GRAND BAHAMA, THE BAHAMAS – Looking for a low-key winter getaway or quiet spring break destination? Grand Bahama may be your place. It’s one of the main islands of the Gulf Stream-warmed Bahamas archipelago of 700 islands, cays and inlets sprawling across the waters off southeastern Florida. Our February trip saw temperatures locked between 21 and 26 degrees Celsius, with an occasional spurt of rain at night.
At restaurants, it wasn’t unusual for the three of us — my wife, brother-in-law and me — to be the only ones there, although some places buzzed with activity. With a decent exchange rate to the Bahamian dollar, the prices all seemed reasonable, and the practice of factoring tips into the bill made transactions even simpler.
Beaches in many areas were quiet, with an occasional trickling of cruise ship passengers now and again making their way across the glistening sand, wading out to reefs and checking out ships dotting the horizon. This was the case at Gold Rock Beach at Lucayan National Park, which at $5 per head is a don’t-miss stop just a few miles east of Freeport along the Grand Bahama Highway.
Tour companies and taxis make trips to the park, which features trails to an underwater cave system where pre-Columbian artifacts have been discovered. Another part of the park (be careful crossing the highway) offers trails whose meandering boardwalks lead through a mangrove ecosystem featuring saltwater fish, waterfowl and wading birds.
Tour companies also offer activities including kayak trips through a mangrove forest, sightseeing by bike or Jeep, all-terrain vehicle rides, snorkeling and birding. For the more adventurous, there’s parasailing and even (gasp!) shark feeding dives.
We spent a week in a rented house in Freeport’s Xanadu Beach area, noted for the 13-story resort once owned and inhabited by Howard Hughes and haunted by Hollywood jet setters. Now the high-rise stands eerily silent, its once-vibrant surroundings looking desolate as we looked on from the quiet white-sand beach. Same at Freeport’s International Bazaar, a marketplace of shops and boutiques — now mostly abandoned, shuttered, silent. Under the shade of a palm tree near its main gate, a checkers board, pieces still set on squares, lay untouched as if waiting for the next move.
But we found our bliss at Albertha Cooper’s restaurant. It’s a bit out of the way, but worth the expedition.At the far eastern end of the island in McLean’s Town, a seaside village known for its annual conch-cracking contest, we happened upon Cooper’s tidy little drive-up restaurant. There was no menu to be seen, but she gladly obliged us with her specials for the day. I chose the fried conch plate. Asked where the conch was caught, she pointed to the turquoise cove a few hundred meters to our backs.
“Right there,” she said with a smile.
The conch came with a helping of rice-and-beans and coleslaw. My wife chose three lobster tails with sides, and her brother chose the ribs plate. Add a couple of beers and a rum and Coke for drinks, $52 total for our feast for three.
On another outing, we drove to the west side for a day of snorkeling and relaxing at Paradise Cove, a friendly and informal resort near Dead Man’s Reef, about 25 kilometers from Freeport.
Getting around the island was easy, though driving itself is a bit of a challenge: You drive on the left side of the road, but many cars also have steering wheels on the left — different from both the U.S. and British systems.
Of course Grand Bahama is but one of the islands in the Bahamian chain. Nearby Paradise Island and Nassau (the Bahamian capital on New Providence island), offer more night life. Atlantis, with its more than 2,300 rooms, casino, water park and what it calls the world’s largest open-air marine habitat, is also a major draw for visitors. Eleuthera and Harbor Island offer quieter settings in an atmosphere that retains trappings of the British loyalists who settled there centuries ago. Eleuthera, where fishing and pineapple farming are king, boasts well-developed resorts, pink sand beaches, rocky bluffs and large coral reefs.
Numerous flight options to Freeport, including frequent service from South Florida airports, plus ferry service from Fort Lauderdale for the four-hour trip to Grand Bahama. Planes and boats connect Freeport and Nassau. www.bahamas.com