The Bahamas is justly famous for its crystal-clear waters, flour-soft sand and 320 days a year of sunshine, but a new focus on the fascinating culture of this unique Caribbean melting pot makes it even more appealing.
A cool, stylish art gallery, beautifully-lit. Everywhere you look there are dazzling pieces, some traditional, some challenging, all full of life. And the whole place curated by the man who used to run the National Art Gallery.
But this isn’t a chic new gallery in London, New York or Miami’s South Beach. This is Baha Mar in The Bahamas, a place which – like so many hotels in The Bahamas – has gone out on a limb to put the culture and art of these fascinating islands at the very heart of what they do.
Considering that the owners of the resort could probably have just traded on the Bahamian white sands, turquoise waters and near-endless sunshine, it’s inspiring to see this determination to champion the local culture – “to offer a richer experience than you get on a typical beach vacation”, as the resort’s president Graeme Davis explained it recently.
The man they’ve brought in to curate the collection is John Cox, an artist of international renown and former curator of the beautiful National Art Gallery in Nassau, who has brought in over 2,500 pieces of art from across the islands. It is, quite simply, one of the great collections of Bahamian art and culture; and as well as the pieces on display there is also a workshop, a residency programme and classes on offer.
Other hotels in Nassau and on Paradise Island are making similar strides to champion a culture that is genuinely fascinating. This part of the Caribbean has been inhabited for 1,000 years, with each successive new set of arrivals leaving their mark.
The Taino Indians were the first to arrive, followed 500 years later by the Spanish – it was in The Bahamas that Columbus first made landfall in the New World, in 1492. Since then there have been West African, Dutch, French and British settlers, each adding a new ingredient to this delightful melting pot.
One of the most striking features of the local culture – and something you absolutely should not miss – is Junkanoo, most easily (if slightly inaccurately) described The Bahamas’ answer to Carnival. It’s a riotous celebration of life, with thousands of people dressing up in spectacular hand-made costumes – genuine works of art in themselves – and going on a parade through the streets of Nassau.
It’s a tradition dating back hundreds of years that is stronger then ever, and pervades popular culture in The Bahamas and beyond: when James Bond flees from the clutches of Spectre agents in Thunderball by mingling with a parade, it’s Junkanoo in Nassau that provides his escape route.
Originally, Junkanoo was held just twice a year, on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, starting at 2am and finishing at 10am. Those end-of-year parades remain the high point, but the enormous success and enduring appeal of Junkanoo prompted the creation of a summer festival. If that doesn’t coincide with your trip either then many of the hotels in Nassau and Paradise Island hold their own shows so that everyone can enjoy the fun. The Atlantis, for example, is a prime example. It holds a weekly Junkanoo Fest where guests can don costumes and make-up and get a few tips on some of the popular dance moves, as well as enjoying some local cuisine.
The origins of the festival are lost in time, though there are a number of theories. Some claim its name derives from John Canoe, a Ghanaian merchant prince of the early 18th century, whose successes holding off the Dutch and British made him a folk hero both sides of the Atlantic. Others insist that the name is a corruption of the French gens inconnu, a reference to the anonymising masks worn by revellers; either way, it’s likely that the celebration was timed to coincide with two of the rare holidays granted to slaves before emancipation.
While the origins might be murky, what is not in doubt is the vibrancy and excitement generated by this huge celebration, particularly in the centrepiece: the “gran’ dance” at the heart of the action. It’s effectively a massive dance-off between competing troupes, each consisting of up to 1,000 people, who give themselves names such as the Music Makers and the Saxons Superstars.
They spend months working on costumes and choreography, performing the moves to The Bahamas’ home-grown music, which uses everything from whistles and horns to the famous goatskin ‘goombay’ drums. You’ll also hear the local ‘rake ‘n’ scrape’ sound, often with an accordion accompanied by an improvised instrument consisting of a carpenter’s saw played with a screwdriver or a knife.
Music and dancing are ever-present here. Locals call The Bahamas ‘the islands of song’, and you’ll hear joyous sounds everywhere you go, from the minute you land at the airport. Yet there are many other ways to immerse yourself in the local culture – take a stroll through the Straw Market in Nassau, for example, where hundreds of stall holders sell traditional baskets and other objects woven from straw. Some of what you’ll see will be hastily-produced tourist fodder, of course, but the objects of genuine quality, beauty and artistic merit always stand out.
And that’s it in a nutshell: quality and beauty do always stand out, and the cultural experiences on offer in Nassau can take visitors far beyond the usual joys of a Caribbean holiday. Banging the (goat-skin) drum for Bahamian culture is good for islanders and tourists alike.
Nassau, the city on the island of New Providence that's capital of The Bahamas, isn't just a beautiful Caribbean spot: