The ship docked at North Bimini around 10 p.m., the last streaks of color long gone from the sky, the ocean like a black hole absorbing light from the ship. A shuttle waited to take us to the casino at Resorts World Bimini, but beyond the halo of light around the first cars, the pier was dark too.
I followed a line of eager passengers into the casino, where I lost a roll of quarters in a slot machine and downed a fruity rum drink before I took the shuttle back to the ship.
It wasn’t until the next day that I got a good look at the water in the sunlight. From the shuttle stop in Alice Town, I walked to the almost deserted beach at the southern tip of North Bimini. Sun reflected off the water, illuminating an impossible array of blues and greens topped by a streak of violet.
The water was brilliant and clear, the rippled sand on the ocean floor in sharp focus. Bits of vegetation floated past, outlining the current. Behind me, on the beach on the western side — the island here is not more than a couple hundred feet across — someone exclaimed over fish they spotted in the crystal water.
The Gulf Stream flows past the island, a powerful river, 45 miles wide, that carries the warm, nutrient-laden waters that give Bimini outstanding sport-fishing grounds.
For years, it was the fishing that drew tourists to Bimini — especially giant blue marlin and bluefin tuna — and it still does, although the big game fish are scarcer now. And during Prohibition, Bimini was a hub for rum-runners. But now there’s more.
Ernest Hemingway came to Bimini for the big game fishing, but while he was on the island, he is said to have worked on his novel “To Have and Have Not.”
This little cluster of islands collectively known as Bimini is less developed than Nassau or Grand Bahama and has a population of only about 2,000 people. But it has a new attraction on North Bimini, the most populous of the Bimini islands: a casino, a new hotel, a marina for mega-yachts and a ship that ferries tourists from Miami, all owned by Genting, the Malaysian resort and casino giant.
The resort has already made a difference in tourism on the island. From 2007 to 2013, Bimini got between 40,000 and 60,000 visitors a year. In 2014, the first full year that Genting’s casino and ferry were in operation, the number of visitors jumped to 117,315. Genting bought the former Bimini Bay resort, renamed it Resorts World Bimini and added a casino. The company is also building a hotel, Hilton at Resorts World Bimini, which is partially open and will have 305 rooms when it is completed next spring.
After Genting started running the three-hour ferry between Miami and Bimini in mid-2013, the company built a 1,000-foot jetty where the ship docks — over the protests of people worried about its effect on sea life. Free shuttles run all day and much of the night, taking visitors between the ship and the resort and into Alice Town.
Although the company experimented with day trips and one-night trips, currently all the cruises are two-nighters. Guests can stay in one of the ship’s 180 staterooms or in Genting’s lodgings on the island — or make their own arrangements.
117,315 Number of tourists who visited Bimini in 2014, the first full year the Resorts World ferry operated. Number of tourists in 2013: 50,449.
But be warned: Although the Bimini SuperFast is clean and well-maintained, the ship is small and spare, its amenities few, the service friendly but limited. If you’re accustomed to Carnival or Royal Caribbean, that’s not what you get here. The ship is comfortable transportation, not a floating resort.
The Bimini SuperFast, a 13-year-old, 669-foot renovated ferry that once worked the waters between Italy and Greece, departs from PortMiami in the early evening. From the aft lounge, I watch the Miami skyline shrink as the sun sets behind it. This is my third trip on the ferry.
About 45 minutes into the three-hour trip, the casino opens, a reminder that this whole expedition is about opportunities to gamble, whether on the ship or on shore. Genting hasn’t succeeded in building its bayfront casino and resort in Miami, so it built a smaller one 50 miles away.
As the sky darkens, I go to the buffet, which has only a fraction of the enormous variety of choices available at a typical cruise ship buffet. Meals are usually available for windows of two to three hours. There’s also a table-service restaurant, the Ponce de Leon, with additional fees of up to $25 per person. The only food outside mealtime is sandwiches and snacks purchased at the bar.
The ship has no pool, fitness center or children’s center. There are occasional trivia games, line-dancing lessons, karaoke, ping-pong, a spa area with massages and a tour of the bridge.
The SuperFast used to have plenty of opportunities for gambling: two casinos, a sports book and private rooms for high-rollers. But Genting didn’t get the kind of action it anticipated, and one of the casinos has been converted into meeting space. The sports book is gone. The remaining casino has slot machines and the usual table games; private rooms are still available for high-limit games, although most high-rollers arrive on a Resorts World seaplane or its private jet.
A popular activity on Bimini is snorkeling on the wreck of the Sapona, a World War I cargo ship that was used as an alcohol warehouse during Prohibition but sank almost 90 years ago.
The ship has inside, outside and deluxe staterooms. I have a small inside cabin with two narrow beds and two upper bunks that fold down like they do on a train. The beds are separated by a built-in night table and can’t be pushed together. There is closet space for hanging clothes, but no drawers or shelves for underwear and socks. There is no TV, no bathmat, no washcloths, no facial tissues, no water glass, not even a paper cup.
EXPLORING THE ISLAND
The ship arrives at Bimini on time, and after clearing Bahamian Customs, we disembark about 10:30 p.m. for the short shuttle ride to Resorts World.
On the steps of the casino, we’re met by men who want to rent us golf carts, and a few people rent the carts. This late at night? I ask the man who opens the casino door for me. There’s nightlife farther south on the island, he tells me.
The table games here can start as low at $15, but most have a minimum of $25. There’s a high-roller room, a sports book and more than 100 slot machines. A lot of people from the boat come — some are curious, some want to use the free drink coupon we got when we boarded, some gamble at the slots, but few head for the table games.
I had planned to sign up for a kayak excursion on the second day, but through a variety of misinformation and missteps — mine and the crew’s — it doesn’t happen. Lesson learned: Book the excursion in advance. Since then, Resorts World has expanded the variety of shore excursions to include a glass-bottom boat tour, South Bimini nature tour, Bimini Heritage Trail, seaplane tour, Jet Ski tour, wild dolphin expedition, shark encounter and snorkeling. Equipment such as kayaks, water bikes and paddle boats are also available for rent.
I spend the day exploring the island, starting with a shuttle tour of the resort, its beach, two marinas and nearby Fisherman’s Village with a few shops and restaurants.
Then I catch a shuttle ride to Alice Town, Bimini’s biggest town. We go south along Kings Highway, the main street on an island that is only seven miles long and 700 feet wide. We pass Bailey Town, where most of the locals live; battered-looking homes; a shack selling fresh conch salad; and enormous mounds of discarded conch shells in the shallow water.
Ernest Hemingway came here to fish and write in the late 1930s — Bimini is said to have inspired The Old Man and the Sea and the first story in Islands in the Stream. Three-quarters of a century later, there is still evidence of his presence, although much of it was lost in the 2006 fire that destroyed the Compleat Angler Hotel, where he stayed. The hotel has not been rebuilt, and parts of the stone foundation remain, where a plaque commemorates its history.
The shuttle drops us off in front of the Bimini Craft Centre, which sells straw bags, hats and other souvenirs like straw markets elsewhere in the Bahamas. A bust of Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech while staying on the island, stands at the center of the market.
The Bimini Museum opened in 2000 in a long-abandoned building that had been built in the 1920s and used to house government offices, including the Commissioner of Bimini.
Across the street, the Bimini Museum is up a flight of creaky stairs. An old cannon that appears to consist mostly of rust stands outside. No one is inside, only an honor-system box that asks for a $2 donation. The museum is one room with a maze of walls for displays on pirates, fishing, Hemingway, King and other notables who visited.
Down the street at Big John’s, a restaurant with outdoor seating overlooking a marina, a 60-ish woman at the next table invites me to sit with her. As I eat conch salad and she eats a whole fried snapper with black beans and rice, she tells me that she is a gambler who wagers enough that most of her travel is comped by the casinos. The woman says she’s just been on a cruise that Royal Caribbean comped, and that she’s headed next to Las Vegas, where again, a casino will fly her out and cover her room.
On this trip, Genting flew her over on the seaplane and comped her room in the new Hilton, when only a small number of room were completed. She played baccarat and lost. Played craps and lost. Played blackjack and lost the last of her cash, so she went to an ATM and got more money. She returned to baccarat and lost more.
Then she started winning. In 30 minutes, she says, she won back everything she’d lost. When she was $100 ahead, she stopped. “I don’t like to gamble all the time,” she says, so she took the shuttle into Alice Town for sightseeing.
Later, we ride the same shuttle back to the casino, and she introduces me to two of her friends. They also flew over on the seaplane, which is only for high-rollers and VIPs — you can’t buy a seat. They are rated players, meaning the casinos track how much they wager and comp their rooms. Mostly they cruise, paying only the taxes on the fares.
But before that, I walk to the southern tip of the island — past the End of The World Bar, where Hemingway used to hang out; past the colorful riot of bougainvillea climbing fences; past a boat on a trailer, the words “water taxi” painted on it, that’s been on land so long that flowers grow around it; and a small cemetery that slopes up a ridge on the west side of the road.
At the end of the road I walk through the pines and seagrape and coconut palms and stand on the shore by an eroded breakwater, watching boats small and large motor by on water so crystal blue it almost hurts my eyes.
That night, I’m back at the resort, but outside this time. The darkness is punctuated by the lights of sleek white yachts docked at the marina. Several dozen guests have gathered around the fire pit out front where a bar has been set up, music is blaring and the spicy fragrance of burning wood wafts through the air.
Most of the guests are young adults, some of them parents who are roasting marshmallows for their kids. A few hammocks have been strung up between trees. There is a sense of camaraderie around the campfire.
An open tram rolls in and its passengers step off and walk into the casino, while another group boards, en route back to the ship that brought them here.
In the morning, the SuperFast takes us back to PortMiami, and I stand at the railing, looking for streaks of sapphire in the emerald sea and watching the tiny bumps on the western horizon grow into the Miami skyline.
Going to Bimini
Information: 800-224-2627; www.bahamas.com/islands/bimini.
▪ The Bimini SuperFast departs from PortMiami on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and docks for two nights by Resorts World Bimini. Fares start at $175 per person double occupancy and include port fees, stateroom and buffet meals but not gratuities. If you book a Resorts World stay, the cruise fare is included in the room rate but does not cover meals. Discounts are offered frequently through the Resorts World site and deal-a-day sites like Groupon and Dealsaver. www.rwbimini.com, 888-930-8688.
▪ Sky Bahamas (www.skybahamas.net) and Silver Airways (www.silverairways.com) fly nonstop to Bimini from Fort Lauderdale several times a week. Sky Bahamas and Western Air (www.westernairbahamas.com) fly to Bimini from Nassau, Bahamas.
▪ For people traveling by private boat, Bimini has a number of marinas, including those at Resorts World. http://marinas.com/browse/marina/BS/BI/.
▪ Resorts World Bimini operates a seaplane and private jets for high-rollers and VIPs, but seats are not available to purchase. Private planes can land at the South Bimini Airport (BIM).
WHERE TO STAY
Hilton at Resorts World Bimini: About 240 of the 305 guestrooms at the Hilton are completed; the rest are due to be completed by spring. Other amenities, including restaurants, lounges, rooftop pool and spa are under construction and expected to be finished in the spring. Resorts World also includes the former Bimini Bay resort, which has about 150 privately owned villas and condos, some of which are available for rent. Rooms at the Hilton start at $139 for people who get there on their own; at $250 including the cruise fare; does not include resort fee. www.rwbimini.com, 888-930-8688 or 242-347-8000.
Bimini Big Game Club: Alice Town, 800-867-4764, http://biggameclubbimini.com. The fishing resort was founded as a dinner club in 1936. It had been closed for two years and renovated when it reopened in 2010 as a Guy Harvey Outpost but is no longer affiliated with Harvey. Marina, guided bone-fishing excursions, dive center. Rooms from $180.
Bimini Sands Resort & Marina: South Bimini, 800-737-1007, www.thebiminisands.com. One- and two-bedroom condos, deepwater marina, restaurants, beach, dive center. Rooms from $250.
Information: 800-224-2627; www.bahamas.com/islands/bimini.