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nassau bahamas jamaican food jerk chickenNod your head if you think there’s nothing more to Nassau than its proximity to the Atlantis Resort and Casino and a plethora of straw markets and high-end shops. I’d be willing to bet just about everyone reading this is nodding their head right now. I know that until recently, that’s what I thought. And because of that, Nassau was fairly low on my list of must-visit destinations.

But on a recent cruise visit to this port city, I learned there’s so much more than meets the eye.

I learned, for instance, that within just a few years of Christopher Columbus “discovering” the Bahamas, all the indigenous people had been wiped out and that technically everyone who today hails from there comes from immigrant ancestors.

I also learned that the Bahamas are a unique blend of British and American culture and influences. Though “founded” by the British in the early 1700’s and still a part of the Commonwealth, the Bahamian islands also played a role in the American Revolution and the Civil War, and were a hotbed of rum-running activity during Prohibition. In fact, some of Nassau’s architecture is classic American colonial, a vestige of its days as a home-in-exile for American loyalists after their side lost the Revolutionary War.

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And for seafood lovers, I learned that conch (pronounced conk) isn’t just used for fritters and chowder. Because the conch shell is incredibly hard and durable, it’s often ground into dust and added to construction materials. A good many of the buildings in downtown Nassau are partly made of conch shell.

All of these facts and more were imparted to me by Alanna Rodgers, a young Bahamian entrepreneur whose Tru Bahamian Food Tours launched just two months ago. At least once a day Rodgers leads tourists on the three-hour Bites of Nassau Food Tasting and Cultural Walking Tour, giving participants the chance to try a variety of local foods and learn a great deal about the Bahamas from culture to history, architecture to government, and religion to pirates.

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The tour was the high point of my seven-day Bahamas cruise and offered a truly fascinating look at a country and port that is too often dismissed for its three S’s (sun, sand and shopping).

Among the culinary highlights of the tour were:

Baked macaroni and cheese at Bahamian Cookin’, the first stop on our tasting tour. While everyone else got conch fritters (I don’t eat shellfish), I had a yummy macaroni and cheese dish at this small restaurant, which is owned and operated by three generations of Nassau women.

Jamaican jerk chicken that didn’t burn going down. Turns out there are some 10,000 Jamaicans in the Bahamas, making up a significant subset of the population. At the hole-in-the-wall Pepper Pot Grill, the menu is pretty much whatever the chef decides to cook, but there are usually a couple of choices, and the jerk chicken was delicious without being overly spicy.

An invitation to the Governor General’s house for tea. Okay, so the Governor General didn’t actually invite me personally, but as part of the country’s People to People project all tourists are invited to a special one-hour tea party (4 – 5 p.m.) on the last Friday of every month (except December). During the event visitors can chat with the Governor General’s wife, sample local bush teas, watch a Bahamian fashion show and enjoy live music.

Chocolate. There’s nothing particularly Bahamian about the Graycliff Chocolatier, though the Italian family that owns it has lived in the Bahamas for many years. But for this chocoholic, stopping by for a freshly made caramel salted dark chocolate was divine. Many local ingredients are used in the chocolates, like coconut and pineapple, and the company is hoping to develop a local cocoa plantation.

Greek salad. The Greek salad itself was less of a highlight than learning that Greeks make up a significant part of the Bahamian merchant class, that they own most of the jewelry stores on Bay Street (downtown’s main street), and that the son’s owner is married to a former Miss Bahamas. Oh, and many Bahamian politicians stop by there for lunch – the Secretary of Foreign Affairs was there when we were.

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– written by Dori Saltzman

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