On Friday, April 21, 2006, my friend Lisa and I flew to Miami to set sail aboard the Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas for a two and half day trip to Coco Cay and Nassau in the Bahamas. Lisa had won the trip through a contest at her work, so basically all we had to pay for was our booze and souvenirs. Not a bad deal. I've traveled a lot (as you can tell by my homepage!), but I had never been on a cruise before. This trip gave me a chance to see if I would like one or not, and I did. First of all, everyone I knew that had been on a cruise had told me "You'll eat like a hog". They weren't lying and that wasn't an understatement. The food was very good and certainly was plentiful. The all-you-can-eat buffet at the ship's Windjammer Café definitely led one down a path to overeating. Strap on the feed bag and have at it. The dinners were excellent too, and by the time dessert rolled around, we were generally stuffed. The service on board was great, from our room attendant to our waiter to the bus boys at the café. There was plenty to do at night, from the casino to the disco, though by the time we finished with dinner, we were usually tired after a full day, so we didn't stay out 'til the wee hours like some folks did. My days of partying like a rock star are a thing of the past.

The Berry Islands are a stirrup-shaped chain of islands and a district of the Bahamas located southeast of the Biminis and northeast of Andros, covering about thirty square miles of the northwestern part of the Out Islands. The Berry Islands consist of about thirty islands and over one hundred small islands or cays, often referred to as "The Fish Bowl of the Bahamas". It is believed they were given that name because of the abundance of thatch berry trees found there. They have a population of only about seven hundred, most of which are on Great Harbour Cay. The islands were settled in 1836 by Governor Colebrook and a group of freed slaves. With a land mass totaling only about a dozen square miles, these cays rest on the eastern edge of the Great Bahama Bank, starting with Great Stirrup Cay and extending to Chub Cay in the south; the largest of them is Great Harbour Cay at 3,800 acres. The Berry Islands lie 150 miles east of Miami and 35 miles northwest of New Providence (Nassau). These largely uninhabited islands offer spectacular diving and snorkeling and are known for championship sport fishing, second only to Bimini. Record catches have been made of mackerel, blue and white marlin and sailfish. Most of the cays are privately owned but yachtsmen are welcome to visit.

Little Stirrup Cay is leased by Royal Caribbean International, which calls it Coco Cay, and acts as a private island for tropical activities engaged in by visitors on its cruise ships of the Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises labels. Great Stirrup Cay, which is located adjacent to Little Stirrup Cay, is owned by Norwegian Cruise Line and is used for similar purposes. Coco Cay is located approximately 55 miles north of Nassau. At 140 acres, the island is less than a mile wide from east to west and less than a 200 yards from north to south. The east end is the center of recreational activities with beaches fronting a coral basin where manatee, rays, and numerous fish can be seen. There is a rocky inlet on the north side of the island large enough for the tenders operate from. Nature trails run the entire length and width of the island.

Coco Cay was beautiful... everything every Caribbean postcard you've seen looks like. We anchored offshore early in the morning and the ship departed around 5:00 PM, so we had the whole day to lounge around on the beach and do absolutely nothing (except get sunburned, but I won't go there...). We didn't eat on the island, so I can't speak for the food there. The Straw Market was neat to shop in and I bought a couple of shirts, but it's mostly tacky souvenirs. If you want that sort of stuff, hold off until Nassau where the selection is better and cheaper. In the afternoon, Lisa and I took a walk along the southern side of the island and had it all to ourselves. Absolutely gorgeous scenery, the ocean was like bath water and it was so shallow we walked out a couple hundred yards from shore and the water was only up to our waists. The beach on the southern side of the cay was practically deserted and we had most of it all to ourselves. All in all, a very relaxing, laid back day which is what we wanted.

Nassau was more "on the go". In the morning, we went on a group tour of the city which took us to the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, then to the Queen's Staircase and Fort Fincastle in Nassau, on to Fort Charlotte, a drive through some residential neighborhoods to see some typical Bahamian homes, around to see Cable Beach, and then back to Bay Street to begin our shopping frenzy. Atlantis is the largest resort in the Nassau area...decadence at its very best. I already know that I will be staying there the next time I go to the Bahamas. We only saw a small fraction of the resort, but the place is magnificent. Downtown Nassau was much nicer than I had expected. I had heard that it was dirty and a little seedy; I don't think it was that at all. The people were very friendly and helpful, the architecture was interesting to see, and the streets were clean. We had a go through the Straw Market to see all the tacky souvenirs, though there are many nice things there too. The woodcarvings are beautiful; I definitely recommend looking at the hand-made things rather than the "junk", and don't forget to haggle and bargain. After the Straw Market, we took a break and had the obligatory drinks at Señor Frog's. Of course, they're expensive (you expect that), but the Mudslide that I had there was to die for! I don't remember what Lisa had, but I do know that she sucked it down with gusto (surprise, surprise...).

Bay Street, which is the main shopping thoroughfare in downtown Nassau, was a good experience. Can you say "duty free" boys and girls? I picked up some emerald jewelry at Colombian Emeralds, some cologne at John Bull, had a look through Little Switzerland, and bought a couple more shirts along the way, among other things. Of course, I had to pick up some Tortuga rum cakes and fudge along the way...I can never resist that! I don't smoke, but a lot of people went for the Cuban cigars; remember, though, it's illegal to bring them back into the States, so don't get caught! After walking the length of the street and doing some sightseeing along the way, I had spent way too much money and had worked up an appetite, so I ducked into a diner-type restaurant called Café Skans for lunch. I ordered a turkey sandwich with fries, but it was the conch chowder that made the meal. Definitely try some if you go to the Bahamas; it's excellent! In 1985, the harvesting of the conch was banned, and it is now illegal to take live conch in U.S. waters, where they are an endangered species, so most conch now comes from the various Caribbean islands, including the Bahamas. Also, make it a point to have a bottle (or two!) of Kalik beer when you visit; it's the number one selling beer in the Bahamas and is brewed on New Providence Island. The only way Kalik gets out of the islands is in tourists’ luggage; it is not exported. I, for one, faced with duty-free "everything" alcohol-wise at prices so low tax men have coronaries when they see them, always load up on liquor when I go to the Caribbean, and this trip was no exception. I bought Tanqueray, Amarula rum cream, Cruzan rum cream, and Ponche Kuba which is a 9% distilled spirit specialty cream with a rum base and light spices (man, I love the stuff!). Ponche Kuba is made in Barbados and is very much like the Ponche Crema that I had in Aruba. It's rich, sweet and very smooth and delicate, in a way similar to eggnog...it's excellent chilled, neat or over ice and makes a great gift for someone back home or the perfect treat for yourself. For me, a good bottle of anything is always a winner!

Many people consider the Bahamas part of the Caribbean, but the islands actually lie in the Atlantic Ocean north of the Caribbean, less than a hundred miles from Florida's coast and Miami. Nassau, the capital city of the Bahamas, is located on New Providence Island and offers major historic and sightseeing opportunities along with fine restaurants, big-time casinos, world-class shopping, and the chance to experience every water sport imaginable. Though holdovers from Great Britain's long colonial occupation still linger in some architecture and culture, the vibe here isn't all that much different from parts of Florida, and Nassau is totally tourist-oriented, with more shopping than the Mall of America, and surrounded by beaches and casinos.

The Bahamas, a chain of more than 700 islands and 2,500 Cays encompassing approximately 5,300 square miles, are populated by an international mix as well as true Bahamians. Sixty percent of all Bahamians live in Nassau, where the population is about 210,000. The lack of income taxes indeed creates this international environment. There are offshore holding companies, secret bank accounts, IBC's and many other lures; however, those interested in relocating should be aware that it is not a simple task to obtain a work permit. Employment is offered to Bahamians rather than foreigners, which helps to keep the unemployment rate low. The three main income producing areas in the Islands of the Bahamas are tourism, financial/real estate (includes offshore banking) and manufacturing/construction.

You might be wondering how the country manages to budget for services without income taxes? All goods, with few exceptions, have a duty imposed on them which is the main source of taxation income for the Commonwealth of the Islands of the Bahamas. Duty is measured by a percentage of the value of the goods, said value including any shipping fees. Luxury items are imposed a higher rate than are necessities. Bahamians have exemptions of $300.00, twice per year. Foreigners, however, who wish to bring in their own cigarettes or alcohol should be certain to not exceed more than one carton of cigarettes. Liquor is generally cheaper in the Bahamas, but beer and wine can be far more expensive. The limits on alcohol are one quart of alcoholic beverages and one quart of wine. Gifts intended for those within the Bahamas can be charged duty upon, but generally you are allowed to bring in your own personal effects, apparel, toiletry articles and other articles up to $100.00 in value. Certain items are imported for sale "duty free" (two of my favorite words). This offers tourists incredible bargains on some items such as liquor, perfume, watches and photography equipment. Make sure, though, that you price the items you want to buy before you leave home; that way, you'll know for sure whether you're getting a good deal or not.