Monday, January 28, 2008

Cursing Starbucks – better coffee around corner

My last day in Nassau. I had a few hours to spare before leaving for the airport, so walked downtown after breakfast for a coffee. Last night when I had been eating my dinner on the verandah of the Hard Rock Café, I had noticed a small Italian coffee shop across the road. The only coffee shop that I had previously seen in the week that I had been in Nassau was Starbucks, and I had persevered with drinking their so-called coffee all week because I didn’t think there was anything better around.

How wrong I was. I had a latte at the Italian coffee shop and it was superb. I cursed Starbucks and kicked myself repeatedly that I had not seen this place before. And what made the annoyance even worse was that it was literally only just around the corner from Starbucks. If only I had walked a few extra metres on my first day in Nassau, and I would not have had to suffer a week of Starbucks.

Starbucks certainly does a good marketing job (see picture below of one of its banners on the Nassau wharf) but the lattes it sells have no flavour at all. Order one with skim milk, and it’s like drinking brown-coloured water. Order one with full cream milk, and it’s like drinking brown-coloured milk. When I am forced to drink Starbucks because there is nothing else available (sometimes the only option in places like China), I have to order an extra shot of espresso for the beverage to even take on the slightest hint of a coffee flavour. And what makes it even more galling is that Starbucks is already higher in price than other outlets – and then charging another US$1.50 or so for an extra shot of espresso makes it outrageously expensive for what is a very substandard coffee.

I really don’t understand how Starbucks survives in some countries (the UK, UAE, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Philippines for example) when there are coffee chains with far superior products (Pret a Manger, Costa Coffee, Pacific Coffee, San Francisco Coffee and Gloria Jeans to name a few examples). Maybe it’s just the power of the Starbucks marketing. And maybe that’s why Starbucks drinks are so expensive – it’s their customers that have to pay for those marketing expenses.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Hard Rock Café that doesn't rock

I’d spotted a Hard Rock Café downtown earlier in the week, so tonight decided to have my last dinner in Nassau there. I walked from the hotel to the Hard Rock Café and didn’t see another person all the way. It was only about 7.45 pm, but downtown Nassau was completely deserted. All the shops and restaurants were shut – in fact the Hard Rock Café turned out to be the only establishment that I could see was open in the whole city.

The Nassau Hard Rock Café is pretty typical of most other Hard Rock Cafes around the world – a shop selling Hard Rock souvenirs downstairs, and a bar and restaurant for about 100 people upstairs. On the walls were all the usual entertainment industry memorabilia (I noticed one of Cher’s sexy lingerie outfits in a frame walking up the stairs) – but that was where the similarity with other Hard Rock Cafés ceased. The Nassau café was almost deserted – just like the rest of the city. There were three people in the bar when I arrived and four in the restaurant. The three in the bar left after about 20 minutes, and the four in the restaurant disappeared about ten minutes later leaving me as the only customer in the whole place. I’d taken a seat on the verandah section of the restaurant, but there was nothing to see except an occasional car passing down the main street.

I finished my meal about 8.40 pm (the food was nothing special but at least it was a change from the hotel fare) and I walked out of the deserted Hard Rock Café into the deserted street. I walked back to the hotel, and again didn’t see a single person the whole way. I’d always thought that Vientiane was the quietest capital city in the world, but at night time, Nassau must surely take that honour. And the Nassau Hard Rock Café must be the quietest Hard Rock Café in the world. Perhaps at lunchtime it does a reasonable trade when the cruise ship tourists are in town, but at night this is one Hard Rock Café that definitely doesn’t rock.

Another side of Paradise

My first task this morning was to ring British Airways to see if I could get on the direct flight to London. Ever since I had booked to come to Nassau, the flight had been full, and at this stage I only had a confirmed seat on tomorrow’s American Airlines flight to London via Miami.

The BA sales agent told me my chances of getting a seat were very slim. The flight was fully booked and there were several on the waiting list ahead of me. She said there would be little point going to the airport on the off-chance of getting a seat. So I am stuck in the Bahamas for an extra day – I suppose there are worst places to be stuck. After breakfast I walked down the road to Dollar Rent-A-Car to see if they had a car available for the day. I thought I should at least use the opportunity to see a bit of the island.

The woman behind the counter told me she had a little Chevrolet Aveo available which I could have for $59 for the day. That sounded reasonable. I handed over my Malaysian driving licence and credit card. She said I was the first customer from Malaysia that she had served in 20 years of working for car rental companies in Nassau.

I set off at about 9 am. The car was pretty clapped out, but New Providence is not a big island, so I wasn’t expecting to have to do any fast driving. The main problem was that the steering wheel was on the left (like in the US) but in the Bahamas they drive on the left (like in the UK) so overtaking was likely to be more difficult. I also had problems getting the car into reverse a lot of times. It had an electronic gear shift which I was told you just push back until it beeps, and it changes gear. But it didn’t always beep so kept going forwards when I wanted to go back.

It took me only about two hours to drive right around the island, and that included a stop of nearly an hour at an abandoned resort on the south side of the island. There really wasn’t much to see. New Providence has half a dozen or so gated communities where all the wealthy Americans live, a couple of marinas – which again you couldn’t go into unless you are a resident – and the rest was just an unattractive sprawl of concrete block houses, small holdings and vacant land on which there had been a lot of indiscriminate dumping of rubbish.

Outside of the gated communities, the marinas and the resort hotels along the northern beaches, the rest of New Providence looked very poor. The shops by the side of the road had heavy grilles over their doors and windows – suggesting a local crime problem – and the only activity on a Sunday morning outside of downtown Nassau seemed to be people going to church. And there were lots of people doing that – all dressed in their Sunday best. Most of the churches looked like Baptist or Anglican churches, but there were also some Methodist, ‘Church of God’ and other evangelical places that I saw.

The abandoned resort that I stopped at on the south side of the island was called South Ocean Beach Resort. I read that it had closed down the previous year (but couldn’t find out why). There was a big sign out the front warning people to stay out of the resort, but there was nobody around so I cautiously edged my way in taking photographs as I went. I had seen nothing all morning that was worth photographing, but the abandoned resort made for some interesting pictures – the empty buildings and courtyards eerily quiet.

I later looked up the resort on the Internet, and on some sites like MSN Travel, it was still listed as taking bookings. MSN Travel said: "This 195-acre resort is located as far away from downtown Nassau's traffic jams and cruise-ship shopping crowds as it's possible to get on New Providence Island. Vacationing families and couples sunbathe, swim, and play golf in a lush, green tropical setting. A 1,000-foot beach of nearly white sand lapped by the turquoise Atlantic Ocean offers hammocks, wood sun shades, and a volleyball net. The resort's beach is much less crowded than those at bigger Nassau resorts".

Yes, the wood sun shades are still there, but the hammocks and volleyball net are gone, as have the vacationing families and couples. The one thing that is still right about MSN Travel’s description is that the beach is much less crowded than those at other resorts – in fact the beach was completely deserted when I was there and I didn’t see another person the whole time I was at the resort. As I sat on the terrace by the empty swimming pool, overlooking the ocean, it felt like the rest of the world had disappeared and I was the only person left. A strange feeling.

After my picture taking at the abandoned resort I completed the trip around the island, stopping only at Orange Hill Beach on the north side of the island. Again, I was the only person on the beach, but I didn’t feel quite so isolated because it backed on to West Bay Street and there were a few cars passing by.

What disappointed me about Orange Hill Beach was the amount of rubbish strewn in the bushes and behind tree stumps at the back of the beach – empty beer bottles and KFC containers mainly. I would have thought that in a place like the Bahamas, which is so reliant on the tourist industry, the locals would do a better job of looking after their beaches.

The other disappointment that I had from my drive around the island was the apparent disregard for the environment. Apart from rubbish everywhere, building development is very haphazard, and the few remnants of what looked like native vegetation (a combination of a species of pine tree with clumping fan palms growing below) were being bulldozed away to build condos and houses.

What you see on the tourist brochures for the Bahamas is only the ‘beautified’ parts of the island around the tourist resorts and gated communities. That probably wouldn’t account for more than 5% of the islands. The other 95% feels like a very rundown Florida backwater. Throughout the Bahamas you see real estate ads, urging tourists to buy their ‘own piece of paradise’. But it’s not a place I would like to live. There are hundreds of places in south-east Asia that are more beautiful – and more natural - than the Bahamas.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Another day, another island . . .

The conference finished today and the weather has cleared up at last providing the sunny blue skies usually associated with the Bahamas. I went out onto the beach in front of my hotel in the late afternoon to take a picture of four cruise ships tied up at the wharf not far from the hotel (see below). The amazing thing about these ships is that when they arrive in the morning, they do a 180 degree turn in the channel right in front of the hotel (I watched them do this almost every morning whilst having breakfast) and then they slowly reverse into the wharf (the ship on the right went in forwards, so it will have to turn around when it reverses out at night). The channel hardly seems wide enough or deep enough to permit these big cruise ships to do that, but they do it every day and they do it without any tugs.

The other amazing thing about this place is how totally dependent the economy of downtown Nassau is on these cruise ships. Up until about 8.00 am, the city is deserted until people start arriving to open up the shops in preparation for the arrival of the thousands of tourists who will start disembarking from the cruise ships around 8.30 am. And then after they have disappeared back onto the ships between 6 and 7 in the evening, the city becomes deserted again.

Every day four ships arrive and four ships depart – there must be dozens of these ships cruising the Caribbean all with pre-determined berthing slots in different places. I saw one tourist walking down the street with a T-shirt that said: “Another day, another island, same shit.” Obviously a cynical tourist.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Gin and tonic at Government House

Tonight the conference delegates were invited to a reception at Government House – an old colonial building on top of a hill not far from our hotel. In fact, I think it is the only hill on New Providence, and Government House is probably on the highest point of the island – a prime piece of real estate for sure. On arrival we were led to a well-stocked bar on a terrace overlooking the gardens. I ordered a gin and tonic, and the elderly barman – dressed in tropical whites that looked like they dated back 35 years to the days of British rule – filled half a glass with gin, added ice and then topped it up with a dash of tonic. I tried to drink it but it tasted like neat gin, so when nobody was looking, I poured half of it into a pot plant and then went back and asked the barman to add more tonic.

The reception was being hosted by the Governor General, Arthur D. Hanna. When he arrived, we were asked to stand, and I thought we were going to be in for a long round of speeches before we could get to the food. But the Governor General spoke for less than a minute. He said something like: “Welcome to the Bahamas. I expect you’re hungry, so let’s get on with it. Enjoy the night.” I can’t remember the exact words because it was all over so quickly – but he got a big applause for keeping his speech short.

We were then told that we would be entertained by the ‘infamous’ Royal Bahamas Police Force Band whilst we were eating. Nobody said why they were ‘infamous’, so I looked them up on the Internet when I got back to the hotel. I couldn’t see anything that they had done which made them infamous, but one report said they had performed in a Perry Como Bahamas Vacation Television Special, so maybe he meant to say ‘famous’.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Junkanoo - a kaleidoscope of colour and sound

Although the conference I am attending has been going for a day, its official opening was not held until this evening. It was held at the Wyndham Hotel on Cable Beach, and after the opening a Junkanoo group came through the hotel making the loudest noise I have ever heard a dozen or so people make. As well as the drums and brass instruments that they were playing, the band members were blowing whistles and horns, and ringing cow bells. It was an impressive kaleidoscope of colour and sound.

Junkanoo is a festival that is celebrated in the Bahamas on Boxing Day and News Year’s Day each year. It has its origins back in the days when slaves from West Africa were given a day off each year after Christmas, and they danced and made music with improvised instruments to celebrate their temporary freedom.

Although several other Caribbean islands have dances with a similar history to Junkanoo, the Bahamas is the only place where there are annual Junkanoo parades. I was told that the best one is the one in Nassau on Boxing Day that starts about 2.00 am in the morning and goes through to dawn. I found a short video of last year’s Junkanoo parade on YouTube:

Sunshine and caffeine fix

I walked down to Starbucks for a coffee after breakfast. The weather has improved a bit with the sun occasionally breaking through the clouds. Whilst I was sitting on the outside balcony drinking my coffee, I noticed this woman who had moved her chair to the one spot where there was a bit of sun. It seems she needed some sun as much as her morning caffeine fix.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

USA Today . . . and only USA

I have only been in the Bahamas for a couple of days, but I feel like I am cut off from the rest of the world because the only newspaper that the hotel has is USA Today – and it is what the masthead says – news about the USA and little else.

There are so many things happening in different parts of the world that I want to be updated on. Is the violence still escalating in Kenya? Is Suharto still alive? How are the Asian markets faring? What is Musharraf saying on his Europe visit? What’s the latest on the Korean oil spill? Have the Chinese arrested any more bloggers? Are the Australians still chasing the Japanese chasing the whales in the Antarctic?

Today’s edition had exactly half a page of world news, and all of that was about American soldiers killed in Iraq. Nothing else. Not a word. It is as if the rest of the world outside of the US and Iraq does not exist.

The TV stations are from Miami and almost all of their news is about the elections for the US presidential candidates, local Florida news, American sport and show business gossip.

No wonder so many Americans know so little about what is happening in the rest of the world.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Wet and windy Bahamas

Today was a cool, wet and windy day in the Bahamas – not what you expect even at this time of the year. I only went out of the hotel once to buy some lunch. I managed to dodge the rain but nearly got blown off my feet – it was almost like a hurricane.

As I passed by the Straw Market on the way back to my hotel I noticed the locals were keeping warm in winter jackets with fur collars and woolen hats. The fact that they have all these winter clothes, must mean that it gets cold here at some times of the year.

I pitied the poor tourists who had arrived in Nassau aboard four more cruise ships (there seem to be four ships a day that call into Nassau – they arrive early in the morning, disgorge their passengers after breakfast, and leave at night – to go onto the next island I suppose).

I expect they were here escaping the cold US weather and coming to the Bahamas looking for warm sunshine – but today they would be disappointed. At least it is better than the below freezing temperatures that large parts of the US are experiencing at the moment. One of the delegates to the conference that I am attending here told me that he came via Toronto, and it was minus 40 there.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Not so exotic Nassau

I woke up early this morning after arriving in Nassau yesterday afternoon. This is my first trip to the Bahamas, and I wasn’t very impressed by what I had seen on the drive in from the airport. New Providence seems to be quite a barren, windswept island, and nowhere as near ‘exotic’ as I had imagined it to be (I didn’t see a palm tree until we were passing by one of the hotels on Cable Beach).

My jet lag (13 hours behind Kuala Lumpur) resulted in me being the first down for breakfast and I was walking the streets of downtown Nassau by 7.30 am. That didn’t impress me anymore than the drive in from the airport. Many of the buildings look quite rundown, and on a Sunday morning, with no more than a handful of people on the streets, the city looked like it had been deserted.

There were four big cruise ships tied up in the harbour, and at about 8.30 am a trickle of passengers started coming ashore and a few shops started opening. I walked right along Bay Street – the main road through the city – until I reached the roadbridge to Paradise Island. From the top of the roadbridge, which was quite high (ships in the harbour can sail under it) I had an excellent view of the Atlantis resort and I stayed on the bridge for the best part of an hour waiting for the sun to break through the clouds so I could get a good shot of the resort. This is the resort with its two tower blocks and a bridge in between that was made famous in the 2004 movie ‘After the Sunset’ starring Pierce Brosnan, and has also been featured in several other movies including the James Bond movie, Casino Royale, in 2006.

The weather was showery, so I was getting a bit damp from the passing showers, but eventually my perseverance paid off and there was a break in the clouds, giving me the opportunity to grab this nice shot of the resort.

After that I walked to the other side of the bridge onto Paradise Island, and what a contrast that is to the rest of Nassau. Everything there looks new and neatly manicured, although I have to say it’s not a place that particularly appeals to me, because everything is so artificial. Apart from the Atlantis resort with its big casino and swimming pools, Paradise Island is home to several other resorts, condominiums, time-share apartments, and lots of expensive designer shops.

At around about 10.30am, I was having a smoothie in the Marina Village, when hundreds of people started swarming through. I think they had all just arrived in mini-buses from the cruise ships tied up in the harbour.

After that I headed over to the Atlantis resort to take a few more photographs. The beach side of the Atlantis resort is supposed to be only open to hotel guests (I saw security guards checking wrist bands which the guests are supposed to wear), but I managed to sneak past them and get a few pictures of the resort from the beach side as well.

After about an hour on Paradise Island, a heavy storm forced me to take shelter in a Starbucks back in the Marina Village. After the rain eased off, I headed over to the ferry terminal to take a ferry back to Nassau as it was too wet to contemplate walking back. The ferry was a rickety old wooden boat with windows missing and white plastic chairs. By this time the wind had become quite strong and we had a hard time tying up at the wharf when we got back to Nassau because the water was so choppy. Several of the passengers nearly fell in the sea when they were getting off the ferry. The ferry service is a very slipshod operation.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

A lucky day for BA38

I arrived at Heathrow this morning after a 14 hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to catch a connecting flight to Nassau. However, my Nassau flight was delayed by over two hours – as were many other flights from Heathrow - due to the knock-on effect of all the cancelled flights following the crash-landing of British Airways flight 38 from Beijing on Thursday.

The southern runway where the Boeing 777 had come down was still blocked by the plane sitting on the apron at the end (see picture below) surrounded by two cranes and service vehicles. They seem to be taking a long time to move the aircraft away from the runway, but I guess that’s because the plane is still salvageable despite the damage to the engines, wings and underbelly, so they must be trying to find ways to move it without causing any more damage.

I didn’t realise until I saw the plane close-up (we took off on the southern runway from near where the plane was still sitting) that where it came to rest was where planes normally hold at the end of the runway waiting for other planes to land before they take off. I’ve sometimes thought that is a bit risky holding so close to the end of a runway – but I suppose accidents like this happen once in a blue moon. It was certainly lucky on Thursday that there was no plane at that holding point because then there could have been a terrible disaster if the B777 landing had ploughed into a fully fueled plane waiting to take-off. The fact that the plane lost power only 40 seconds out from landing, and that there was a wide area of grass between the airport fence and the end of the runway, plus the skill of the pilots, meant that everyone walked away from what could have been a far more disastrous crash. It was certainly a lucky day for all those on BA38 on Thursday.