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 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.