Finding a beach where the water is perfectly calm is not always easy. But that’s what I found on The Bahamas’ Half Moon Cay while on a four-day cruise aboard Holland America Line’s ms Nieuw Amsterdam last month. Also known as Little San Salvador Island, Half Moon Cay is now a private island leased for 99 years by Holland America – still pristine and beautiful, used as a port of call for day excursions.
In fact, I found Half Moon Cay to be just about as perfect a Caribbean-like beach destination as you might find anywhere (I say Caribbean-like because The Bahamas are technically in the Atlantic Ocean and not part of the Caribbean islands).
Half Moon Cay is so-named because of its elongated crescent-shaped shoreline which probably plays a role in protecting the white-sand beaches from any harsh ocean currents. During my visit, the aquamarine-tinted surf sparkled – while soothingly still like pool water. Rows of beach chairs line the beach along with hammocks and several cabanas available for rent.
Only 50 of the island’s 2400 acres are developed, leaving lots of green space for wildlife – the occasional iguana you might see, and waterfowl including ducks and geese. A staff of 40 or so live on the island year-round, while others working with water sports, hiking, horseback riding and other activities commute from nearby Eleuthera Island when a ship is in port.
During my visit, I joined a biking and kayaking excursion. Our biking journey took us along the island’s main road – “I-95,” as the guides call it – parallel to the beach, stopping at the horse stable and then at an inner-island lagoon for a half-hour or so of kayaking. Come lunchtime, a main fish-fry outdoor buffet-like restaurant offers many great food choices, while a lobster shack serves tasty lobster rolls (during my visit, lines formed quickly, so get there early). A few beachside bars are great places to relax and enjoy the views, including the one next to the sign reading, “I wish I could stay here forever.” Kids enjoy splashing at the Half Moon Lagoon Aqua Park.
Also look out for the island’s chapel, pineapple plants, and wandering goats and chickens. One activity gets you in the water with stingrays while glass-bottom boat tours offer a look at marine life without a snorkel mask. And at the horse stable, you might run into the island’s most noted resident: Ted the Lucky Donkey. “He brought the island luck and guests love him,” says tour guide Wendy Symonette. “He’s not aggressive, but just a lucky donkey.”
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Our cruise ship also stopped in Nassau, the Bahamian capital on Providence Island, which I found to be a thriving city. I strolled along downtown streets to visit a few museums and a fort, and along squares with swaying palm trees, including the courtyards of the pink colonial Parliament and other government buildings. Shops seemingly stretch for blocks just outside the busy cruise ship terminal. For the ultimate Bahamian shopping adventure, stop in the bustling Straw Market, where artists sculpt wooden figurines on the spot and where vendors hawk just about everything you can imagine that might be sold in such a sprawling marketplace.
My first stop was the 1793 Fort Fincastle perched on Elizabeth Hill, and at the base of the 126-foot tall, white water tower, the island’s tallest structure. Below the fort lies the Queen’s Staircase, a stairwell with 66 steps leading down a shady and narrow walkway. While not so impressive from the outside, the two-story 18th century Balcony House is a Nassau landmark as it’s the oldest wooden structure on the island. Most impressive inside the elegant home is the mahogany staircase, thought to have been retrieved from the inside of a 19th century ship.
The Octagonal Library, another old island structure, was once a prison and what were once its narrow prison cells now hold the library’s books, documents, old newspapers and more. I found this uniquely impressive, but unfortunately, taking photos inside the library is prohibited and thus no such photo for this blog post.
Other downtown sights include the Pompey Museum, named after a rebel slave and housed on the site where slaves were once sold. The museum showcases the country’s slavery and emancipation history. The Bahamas Historical Society Museum is certainly not on the radar of most visitors, but I found it teeming with historic photographs, artifacts and explanations highlighting more than 500 years of Bahamian History.
Other popular island sights I didn’t have a chance to visit include the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas housed in an Italianate colonial mansion, the Graycliff Chocolate Factory, and John Watling’s Distillery featured in the James Bond movie Casino Royale. But I did have time to take a ferry boat over to nearby Paradise Island to see the sprawling Atlantis Resort with its casino, huge hotel towers and outdoor water parks. Particularly impressive are its surrounding aquarium-like pools, home to stingrays, fish and other marine life that can be easily seen up close through large glass panels – just like an aquarium – on the mega-resort’s lower lobby level.