The other side: Discovering art, cuisine and Bahamian culture in Nassau

Aspire writer Erica Bush joins Rosewood Baha Mar on a fam trip to the islands' capital 

Outside, palm trees sway and the blue ocean beckons, but my attention is focused elsewhere. In the air-conditioned halls of Rosewood Baha Mar, I’m transfixed by art. The crowning hotel within the sprawling resort of Baha Mar in the Bahamas’ capital, Nassau, the property offers a unique lens into life on these sun-dappled isles. 

From its rooms to its restaurants, and every public space in between, Rosewood Baha Mar is a joyous celebration of Caribbean creatives. It's no coincidence. The collection of artwork was painstakingly curated by John Cox, a leading mixed-media Bahamian artist and Rosewood Baha Mar’s executive director of arts and culture.

Palpably passionate about his craft, he leads us through the hotel, pointing out prominent works by revered Bahamian artists such as Tavares Strachan, recently named a 2022 MacArthur Fellow; impressionist painter Ricardo Knowles; and Kendal Hanna, known as one of the Bahamas’ first abstract expressionists. In the lobby, a huge hand-painted mural stretches from the floor to the ceiling in the style of Bahamian artist John Hussey, created exclusively for the hotel by artists of Silver Hill Atelier.

The New York-based art studio also worked with Cox on a custom modern abstract piece in the library that draws inspiration from the natural textures and hues found in Nassau. In the foyer, a huge mandala of butterflies hangs front and centre – created by none other than Damien Hirst. The artwork – the majority of which is available to buy – forms the backbone of the property’s experiential PlaceMaker programme, which aims to help guests get under the skin of a destination via its people.

The inaugural PlaceMaker of Rosewood Baha Mar, Cox spearheads a range of bespoke experiences that immerse guests in the spirit of the Bahamas, including guided art tours of the property and talks on design, business and the arts.

For serious creative connoisseurs, Cox hosts open-house art installations in the property’s Black Gloves Suite, where resort guests can, by private appointment, view and purchase a vibrant collection of artwork by a group of local artists called 11 Strong.

The bigger picture

But Rosewood Baha Mar isn’t the only property supporting Nassau’s creative community. The wider resort – which encompasses Grand Hyatt and SLS hotels, more than 45 restaurants and lounges, and extensive facilities including an 18-hole golf course, nine pools and a water park – is equally dedicated to preserving Bahamian culture, and has been since its inception in June 2018.

Today, more than 100 original pieces of art can be found across Baha Mar. “Developers really wanted a Bahamian footprint of art throughout the resort,” Cox says. “70% of the country’s GDP comes from hospitality so it’s a great vehicle to showcase Caribbean culture.”

On site, The Current Gallery and Art Centre is a hub for Bahamian artistic experiences, hosting exhibitions, workshops and artist residences throughout the year.

From acrylic pouring and botanical leaf printing to figure drawing and Sip ‘n’ Paint classes, there’s something for every ability and interest. Elsewhere, the Baha Mar Convention, Arts & Entertainment Center hosts the permanent Fairwind Exhibition, which showcases more than 150 years of Bahamian art, history and culture. The majority of the pieces belong to The Dawn Davies Collection and are no longer found anywhere else in the world.

Unique experiences

Between the Bahamas’ white-sand beaches, crystalline waters and yearly average of 340 sunny days, I didn’t expect art to steal my attention – but I’m learning there’s plenty more to Nassau than beach and blue sky. Home to more than 70% of the entire population of the Bahamas, the primate city on the island of New Providence has a long and rich history imbued by its nautical roots.

Its geographical location means its influences are vast, from the Puritans who shipwrecked on the island in the 1600s and the Loyalists who arrived in their droves following the American War of Independence in the late 18th century to the ships from Europe and South America that were blown here by the trade winds.

Nassau’s chequered history has unsurprisingly shaped the city’s cuisine, and we join Murray, a Bahamian-born guide from Tru Bahamian Food Tours, to learn more about the native, Caribbean and multinational influences on food and culture.

We start in Rawson Square, where colourful shacks sell street food beneath the shade of coconut palms, and make our way to our first stop, an unassuming restaurant called Bahamian Cookin’, where owner Cookie has been serving loyal customers for more than 30 years. Naturally, the meal starts with conch. The tropical marine mollusk is a firm staple in the Bahamian diet and the islands’ most famous food.

Cookie serves hers as conch fritters – sweet with a slight kick of heat – but we soon learn the versatile delicacy can be enjoyed in a multitude of ways. We later try conch chowder and a cracked conch slider, the latter inspired by the Bahamas’ Greek community, where the conch is cooked similarly to calamari and sandwiched between soft bread – a popular hangover food among locals.

In between foodie stops, we wander the colourful streets of downtown Nassau, passing Balcony House, the oldest wooden house in the city, which was built in 1788; the world-famous Nassau Straw Market; and the imposing, pink stuccoed building of Government House, which sits atop Mount Fitzwilliam overlooking the city. Murray also makes a beeline for Graycliff, a former pirate home-turned-boutique hotel that dates back to 1740.

Today, the property is a cherished landmark and exclusive meeting place for the rich and famous, with past guests including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Lord Mountbatten and Sir Winston Churchill. Alongside 20 individually styled rooms, two pools and a restaurant, the property boasts its own cigar factory, chocolatier and the third-largest wine cellar in the world.

It feels as though we have only scratched the surface of this colourful and creative city, but Nassau has plenty more in store. As such, airlift from the UK to the Bahamas has improved dramatically since the pandemic. In November 2021, Virgin Atlantic introduced a twice-weekly service from Heathrow to Nassau in response to “demand for luxury holidays in the sun”, while this year, British Airways will up its service to daily.

It’s good timing, as this October Baha Mar will host the second instalment of The Bahamas Culinary & Arts Festival following the sell-out success of the inaugural event last autumn. The first of its kind in the Caribbean, the three-day celebration marked the launch of Cox’s newest on-site exhibition, Eccho, and featured interactive cooking demos, art workshops and guest appearances from celebrity chefs including Daniel Boulud, Marcus Samuelsson and Dario Cecchini.

The annual festival, coupled with the work of local tour companies and resorts such as Baha Mar, prove there’s a different side to the Bahamas than most would know. The islands will always be synonymous with pristine beaches, excellent watersports and iconic experiences such as swimming with pigs, but for the growing number of travellers seeking a greater connection to the destinations they visit, it’s the islands’ captivating Bahamian culture that holds the key.

Need to know

Baha Mar’s three hotels – Rosewood, Grand Hyatt and SLS – are connected by the casino floor. Guests are able to use the facilities across each, though those staying at Rosewood Baha Mar also get access to a private pool, kids’ club and spa.

Rosewood Baha Mar: The resort’s leading hotel, Rosewood Baha Mar was built in a horse shoe-shape with a west and an east wing, set amid lush gardens. Guests arrive through a private entrance with welcome drinks on check-in.

The property boasts 226 guest rooms, suites and villas, with five restaurants and bars including Daniel Boulud’s French eatery Café Boulud and Mexican restaurant Costa, which is perched over a koi-filled pond. Visit the concierge desk to book Baha Mar’s famous flamingo yoga, a cabana at the resort’s exclusive beach club Baha Bay or a boat trip to nearby Rose Island.

Grand Hyatt Baha Mar: Home to a total of 1,800 rooms, advise clients to book The Reserve if staying at the Grand Hyatt. Boasting 128 suites and villas, the hotel-within-a-hotel shares a driveway with Rosewood, has its own lobby and a separate lift to standard guests and offers champagne on check-in. The Caribbean’s only Espa spa is in the Grand Hyatt, boasting 22 treatment rooms.

SLS Baha Mar: Standing for style, luxury and service, SLS Baha Mar has 299 rooms, including 100 suites. The property has more of a lifestyle and adult focus with a day club, party pool and rooftop bar.

Book it: Elegant Resorts offers seven nights in an Ocean View King Room at Rosewood Baha Mar from £4,725 per person based on two adults sharing, including return economy-class flights with Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow.

Erica Rich