Beaches and barristers in the sunny Bahamas

An architectural oddity in the middle of Nassau’s Parliament Square screams out for your attention. The octagonal library and city museum is painted pale pink (like all the important buildings in The Bahamas’ capital).

I climb up creaky steps to the first floor and admire paintings of Nassau dashed off by ships’ artists in the days when British interests, rather than American ones, ruled the roost. Every painting, every etching, pointedly includes a Union Flag to underscore the extraordinary projection of power one small island nation exercised over other small island nations in the 1700s and 1800s.

This building though, a friendly librarian tells me, used to be a prison. Now it makes sense. It’s a petite panopticon; a miniaturised version of Pentonville. Twenty prisoners could be kept here in the 1800s. What, one wonders, would the ideological architect of such a place, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, make of how things have turned out today?

A surprise awaits me right outside the old prison. The upgraded version for 2011 comprises two picture postcard all-American school busses. Except they’ve been painted white and have bars welded on to the windows. I walk up to the buses and discover they’re carrying prisoners. The accused hammer on the windows and yell all kind of obscenities at me in the local patois. In the kettle-boiling heat of a Nassau morning you can understand why these guys might be a little frustrated.

The buses are parked right outside the courthouse. Waiting in the wings under the trees just a few yards away are some friends of the accused. These young guys in their twenties bite their nails and lean on the bonnets of expensive cars, deep in discussion with each other. The prisoners’ WAGs make up another contingent – some look like they’ve seen this all before; the nerves of others appear noticeably frayed.

I ask a barrister dressed in full-length black robes despite the heat whether there is a big trial on today. “No,” he replies unamused, “just a regular trial day.” If Jeremy Bentham were alive today it’s a safe bet he’d draw some interesting conclusions on how the enormous flows of capital in and out of this tax haven are linked to the crime wave that bubbles beneath glamorous Nassau’s shiny surface.

This city of roughly a quarter of a million is no backwater. If you expect a Caribbean holiday to be serene (for that, read “boring”) then Nassau is anything but. This city throbs. Founded by the British, it didn’t become the capital of an independent Bahamas until 1973 – the country look a relatively long time to work its way through the decolonisation cycle.

British memories linger all over town. Traffic drives on the left and US motorists have to be constantly reminded of this fact so that they don’t crash. Outside the Parliament of The Bahamas – one of the longest-lasting and (relatively) corruption-free democratic organs in the world, stands a statue of Queen Victoria. In Latin it proclaims her as “Queen and Empress”.

Up at the city’s highest point stands Government House, the former governor-general’s residence and the nexus (as in all British colonies) of state and crown power. As with all colonies, doric columns and Greek revivalism scream about the – as they saw it – never-ending possibilities of British influence. The anti-Semitic, Nazi-sympathising Duke of Windsor, Edward, lived here as Governor with his forbidden Baltimore bride Wallis Simpson in the 1940s. But neither of them really liked Nassau.

The Caribbean mood can be so very relaxed here. I ask a marine if I can look round the gardens of Government House, expecting a firm “no” on security grounds, but his reply is a jolly: “Of course sir.” The view from up here, with the stature of Christopher Columbus below, is the best on New Providence Island; the whole city spreads out in front of you.

But that British era ended a long time ago, just as the era of the pirates who caused chaos around the dozens of Bahamian islands did. Now it’s the US in charge. Dishes on the top of the US Embassy point towards Washington. Though a quick cross-reference on Google maps seems to suggest that one rather large one is also pointing towards Cuba.

“When the US sneezes, we all catch a cold” a local hotel worker jokes with me over a lunch of friend pollock with onions and a dollop of rice and peas. We are only a 45 minute propeller plane ride from Miami, after all. The irony is The Bahamas attracted British loyalists during the American War of Independence and was a British outpost next to America for all those years. Thus, historically it was the loyalist Canadian banks like RBC and Scotia who pumped the real money in here – their buildings today are both impressively out of proportion for such a small city. It’s Americans and Canadians who – bursting from their all-you-can-eat buffets – waddle off the gigantic Carnival and Disney cruise liners moored in the port and frantically dash round town whacking bagfuls of duty free booty on their credit cards. In prohibition days, the same picture played out every day as Americans came here to tank up on rum. Others come to gamble in the sprawling casinos on Paradise Island (locals aren’t allowed to gamble), like Atlantis. This elephantine hotel complex was developed by Sol Kerzner. It was Kerzner who built South Africa’s Sun City in the 1970s while Soweto was ablaze, so the white elite of Johannesburg could come and gamble in the Bophuthatswana Bantustan.

There’s fun to be had in Nassau. You need to know where to look. It’s Frank the chef’s birthday at Big Yard Bar. “Big Daddy”, as he’s known round these parts, is telling us how to make conch salad. His seafood shack is one of about 30 at the so-called Fish Fry, a Nassau institution you can’t miss. Each place thinks it makes the best seafood, but Frank is certain that the way he spices the squid-like conch and veggies is best. The salad fuels you for a night out in town, and Bay Street will get your heart racing the most. It’s simultaneously thrilling, confusing and at times downright debased. After 1.30am, the big hitters come out. An old man on a corner hand rolls cigars, revellers spill in and out of bars with ragga and hip-hop blaring from the speakers.

Up at Bambu – a club for which the word “fly” could so easily have been invented, a guy who looks like he means business is smoking a Cuban cigar and drinking – oddly – red wine. It’s an opulent symbol of being a somebody round here. My eyes are initially taken by his rump-shaking moll (well, wouldn’t yours?) but then I look at his face. I could swear I saw him loitering outside the courthouse earlier.

British Colonial Hilton
Nassau's grand old dame oozes colonial cool from its old wooden lifts and swirling staircases. Out the back is where it really hits the spot though: thousands of tons of sand were trucked in during the 1960s to make a private, artificial beach. There's a pool and beach club with cabanas and a great view over the harbour. A very nice hotel; it's also very central here.

Cafe Matisse
One of the fanciest dining rooms in Nassau, Cafe Matisse dishes up Italian-influenced fare to the city's elite and to jet-setting visitors. An open patio is the pick of the places to sit and watch the sun go down as you fill your face with ossobucco and saffron risotto, and ciabatta. French and Italian wines make a change from the Chilean cellar hegemony you see elsewhere round these parts. The restaurant is right across from the parliament of The Bahamas.

Opened recently, Bambu is the place to come if you want to show off in Nassau. Queues form around 1am when it starts to get really busy. Saying you're here from London will probably help you to skip that and they might even throw in a drink. Not that this venue's patron's have any problem with cashflow. Everyone seems like they're rolling in the stuff. Just don't ask the guys smoking Montecristo's which fund they've invested in. They haven't.

British Airways flies non-stop daily from London Heathrow to Nassau. Flight times are around eight hours.