The Grand Bahama Port Authority has spiffed up the port in the last year, adding a straw market, Señor 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 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 (it was 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 only $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 spend some time with Jeanne, the hotel’s tour concierge.
Jeanne arranges for me to join a group tour of Lucayan National Forest the next day and promises to look into what’s available on Sunday. Because of the timing of the tours and the fact that many shops are closed on Sunday, I won’t be able to fit in kayaking or a visit to a shop that hosts rum-tastings. Next trip, I promise myself.
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, straw market, boutiques, hair-braiding stations, restaurants and bars specializing in rum drinks.