From the deck of Banana Bay restaurant on the south shore of Grand Bahama Island, where I waited for a plate of conch fritters, 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.
Earlier, a nature tour had taken me to a more secluded spot, Gold Rock Beach, part of Lucayan National Park. The beach was accessible by a quarter-mile walk, mostly via boardwalk, through a mangrove swamp. When we emerged from the trees, half-tame raccoons met us, begging for food.
The beach was narrow, but a large sandbar was just a short walk away through shallow water clear enough that I could see the ripples in the sandy bottom. The tour guide said that scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean had been filmed here, and I wondered if cast, crew and equipment arrived by canoes or came through the mangroves each day.
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, as I’d just learned, 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 like 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 2 1/2 to three 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 last 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 … ecotourism 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 Pinar del Tio ferry 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.
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. 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, then spend some time with Jeanne, the hotel’s tour concierge. She arranges for me to join a group tour of Lucayan National Forest the next day.
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 colours and built around Count Basie Square. It has a marina, 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 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, where I eat lunch, drink rum runners, buy mango-flavored rum in a liquor shop.
Saturday morning, a bus picks me up at my hotel for the 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, but 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 used the cave system as burial grounds.
As our guide tells us about the Arawaks, he leads us down stairs into two caves. The light is dim in the first. 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 can 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. Then our tour bus takes us to Banana Bay for a late lunch.
My options on Sunday are few, and I settle on a glass-bottom boat tour. The boat motors down a canal and into the ocean, then cruises along the coast to a coral reef. We learn about several kinds of coral and many fish, but when a Caribbean reef shark swims into view, we’re entranced.
Marjie Lambert is a travel contributor.