The Rebirth of Downtown Nassau
It’s late afternoon in a cigar factory, as rollers methodically weave tobacco leaves into fresh-rolled puros.
Just a few steps away, chocolatiers are making a new batch of rum-filled truffles; down the street, a local is producing artisanal teas; a block further the Bahamas’ greatest living artist is pondering his next big masterpiece.
Just a few years ago, little of this existed, as, like in too many Caribbean downtowns, it was an area quiet by day and even quieter at night, with too many ruins and not enough rum.
But today downtown Nassau, Bahamas, long just a stop on a cruise voyage, has quietly undergone a renaissance into a full-fledged destination in its own right.
Like every renaissance, it hasn’t happened overnight.
“It’s been a gradual change,” says Fred Lounsberry, CEO of the Nassau Paradise Island Promotion Board. “If you’d taken a snapshot five years ago then looked at one today you’d say ‘wow.’”
This one has been the fruit of years of vision, followed by years of planning and then deliberate execution and an emphasis on restoring the city’s centuries-old architecture.
And it’s not finished.
Today, Nassau’s colonial quarter still has its broad luxury shopping district, its pretty pink buildings and new additions from artist Antonius Roberts’ Hillside House to a microbrewery called the Pirate Republic Brewing Company, the first craft brewery in the Bahamas.
The aforementioned cigar factory is part of Graycliff’s wider complex, which includes its famous hotel and restaurant and its newest project: a historic village that includes a cafe, a gelateria, the cigar and chocolate factories, a Bahamian history museum, an artists’ colony and soon even more additions like a winery set in a convent. Yes — wine made right in the Bahamas.
It’s all in large part due to a collection of community leaders and organizations banded together almost four years ago to create Historic Charles Town, a drive — named after the city’s 17th-century name — to restore and revitalize the historic quarter.
More importantly, the effort helped improve security and gave the area something even more important: walkability.
“What we’re trying to drive is that authentic Bahamian experience,” says Graycliff’s Paolo Garzaroli. “We’re trying to make this into a destination.”
There are new hotels too, including a fresh Courtyard Marriott and a big renovation project at the Junkanoo Beach Resort which will likely debut under a major brand name in the near future.
And the food scene has also heated up, with newer eateries like Dali Modernistic Tapas complementing traditional favorites like Cafe Matisse, above.
The centerpiece, though, is right on downtown’s main road, Bay Street, where a major China-funded project called The Pointe is in development.
The Pointe, adjacent to the historic British Colonial Hotel, is a mixed-use facility including a parking garage (which already opened last year) with ground-floor retail and a planned hotel and residential component with features like a marina and evening entertainment like a movie theater and a rooftop bar.
It will be a new kind of development for a Caribbean downtown, hip, fresh and right on the water, and one that Garzaroli said would likely reorient the area even further toward the Charles Town area.
And as you walk around Nassau today, you can see and feel the changes, with rebuilt buildings and shiny patterned streets and the palpable sense that this is a place with a new energy.
You also realize just how large a collection of beautiful architecture truly exists here.
It’s the kind of transformation that can revitalize a community and, more significantly, could be a model for the rest of the Caribbean.
“Cities are definitely important — they are the heart and center of many islands,” says Denaye Hinds, an expert on sustainability at OBMI. “In the work we’ve done in sustainable tourism master planning, we always make sure that cities are at the forefront, especially waterfronts as they are often the most underutilized.”
The latter is crucial for this particular downtown area, with the Pointe planning on making the water an integral part of its plan, including a boardwalk that will likely extend all the way to the Paradise Island bridge.
“I’ve been to a lot of Caribbean countries, and this is as great of a downtown as I think there is,” Lounsberry says. “And it’s just getting better.”
IF YOU GO
Where to Drink: Bullion Bar at the British Colonial Hilton Hotel; Pirate Republic Brewing Company; John Watling’s Distillery (a good place to buy rum, too).
What do Do: Visit the Graycliff Historic Village along with galleries like Hillside House, the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas and the D’Aguilar Art Foundation; walk the streets of Old Nassau; take a culinary tour with Tru Bahamian Food Tours
— Alexander Britell