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Friday, February 07, 2014

A Fine Week of Tropical Indulgence

Sean Connery must be a very good cook.

Either that or he has a pretty good cook.

Either that or he has no taste in food whatsoever and doesn’t care what it costs. The latter postulate is almost certainly true; one of the first things I learned upon entering New Providence Island, the main island of the Bahamas, is that Sean Connery lives there. “There” is a relative term, as where he apparently lives is a mansion on an isolated island accessible only by boat, and who cares, the closest we dweeblings will ever get to it is trying to find it on Google maps. But hey, you’ve got to live somewhere, and I can think of worse places.

Mrs. Bruck and I were the guests of timeshare owners Handy Andy (not his real name) and the ineffable Mrs. Pink (not her real name) last week at Paradise Island in the Bahamas. Paradise Island is at the north edge of New Providence, and is occupied mainly by the famed “Atlantis” resort (famed if you read in-flight magazines or watch daytime cable TV anyway). Here one can go down a waterslide (the most fun you can have wearing one article of clothing) and then drift through a “lazy river” under and beside aquaria containing sharks and other tasty predators. BTW, for those of you keeping score at home, the Bahamas are now part of the sovereign territory of Bruck, and in particular, the part of Paradise Island where the lazy river runs has been formally claimed, along with the beach adjacent to Atlantis and several otherwise pristine coves.

What is the most you have ever paid for a hamburger? Double that is about what you’d pay for one in Paradise Island or Nassau. On the plus side, they are made from actual meat, and the fries are cooked in real tallow. And the fish, for which you’d also part with about double your normal expenditure, is not too bad, but I seriously doubt that it’s fresh and/or locally caught as they claim. So that’s the deal with food. It’s really expensive there. And the service is pretty lackadaisical, which is the family-friendly way of putting it. And they always add 15% for gratuity, which is strategic, putting the onus on the hapless customer to change it, which I assume they never do. Hence my speculation on Sean Connery’s culinary dilemma. I assume that a man of his means has higher standards than mine, and mine haven’t even been approached. As a happy consequence, we had our best meals in the villa, home-cooked by the incomparable and longsuffering Mrs. Bruck and her partner in crime Mrs. Pink.

But Bruck, how could you possible doubt the authenticity of the local fish that landed on your plate at various eateries? Because (1) my brief experience led me to question the veracity of anything I heard in the Republic of Bahamas, and (2) I seriously doubt that any Bahamian is capable of something as industrious as catching a fish, putting it on ice, and selling it to a restaurant. Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against the Bahamian people; it’s their country, their culture; they can do with it whatever they wish. I just don’t expect any of them to send a man to Mars, cure cancer, or derive the unified field theory. 

The second thing we learned in New Providence is that “the Chinese” are building a $3.5B resort outside of Nassau, the capital city (note, the Bahamian dollar is tied to the American dollar and either one is legal tender). The Chinese also imported 7000 workers to build it, which of course caused big question marks to appear above the heads of your faithful editor and his chillin wife – why not use local labor? Certainly among the 350K population of the Bahamas, 70% of whom live in Nassau, they could find workers, and certainly the Bahamas government required it as a condition of building, like any other rational local government would, right? Well, let’s just say that after spending a week there, the use of exclusively Chinese labor made perfect sense.

Tourism is, of course, the major industry, and the local population does seem to be very well attuned to both promoting and exploiting it. To a person, every Bahamian we encountered was friendly and helpful to the extent possible (although they batted about .600 on accuracy of directions, even the resort staff), and tried to sell us something or served as a self-appointed tour guide. We figure there must be some sort of unified curriculum for hustlers, as they all had pretty much the same shtick – demographic statistics (population 350K +/- 50K, living on 29 or 30 or 23 of the 700 or 7000 total islands in the republic), Sean Connery lives there, Nicholas Cage owns that house over there, followed by numerous puns on his movie titles, and the consumption of conch fritters, the local delicacy which is also probably imported from China, will empower you with a series of hammer handles lasting up to 8 hours. Okay, what they actually said was that you’ll be like Lionel Richie, “all night long” with a twinkle in their eye. Every one of them said that. And no, I did not test the aphrodisiac effects of said fritters; I’m severely allergic to shellfish, so let’s just say if I were to conduct that experiment, I’d be lucky to survive the night, much less spend it in passionate embrace. Nonetheless I’m skeptical – you’d probably be just as likely to get Lionel Richie’s singing voice as his purported bedroom stamina.

As much fun as it is, I don’t want to come off here as negative and cynical. Expensive food and singularly unambitious populace aside, I can see why the Bahamas are so popular for vacationing. The beaches, water, and natural beauty are even nicer than their depiction in the travel brochures. The resort was very nice and my only complaint with it is that it was so large that I kept getting lost. We had a wonderful time and I would recommend it to anybody.

One unique highlight of the trip was the Graycliff Hotel. It’s a little oasis of “old world” in the middle of Nassau. The grounds boasted picturesque gardens, paths, pools, ponds, and statues. It would be a little expensive to stay there, or eat there, but they didn’t seem to mind us hanging out and exploring. Mrs. Bruck and Mrs. Pink enjoyed Graycliff’s “world-famous” chocolate and coffee while Handy Andy and your faithful editor toured their cigar factory and took in a session of cigar-rolling lessons.

Here’s proof that I’m not making this up. It was fortunate that Handy Andy speaks bilingual, because it really came in “handy” in conversing with Maria, the Cuban torcedora who taught me everything I know about rolling cigars. Maria was cold war vintage, so she probably spoke Russian, but English was Greek to her, and my Spanish is only a small step above Taco Bell menu.

BTW, Handy Andy plied his photographic skills throughout the trip. He gets credit for all photos in this dispatch except the ones that were obviously cobbed from elsewhere on the web.

A handmade cigar generally consists of three main components – the filler (self-explanatory), the binder, which holds the filler together and gives the cigar its shape, and the wrapper, which is the outer layer that makes it look good and imparts some flavor. Maria asked how strong I wanted to make our cigars, so I said, “strong, what the heck?” (I never half-do anything.) She said okay, while giving me the same look that I’ve seen in the eyes of Thai restaurant waitresses when I ask for my curry extra spicy.

The “strong” cigar’s filler consisted of two ligero leaves, one seco, and one volado. Ligeros are the upper leaves of the tobacco plant which get the most sun, and have the most flavor and vitamin N. Seco leaves are from the middle of the plant and receive a moderate amount of sun, and volado leaves are near the bottom. They are purportedly blended in to provide smoothness and evenness of burn. There is a technique to “bunching” them together which I won’t try to describe here (YouTube does a far better job), but which is critical for proper draw and burning. It’s more of an art than a science, which means that you’ll never get it right but people from faraway, exotic places were born knowing how.

The next step is the binder, which is a tough but flexible leaf that the torcedor winds around the filler bundle diagonally and is glued at one end. At this point, the professional deviates from sunburned, first world tourist (SBFWT): real torcedors would clip the shaggy end and press the cigar in a mold for a prescribed amount of time, turning once or twice, to achieve that perfect shape. SBFWTs go straight to the wrapper phase, the cigar looking a bit like a dog dropping with an eighties haircut.

We then applied the wrapper, following an identical process to binding, but with the additional complexity of making a cap. The cap is just what it sounds like – it covers the end that you don’t light. Maria didn’t even bother showing me how to cut and apply the cap, which she fashioned by intricately cutting the end of the wrapper leaf and gluing it on in such a way as to indicate that she had probably made about 10,000 more cigars than her SBFWT friend. Here are the resulting products of an afternoon well-spent:

You may be wondering, are they smokeable? Surprisingly, yes. I tried one that evening on the balcony. The burn and draw were near perfect and the flavor was not bad although it was a little too fresh; the others will benefit from a few months’ convalescence in the humidor. As far as strength goes, let’s just say the diuretic effect of nicotine was evident immediately and in abundance. I think if I used all ligero filler, I would be shopping for some new intestines.

Our villa was in the “Harborside” section of Atlantis, which abuts the marina that docks the most fantastic yachts we’d ever seen. If we’re the “one percent,” then their owners must have been the one percent of the one percent. Check out Gallant Lady:

Length: 168’, Beam: 33’, maximum draft: 7’. Handy Andy did a little research and discovered that the Gallant Lady is actually for sale. It could be yours for the paltry sum of $42.M US or Bahamian dollars. I bet they’d knock a few bucks off the price if you paid cash.

Nassau is a popular stop for cruise ships as well. The Carnival Pride parked there for a spell, along with many others during our stay.
These ships are quite impressive in their own right, as in how do you get a 12-story building to float? And not tip over? Anyway, we spent one afternoon on Junkanoo Beach, which is in Nassau, and is the closest beach to where the cruise ships dock. While not the prettiest of the Bahamas beaches, it was probably the most fun, as it afforded us the opportunity to meet a number of very friendly drunks from said ships. Have you ever wondered where “reality TV” types go when they’re not on camera? Well, we think we know where some of them go – cruise ships and Junkanoo beach. The intrepid photojournalist Handy Andy captured some of them in their native element, but we won’t be sharing the pics here. In fact, he deleted them before attempting to cross any international borders. Nonetheless, the cruisers were quite friendly and outgoing, even with us boring, overdressed, middle-aged non-drunks.

American cigar smokers always take the opportunity to score Cuban cigars when traveling abroad, since they are forbidden fruit in the US, due to the fact that Fidel Castro is a communist and is not dead yet. So all the tourist stores sell Cubans, or rather sell what they claim to be Cubans. Of course a well-informed cigar smoker knows that you can’t get three of them for $20; in fact you’re lucky to get a single one for that price, and a petite one at that. Knowing they were fakes, I bought a few, since it wasn’t too bad a retail price for non-Cubans, thinking hey, how bad can they be? Answer: bad. I choked one down but pitched the other two, a real indictment from an inveterate cheapskate like me. I did make a point of asking the cashier if they were real, and of course she said yes. There’s a certain primal satisfaction in forcing a woman in a foreign country to lie to you. Try it sometime; you’ll know what I mean.

To sum it all up, I would say our first tropical island vacation was a resounding success, and I’d definitely go again. If you are inspired to go there yourself, I recommend bringing an open mind and as much of your own food as possible, and do please let me know if the conch fritters work. Cue Lionel Richie and fade…


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