The Price Of Paradise

Bahamas: Nassau has a new sparkle that visitors will love -- but it comes at a cost.

January 14, 2001

Nassau used to be a cheap weekend. A quickie cruise from Lauderdale to the Bahamas. A second-rate gambling junket. The poor man's Caribbean experience.

Not anymore. If you want to come to Nassau -- and you may, after reading this -- raise your expectations and assume the brace position for a little sticker shock.

And we're not talking just about the marine-themed Atlantis resort -- though we will talk about that later.

First, a quick geographical orientation and a bit of history:

Nassau is the capital, main port and only real town on New Providence Island, one of 700 Bahamian islands. It's about an hour's flight from Miami. The island is in the Atlantic, not the Caribbean, but that's just a technicality. Some of Nassau's buildings date from the 1700s, left by the colonizing British, who also left the queen's picture on Bahamian bills (it's a Commonwealth thing).

Cable Beach is a couple of miles west of old Nassau town, still on the island. It was named in the 1890s for a telephone cable, not the cable that brings us the Comedy Channel. Good beach, golf course, some hotels and a casino. Still farther west is new development, including lavish and semi-lavish homes, timeshares, shopping, more beach and a hotel that looks like it was colored by crayon.

* Paradise Island is across from the east side of Nassau and connected to the town by two short bridges. It originally was called Hog Island. In 1962, its then-owner, A&P zillionaire-scion George Huntington Hartford II -- who would have known something about marketing -- figured out that "paradise" sounded more upscale than pork and changed the place forever. This is home to more hotels, including Atlantis.

There was a time when the Nassau vicinity was an exclusive winter retreat for British nobility. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor hung out at Graycliff, seasonal home of the Third Earl of Staffordshire and the Duchess of Staffordshire. Al Capone was linked to the same house, but under a previous owner. There was a racetrack. Yachts, of course. Polo, we presume.

Independence from the mother country came in 1973. The Bahamian government went into the hotel business, and that didn't work out very well. The venerable (1922) British Colonial Hotel, co-star with Sean Connery in two Bond epics, was all but killed off; in the end, the hotel's one operating wing was being run as a Best Western.

"That property was running with $50 room rates," say James Hepple, deputy director-general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. "That's the only way it could fill."

The side-by-side Cable Beach Hotel / Crystal Palace Hotel and Casino operations were taken over by Carnival Cruise Lines, which knew as much about the hotel business as the government knew about cruise lines. That didn't work.

Merv Griffin Enterprises, which had taken control of much of the Paradise Island hotel and casino scene, was unloading.

Competition was gaining and then surpassing: Cancun and Cozumel in Mexico, timeshares and other islands, South Beach in Miami. Las Vegas was reinventing itself every 18 months. Mississippi had 20-something casinos.

Cruise lines brought people, but the money was staying on the boat. In 1992, a new government got out of the hotel business. In 1994, Sun International -- operators of the sprawling Sun City hotel-casino-golf resort in South Africa -- bought out Merv Griffin Enterprises.

In 1995, Sun launched Atlantis. And in late 1998, an expanded Atlantis became a resort venue that is to hotel-casinos what Walt Disney World is to kiddieland.

"Atlantis," Hepple says, "has redefined the Bahamas. Without Atlantis, none of this would have happened."

Here's what happened, and here's what's still happening.

Old Nassau

After an 18-month, $68 million renovation, the old British Colonial -- the part that had been boarded up, in every respect the better part of it -- reopened in October 1999 as the British Colonial Hilton. Its public areas are elegant. Fine pool. Downtown's only private beach (though it's on the harbor, not the ocean, so the only waves are from cruise ships). Restaurants. Some of the rooms -- there are 291 in all -- are a little snug, but what was once an eyesore is now a symbol of rebirth. And room rates have risen a bit from the $50 era -- to $250 and up.

It is the most obvious symbol of downtown's revival. West of the Hilton, some small hotels that once catered to bargain hunters and 12-to-a-room spring-breakers are being gutted and renewed.

East of the Hilton, there's still the Bay Street strip of shops selling Lladros and emeralds and tax-free Johnnie Walker to people off the boats -- but all of it, along with the old pink government buildings left behind by the Brits, feels cleaner than I remember from visits a decade ago.

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