January 18, 2014

A daytripper’s cruise to Bimini

The time is just past 8 a.m. and we’re still an hour away from departure, but dance music is playing and already the party has started on the ferry to Bimini.

The time is just past 8 a.m. and we’re still an hour away from departure, but dance music is playing and already the party has started on the ferry to Bimini.

The partying is subtle, sure, and right now it’s limited to a few corners of the ship — people drinking Mimosas and Bloody Marys at the open-air bars, five or six young women dancing on the “party deck,” couples snuggling on lounges.

But most of the passengers I see are smiling, and it’s clear they’re looking forward to the journey. The skies are overcast on this late fall Friday, but the temperature is in the mid-70s, the seas are gentle and it looks like it will be a pleasant day on the water.

It will be a full day too: Check-in is at 7:30 a.m. It will be 12 hours by the time we make the run to Bimini and back, then clear Customs and Immigration in Miami.

If your interest in going to Bimini is to explore the island, taking a day trip on Resorts World Bimini’s ferry — a small cruise ship dubbed the Bimini Superfast — is not the way to do it. Of those 12 hours, we’ll spend only 21/2 on the island.

But if you want to gamble, take a leisurely ride to the island for an overnight stay or just spend the day on the water with a lunch stop on Bimini, this trip might be for you.

The Bimini SuperFast is a 12-year-old cruise ship that used to run through the Greek Isles. At 669 feet long and with a 1,500-passenger capacity, the ship is owned now by the Genting Group, the Malaysian company that bought the former Miami Herald building with plans to build a casino there. The company has been unable to persuade the Florida Legislature to change the law and allow gambling. So while Genting, which operates casinos and resorts all over the world, continues to work on options in Miami, it has also turned its attention to Bimini, a group of islands known mostly for sport fishing, just 50 miles from Miami.

Genting bought the former Bimini Bay Resort on North Bimini, renamed it Resorts World Bimini, built a 10,000-square-foot casino that opened July 1, started construction of a 350-room luxury hotel next door — due to open in July — refurbished the ship and began operating it as the Bimini Superfast.

The renovated ship is attractive, with three restaurants or buffets, several lounges, two casinos, a sports book and private rooms for high rollers. You can rent a private cabin for the day for about $40 (with advance reservations) to $200. There’s space for sunbathing on the top deck, but it’s not abundant. Some top-deck spaces are partly glassed in — glass roof, floor-to-ceiling windows — an airy retreat on a rainy day. There’s a dance floor where the pool would usually be.

At 9:07 a.m., the ship’s horn blares. We are moving. Passengers crowd the starboard rail as our vessel sails past cruise ships that are 25 to 50 percent longer and several decks taller than ours. A few couples get up and dance.

I want to check out the casino, but I don’t know where it is. A crew member sees me looking lost. Instead of just pointing me in the right direction, he escorts me to the casino on Deck 7 and asks if he can do anything else for me before leaving.

In the Deck 7 casino, a few people have already claimed seats at slot machines, even though they won’t be unlocked until the ship is three miles offshore. Minimum bets at table games are posted at $5 and $10.

At 9:53 a.m., as I’m headed for the second casino on Deck 8, a voice on the P.A. system announces that the casinos are now open. Table minimums are higher in the Deck 8 casino, ranging from $10 to $100 — most of them are $25, and there are no slots.

In the Sports Book Lounge, where about a dozen screens are tuned to sports events, I grab a list of college football games and their point spreads and debate whether to bet on my alma mater. As the Miami skyline fades into the distance, I decide not to bet. This isn’t my team’s year.

Gambling is the theme here — you can do it on the ship and on the island, or both if you choose. If you’re a high-roller, there are private VIP rooms where the minimum bet is $200. Some people board the ship, start gambling as soon as the ship is three miles from Miami and don’t stop until the ship hits the three-mile line on its return. But they are a small percentage of passengers; most get off the ship in Bimini, says Greg Karan, senior vice president.

For $10, I sign up for a tour of the ship’s bridge. The captain stands within a wide arc of screens that he’s monitoring, and he invites us to take each other’s photos “steering” the ship. The helm is behind him, and when he says, sure, we can move it, we realize the ship is on the nautical equivalent of autopilot.

The captain gestures through the wide windows at the misty weather and says he doesn’t know yet if we’ll be able to go ashore. That’s when I learn that this trip comes with a caveat: Just because the ship arrives off the coast of Bimini doesn’t mean we’ll set foot on the island. The dock near Resorts World Bimini is too small to accommodate the ship, so passengers must board a catamaran that tenders them to the island. If the seas are too rough, the catamaran can’t operate and no one goes ashore.

If rough weather is forecast, the cruise may be canceled. Seas are most difficult in winter, and after a number of cancellations, the ship’s sailing schedule has been cut back to three days — Friday through Sunday — for now. When the weather calms, probably around Easter, the ship will sail seven days a week, Karan said.

Genting is building a 1,000-foot jetty where passengers will be able to disembark directly from the big ship. Although the construction has run into opposition over environmental issues, Karan says the jetty could be completed as soon as April.

Back in the Sports Book Lounge, a crew member is selling $1 bags of just-popped popcorn. Carts selling grab-and-go food — sandwiches, salads, cupcakes — are set up by the bar. At 11:45, I ask a crew member when we’ll arrive at Bimini. He says we already have; the ship is in the process of being cleared by customs. A catamaran is waiting, and at 12:05 we get the OK to board it.

North Bimini is shaped roughly like a fish hook. We enter the channel by the eye of the hook and motor slowly along its shank, the long, straight arm of the island that is so narrow that you can stand in the middle of the road and see a beach on either side. Far down the shank, just before it starts to curve, the island widens. That’s where the resort is located and where we’ll dock, on the bay side of the island. We pass tiny cays, mangroves, small boats run up on sandbars or anchored in water only a few inches deep. Wading birds stand on the sandy bottom and dip their beaks to grab morsels.

I finally set foot on Bimini at 1:02 p.m., an hour after we started boarding the catamaran. It’s no wonder Genting wants to build a larger dock on the Atlantic side of the property and bypass the tender.

Typically, 15 to 20 percent of the passengers stay a night or two in Bimini, Karan said; the vast majority, though, are daytrippers. In Bimini, daytrippers have several choices:

• Take a shuttle to Resorts World Bimini, where they can use the beach, have lunch, and play in the casino.
• Take a shuttle to Alice Town, back up the shank of the hook towards the eye.
• At the dock, rent a golf cart to explore this part of the island, rent a kayak, or take part in water sports (scuba, snorkeling, snuba).

I choose the shuttle to Alice Town. We stop at a waterfront shack that sells conch salad. A man sits on a dock, cleaning the conch piled in a wheelbarrow. More shells spill out from under the shack, which sits on stilts at the water’s edge, and there’s a huge mound of the coral-colored shells in the water.

Along a road lined with sea grape, oleander, coconut palms, hibiscus and bougainvillea, we pass small houses and apartments, some of which look like they’ve been beaten. The tiny downtown has a small museum, straw market, and waterfront restaurant and marina as well as beaches. We have not quite enough time to see everything. I spend too much time walking around downtown and miss lunch.

We board the ferry, sail back to the ship, go through metal detectors and wait in a line that passes by a federal agent and a drug-sniffing dog.

Since I missed lunch, I head right to dinner in the Ponce de Leon restaurant, which has table service and a prix fixe dinner — three courses and a glass of wine for $25.

It’s dark out when I finish dinner, and there’s a chilly breeze, so I look for indoor entertainment. The ship offers line dancing, karaoke and a trivia contest, but I amuse myself playing video poker. Losses: $10.

When we hit the three-mile line and the casino closes, I find a sheltered spot on deck, dig a sweater out of my daypack and watch the lights of the Miami skyline draw near. Today I have been to another country and back.

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