NASSAU, the BAHAMAS: The UAE team contesting this month’s FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in the Bahamas elected to immediately fly home after a cruel elimination. The decision was understandable, the sooner the scenery changes, the sooner minds start anticipating the future rather than contemplating the past. Had the Emirati delegation stayed on to explore, however, they would have quickly noted this tropical archipelago is about a lot more than just sand, salty air and a turquoise-blue sea.
The UAE coach revealed that although his team arrived in the Caribbean two weeks before the tournament started, they had been confined to their hotel at the Atlantis Paradise Island Resort. “We are here with a goal, not to go sightseeing,’ he said.
Fortuitously, my goal there was to write about their exploits, so when they departed for Dubai earlier than expected, I took the opportunity to travel around the capital Nassau and also explored some of the country’s other 700-plus islands.
The original Atlantis is larger and with many more facilities than its replica on Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah. As well as being the location of several Hollywood movies, if legend is to be believed, pop icon Michael Jackson also owned the Bridge Suite before his death and made it available to guests for $25,000 per night. Numerous other salmon-pink buildings are spread across the 2.8 square kilometer island, incorporating countless celebrity-chef chain restaurants, exorbitant designer-label shops and a Monaco-like marina that includes docking slips for 63 mega-yachts.
Yet, while the Bahamas is critical to the country’s reputation, it does not epitomize an entire nation.
A little more than 12 percent of the Bahamian population live in poverty, so while Atlantis tourists may be willing to spend $380 on a swimsuit or eat at Michelin-acclaimed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Cafe Martinique, locals on the other side of the Sir Sidney Poitier Bridge are just as likely to be found picking the bones out of a fried barracuda (served with rice, plantain and sweetcorn for $10) at Potter’s Cay fish market or munching on a citrus-heavy tropical conch salad (diced with tomatoes, onions, peppers, mangos and pineapple for $15) at Arawak Cay Fish Fry.
The downtown area of the capital, centered around Bay Street, is where the two worlds collide. It is here where Bahamians working in the local straw market can gaze across at tourists exiting expensive diamond retailers, or where traditional cake factories sit alongside kitsch tourist attractions.
One such sight worthy of a visit is the surprisingly informative Pirates of Nassau Museum, where visitors can learn about the real pirates of the Caribbean and see their original weaponry, including cutlasses, grenades and a rare “Fusil Bucanier” musket. Suffice to say that while the lives of Blackbeard and his 18th Century cohorts were not as amusing as that of Captain Jack Sparrow and his Hollywood friends, they were still vastly more appealing than that of the Somalian pirates currently operating off the coast of Yemen.
Yet even back in the days of Blackbeard, the Bahamas were relatively developed compared to what greeted the first ship that anchored there in October 1492. The captain of that ship was a certain Christopher Columbus, who noting the remarkably clear water, declared the first islands of “the New World” to be “baja mar,” meaning “shallow sea.” Although evidently more enchanted by the islands than he was by its natives — many of whom he quickly enslaved — his statue stands outside Government House.
To get a real feeling of what Columbus must have experienced, head 90 miles south to the Exumas, an exotic collection of more than 360 isolated and oft-deserted islands.
HiddenBeachesBahamas.com provide expensive but excellent island-hopping day tours from Nassau, involving a couple of hours speeding through aquamarine waters that, at times, drop to just one meter deep and produce a blue-green color so perfect you could hold a turquoise gemstone under the surface and it would immediately appear invisible.
For many, the journey alone is picture-perfect enough, but on arrival there is the opportunity to feed and swim with some of the Exumas’ more unusual residents — giant Bahamian rock iguanas and two-meter-long nurse sharks (although regrettably, not Johnny Depp or Nicholas Cage who both own nearby islands). While both sets of creatures are very docile, it really is true what they say: Nothing in life prepares you for the moment you spot a shark bearing two black fins and 500 razor-sharp teeth swimming directly toward you.
Fortunately, nurse sharks are predominantly bottom-feeders and take very little interest in humans, allowing you to stroke them, notice their skin feels like wet sandpaper and relax so absolutely under the scorching Caribbean sun that you might just never want to return home. Little wonder then that the UAE coach did not encourage his downbeat players to explore.