Back at the hotel, I catch a cab to the port for the 6 p.m. departure of the ferry. With no one to share my ride, I pay the full $27 fare. The evening is pleasant, and though I’m now armed with Dramamine, the seas are smooth.
The hard sell starts even before I board the Bahamas Celebration, but I’ve done my homework. Yes, I want to sign up for the kayaking excursion but not for snorkeling. No, I don’t want to pay extra to eat in the hamburger place — pay extra for a hamburger? Really? But yes, I will pay $25 to eat in The Cove, the fanciest of the ship’s restaurants. No, I don’t want to buy a wine package.
It continues in my tiny stateroom, pitches on the P.A. system for bingo, shore excursions, the spa, discounted drinks at the sail-away party.
My stateroom is 86 square feet and has a small, cot-like lower bed plus a fold-down top bunk like on a train. The ship is a converted Norwegian ferry built in 1981 and has no balcony cabins. The electrical wiring is for European appliances — 220 volt — and U.S. hairdryers won’t work. I borrow a hairdryer and a converter so I can recharge my cellphone. Since the ship sails only two-night cruises, passengers don’t require a lot of closet and drawer space.
Bahamas Celebration offers the option of a “ferry cruise” — sail to Freeport, spend two or more nights in a hotel, then return. I’ve booked a traditional cruise and will be stopping in Grand Bahama only for a day, time for one shore excursion, then reboarding the ship in the evening and returning to the Port of Palm Beach the following morning.
I have the late dinner seating but am hungry now, so I stop at the trattoria for bread and a small salad of tomatoes and tiny balls of mozzarella. Then I head for the salon, where, yes indeed, someone is available to give me a manicure. Then I head to the piano bar with its line of tables and chairs against the big windows and order a glass of wine. A woman is singing rock-and-roll and loudly entreating her audience to join in, but few people do.Finally, it’s almost time for dinner, and I go to my stateroom to dress up — the only occasion on either trip when I’ll wear a dress and high heels.
I’ve brought a magazine to read, but two young women at the next table want to talk. They are college students from South Florida on spring break, 19 and 20, taking their first vacation without their families and feeling very grown-up. They will be spending two nights at the Viva Wyndham Fortuna Beach, an all-inclusive, and are looking forward to an endless supply of cocktails on an island where they can drink legally. Both are drunk. Very, very drunk. But eventually they leave, and I enjoy a dinner of sauteed escargot, seafood bisque, grilled shrimp with lobster risotto and Grand Marnier creme brulee. The food is significantly better than in the ship’s other restaurants and worth the extra $25.
After-dinner entertainment includes a comedian in the showroom, a singer in the piano bar, karaoke and the usual games in the casino. Later, there’s an all-night dance party in the showroom.
In the piano bar, I meet a man who has just ordered the $13 “martini sampler” — six mini martinis, ranging from traditional vodka with vermouth to chocolate. He is a Bahamian, returning home to live after 15 years in the United States. “I’ve got 30 boxes of belongings down below,” he says, reminding me that what was a cruise ship for me was a cargo ferry for him.
When I return to my stateroom, I find a notice that my kayaking excursion has been cancelled because not enough people signed up.
The next morning at the shore excursion desk, I find out that all water excursions — kayaking, snorkeling, the glass-bottom boat — are cancelled because of the wind and rain, so I switch to a tour of Garden of the Groves.
The Garden of the Groves is not named for its groves of trees, but for Wallace Groves, a disgraced American financier whose story is also the story of how Grand Bahama became a tourist destination.
Groves’ career as a U.S. businessman ended in 1938 when he was indicted for mail fraud. In the late 1940s, after serving time in federal prison, he moved to the island, purchased a lumber company and bought 115,000 acres of pine forest for his lumber mill. Soon, he began to envision Grand Bahama as a resort, one that would compete with Cuba for U.S. tourists.
In 1955, he formed the Grand Bahama Port Authority and negotiated an agreement with the Bahamian government to establish the city of Freeport as a free trade zone on what was then swampland and to build a port, schools, roads and develop utilities in return for significant tax concessions. He was given control of 50,000 acres and the authority to issue business licenses and work permits, run immigrations and customs operations at the port, operate casinos and set utility rates. Groves died in 1988 in Miami at 86.
Our tour guide recounts Groves’ story as he drives us to the botanical garden, where a sign commemorates Groves and his wife Georgette.
We learn about the lignum vitae, or tree of life, the national tree of the Bahamas; about the plants that grow in the “healing garden,” the fern gully, and some of the other 10,000 species of plants that grow there. We sit in a chapel that is a replica of one from the early days of the logging industry, admire the pieces in the sculpture garden, pause to take pictures of manmade waterfalls, study the birds in the aviary, learn about the meditation labryinth and browse in the little shops at the end of the tour.
Back on the ship, I’m seated for dinner in one of the main dining rooms with a mother and her young son who are visiting from New York. I say something about how they probably appreciated the beaches more than I did, even on a rainy day, but the mother says the boy doesn’t like buses, so they stayed at the port. It’s a reminder that each person I’ve met on this boat had a different reason for coming on the cruise, and a different reaction to the experience.
I say goodnight and turn toward the piano bar, and as I do, I realize that I have my own reason for making a return trip: I still want to go kayaking on Grand Bahama.