On the eve of the season, on Nassau's sunny expanse where soon the sports cars would be blatting around the race course in high gear, the bars were for the most part still operating in low. But virtually everything else in the place was getting plastered. The British Colonial, that mammoth rock of English-Bahamian solidarity, which sits on the sea like a dowager empress, was a forest of scaffolding. It was undergoing its first major overhaul since 1926 and, lest the full import of that undertaking be lost on you, it is about like having Saarinen at work redoing the facade of Westminster Abbey. By now all the public rooms and half the guest rooms have been redecorated and air-conditioned.
Much the same has been happening at the Pilot House, a small and sporty place across from the Yacht Haven, the Nassau marina. Among other things the pool has been enlarged, with the choice rooms ringed around it in two decks. All told, now there will be 30 doubles available at $18 to $45 until Jan. 31, slightly higher thereafter. That tariff is for two in a room without meals.
Quite the most ambitious project in Nassau is the new Coral Harbour, a superelegant sanctuary created, its brochure says, by a "group of profound individuals" who wondered "where in this era of gaudy crowds in every familiar vacationland could a relatively small number of congenial people, who still held sacred the tranquil vista of unmarred beauty, build a recreational community?..."They have built it 12 miles from Nassau, about a 20-minute drive from the present airfield and half that from the new field which will be opened in the spring.
The whole thing has been done in a motif of redwood and turquoise, and the suites have large glass panels which slide open to the six-mile sea frontage. All this comes to $50 a day for the suite for two, plus $8 extra per person for two meals a day. Since it is to have the largest marina in the Bahamas, Coral Harbour will have a pub for yacht crews and a special lounge for yacht captains so placed that skippers will not be required to enter the pub. All transient guests, the management informs me, will be investigated for credit and character. More rigid scrutiny will be imposed on anyone who wants to settle down there permanently on island lots, which are being sold now on islands in an adjoining lagoon.
Despite all this construction, the biggest hotel hereabouts—and certainly one of the most trig—is the Emerald Beach, built in 1954 by English capital and run on Texas know-how. Its clipped lawns fringe low buildings of Bermuda pink, capped with white roofs. The air is large, expansive and, incidentally, air-conditioned. Lunch, for instance, is served under canvas on an immense, screened terrace that looks out over the 1,629 feet of ocean front and a sea that is indeed emerald. The winter rate runs from $40 to $65 a day for two with breakfast and dinner ($28-$36 in summer). The $40-a-day, or landside rooms have a view of the races at Hobby Horse Hall where the Bahamian ponies run Mondays and Fridays commencing January.
That ancient enterprise, the Royal Victoria, has added air conditioning to one of its floors, and the Fort Montagu Beach Hotel will have a pool by late winter, despite the fact that it has a fine location on the beach.
Aside from this more or less formal hotel life Nassau is offering a number of appealing efficiency-cottage arrangements, notably at Palmdale Villas, Cable Beach Manor and Sapphire Waters. A studio bedroom and kitchen will lease for about $20 a day, and a full-time cook-baby sitter is hirable for $17.50 a week. The local grocers will deliver, charge your account and all you do is settle up when you leave. Living this brand of sun-kissed Utopia, it would be handy to have a car. A minuscule Morris convertible costs about $10 a day and all the miles you can drive. Should the daily fare of the grocers begin to pall, the runabout will take you along the waterfront where fishermen sell crabs, groupers, margate fish, lobsters and what is referred to as "red snoppa', suh."
The local colony insists that the best place to eat in all Nassau is Cumberland House, one block uphill from the British Colonial. There is an open grill for broiling steaks, and tables are set up in a green cement courtyard, shaded from the moon by a huge wizened avocado tree. It's reservation only, and you can expect to be relieved of anywhere from $5 to $8 each. Downtown Nassau, which certainly needed a spa or two in addition to Dirty Dicks, now has Blackbeard's Tavern which has flagstone walls, beamed ceilings and rest rooms marked "rogues" and "wenches." Steaks are broiled outside on a barbecue and the late, or libation, crowd filters in after dinner to listen to George Symonette who, as far as I can determine, plays at as many different Bahama boites as a man is likely to visit in one evening.
The late, late show will disport this winter at the Junkanoo, a brand-new nook across the street from Black-beard's. Groupers and lobsters will swim in public pens until served on the Junkanoo's Nassau harbor terrace. The place stays open until 4 a.m., offering emergency rations of Bahama bouillabaisse, there being nothing—even Les Halles onion soup, old stiffs tell me—more remedial for approaching hangover than this stew of conch and hot peppers.
In the quartier known as Over-the-Hill there are a number of jive mills, among them the Tropicana owned by Paul Meeres who used to dance with Josephine Baker. The show is all Bahama bongo, played amid a décor of cutouts of hula dancers and metallic stars pasted on a black firmament. It is open until 6. Tucked away in the Ardastra Gardens is an iniquitous-looking den known as the Confidential Club. The band plays loud under a blue light, whole turtles look down from the stone walls, and the air is dark enough to keep the most obvious secret secure. In the daylight, when things aren't so confidential, the Ardastra Gardens display the phenomenon of the marching flamingos. Well, they are marching flamingos, that's all, who do squads right and such under the command of a drill sergeant named Hedley Edwards who obviously speaks flamingo. The birds parade at 11 and 4.
In case anybody gets up during the day, the Nassau shops offer an assortment of merchandise that is probably less than St. Thomas and more than Jamaica, the best bargains being in liquor (Scotch is $3.50 a fifth) and perfume. I jotted down some price comparisons on scent and it went like this:
Chanel No.5 (ounce)
Joy (½ ounce)
Cashmere overcoats at $150 and cashmere sweaters seemed to me to be not much of a bargain. Madras jackets at Vera's are $29; shirts, $7.50; walk shorts, $8.95. There also is a large rambling straw market on the waterfront, tended by ample ladies who are only too willing to dispense slippers, handbags, horrendous hats, philosophy or a personal assessment. "Oh, boss," a straw lady was saying to me the other week—not without perplexity—"you looks very pros'prous, but you don' buy not-tin."