After years of mixed fortune, Grand Bahama Island has made a comeback and is experiencing a new beginning.
At the turn of the century, a more business-oriented Bahamian government introduced a no-tax provision for investors that extends to 2054. Not surprisingly, money is returning to The Bahamas in volumes. A Hong Kong-based multinational company, Hutchinson Whampoa, committed to invest $500 million at the beginning of this decade. The Freeport container port, which attracts international shipping, has reached full capacity, the airport is expanding, the cruise port is being renewed and hotels were reopened and reconstructed at a cost of $6 million.
Bahama is populated by 50,000 locals and is as flat as
it gets. Its limestone soil is dotted with pine trees,
palmettos and casuarinas, and is fringed by white, sandy
beaches. The island is gifted with a semi-tropical climate,
which becomes dangerously altered by hurricanes, as it
is only 55 miles east of Florida. The ingredients making
up the island are there to please any taste; there's something
for golfers, gamblers, deep-sea fishers, bonefishers or
The 52 acres of the Lucayan hotel stripactually three hotels and a casinohave been rebuilt and re-landscaped. Walkways meander trough tropical vegetation, waterfalls and a swimming pool that imitates an Aztec monument. With its two golf courses, four pools, twelve restaurants and a camp for kids (an investment of $300 million), the Radisson and Sheraton hotels at Our Lucaya compound aims to rival Atlantis, the extravaganza built on neighboring Paradise Island.
Another resurrected hotel, albeit less gigantic and more human-size, is the Crowne Plaza Golf Resort and Spa at the Royal Oasis. Located in the center of the island, the Royal Oasis completed a $42 million renovation in 1999.* Rooms are spacious and comfortable, if not downright luxurious, with reasonably good islands-style service. It boasts a couple of restaurants: The Palm Grill, which is nice for a breakfast overlooking the 1 million-gallon pool, and the more formal, Italian-style Paradiso, which still needs some more angelic preparations to fully merit its moniker. A kids club, Fat Cats, features a kids-only restaurant named Odie's. A free shuttle from here whisks you to the Beach Xanadu in ten minutes.
Golfers enjoy the two 18-hole golf courses redesigned by the Fazio group, the Ruby and the Emerald.
Serious gamblers won't lose time with a commute; the 700 slot machines of the casino are next door. The following games are offered: craps, Blackjack, Caribbean Stud Poker, American roulette, Money Wheel and Let it Ride.
In case you decide to try your luck elsewhere, such as in a spontaneous marriage, the resort will take care of that as well, from the clergyman to the Champagne, the photographer, the music and the flowers. All you need is your future spouse.
Time for shopping? Get your hat or a colorful basket at the traditional straw market or find Cartiers, Guccis, Vuittons, and Chanels (tax free) at the International Arcade booth located next to the casino.
For beach-goers, water fans and snorkelers fun in the sun is available at Paradise Cove.** This resort offers the equipment, transportation to a beautiful lagoon and a reef inhabited by myriads of tropical fish and marine life. A snorkel tour ($30) includes transportation, food and equipment. Club Caribe also offers leisure on the beach and snorkeling. At Kokonuts beach bar and restaurant, spend an evening tasting the Bahamian cuisine—and of course the Conch salad—while you listen to the calypso music.
A smart and stylish way to get to Grand Bahama is to take a one-day cruise out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on the Discovery Cruise Line. A few hours of relaxation at sea and you are ready to enjoy on board a superb seven-course dinner, one of the best of the region, prepared by chef Stephane Leday and crowned with incandescent desserts.
A BUMPY HISTORY
The bumpy history of Grand Bahama Island might very well be the direct consequence of its extreme proximity to the United States, being only 55 miles from the Florida coast. That's too close to develop its own identity, but maybe too far to share a part of the big American pie.
For centuries there has been a succession of feast and famine on the island. The Spanish claimed the island in 1492, dubbed it Gran Bajamar (Great Shallows), massacred and deported the native Arawaksalso called Lucayans—and abandoned it for more attractive, gold-rich destinations in South America. The British claimed The Bahamas in 1670 after clashing swords for a century with pirates and privateers. With Blackbeard and other buccaneers dead or gone, Grand Bahama then slipped into a two-century lethargy. During the American Civil War, Grand Bahama Island awoke and became a convenient platform to counteract the blockade imposed on the Confederacy by the Union.
Then came another sleepy period until the American Prohibition in the 1920s. Bootlegging whipped the failing Bahamian economy into shape. Alas, it did not last and Bahamians returned to their usual way of living through the 1950s, which mainly consisted of fishing. In 1955 Wallace Groves, an American businessman, envisioned that the barren Grand Bahama Island could become the oasis of the Caribbean and promised to build a city that would be called Freeport. This port town would bring schools, hospitals, infrastructure and attract tourists tired of traveling to Cuba. In exchange, he received the exclusive rights, until 1985, to develop 100,000 acres of the island for his own commercial and residential useall of it tax free. Grand Bahama Island started to take off slowly with the opening of a few posh hotels frequented by celebrities such the Rat Pack and high-rollers rushing to the casinos.
After The Bahamas gained its independence from Great Britain in 1973, the new, independent Bahamian government became afraid to see a part of its territory transformed into an American enclave. The Bahamian government wanted more control over such a sweet development deal, which benefited foreigners exclusively. Investors were scared, many fled and once again Grand Bahama Island resumed its historic siesta stupor. Glitzy properties lost their luster, hotels closed, cranes in the harbor started to rust and the tourists disappeared.
Now the course of history has changed once again, and the future of the island is on the rise. Money is returning, facilities are expanding and tourists are again taking notice of this vacation playground. Grand Bahama Island is bouncing back.
Dolphin photo by David Falconer.