Ardastra Gardens is a zoo and conservation center close to the ports and downtown of Nassau. Popular as a Disney Cruise excursion, families can spend an unhurried morning or afternoon enjoying the birds, animals, and reptiles. The zoo is most famous for its three daily shows of marching flamingos, the national bird of the Bahamas.
Here’s a contrasting experience: Water park crowds vs. Ardastra Gardens. The zoo and conservation center is about 10 minutes from the center of downtown. It is a popular shore excursion for visitors arriving in Nassau by Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Carnival, and Disney Cruise ships.
Ardastra Gardens is both a zoo and a conservation center. It’s small compared to most city zoos in the United States, but it is this more intimate scale that makes it such a pleasurable family attraction.
It’s a mellow place, and it’s authentically Bahamian. There’s not a lot of structure, and there’s not a lot of haste; it’s a peaceful afternoon or morning.
For four generations, my family has made it a ritual to leave the hyper-developed areas of Cable Beach and Paradise Island to spend time in downtown Nassau, even if we are just stopping on our way to the one of the family islands.
The Lory Parrots
Guests weave along a dense path of exhibits of reptiles, birds, and animals amid lush tropical gardens. My favorite exhibit is the cage of Lory parrots, bright beautiful birds of red, green, and blue. The staff opens the cage three times a day, at 11am and 1:30, and 3:30pm to allow guests to feed the parrots sliced apples.
My daughter and I have loved feeding the apples to the birds since she was 3. On each visit at Ardastra during this experience, we started chatting with other families, tourist and local families, and enjoyed the rest of the gardens with them.
March of the Flamingos
The biggest attraction at Ardastra Gardens is the marching of the flamingos. It happens three times a day, 10:30 a.m., 2:15 p.m., and 4 p.m. The caretaker of the flamingos has been watching the flamingos for years. He claims he’s developed his own special language that only he and the flamingos understand. He takes his thin rod and walks around shouting commands to make the flamingos march in a circle for the audience.
It’s charming. The flamingos in their bright pink feathers are gentle birds, and the official bird of the Bahamas. Nearby Great Inagua island is home to more than 50,000 flamingos and its protective measures have helped prevent endangerment of the species.
Guests are invited to come into the parade area and stand on one leg next to the flamingos. The color of their scarlet feathers comes from algae they eat that is loaded with beta-carotene. Beware: Their habitat is pretty odorous at the gardens.
A final highlight of Ardastra Gardens includes a little petting zoo where my young children delight in feeding the very greedy goats until we have no quarters left. Bunnies are another favorite, and a staff member lets children hold them.
Finally, there’s a beautiful cockatoo that sits on your hand and gives you a kiss for a wonderful photo.
Timing your visit
I recommend taking a taxi on your own rather than joining a cruise ship tour. Being there with a large tour crowd would take away from the appeal of the gardens’s chief attraction: a slower paced and unscheduled time with the sounds of birds chirping in quiet and empty gardens.
Taking a taxi on your own to the gardens is fast and much less expensive. We simply asked a staff member who sold us tickets to call for a taxi to take us back into town when we were finished.
Be mindful of coordinating both the Lory parrot feeding and the march of the flamingos to be sure you can see both during your visit.
Lunch in Downtown Nassau
Have lunch in downtown Nassau before or after. If you are interested in a waterfront, local seafood restaurant try the Poop Deck on East Bay Street.
Café Matisse is another restaurant that is popular with locals. It offers pastas and pizzas.
The ultimate downtown Nassau experience is the Graycliff, whose cigar making and chocolate making may be a shore excursion option if you are visiting by cruise ship. I am a little biased, as it was the site of my wedding.
Graycliff was built in 1740 by a successful pirate named Captain John Howard Graysmith. In its colorful history, the Graycliff has changed hands many times and hosted more celebrities and heads of state than any other Bahamian hotel.
The dining room is formal, but fine for well-behaved, quiet children. Before or after lunch, tour the grounds and see the swimming pool’s spectacular tile design.
It’s important to note that Bahamians follow a much more formal dress code than Americans and Canadians on vacation. Neither men nor women wear shorts or jeans. If you plan to have lunch in town at a non-tourist restaurant, dress for the occasion. If not, the ghosts of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, frequent visitors at Graycliff, might shake their heads at you.