dillets, a 60-year-old Bahamian house with seven guest rooms (e-mail: dillets@batel.net).

I'd eat at one of the 16 restaurants that participate in "Real Taste of the Bahamas" (look for the logo), all listed in a free booklet from the Ministry of Tourism. I like Arawak Cay, with a group of down-home restaurants, west of downtown. There's the fish fry at Goldies, with sky juice (gin and coconut water) to drink. At the Twin Brothers Conch and Steak House, I watched a cook's lightning-fast chopping of ingredients for conch salad and ate a plateful of it at an outdoor picnic table under a thatched umbrella. Most customers are Bahamians.

Not that conch fritters, conch salad and conch chowder are haute cuisine, but they are fresh, tasty and Bahamian. Dishes reflect the people who settled here: English immigrants in the 16th century, and British loyalists from the new United States who came after the Revolution and brought along their slaves. They used what was at hand -- seafood, fruit, herbs and spices, pork, mutton, some vegetables.

Even some resort hotels offer Bahamian dishes. Breakfast at Johnny Canoe in the Nassau Beach Hotel on Cable Beach is boiled fish with lime, with a side of grits or johnnycake. Try pineapple salsa, and main dishes like chicken sousa, a thick hearty soup, or pea soup with dumplings.

Another good way to meet the Bahamians is through the Ministry of Tourism's People to People program, in which 1,500 Bahamian volunteers host visitors for a day or evening activity: boating, visiting local markets or a typical meal. To arrange an encounter, get information from the tourist office in Miami, 800-422-4262.

On the last Friday of each month from January though August, you can attend the tea party at Government House, residence of the governor general, the queen's representative to the independent Bahamas. The tea party is also arranged by People to People.

Nassau has three 18th century forts, and if you want to pick one, choose Fort Fincastle because it's at the top of 65 steps, called the queen's staircase, hewed out of solid limestone by slaves, representing the years of Queen Victoria's reign. Then take an elevator 126 feet to the top of the water tower to the highest point on the island.

Shopping along Bay Street is more browsing for me, since the prices are not that good, but productive for anyone looking for crystal, china or perfume. The famous straw market near the midtown cruise ship docks burned down and its space is now a parking lot, while a much smaller indoor market is open down the street. A new straw market is going to be built ... mañana. For better craft shopping, check the Bahamacraft Center on Paradise Island.

Another diversion is gambling at the two casinos, the Crystal Palace on Cable Beach and at the Atlantis on Paradise Island. U.S. coins fit the machines.

And, by the way, Nassau is a fast and easy place to get married; it's such a thriving business that the Ministry of Tourism has its own romance director.

If you go: Americans can bring home from the Bahamas two liters of liquor per person, one carton of cigarettes and 100 cigars. Departure tax is $15. Don't bother changing currency, since U.S. dollars circulate freely.

For more information and brochures, contact the Bahamas Tourist Office, 19495 Biscayne Blvd, No. 809, Miami, FL 33180; 800-422-4262, or go to the Web site, www.bahamas.com.

Jean Allen welcomes questions about travel. Send them to Advice and Dissent, Sun-Sentinel, 200 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301-2293. Sorry, no personal replies.

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