18th-century Fort Charlotte is an imposing backdrop for the Rum Bahamas Fest.
  • 18th-century Fort Charlotte is an imposing backdrop for the Rum Bahamas Fest.
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The Caribbean and Atlantic islands weren’t the origin of rum – that was created in New England – but they were part of the trade triangle that included African slaves and island molasses. Any thought of the history of one of America’s favorite spirits has to be in the context of brutality, piracy and loss of liberty. So it’s great to see the Bahamas taking hold of their own history and turning it around into a celebratory, tasty heritage!

A pirate greets fest goers.

I learned quite a bit and thoroughly enjoyed myself at the first annual Rum Bahamas Fest, a culinary and cultural festival.

What to do

The festival spans an entire weekend, with a different atmosphere during the day – more like an ethnic fest – than at night. It’s held at the historic Fort Charlotte. Crowds were thinner in the high heat of the day. They had craft vendors from across the Caribbean, as well as fusion cuisine: food booths from many different islands, including Filipino dishes. Exotic and great quality! Fresh shrimp was fine-dining level. “Macaroni” (mac and cheese) was addictive and unexpected for festival fare.

Video:

Bahamaian national anthem at Rum Bahamas Fest

The festival’s in February, so the warm rays of the sun were quite inviting during what is brutal weather in most of the U.S. At night, the live music, fire dancers and more adult atmosphere encourages even more drinking of rum.

I learned about a term with which I was unfamiliar: rhum agricole. It's the French term for sugar-cane juice rum, opposed to molasses rum. Then I came upon the Rhum Clément booth. Not only are they a rhum agricole, but they are also an appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC), meaning their location of origin is controlled, just like champagne and certain cheeses. They sure know how to run a booth: staffing it with their model-handsome bilingual relative who mixes sample drinks and naturally sells bottles by the boatload.

Poster at John Watling's.

Though rum has been produced in the islands since the 17th century, today the Bahamas produces just one rum: John Watling's. John Watling's certainly had a prominent stand at the Rum Fest, whipping up cocktails, frozen drinks, mixed drinks, straight shots. Their distillery in Nassau has been in production for only a few years. They now have five-year-old aged rum available. The Bahamas is said to have an advantage weather-wise in aging: rum here ages twice as rapidly as elsewhere. Their public tasting and gathering space has been open to the public since April 2013. All of their artisanal production is done entirely by hand.

The John Watling's distillery is in the historic Buena Vista estate, dating from 1789. Through the years, it hosted such celebs as Robert Mitchum, Bobby Kennedy, Ed Sullivan and Joan Crawford. It's been backdrop for several James Bond movie scenes. However, it's the estate's darker history that's so thought-provoking. During restoration, they uncovered a 74-foot-deep hand-cut stone well, constructed by slaves in the early 19th century. Imagine that for a second! In the tasting room, there are Bahamas military recruitment posters from WWI. One cannot help but do the math: a nation that had only tasted freedom for 80 years was being proselytized to send its men to die protecting the emerging nation-state borders of Europe, across the Atlantic Ocean. As you drink, there's a lot to consider. John Watling's has a full bar, able to create all kinds of rum cocktails. They have bar snacks, too.

View from the Hilton.

Where to stay

The British Colonial Hilton is the nearest major hotel to the fest, the only major hotel and the only downtown hotel with a private beach. Decks on each floor’s hallways have gorgeous views, as do the cabanas by the pool and the beach itself.

Where to eat

Island eating is generally three things: unfussy, perfectly fresh and pricey. A culturally authentic experience at a bargain is “coconut sky juice.” The drink probably originated as a simple British cocktail, plausibly Brit sailor's gin poured into a young coconut. Nowadays, it can have gin but also, or instead, rum. It can be coconut rum and condensed, sweetened milk. Condensed, sweetened milk has long been an appreciated creamer in the tropics: think Key lime pie and Vietnamese coffee. It's not perishable until opened. In town, the cocktail can run up to $16 or maybe even more at the private clubs. But at a little stand next to Ft. Montagu, you can get sky juice freshly made on the spot for (I think it was, the rum hit fast!) just $5!

When you picture yourself enjoying lunch at a tropical paradise, what does it look like? No doubt, you envision a view of crystal blue waters. You might picture a cold beer, fresh local seafood and maybe even – like "The Most Interesting Man in the World" – enjoying an exotic, forbidden-in-the-USA Cuban cigar. You can have all of this and more at Arawak Cay's Anchorage Haven.

Don’t let The Poop Deck's casual ambiance and dress fool you: they serve seafood caught that day and they're a favorite of the jet set. In the past, chic patrons like John Kennedy, Jr. and Brook Shields patronized the restaurant. The open deck windows allow diners a clear view of boats docked in East Bay and yachts passing by. A local delicacy to start: fresh Andros stone crab claws. You can order them in any amount, but they're huge; three make a quite generous appetizer. Andros is an archipelago set of islands in the Bahamas, well known for their seafood.

If you're a fish person, you can pick from sometimes four different snapper types and other fish caught that day. However, I was intrigued by a recipe that’s quite popular there: "cracked" lobster. Lobster – or things like conch – that are "cracked" are marinated in lime juice and island spices, then breaded and fried tender/crisp. It adds a new flavor dimension and texture to lobster!

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