Big, bold, and brassy are the words that best describe Grand Bahama Island, where you'll find the resort area of Freeport/Lucaya. Though there's a ton of tourist development, it doesn't have the upscale chic of Paradise Island, but it does have fabulous white-sand beaches and a more reasonable price tag.
It may never return to its high-roller days with the gloss and glitz of the '60s, when everybody from Howard Hughes to Frank Sinatra and Rat Packers showed up, but recent renovations and massive development have brought a smile back to its face, which had grown wrinkled and tired over the latter part of the 20th century.
The second-most-popular tourist destination in The Bahamas (Nassau/Cable Beach/Paradise Island is first), Grand Bahama lies just 81km (50 miles) and less than 30 minutes by air off the Florida coast. That puts it just 122km (76 miles) east of Palm Beach, Florida. The island is the northernmost and fourth-largest landmass in The Bahamas (118km/73 miles long and 6.5-13km/4-8 miles wide).
Freeport/Lucaya was once just a dream--a low-lying pine forest that almost overnight in the 1950s turned into one of the world's major resorts. The resort was the dream of Wallace Groves, a Virginia-born financier who saw the prospect of developing the island into a miniature Miami Beach. Today, with the casino, the International Bazaar, high-rise hotels, golf courses, marinas, and a bevy of continental restaurants, that dream has been realized.
The Lucaya district was developed 8 years later, as a resort center along the coast. It has evolved into a blend of residential and tourist facilities. As the two communities grew, their identities became almost indistinguishable. But elements of their original purposes still exist today. Freeport is the downtown area and attracts visitors with its commerce, industry, and own resorts, whereas Lucaya is called the "Garden City" and pleases residents and vacationers alike with its fine sandy beaches.
Grand Bahama is more than an Atlantic City clone, however. If you don't care for gambling at one of the island's two casinos, or if you're not interested in Vegas-style cabaret revues, there are alternatives. Because the island is so big, most of it remains relatively unspoiled. There are plenty of quiet places where you can get close to nature, including the Rand Memorial Nature Centre and the Garden of the Groves. Lucayan National Park, with its underwater caves, forest trails, and secluded beach, is another major attraction. Just kilometers from Freeport/Lucaya are serene places where you can wander in a world of casuarina, palmetto, and pine trees. During the day, you can enjoy long stretches of open beach, broken by inlets and little fishing villages.
The reviews of Grand Bahama Island are definitely mixed. Some discerning travelers who could live anywhere have built homes here; others vow never to set foot on the island again, finding it "tacky" or "uninspired." Judge for yourself.
New Providence is the historic heart of the Bahamian Islands and has the largest population in the country. On New Providence you'll find Nassau, which offers to take you back in time with its colonial charm. The Cable Beach area is a beachfront strip of hotels, casinos, and restaurants.
One million visitors a year have cast their vote: They want to visit Nassau, adjoining Cable Beach, or Paradise Island. This is the center of all the action: the best shopping, the best entertainment, the most historic attractions--plus some of the best beaches in The Bahamas.
The capital of The Bahamas, the historic city of Nassau is a 35-minute flight from Miami. Despite the development and the modern hotels, a laid-back tropical atmosphere still hangs over the city, and it still offers a good dose of colonial charm. The commercial and banking hub of The Bahamas, as well as a Mecca for shoppers, Nassau lies on the north side of New Providence, which is 34km (21 miles) long and 11km (7 miles) wide at its greatest point.
Cable Beach, a stretch of sand just west of the city, is lined with luxury resorts--in fact, the Nassau/Cable Beach area has the largest tourist infrastructure in The Bahamas, though there's another concentration of luxury hotels on Paradise Island. (If you want to stay right on the sands, don't choose a hotel in downtown Nassau itself. Head for Cable Beach or Paradise Island. You can easily reach the beach from a base in Nassau, but it won't be right outside your window.)
When you're based in Nassau/Cable Beach, you have an array of water sports, golf, tennis, and plenty of duty-free shopping nearby--and that's not to mention those fine, powdery beaches. In addition, the resorts, restaurants, and beaches of Paradise Island, discussed in the next chapter, are just a short distance away. (Paradise Island, which lies just opposite Nassau, is connected to New Providence Island by a toll bridge that costs $2 for cars, 25c for pedestrians; there's also frequent ferry and water-taxi service between Nassau and Paradise Island.)
As the sun goes down, Cable Beach and Paradise Island heat up, offering fine dining, glitzy casinos, cabaret shows, moonlight cruises, dance clubs, and romantic evening strolls. (We'd confine that evening stroll to Cable Beach or Paradise Island, though, and not the streets of downtown Nassau, which can be dangerous at night.)
The shops might draw a lot more business than the museums, but no city in The Bahamas is as rich in history as Nassau. You can take a "royal climb" up the Queen's Staircase to Fort Fincastle. These 66 steps lead to a fort said to have been cut in the sandstone cliffs by slaves in the 1790s. Other Nassau attractions include Ardastra Gardens, which feature 5 acres of landscaping and more than 300 exotic birds, mammals, and reptiles. (Most popular are the trained pink flamingos that march for audiences daily to their trainer's commands.)
It's surprising that Nassau has retained its overlay of British colonial charm despite its proximity to Florida. Yet, it truly hasn't become Americanized; despite new development, traffic, and cruise-ship crowds, Nassau's a long way from becoming another Miami. Stately old homes and public buildings still stand proudly among the modern high-rises and bland government buildings. Tropical foliage lines streets where horse-drawn surreys still trot by, carrying visitors on leisurely tours. Police officers in white starched jackets and colorful pith helmets still direct traffic on the main streets as they have long done. It could almost be England--but for the weather, that is.
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