Exploring Grand Bahama Island: Seeking adventure on a faded hotspot

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From the deck of Banana Bay restaurant on the south shore of Grand Bahama Island, I admired the pretty but empty beach that stretched to the east: a narrow, curving strip of white sand; a shallow lagoon of clear blue water; a hammock strung between two wind-bent palms.

I turned to the west, sighting more sand, more palm trees, until a sign appeared in my camera's viewfinder: "Nude beach. Swimsuits optional. Voyeurism prohibited. Absolutely no peering, staring, leering or outright gawking."

I lowered my camera in a flash. What category would photography fall into -- voyeurism or gawking? Had anyone seen me? I flicked my eyes up and down the beach, my gaze never stopping so I couldn't be accused of staring, until I was sure that the few people walking along the sand were fully clothed. Then I raised my camera again and snapped a picture.

Beaches are the No. 1 reason tourists come to Grand Bahama, its tourism officials say, and I was on one of its prettiest, Fortune Bay, less than 10 miles from Freeport and just steps from Grand Bahama Highway.

There are beaches here for snorkeling and for fishing, undeveloped beaches with few if any amenities, beaches with bars, music and watercraft rentals, beaches for shelling, beaches with kayaking trails, and at least one nude beach.

Despite Grand Bahama's wealth of beaches, though, tourism -- which in the late 1980s and early '90s drew more than 1 million visitors a year -- took a dive here years ago and is recovering very slowly. Last year, tourism drew only about 840,000 people, their numbers diminished by the ups and downs of the U.S. economy, competition from other budget beach destinations such as Cancun, hurricane damage and aged hotels.

I had come to explore the island at the northwest edge of the Bahamas by way of a fast ferry from Port Everglades, a ride of 21/2 to 3 hours. Three months later I would return on the Bahamas Celebration, a low-budget "ferry" cruise that gives passengers the option of remaining on the ship for a traditional two-night cruise with a day visit to Freeport, or spending a few nights on the island before returning on the ship to the Port of Palm Beach.

The ferry, in operation for about 18 months, and the Bahamas Celebration, which began sailing from Palm Beach to Freeport three years ago, are part of that rebuilding. Carnival and Norwegian have added port calls as well, pushing total cruise ship arrivals from about 336,000 10 years ago to nearly 733,000 in 2012. However, cruise passengers who spend only part of a day on Grand Bahama account for the vast majority of those arrivals, while the number of far-more-lucrative overnight visitors has plummeted.

The Grand Bahama Port Authority has spiffed up the port in the past year, adding a straw market, Senor Frogs and other businesses, so some cruise passengers never even leave the port.

Other upgrades: More flights from the United States and Canada are being added, and the closed Reef village is being renovated and rebranded by Sunwing, which will add 500 hotel rooms. Grand Bahama had almost 3,000 rooms in 1995; today it has about 2,100.

A small eco-tourism element has been added, but green tourism can absorb only so many tourists and still remain green, said David Johnson, director-general at Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. "It's a feature that helps to brand the island and we hope to see more of that but eco-tourism by its very nature is not a volume-driven experience."

It would be my first Grand Bahamian adventure. But first, I had to get there.

The ferry

The Pinar del Tio is rolling side to side. The few people who are walking around grab a post or seat back, then lurch to the next pillar or seat. On my way to the snack bar, I miscalculate and let go of a seat back just as the ship rolls to one side, so I throw my arm around a pillar. Never mind, I don't need coffee that badly.

It's a windy, overcast Friday morning in January, and the ferry is encountering rough seas. I bought a round-trip coach-class ticket to Grand Bahama Island, where I've reserved two nights in a hotel. Sunday night I'll return on the ferry to Port Everglades; the ride will be smooth.

The Pinar del Rio has a small first-class seating area, a snack bar, a bar that's not open this morning, slot machines, a duty-free shop, and a movie showing at the back of the ship. I've stowed my roll-aboard suitcase in a luggage area (free, but there's a charge to check larger bags). The ferry holds 463 passengers; on this trip it looks like a third to half of the seats are empty.

Outside the ferry terminal, a fleet of taxi vans awaits. We're divided into groups based on what hotel we're going to. If the group is eight or more, the ride is $5. Several vans quickly fill with people going to the Grand Lucayan or the Viva Wyndham Fortuna Beach. But I've chosen the Bell Channel Inn, a small, out-of-the-way hotel, and I split the $27 fare with the only other passenger going there.

I have a late lunch of crab salad by a window in the inn's restaurant, which overlooks Bell Channel Bay. Then I set off on foot for Port Lucaya Marketplace, about a mile's walk (and which, despite its name, is not located at the port). The marketplace is a 12-acre complex on the waterfront, painted Bahamian-style in bright colors and built around Count Basie Square, which has a bandstand with dancing to live music that I can hear faintly from my hotel balcony at night. It has a marina, a straw market, boutiques, hair-braiding stations, restaurants and bars specializing in rum drinks.

Once, the International Bazaar in the center of Freeport was the hub of tourism activities. But since 2004, when the nearby Royal Oasis resort closed and hurricanes damaged the market, most of its shops and restaurants have closed or moved to Port Lucaya Marketplace, the new Tourism Central.

Most tours include a stop at the marketplace, so over the course of my two trips to Grand Bahama, I'll end up here several times.

Saturday morning, a bus picks me up at my hotel for a trip to Lucayan National Forest and Gold Rock Beach, about 25 miles east of Freeport on the island's south shore. It's a small forest, just over 40 acres, but it has six miles of underwater caves and tunnels, formed when acidic water ate through the limestone. The Arawak Indians, also called the Lucayans, inhabited the island before Christopher Columbus arrived on nearby San Salvador, and were subsequently wiped out by the Spanish. But before that, they used the cave system as burial grounds.

As our guide tells us about the Arawaks, he leads us along boardwalks, past palms, stands of pine trees, orchids, bromeliads and other tropical plants. We follow him down stairs into two caves that opened up when the ground above them partially collapsed.

The light is dim in the first cave; only portions of these caves are open to the sky. Bromeliads hang from broken rock ledges. Our guide points out bats clustered in corners, fish in the greenish water illuminated by angled rays of light and entrances to underwater tunnels that only certified cave divers are permitted to explore.

In the second cave, the remains of several Lucayan Indians were found in a burial mound.

On the opposite side of Grand Bahama Highway is a mangrove swamp, crossed by boardwalks and signs detailing the fish, birds and other wildlife that live here. Beyond the swamp is Gold Rock Beach, where parts of "Pirates of the Caribbean" were filmed. We take off our shoes and go wading in the warm shallows.

Cruise ship

The hard sell starts even before I board the Bahamas Celebration, but I've done my homework. Yes, I want to sign up for the kayaking excursion but not for snorkeling. No, I don't want to pay extra to eat in the hamburger place -- pay extra for a hamburger? Really? But yes, I will pay $25 to eat in The Cove, the fanciest of the ship's restaurants. No, I don't want to buy a wine package.

My stateroom is 86 square feet and has a small cot-like lower bed plus a fold-down top bunk like on a train. The ship is a converted Norwegian ferry built in 1981 and has no balcony cabins. The electrical wiring is for European appliances -- 220 volt -- and U.S. hair dryers won't work. I borrow a hair dryer and a converter so I can recharge my cell phone.

Bahamas Celebration offers the option of a "ferry cruise" -- sail to Freeport, spend two or more nights in a hotel, then return. I've booked a traditional cruise and will be stopping in Grand Bahama only for a day, time for one shore excursion, then reboarding the ship in the evening and returning to the Port of Palm Beach the following morning.

I have the late dinner seating but am hungry now, so I stop at the trattoria for bread and a small salad of tomatoes and tiny balls of mozzarella. Then I head for the salon, where, yes indeed, someone is available to give me a manicure. Then I head to the piano bar with its line of tables and chairs against the big windows and order a glass of wine. A woman is singing rock 'n' roll and loudly entreating her audience to join in, but few people do. Finally, it's almost time for dinner, and I go to my stateroom to dress up -- the only occasion on either trip when I'll wear a dress and high heels.

I've brought a magazine to read, but two young women at the next table want to talk. They are college students from South Florida on spring break, 19 and 20, taking their first vacation without their families and feeling very grown-up. Eventually they leave, and I enjoy a dinner of sauteed escargot, seafood bisque, grilled shrimp with lobster risotto and Grand Marnier creme brulee. The food is significantly better than in the ship's other restaurants and worth the extra $25.

After-dinner entertainment includes a comedian in the showroom, a singer in the piano bar, karaoke and the usual games in the casino. Later, there's an all-night dance party in the showroom.

When I return to my stateroom, I find a notice that my kayaking excursion has been canceled because not enough people signed up.

The next morning at the shore excursion desk, I find out that all water excursions -- kayaking, snorkeling, the glass-bottom boat -- are canceled because of the wind and rain, so I switch to a tour of Garden of the Groves.

The Garden of the Groves is not named for its groves of trees but for Wallace Groves, a disgraced American financier whose story is also the story of how Grand Bahama became a tourist destination.

Groves' career as a U.S. businessman ended in 1938 when he was indicted for mail fraud. In the late 1940s, after serving time in federal prison, he moved to the island, purchased a lumber company and bought 115,000 acres of pine forest for his lumber mill. Soon, he began to envision Grand Bahama as a resort, one that would compete with Cuba for U.S. tourists.

In 1955, he formed the Grand Bahama Port Authority and negotiated an agreement with the Bahamian government to establish the city of Freeport as a free trade zone on what was then swampland and to build a port, schools, roads and develop utilities in return for significant tax concessions. He was given control of 50,000 acres and the authority to issue business licenses and work permits, run immigrations and customs operations at the port, operate casinos and set utility rates. Groves died in 1988 in Miami at 86.

Our tour guide recounts Groves' story as he drives us to the botanical garden, where a sign commemorates Groves and his wife, Georgette.

Back on the ship, I'm seated for dinner in one of the main dining rooms with a mother and her young son who are visiting from New York. I say something about how they probably appreciated the beaches more than I did, even on a rainy day, but the mother says the boy doesn't like buses, so they stayed at the port. It's a reminder that each person I've met on this boat had a different reason for coming on the cruise, and a different reaction to the experience.

I say goodnight and turn toward the piano bar, and as I do, I realize that I have my own reason for making a return trip: I still want to go kayaking on Grand Bahama.



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