Once upon a time, when Caribbean vacations were only taken by a lucky few, Nassau, in the Bahamas, was considered cool. James Bond first put the island on the collective radar in 1965—its unspoiled beaches, its vibrant music and festivals. Some of us can still remember our hip young parents flying off to holiday there in the 1970s and ‘80s, returning with deep tans, a hint of West Indian patois, and tales of an exotic tropical paradise.
No one much thinks of Nassau that way anymore. Since the 1990s, when massive international cruise ships began delivering more than a million day-trippers a year, the island has instead become known for its overrun, carnival atmosphere. The beaches are often crowded, the historic downtown port a parade of souvenir shops.
But while many seasoned travelers now simply see Nassau as a launch pad for trips to sleepier “out islands,” changes are afoot here. Some of the destination’s grandest old properties are refashioning themselves. And opulent new developments—some still in the works—seem poised to draw a new generation of luxury-seekers to the island.
Nassau, in other words, might just get its mojo back.
The New Enclaves
Set at the western end of New Providence, some 20 miles from downtown, the 600-acre waterfront Albany resort, which debuted in 2010, is vast enough to seem like a sovereign state. For those who are so inclined, it’s possible to stay here—after being whisked from the airport by private car—without ever seeing the less-lovely aspects of the island. An increasing number of residential homes here, including stately custom villas and slick high-rise condos, have become available as vacation rentals in recent years. These offer access to the grandest amenities on the island, among them an Ernie Els-designed championship golf course, a planned equestrian center, a luxury-yacht marina, seven restaurants, and a soon-to-launch tennis academy helmed by former Australian champion Lleyton Hewitt. From $2,500; 242-676-6010; albanybahamas.com.
The Island House, another west-end property that opened in 2015 is far smaller. It’s also Nassau’s first and only luxury boutique hotel—with an upscale-yet-bohemian vibe that’s equal parts South Beach and Laurel Canyon. Thirty-six spare, natural-fiber-upholstered rooms and apartments (some with porch swings on their terraces) ring a central, 25-meter swimming pool; so does an airy yoga studio and a teeny Bamford spa. Two sceney onsite restaurants (Shima and the new island favorite Mahogany House), as well as a café, a rooftop bar, and a jewel-box of a movie theater (showing indie and Caribbean-made films as well as box-office hits) bring a steady stream of well-heeled locals to the property—giving guests a chance to mingle with islanders. From $550; 242-698-6300; the-island-house.com.
The Potential Game-Changers
There’s been endless speculation in recent years about when Nassau’s colossal Baha Mar—a $3.5 billion, four-hotel, 2,200-room complex that is poised to become the Caribbean’s largest casino resort—might actually open. The hulking mid-island site, reportedly 97 percent complete when developers filed for bankruptcy, has been stalled since 2014, its towering hotel buildings, swoop-roofed conference center, and 100,000-square-foot casino standing empty. But this autumn finally brought encouraging news: a buyer prepared to breathe new life (and cash) into the project. The Bahamian Tourism Ministry now estimates it may open as soon as spring of 2017. Once it does, it’s likely to attract a new breed of high-roller to the island. 242-677-9000; bahamar.com.
Hot on the heels of Baha Mar (if all goes as planned) will be The Pointe, a glossy modern residence, hotel, and entertainment hub expected to launch in 2018 right along the harbor front in downtown Nassau. The property will raise the bar for visitors to this part of the island, with 150 plush glass-fronted hotel units and a marina. Amenities like a planned shopping and dining plaza, a bowling alley, cinema, and outdoor concert venue will be open—and are sure to appeal—to island residents, too. 242-603-8800; thepointenassau.com.
The Illustrious (and Improved) Mainstays
When its first incarnation opened in 1962 on Paradise Island (connected by a bridge to downtown Nassau) the One&Only Ocean Club was the destination’s most stunning property. So far, it still is. Its sweeping private beach, Versailles-style terraced garden, and compound of glamorous, low-slung buildings—formerly the private estate of A&P heir Huntington Hartford II—have already appeared in numerous movies and hosted A-listers like Oprah. But last year, the property upped its game, giving its most spectacular and historic accommodations a multimillion-dollar redesign. It also added a striking 125-foot infinity pool whose ocean views are the hands-down best on the island. (Because of damages sustained in Hurricane Matthew, the resort is closed until February.) From $1,015; 954-809-2716; oneandonlyresorts.com.
Boldly defying the newer-is-better trend on the island is Graycliff, a hotel with a soignée restaurant and cigar-rolling atelier tucked away in an 18th-century downtown mansion. Since the 1970s and ’80s, it’s been a haunt for visiting heads of state and VIPs; it’s also the island’s best-loved throwback to a more genteel time. In its formal dining rooms and wine cellar, crisp waiters proffer refined seafood and vintages from the formidable wine collection (some 250,000 bottles); in its piano lounge, patrons can smoke cigars, swirl cognac, and listen to a local chanteuse sing Nina Simone standards. In late 2014, though, Graycliff extended its reach by opening, in a nearby building, a fascinating and comprehensive historical museum, the Heritage Museum of the Bahamas. Detailing bygone eras of piracy, slave-owning Loyalists, and independence from colonialism, it illuminates just how rich Nassau’s cultural evolution has been—and may still be. 242-302-9150; graycliff.com.