"Hold my hand, I'm a stranger in Paradise ."
From "Stranger in Paradise" by Robert Wright and George Forrest -- (c) 1953, Frank Music Corp. Used by permission.
"There is no such thing as a stranger in Paradise ."
From Britannia Beach Hotel folder
Life is a game, a philosopher once said. The world is full of people looking for the jackpot, trying desperately to beat the odds and wondering who makes the rules. Even if somebody promises you a rose garden, you can bet on getting some weeds.
So I don't gamble. Give me a sure thing every time. When I want a fair shake I usually but a box of Cracker Jacks -- I know I'll always find my prize inside.
Then why visit the Paradise Island Casino, which has been operated for more than a decade by Resorts International? And why go hunting bunnies who rake in chips at the new Playboy Casino, which opened last April at the Ambassador Beach Hotel on Cable Beach, Nassau?
Because the legalized casino gambling bug, which long ago bit Las Vegas, more recently invaded New Jersey and infected Atlantic City. The virus tried late last year to attack Miami Beach but was neutralized -- at least for the present -- by an all-out counterattack at the polls by concerned citizens. Now the bug threatens to spread to New York State and elsewhere.
Spain has succumbed to the fever, which manifests itself in the whirl of roulette wheels, the rattle of dice, the shuffle of cards, the jangle of slots and the clink of chips (capped occasionally by the screams of jackpot winners).
It's all in the name of fattening the coffers of country, state, city and, of course, those private operators of casinos. Not to mention filling the cash registers of happy hoteliers and restaurateurs and providing work for those peripheral supply businesses which, justly or unjustly, always seem to invite nagging questions asking exactly who really controls what, and where some of the money is coming from.
And gambling is a new shining beacon for those seeking a way to entice more visitors and their so-called discretionary dollars in the highly competitive world of tourism. Those who moralize and express fears are considered "alarmists" and "antiprogress."
So I decided to risk acute indigestion in gourmet restaurants and to trudge uncomplainingly through soft sand on curving Paradise Beach in 80-deree weather, while foregoing the invigorating winter cold in Washington. Theassignment was to investigate conditions in Paradise. The odds -- as always --were with the house, but there was no thought of flinching from duty.
And though awash with Christmas-New Year's seasonal sentiments, and wearing a vacant toruist smile reserved for foreign countries, I did not have visions of sugar plums dancing through my head that first night on the island. Instead, there were uneasy dreams of ambidextrous croupiers with nervous, darting eyes; of dark-suited men with slick black hair who looked like George Raft in one of his most disreputable gangster roles and sported suspicious bulges in their jackets; and of voracious rabbits that kept destroying my Playboy magazine centerfolds.
Unfortunately, James Bond had not been seen at the Cafe Martinique for years (not since his movie, "Thunderbal") so I would not be able to count on 007 for help when the chips were down.
It's relatively painless to get to Nassau from the Washington area.I flew National to Miami, then took a big Eastern 1011 (continuing its flight from New York) which made the short hop to the Bahamas in about 15 minutes. Round-trip excursion fare, incidentally, is $184.50, compared to the regular $212 D.C.-Miami round-trip tab.
Passage through Bahamian Customs and Immigration was swift and painless. My suitcase was not opened. (U.S. Customs and Immigration provide preclearance at the Nassau Airport for returning passengers). The metered cabfare for the 25-minute ride from airport to Apradise island runs around $11 for one or two, with suggested 15-percent tip, depending on route and traffic. there are no limos.
A few kudos are in order for the oftcriticized (in some tourist spots, deservedly so) cabbie. The traveler, especially a first-time visitor, can get his or her first impression of an area from the taxi drivers. This is especially true of foreign cities where English is spoken. On an island like this where the government and resident majority is black and the tourist majority is white, much more than cabfare is exchanged. All cabbies I rode with were pleasant and helpful, and when some of them shut off their meters and charged a flat rate it seemed fair.
My last visit to Paradise Island occurred seven years ago, while the tragic billionaire Howard Hughes was still alive and apparently hiding in his penthouse atop theBritannia Beach Hotel. At that time, Bahamian Prime Minister Lynden Pindling, himself black, had already succeeded in explaining to his people the vital importance of tourism as the government's main source of revenue. The campaign for courtesy was paying dividends even then and erasing an image that had cost the Bahamas cash.
During this stay of a couple of days, I have again seen absolutely no signs of resentment against visitors on the streets and in the shops of downtown Nassau, or on Paradise. While many of the islanders still appear uncomfortable in the necessary menial serving roles at the lower end of the tourism scale, and still display shyness and reserve which may disconcert some Americans, I find the smiles a little easier to elicit.And service in major hotels is quite good.
The Bahamas obviously must be doing somthing right. Minisstry of Tourism figures show that visitor arrivals by air for all the islands were up 22.7 percent through last October over the same period in 1977. Sea arrivals were up 33.8 percent. Grand Bhahama Island chalked up a 37.5 percent in crease in total arrivals for the same period.
However, despite the delightfully warm weather that greeted me this trip, it's important to remember that the Bahama Islands (New Providence, where Nassau and Paradise Island are located, is one of more than 700 islands in the chain) sit in the Atlantic Ocean -- not the Caribbean. And the Atlantic, despite the warming effect of the Gulf Stream, can be chilly in winter even at this southern latitude (New Providence is a few hundred miles almost due east of Miami).
As we drove over the 300-yard bridge that spans Nassau Harbor to connect the downtown docks and major shopping area with Paradise, I handed the cabbie $2 to pay the bridge toll. "That's a round-trip ticket," he said with a familiar island lilt in his voice, and handed me a receipt stamped "Paradise Island Bridge Company." He smiled. "That's so you can get back over even if you lose all your money."
The ticket reminded me that this bridge is one of those little devilish quirks of Paradise. It waserected by the Mary Carter Paint Co., corporate predecessor of Resorts Intrnational. The structure has been exacting its toll ever since it was built in the mid-1960s. It crosses Bahamian waters but is owned by a private, foreign company, one of those mutually convenient arrangements between the Bahamian government and developers who helped turn Hog Island into Paradise Island. The bridge is still bringing home the bacon.
Expectations that the toll would be cut sharply after a few years soon died. Sources close to the present Commonwealth government say high officials believe "something" should be done about the bridge "some day," but meanwhile it continues to collect the toll from tourists who are, in effect, paying for the privilege of spending their money on the island. Not a penny of the $2 goes to the government, according to one official.
The bridge company is now a part of Resorts International, long a powerful presence on Paradise. Resorts, which has been operating the only authorized gambling casino in New Jersey since last May 26, saw its temporary license in Atlantic City placed in jeopardy Dec. 4. On that date the state attorney genral's office, pointing to a series of 17 charges leaveled by the Division of Gaming Enforcement, said the firm should notbe granted a permanent license. Most of the charges allege that some Resorts employes have had dealings with certain "unsuitable" persons, including several with links to organized crime. One charge involves alleged payments to Bahamian public officials from an unrecorded cash fund for "goodwill" treatment.
Resorts International denied the charges and said it would disporve them at license hearings that were scheduled to start Jan. 8. Resorts' temporary casino license permit for Atlantic City expires Feb. 26. The Atlantic City government promised to help defend the firm. As one city official explained: "We have a tremendous stake Resorts... and I don't wat anybody messing with it."
It's certainly not a penny-ante business, though ubiquitous slot machines (Also referred to with justification as "one-armed bandits") usually accept quarters. The Atlantic City casino run by Resorts has averaged well over a half-million dollars a day in gross receipts since its May 26 opening. According to reports filed with New Jersey, in the first five months the casino had taken in $101.36 million. Operating expenses, including taxes, must be deducted from that figure.
On Paradise Island, Resorts owns and operates the 248-room Britannia Beach Hotel (which was my second destination here) and its associated classy restaurants including Cafe Martinique; the 503-room Paradise Island Hotel & Villas, operated by the Loews chain; the low-key, 100-room Beach Inn, and the seadate, 70-room Ocean Club and Tennis Resort. Resorts International does not own the Flagler Inn, 250 rooms; the new, swinging Club Med facilities, 300, or the Holiday Inn, 535, which was my firststop on the island.
As readers of these periodic reports may recall, I often pick one of Holiday Inns' island resorts -- at least for a portion of my stay -- because of the ease in obtaining last-minute reservations (when available, of course) without having to send a deposit, the ease of getting instant computer-confirmed reservations by phone with merely a one-night deposit by credit card, and the ease of canceling a reservation by phone within time limits with full refund. I don't like playing games like "we'll send you a confirmation in the mail," or worrying about a refund.
Usually these are first-class resorts though, as is the case with most any resort and especially with island hotels -- where distinct operating and other problems may exist, a change in management or other developments can immediately affect the quality of the vacation experience.
I was not particularly impressed with this Holiday Inn. My room was not clean and the food was mediocre. Yet a one-night stand may not give a fair, balanced picture. The grounds, however, are beautiful and spacious, and the hotel sits on Pirates Cove facing a small, private crescent beach. Another, long strand of sand and palms stretches to the left, near the close-by Beach Inn, and a short stroll in the other direction brings you to the better Paradise Beach, which the Paradise and Britannia Hotels face. The soft sand is great for sculpturing but not conducive to easy walks along the shore.
From about Dec. 15 until the end of April, single rates at most of the top Paradise pads run around $70 a day, plus tax. Doubles are either the same rate or a few dollars more. That's EP (European Plan, without meals). The Bahamian dollar is at par with the U.S. dollar. Prices are reduced in summer.
The four properties just mentioned are within 5 or 10 minutes walking distance of one another. Most hotels offer tennis, besides the pools, shops and other usual amenities most traveling Americans have come to expect and still seem able to pay for this winter (though I saw many spenders of more healthy currency, such as the Germans and French). Arrangements can be made at the hotels for gamefishing or snorkeling and scuba diving in the clean, cler Bahamian waters. Rental bikes are available, and there's a golf course.
You can also walk to the pier, from which small boats ferry passengers throughout the day, for 75 cents each, across the harbor to a dock near famed Rawson Square. There you can browse for native straw goods, watch the cruise ships come in, and shop for bargains in imported china, crystal, watches, perfume and liquor on and around busy Bay Street. As always, it's wise to price items that especially interest you before leaving home, since world inflation and the dollar's decline have conspired to reduce the percentage of savings.
Even the shortest cab trip on Paradise costs around $2, and that's why those on sensible budgets catch the little shuttle buses that run fairly regularly between the main hotels and the dock. Fare is only 25 cents.
Travelers who are finicky about their meals on foreign shores need have no qualms about the food, milk or water at Paradise. Most supplies have to be shipped in, naturally, which adds considerably to the cost of living -- and your restaurant bill. If you like a solid breakfast (juice, fruit, cereal, eggs, toast, milk or coffee), you can figure on about $5. Lunch can be what you make it ( $3, $4, $5), and dinner easily $10- $20 per person without drinks. Incidentally, most of the hotels automatically add a 15-percent service charge to each restaurant meal, and a small daily "miscellaneous" charge on your room bill to cover the maid's tip, which seems fair and saves the bother. But don't forget to ask if the charge is added so you don't wind up tipping twice.
Remember, this is in addition to the tax you will pay on your EP room rate (the government now takes 3 percent, and the hotel promotion board was deciding last week how much tax it would tack on); a $2 tax on each airline and cruise ticket bought in the Bahamas, and a just-increased "departure tax" (a maddening world-wide phenomenon, not a Bahamas invention) of $4 for adults and $2 for children 3-12 that must be paid before leaving the country.
Do not waste the tap water, it's scarce. The Holiday Inn has a single cold water fountain, in the lobby, and the usual poolside shower spray to wash off the sand. The Britannia, on the other hand, has no water fountains anywhere and there's no good way to clean up by the pool or when coming indoors from the beach -- unless you hunt in the grass for a garden hose connection I saw.
Because I wanted cold water instead of the tepid liquid from the Britannia's bathroom tap, I ordered bottled water from room service to put in the small refrigerator in my room. The service was incredibly prompt, but the bill dried up my thirst. The plastic jug (from a Florida spring) that sells for around 80 cents in a U.S. supermarket cost me more than $5. That's island living with a markup.
But I wasn't in a complaining mood. It was my second day in Paradise, I had moved to the Britannia to get close to the "action," and I had decided daringly to hit the casino before lunch. With typical abandon, my gambling limit would be $10.
Britannia Beach has ample, attractive grounds, a logoon with paddleboats, and outdoor tennis courts. Occupancy rate last year hovered around 90 percent. As a guest it's easy to develop a certain devil-may-care attitude that's conducive to gambling on Paradise. There's no TV in the good-size rooms and no lavish spot in the hotel for dancing (the Loews hotel has a lounge) to compete for your attention.
Highrollers can lose their money at the Paradise Island Casino no matter whether they're staying on the island or in Nassau. But by booking your room at either the Paradise Island or Britannia Beach properties, you get an extra bonus -- or debit. The casino is located between the lobbies of those hotels, and is quickly reached via connecting, enclosed walkways. There is also an outdoor entrance.
Stepping from the Britannia elevator into the lobby, I hurried down the stylish Birdcage Walk, which leads past shops and the hotel's three top dinner restaurants -- the Coyaba, with its South Seas mood and shrimp tempura and pressed duck; the Villa d'Este with fettucine Alfredo and veal Milanese, and the British-flavored Bahamian Club with prime ribs and fresh fish. Also along the Walk is the Brauhaus, the closest thing to a coffee shop, open 24 hours. (The Cafe Martinique, with French cuisine, is just across the road.)
A few more steps, just past Le Cabaret Theater with its bare-breasted showgirls, and I was finally inside the elegantly appointed, "acre and a halflong" casino with its massive crystal chandelier, subdued lighting, soft carpeting, black-suited look-alike croupiers, rows of brightly colored, illuminated slot machines, and the professional tables and associated equipment for playing blackjack, craps, baccarat, wheel of fortune and roulette. First class all the way.
The atmosphere is formal but not intimidating. Bahamians are forbidden by law from gambling. You are supposed to be over 21 to play. Indeed, casino gambling is illegal in this island nation, so a special government exemption must be obtained. Only three licenses have been issued: two to Resorts International to operate the Paradise Island Casino and the El Casino at Freeport on Grand Bahama Island, and one to Playboy Clubs International to operate the Playboy Casino in the Ambassador Hotel on Cable Beach in Nassau.
In the daytime, casino activity seems almost sluggish, but as the sun sets both the pace and tension increase. The voices at the gaming tables are still muted, yet the hum rises as the always deadly serious croupiers deal cards, spin wheels, rake in chips and -- infrequently -- pay off, as tens of thousands of dollars change hands quietly under the steely, unsmiling eyes of Resorts personnel, including plainclothes security men.
I watched distinguished-looking men and their well-dressed companions play roulette. Minimum chip purchase to enter the game was $10.50. Suddenly the ball jumped out of its groove and fell to the rug. As I reached down automatically to pick it up, a sharp-eyed uncle-type standing mear me by the table said softly: "Don't bother, I need the exercise." He bent to retrive the ball himself. Of course , I realized belatedly. They don't want anyone trying to pull a switch by substituting a doctored ball while pocketing the casino's ball .
I roamed the casino on several occasions that day and night, watching the characters at the tables, losing a few hands of blackjack, and listening to the occasional sudden ringing of jackpot bells on the slots. One woman cried out, "I won! I won!... I can't believe it!" I experienced a small avalanche of quarters myself, watched them pour from the insatiable coin eater, and then carried them excitedly to the cashier in the prescribed paper cup for automatic counting and a payoff in paper bills.
Something for "nothing." It's a heady feeling. But, as usual, the casino soon got back most of my winnings before I could stop playing.
In Atlantic City last summer, figures released by Resorts International showed that gamblers were losing at an average rate of $18 an hour. I don't know the losing rate for gamblers here, or the casino's "win" or gross income figure. But a spokesman for the Bahama government gave me this information concerning its casino licensing arrangements in response to questions:
The government's Hotel Corporation of the Bahamas has purchased all the gaming equipment previously owned by Resorts at Paradise Island and has leased the casino building. It has also purchased the gaming equipment and leased the flashy El Casino building in Freeport on Grand Bahama Island.
Effective Jan. 1, 1978, the government and Resorts International signed a 10-year contract that permits Resorts to continue operating the Paradise Island Casino and provides for payments to the government of $4 million a year, plus 15 percent of the gross win at Paradise over $20 million.The payment schedule at Freeport is somewhat less. In addition, Resorts has agreed to build a new, 250-room deluxe hotel in the Lucaya section of Freeport during the next five years. El Casino was previously operated by Bahama Amusements Ltd., but Resorts "made a more acceptable offer" and thus took over operations there.
(Resorts now owns or controls 27 percent of Atlantic City's Boardwalk area property, according to its president, James M. Crosby, and would have expanded gaming operations in Florida if voters had approved legalizing casinos. Resorts has also indicated its intention to operate in New York if gambling is voted in there.
(Disappointed Miami Beach hoteliers saw gambling as a chance to revive the area's sagging tourism and bring a quick infusion of big money to renovate some of their properties. Casinos in Miami might have captured at least some of the gambling-inspired travel that now goes to the Bahamas and to other Caribbean islands where casinos also operate.)
Also effective on Jan. 1, 1978, the Bahamas signed a contract with Playboy that will run for 10 years and authorizes casino operations. It provides for payments by Playboy of $1 million in '78, $1.5 million this year and $1.5 million each succeeding year until a new casino has been built in a convention complex the government plans in Nassau near the present Playboy Casino. Playboy will then operate the convention center casino (the old casino would close) and thereafter will pay the government $4 million a year. In addition, Playboy has agreed to pay the Bahamas 15 percent of the gross casino win over $20 million.
That night I saw Playboy's chief Hugh Hefner or his double in the Bahamian Club (his office could not confirm his presence, though he has been making trips to Paradise). The next day I figured it was time to wind up my visit here with a look at Hefner's casino.
A few minutes on the ferry to Nassau and a short taxi ride along the northern coast of New Providence brought me to the Ambassador Beach Hotel, which the government was still renovating. Cable Beach does not equal Paradise Beach, but this coastal area is attractive and becomes lovelier as you continue driving westward and enter the section of expensive private beachfront homes.
Playboy (Bahamas) Ltd.'s casino had recently moved for the third time to an 8,000-square-foot location just off the lobby. The Nassau Playboy Club is a subsidiary of Playboy London, itself a subsidiary of Playboy Clubs International owned by Hefner's Playboy Enterprises of Chicago.
Though gentlemen are requested to wear jackets in the evening, it was immediately clear that this cozier casino's atmosphere is more relaxed and informal than on Paradise. After all, bunnies in abbreviated costumes with stubby tails were acting as cocktail waitresses and croupiers. There were also male croupiers for any fools still wedded to tradition. The games were the same -- though Playboy maintains that its dollar slot machines are adjusted for a 95-percent payoff factor. I quickly won a few bucks from the machines and then lost them all just as quickly. The strains of "Ave Maria" that wafted into the casino from the lobby competed with the jangle of the slots.
Dan Stone, senior vice president for Playboy Clubs International, told me later in a telephone interview that this was their "first venture outside Great Britain" and "we think American gamblers will be comfortable in it... to some extent we see it as a training ground and a testing ground for Atlantic City sometime in 1980."
Playboy and a subsidiary of Hyatt Corp. have plans to build and operate a 500-room hotel-casino in Atlantic City.
Stone said, "We feel that gambling is an idea whose time has come in the United States and we think it can be properly regulated. If they can demonstrate that in New Jersey, it will be in as many as 10 states by the end of the decade."
Michael D. Rose, corporate executive vice president of Holiday Inns, Inc., recently commented that "Casino gaming is recognized by the vast majority of Americans as a legitimate form of entertainment and leisure time activity, with the typical player looking a whole lot like the Holiday In guest." Holiday Inns has already announced "its intention to build a casino in Atlantic City as its first entry into the industry," Rose said.
And the grand old man of Mexican tourism, former president Miguel Aleman, president of the Mexican National Tourist Council, revealed only a few months ago that for the future "Mexico needs to give serious consideration to proposals for permitting casino gambling." He explained that "it is not so much a question of attracting tourists as of losing them if we don't open casino gambling."
Opponents to casinos in Miami Beach had cited the danger of damaging Florida's broad appeal to families and the possibility of infiltration by organized crime. But in Nassau or Paradise Island, the sun is warm, one man's sin is another man's sport, and the advertising slogan is upbeat:
"It's better in the Bahamas."