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Nassau Essentials

nassau parliament building bougainvillea flowers pinkA laidback tropical island with copious amounts of candy-pink colonial (and sometimes funky) charm, Nassau is the capital of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas -- and the largest city on New Providence, one of its smaller islands. In fact, more than half of the Bahamas' 300,000+ residents live on New Providence. Famous Cable Beach and Paradise Island are but a stone's throw from downtown Nassau.

A city with a vibrant swashbuckling pirate past, Nassau offers tropical tree-lined streets filled with horse-drawn surreys ruled by policemen in white starched jackets and colorful pith helmets; soft-sanded beaches for kicking back and catching ocean breezes; lavish Vegas-type casinos with attractions to match; dozens of obscenely good restaurants; and enough duty-free shopping stops to please even the most jaded of fashionistas.

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What to See
Head over to the man-made island of Arawak Cay (known to the locals as "Fish Fry"), a local beach dusted with pastel-colored shacks, incredibly fresh conch from vendors cracking the mollusks right before your eyes, fried fish and grits, lime-marinated conch and plenty of coconut milk laced with gin. It's very popular, especially with the locals, and very crowded, especially on weekend evenings from 5 p.m. until midnight. It's on the harbor, across from Fort Charlotte.

Pink flamingos, honey bears and peacocks, oh my! You'll find all this and more at Ardastra Gardens. Wait till you see the flamingos parade in drill formation.

If you're not staying at the showy 34-acre Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, you can still check it out by purchasing a hard-to-come-by day pass (these are offered on a first-come, first-served basis at the resort). The pass gets you access to most of the must-see sights at the resort, such as the Dig, the marine habitats and the beach. What you won't get is the fun stuff around the pools and waterslides. An alternative to purchasing the pass is to stay at the nearby Comfort Suites Paradise Island, where guests have full access to most Atlantis facilities.

The number one photo op on the island is the balcony of 18th-century Balcony House, which also happens to be Nassau's oldest wooden structure. Step inside this island landmark to see the mahogany staircase said to have been salvaged from a shipwreck in the mid-1800's.

dolphins spotted bottlenose For dolphin encounters of the bottlenose kind and seven stunning beaches, head for Blue Lagoon Island (a.k.a. Salt Cay). If it looks a bit familiar, you probably saw it in the film "Splash" (the beach scenes were filmed here). There are plenty of water sports to try and hammocks to idle in, but for all things dolphin, make sure you plan ahead with Dolphin Encounters. You'll find plenty of amenities such as showers and changing rooms too. Catch the ferry from the cruise terminal.

One of the most popular cultural stops on the island is the 18th-century Fort Charlotte. It's fun to roam the dungeons and underground passageways and see the waterless moat -- but some say the amazing views of the harbor from the ramparts is the real don't-miss here. Two other forts worth checking out are Fort Fincastle (overlooking the town from Bennet's Hill) and Fort Montagu (on East Bay Street).

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For those who love British pomp and circumstance, see the changing of the guard at the Government House every other Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon, accompanied by the music of the Royal Bahamas Police Force Band. The official residence of the governor-general of the Bahamas since 1801, this bubble-gum-pink mansion is an excellent example of Bahamian-British and American Colonial architecture.

Kids love the Pirates of Nassau, an interactive museum filled with pirate stuff. They can walk through a 75-foot, three-masted pirate ship, too.

We dare you to take a royal climb up the 66 steps of the Queen's Staircase, which was carved out of calcareous, a coral-based sandstone at the end of the 18th century. The stupendous view is the prize for such athleticism.

Hop aboard the Seaworld Explorer for a 90-minute submarine tour. Think underwater observatory, as you descend five feet below the water to observe the "sea gardens" through large glass windows. Reservations recommended (they can be arranged directly with the company or through your hotel or cruise ship).

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