Seven ways to experience Bahamas culture

When most people think of the Bahamas, there are only three things on their mind: sun, sand and sea. But in between dipping your toes in turquoise waters and sipping down a Bahama Mama or few, there are several ways you can get to know the local culture of the islands and some of the friendly, welcoming people who live there. Instead of bypassing the real Bahamas, here are three ways you can immerse yourself in Bahamian culture on your next trip to paradise.

People to People: Organized by the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, the People to People program (pictured above) connects travelers who are interested in learning about local customs with Bahamians who are ready and willing to share. While in Nassau, a generous ambassador of the program invited several other guests – locals and travelers – into her home for traditional meal composed entirely of Bahamian-grown food and items from local vendors. “It’s food from our backyard, swimming in our ocean,” said our host ambassador Lesley as we ate dishes like plantain and conch meatballs and Bahamian-style macaroni and cheese. Even better than the food was the company, a warm and friendly group who fielded all our questions about Bahamian life and culture. If interested, the experience can also be extended to include a church service, visit to a local school, boating excursion, or tour of the island. Did I mention it’s free?Arawak Cay: Nassau residents call this collection of multicolored, seaside restaurants and bars “The Fish Fry.” Once a series of shacks where fishermen sold their catch, this is now one of the best places to sample typical Bahamian dishes such as conch salad, fried snapper, and more. Mingle casually with the locals while you knock back a Kalik, the local beer, or if you’re bold challenge one of them to a game of dominoes. Nights and weekends are the best times to drop by, but no matter when you visit this is one place that is dominated by locals and not travelers.

Graycliff Hotel: There is no better place to take in the grandeur of the “Old Bahamas” than at the Graycliff Hotel. Built in 1740 by a real pirate of the Caribbean, the pink mansion was originally the site of the first Anglican church in the Bahamas. Over the years it has been a post for the American Navy, a favored spot of Al Capone during the age of prohibition, and a private residence for royalty. Today, it is home to an elegant hotel and restaurant, an in-house cigar factory, and the third largest private wine cellar in the world (with 250,000 bottles and counting). Ask a guide to show you the “million dollar rack,” a collection of bottles totaling a million bucks, or if you’re lucky he’ll let you catch a glimpse of a single bottle worth $200,000. At night, the Graycliff lounge becomes a smoke-filled piano bar with a gangster feel that takes visitors back to another era.

Junkanoo: Bahamians will use pretty much any excuse for a celebration, but the colorful holiday of Junkanoo is the most elaborate festival of the islands. Parades of people in brightly colored costumes take to the streets on Boxing Day (December 26th) and New Year’s Day. If visiting over the winter holidays isn’t an option, visit Junkanoo’s Educulture Museum, which contains historical items from previous Junkanoo celebrations and is a great spot to get kids interested in the history of the Bahamas. There are also several Junkanoo costumes at the Bahamas Welcome Center, where stalls are set up selling authentic Bahamas souvenirs.

Rake and Scrape: Combine the beat of a sheepskin drum with the scraping noise of a carpenter’s saw and you have “Rake and Scrape,” a musical style that originated when slaves began creating instruments out of whatever was available to them. Ask the locals where you might be able to catch a band, or head to Cat Island in May when the Rake and Scrape Festival takes place and you can catch traditional dances such as the Bahamian Quadrille and the Hell and Toe Polka. Calypso, a style of Afro-Caribbean music, is also popular throughout the Bahamas.

Potter’s Cay Dock: Tucked under Nassau’s Paradise Island Bridge – quite literally in the shadow of the Atlantis mega resort – is Potter’s Cay Dock, a Bahamian food marketplace composed of rudimentary stalls. A beehive of activity, the vibe here is different from the famous Straw Market, where Bahamians cater to tourists by hawking straw hats and baskets, mugs, key chains, shirts and other souvenirs. Locals come to Potter’s Cay to buy the daily catch or pick out produce from stalls that are stacked high with fresh plantains, cassava, papaya and more. Potter’s Cay is another perfect place to test local cuisine.

History or Culture Tour: Many of the islands – especially Nassau and Grand Bahama – offer an array of tours of historical landmarks and important cultural heritage sites. Tours are offered by boat, car and foot and cover everything from the days of pirates to the emancipation of slaves and beyond. Check the official Bahamas directory for tour listings that are sanctioned by the department of tourism.

[Photos by Kirsten Alana and MissChatter/Flickr]