Islands 2005

On Grand Bahama, It's Just Natural

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2005

Waves gently lap the foundation of the Ferry House restaurant. Between courses, attentive waiters bring palate-cleansing tea sorbet served in fluted glasses.

About 20 minutes down the road, at any one of 26 shacks built on wooden decks overlooking the ocean, you can order up a dinner that comes to your picnic table on paper plates that are about to collapse under the weight of fried fish and raw conch and peas 'n' rice and potato salad. Between 9 p.m. and the wee hours, you can catch music and dancing at competing shacks filled with locals and a few tourists.

The contrast between those two dining options typifies for me the grandest part of Grand Bahama Island: The tourist infrastructure has been nicely developed without overwhelming the island or sucking the life out of the local culture. Major corporations own some of the big hotels, but native entrepreneurs still have a piece of the action. Together, they've left a lot of empty space for nature and created distinctly different atmospheres.

You can, for instance, reserve a spot with one of the biggest and best dive companies in the region, or go by the dock and ask around to see if Bonefish Folley or one of his sons is available to take you fishing for the day.

You can have drinks delivered to your deck chair along a complex of pools and hot tubs overlooking the ocean, or find a secluded beach where a towel and whatever you carry in will have to suffice.

My friend Kathy and I came to Grand Bahama earlier this month to enjoy nature. The 96-mile-long island is bigger, but much less populated and less developed, than its more popular neighbor, New Providence (home to Nassau). A favorite with families, it's known for having some of the best fishing, golfing, snorkeling and diving in the Caribbean. I was attracted by the fact it has three national parks and was only slightly put off by how tiny they are. Once I read that Grand Bahama has the best horseback riding in the long string of Bahamian islands, I was sold.

True, the island has casinos, too, but I never made it inside them -- and given the lack of neon and blinking lights advertising headliners, it's easy to forget they are even here. I suppose you could have a wild time on Grand Bahama Island if you went looking for it. But the most obvious thing to do is to soak in the quiet, friendly, low-key atmosphere, and relax.

Grand Bahama Island, and Lucayan National Park in particular, are not as lush and flowery as I'd expected; the island is still recovering from the hurricanes of last August and September. But naturalist and guide Sam Rampersad could make a simple blade of grass seem fascinating.

For most of a day, Sam led me and seven others on a hiking and kayaking tour of the park, regaling us with his knowledge of nature and Bahamian history. The park, about a 20-minute drive from the tourist enclave of Lucaya Beach, is only 42 acres, but it encompasses six ecological zones. Without Sam, I might have noticed three.

We begin by putting in our kayaks at Gold Rock Creek near an empty swath of pristine beach on which a German film company plans to build a movie studio soon.

The creek leads into a narrow mangrove forest that is part of our first eco-zone -- a swash. A swash, unlike a swamp, has tidal movement, which is the reason it doesn't smell bad. The crystal-clear water is a nursery for barracuda, grouper, turtles and spiny tail lobsters.

An hour later, we beach our one-man boats a short walk from Gold Rock Beach, an empty white strand of sand that gets its name from an offshore rock that glows in the sunset. In my opinion, Gold Rock is the best beach on the island, if you aren't counting Paradise Cove, which features both powdery white sand and a coral reef within shallow walking distance.

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