Do You Flahama?
Florida and the Bahamas share such a strong connection that the term “Flahama” was coined. For decades, our locals have embarked on trips to the islands. So, grab a Goombay Smash and come away with us, as we explore the sights and learn what new attractions are bringing Floridians to the islands.
“Did you swim here?”
Grand Bahama is so close to Florida that islanders are quick to joke – and it’s the first indication that you’re soon to make a friend. Over a Sands beer, fresh conch salad and a toothy smile, visitors learn the simple, laid-back joys of life on the island.
Just a 2.5-hour ferry ride from Fort Lauderdale, this small island offers rich culture, fine dining and upscale accommodations that combine to create a premier getaway destination. With new attractions opening seemingly every week, Grand Bahama’s Freeport and surrounding settlements have become up-and-coming spots for everyone from the serious angler to those interested in little more than reading a book on the silky, white-sand beach.
I visited for the first time recently, a decade after Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne devastated much of the island. But devastation was far from what I saw. Like so many traveling to Grand Bahama, one of the northernmost in the chain of islands nearby in the Atlantic Ocean, I discovered a community filled with residents eager to share their traditions and history over a cold drink.
“The people-to-people factor is key when you come to Grand Bahama,” Anthony “Zips” Hanna, the owner of Tony Macaroni’s Conch Experience on the picturesque Taino Beach, says. His small shack restaurant, which he’s owned for 21 years, seems far away from Fort Pierce, where he grew up.
“The fish, the beauty, the ambience – it’s easy to appreciate. Hang out with the natives; it’s the most unique thing you can do,” he adds.
“Zip over on the weekend”
With my passport in hand, I boarded the Balearia Bahamas Express, a fast ferry that departs from Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades and arrives in Freeport a couple hours later.
After a nap in the first-class cabin (definitely upgrade to avoid the long check-in lines), I steadied my sea legs to explore the ship. Passing the duty-free shop, snack area and bar, I held on to my hat to step outside to the deck. Rainbows emerged in the sea spray as I did my best to gracefully return to my seat.
There are other ways to get to Grand Bahama, too. The Celebration is an overnight cruise from Palm Beach, and more and more flights are arriving into Freeport to accommodate visitors and the 40,000 residents.
John Bartlett, the owner of Barricade Fire Gel in Hobe Sound, did what the majority of visitors do: travel there by private boat.
Bartlett, who was spending a guys-only weekend of fishing with his friends and son, says getting to Grand Bahama was an easy ride on his friend’s 36-foot boat.
“It’s so close. We can zip over on the weekend from West Palm, clear customs and you’re out fishing,” he says. “I like the laid-back vibe here.”
The Bahamas is made up of hundreds of small islands, but some have more attractions and are easier to get to. Nassau, the capital located on the island of New Providence, is the most urban, with shops and gambling. Bimini, the westernmost islands, also features casinos and big resorts, like the new Resorts World, that attract cruise ships. Andros is the largest island in the Bahamas, known for a more agricultural feel and a new college, while the Abacos is a chain of beautiful, remote islands that offer great fishing.
Grand Bahama is an easy commute from Florida, and anglers love it because they only have to burn their fuel for a few miles offshore to be on the hunt for 100-pound yellowfin tuna, blue marlin or lobster.
Like me, Bartlett and many fishermen stay at the Blue Marlin Cove, a 30-room, five-star boutique resort owned by Stuart residents Joseph and Sandy Rieger. Located on the West End of Grand Bahama, Blue Marlin Cove offers high-end suites with two bedrooms and two-and-a-half bathrooms with plush linens, marble countertops, plasma televisions and Tommy Bahama furnishings.
“This is a family friendly, true island experience,” Joseph Rieger, a former international diamond buyer and investor, says. “It used to be that Grand Bahama was the Riviera of the Bahamas, and we’re working to bring that back.”
The resort, which he took over in 2012, is the cornerstone to building that new foundation.
A taste of the island
Blue Marlin Cove is designed with anglers in mind, as the 65-slip marina and newly dredged inlet entrance leads directly to a Jacuzzi, Olympic-sized pool and gourmet dining room, where a chef can prepare your catch. The suites, which are also available for purchase, include kitchens that can be stocked in advance by calling ahead to the concierge.
But there’s usually just one thing visitors are looking to eat when they arrive, and that’s fresh conch. Along the bay front of the West End, there are dozens of conch crawls, or wooden boxes set in the water for locals to stock with live conch to feed the community when the weather prevents them from fishing.
It’s normally served with traditional sides like baked macaroni and cheese, pigeon peas, and rice and coleslaw. Don’t forget to order a local beer or a Goombay Smash, a local concoction of rum, apricot brandy and a mix of juices.
“Visitors should focus on what the natives eat, and that’s conch: conch salad, cracked conch, which is deep-fried, and conch and rice,” Carl Rolle, the Blue Marlin Cove’s general manager, says. “That’s why Bahamians are so healthy; they eat seafood fresh from the sea into the pot.”
Rolle is also the resort’s fishing guide and son of the late Bonefish Folley, a local fishing legend who served as an ambassador of the Bahamas by taking the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Richard Nixon and Martin Luther King Jr. fishing for the easily frightened bonefish.
Head out on the water with Rolle to stalk the elusive fish and hear family stories. Actually, telling stories and jokes over meals is part of life in the Bahamas, whether at Blue Marlin Cove, Tony Macaroni’s or at the many new restaurants that have opened recently.
Sabor in Port Lucaya has an extensive cocktail list (we liked the banana daiquiri) and is great for a waterfront lunch. It’s in walking distance from UNEXSO, where you can schedule a swim with dolphins, and the marketplace, where you could pick up a locally made straw purse or souvenir.
Cappuccino’s, an Italian restaurant also in Lucaya, was amazingly delicious. Owner Toni Donato even offered a plush toy for the Riegers’ sweet 3-year-old daughter, Giovanna.
There’s much more to the Bahamas than food. For some of the best snorkeling accessible from shore, head to Paradise Beach to check out the mysteriously named Deadman’s Reef just yards from the beach. You can rent snorkel gear, glass-bottomed kayaks and more from the small resort there.
South Florida native Yvonne Smith, the mother of owner Barry Smith, moved to Grand Bahama when she married a native.
“I didn’t realize this island was so close,” she says as a gentle breeze floated through the open-air pavilion and a chef pounded conch in the nearby restaurant. “You’ll see a myriad of tropical fish: parrot fish, angel fish, spotted eagle rays and turtles.”
Recently, they started a program to sink 280 artificial “reef balls” to enhance the underwater ecosystem nearby.
Want to escape the busloads of cruise ship passengers that come for day excursions?
In the West End, head toward Sunset Village for a Thursday evening fish fry. It’s an authentic way to fill up after swimming in the nearby Boil Swimming Hole, a small, shallow tide pool with crystal-clear waters and a deep cave under a hanging rock.
Another option is to rent a car and head over to the East End, which is mostly undeveloped forest, filled with saw palmettos and scrub pines. There for $5, Lucayan National Park offers a short hike to natural caves and Gold Rock Beach, which David Cooper of the Bahamas National Trust calls “the most beautiful beach in Grand Bahama.”
All of this action was making us thirsty, so we drove over to the island’s eastern tip to Bishop’s Resort, which consisted of a simple row of rooms and a thatched-roof bar overlooking the dreamily quiet sea.
Ruban Roberts, who only really answers to “Bishop,” cracked jokes, served beers and went barefoot while a potcake, or Bahamian stray dog, lounged nearby.
“People come here to relax. Nobody bothers you,” he says. “If you come with a friend, you’re in. You’re family.”
New spots opening
Bishop’s has been there for 30 years, but other sections of Grand Bahama continue to struggle years after the hurricanes.
In Freeport, top hotels like the Xanadu and the Royal Oasis remain closed, limiting customers to what was once a bustling International Market, with Versace and other high-end brands sold there. Now only a few shops remain, making Port Lucaya the spot to shop.
But Rieger says progress is evident, with new restaurants and hotels opening. An airport on the West End will soon be able to bring even more visitors to the island.
In February, Canada-based Sunwing opened Memories Grand Bahama Resort & Spa, a modern, all-inclusive resort in Port Lucaya with five restaurants, four pools, numerous bars, a kid’s club and more next to the well-known Our Lucaya Beach Resort. The two resorts also share a casino. Everything is on property, making it less inviting to stray from the resort and experience the rest of the island.
“The color of the water and sand is close to the Caribbean,” Gabriel Varela, the general manager, says. “I’ve never seen such a beautiful place in my life, and the Bahamian people are so friendly.”
Indeed, it was wonderful to hear the tales of so many Bahamians, many of whom had such close connections to Florida. As I headed home on the ferry, I watched the sun slowly dip into the horizon and knew I would be returning to see my new friends again soon.
Guide to Grand Bahama Island
The city of Freeport, northwest on Grand Bahama Island, houses the main, international airport and is located 70 miles east of Palm Beach, making it an easy getaway for South Floridians.
Where to stay:
1. Blue Marlin Cove – Designed and built for fishermen, by fishermen, Blue Marlin Cove is one of the more reasonably priced hotels, has a marina and is just a mile from popular fishing spots.
2. Old Bahama Bay Resort & Yacht Harbour – Located on the western-most tip of Grand Bahama Island, Old Bahama Bay Resort & Yacht Harbour is an all-suite, beachfront resort that offers a full-service marina and Stuart Cove’s Dive Operation, among other activities; oldbahambay.com
3. Grand Lucayan Resort – Grand Lucayan Resort, known for its serene ambience, is a AAA Four Diamond hotel, including a golf course, oceanfront views and casino; grandlucayan.com
4. Pelican Bay at Lucaya hotel – Considered Grand Bahama Island’s most hospitable hotel, the Pelican Bay offers waterside rooms steps from the beach, a full-service spa, four tennis courts and a casino; pelicanbayhotel.com
What to do: The Lucayan National Park is a 40-acre park and one of the largest underwater cave systems in the world.
Originally a hideaway for pirates in the 1600s, the Deadman’s Reef is now a go-to spot for great snorkeling, diving and fishing.
Where to eat: For eclectic cuisine and true Bahamian atmosphere, Flying Fish is a highly rated restaurant, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner; flyingfishbahamas.com
Known for its youthful bar scene, Señor Frog’s Freeport is often considered the place to go for a blend of Mexican and American cuisine, whether for breakfast, lunch or dinner; facebook.com/senorfrogsfreeport
Guide to Bimini Island
The once-underpopulated area is now thriving, having grown into a reputable location for sport fishing and underwater adventures.
Where to stay:
1. The world’s first cruise destination resort, the new Resorts World Bimini is in North Bimini and includes luxury condominiums, loft-like treehouses, single-family homes and a full-service marina
2. Bimini Sands Resort & Marina has oneand two-bedroom condominiums on a beachfront location and offers professionally guided underwater excursions, among other amenities, including a protected deepwater marina; biminisands.com
3. Low-key decor and true island atmosphere, Bimini Big Game Club Resort & Marina offers dockside and pet-friendly cottages and harbors a 60-foot glassbottom dive boat; biggameclubbimini.com
What to do: Check out Tuna Alley, an underwater reef wall that reaches up to 100 feet in depth and exhibits a great array of marine life, from lobster to parrot fish.
Dolphin Expeditions takes guests to the Bahama Banks where they can swim and interact with wild dolphins.
Where to eat: A Taste of Heaven Bakery makes island pastries and is known for its guava and cream cheese glaze.
As the name implies, people go to Joe’s Conch Shack for the conch. The restaurant goes through about 300 mollusks a day.
Guide to the Abacos
Home to one of the top 10 beaches in the world and coined Bahamas’ boating capital, the Abacos islands stand out. The 120-mile-long chain is outlined with resorts along the Caribbean coast, championship golf courses on Treasure Cay, the Abacos’ most famous landmark in Hope Town – Elbow Reef Lighthouse, and charming colonial towns on Green Turtle and Elbow Cays.
Where to stay:
1. The Bahama Beach Club offers condominiums, a 150-slip marina and an array of amenities, including golf, tennis and fishing charters.
2. Baker’s Bay Golf & Ocean Club blurs the lines between the indoors and outdoors in this luxurious, resort-like environment; bakersbayclub.com
3. As the largest hotel in Marsh Harbour, Abaco Beach Resort & Boat Harbour Marina is surrounded by 40 acres of beach with verandahs or balconies on each suite and villa, including deep-sea charters and diving instructors; abacobeachresort.com
4. Located in the heart of the village Treasure Cay Beach, Marina & Golf Resort has a laid-back atmosphere and sits along a famous three-mile beach ranked one of the top in the world by National Geographic; treasurecay.com
5. Green Turtle Club Resort & Marina is located in one of the first islands settled in the Bahamas and offers a golf cart ride to the town of New Plymouth; greenturtleclub.com
What to do: Brendal’s Dive Center gives the complete deep-sea diving experience with world-famous scuba instructor Brendal; brendal.com
Castaway Cay in Sandy Point, currently owned by Disney, is a top attraction in the Abacos for swimming and biking and is only accessible by taking a Disney cruise ship.
Where to eat: Curly Tails is a well-known restaurant in Abaco that offers a blend of Mediterranean, Bahamian and Asian-fusion, and is open for breakfast through dinner; abacocurlytails.com
Head to the Jib Room, a barbecue and Caribbean-style steakhouse, where the bilge burner cocktail is a local favorite; jibroom.com
Bahamas Fishing Tournaments
An overview of the Bahamas’ always popular fishing tournaments.
1. Bimini Big Game Wahoo Smackdown: February; Bimini.
2. Bahamas Billfish Championship:
Guana Cay Championship: May,
Green Turtle Championship: May,
Treasure Cay championship: June,
Marsh Harbour Championship: June,
For more info, visit bahamasbillfish.com
3. Deep Water Cay Bonefish Classic: November; Grand Bahama Island; 305.664.2002