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, where I eat lunch, drink rum runners, buy mango-flavored rum in a liquor shop, get a haircut, go across the street to gamble at the island’s only casino, take a boat tour and evade the entreaties of shop owners to come in and look.
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, 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. Then our tour bus takes us to Banana Bay for a late lunch.
Back at the Bell Channel Inn, I inquire at the bar about the stock of fruit-flavored rums. Yes, the bartender tells me, she has banana, coconut, mango and pineapple rum. No need to go into town for a rum-tasting, I tell myself. My plans for the evening are set.
My options on Sunday are few, and I settle on a glass-bottom boat tour. While I’m walking to the marina at Port Lucaya Marketplace, a woman on her way to church falls in with me. We chat about cruises, walking, living on the island before our paths split. A short time later, a clown horn sounds behind me, and I stand aside to let a 70-ish man on a bicycle pedal past me. “Good afternoon,” he calls in a British accent as he passes.
The boat motors down a canal and into the ocean, then cruises along the coast to a coral reef. We crowd together, kneeling on benches, looking down through the thick glass bottom of the boat. At first we see just a few creatures — sergeant-major fish with their black stripes, Elkhorn coral — but before long we’re learning about several other kinds of coral and many fish. When a Caribbean reef shark swims into view, we’re entranced. Later, a crew member tosses handfuls of food into the water and the surface roils as the fish rise and snap at the floating bits.