For most of its history, Grand Bahama Island only had a few hundred people and no development. In 1955, a Virginian named Wallace Grove, eyeing the tourism of nearby Cuba, created the planned city of Freeport, bringing in tourists and cruise ships.
It’s a tightly controlled city, affecting the dynamic of things. There are tax issues with residents driving cars purchased in Freeport and driving outside the “bonded” limits. Grocery stores and hotels are supplied with a predominance of imported goods, while local agriculture is considered something for grandmas in the country to farm for themselves. The result is – with a couple of notable exceptions in the fine dining category – that the interesting flavors come from the least well-to-do parts of the island.
I stumbled into a couple of DNA (Democratic National Alliance) meet and greets. DNA is an emerging political party focused on getting more Bahamian ownership and island-grown/made things. That’s forward thinking, as foreign shops come and go with the tides. Many luxury stores closed for good after a bout of hurricanes 10 years ago.
What to do
CocoNutz Cruisers is an activity that transcends into an experience. Owner H. Alfredo Bridgewater’s bikes are somewhere between a bike and a scooter. What if you just don’t get the hang of it? Not a problem; he’ll take you around in his vehicle. If he doesn’t know everybody – which it seems like he does – he knows where they’re from. How is this possible? Talking with him, I realized just how small some of the Bahamian islands’ populations are. Plus, he knows by their last names. Sadly, because the islands were settled by slave populations, the slaves took the names of their masters; Alfredo knows where those plantations were.
So, what are some of the places you’ll see? CocoNutz Cruisers arranges an exclusive experience with Anthony Hanna of Tony Macaroni, the famous beach bar. Tony teaches how to scoop out a live conch and make salad from it – the freshest cooking I’ve ever done. What makes him extra-memorable is he’s pretty much the Afro-Caribbean Don Rickles. He dishes it out unfiltered, on sight.
What he probably wasn’t expecting was that I give as well as I get. To amuse myself and to see what would happen, I threw a hand-grenade into the mix: What did he think about Paula Deen?
Soon, we had all kinds of N and F words flying, accusing Caucasians of being hypocrites for being outraged at her statements. Ah...but what about the plantation-style wedding she dreamed of? That brought out a rarely seen quiet and thoughtful Tony. Harkening back to those sickeningly unequal “My Old Kentucky Home” lifestyles and glorifying them showed a basic insensitivity on her behalf, we agreed.
Did you ever find yourself daydreaming about what the Bahamas might have been like before tourism? Before frozen drinks, beachgoers and their Oakleys, before the crowds? The Garden of the Groves is a lush nature preserve with quiet walking paths through rare gorgeous tropical foliage, protected birds, garden animals. Up on a hill is a historic chapel where people have weddings. There’s a little cluster of booths selling locally made crafts: no I [heart] The Bahamas t-shirts. There was one booth selling the prized benne seed–coconut candies, but I didn't get any for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, I wasn't carrying cash. Second, I was rocking a temporary fake tooth and not taking any chances. The restaurant on site is comparable to upscale places to eat in U.S. art museums.
Friday night party in Lucaya
Friday night partying can be tricky if you're traveling alone or with people who don't usually hang out in bars. In Lucaya, there's a public square named after the jazz great Count Basie. On Friday nights, they have a free family-friendly party in the square, surrounded by bars. You're allowed to drink adult beverages outside. I saw line dancing done to a live band and Bahamian torch singer. Lots of people joined in.
Then out came the man they call "The Emperor"; he's the island's most famous limbo master.
Lucaya is the site of UNEXSO, where you can go diving or swim with dolphins. It’s a popular activity on the island and you’d better make arrangements in advance. I give this advice to the ladies: wear a swimsuit with tank (not spaghetti) straps. When I was hanging out with the dolphins, one got exuberant and pushed my top down!
For centuries, the Bahamas have been a source for perfume ingredients. Their fruits and flowers add lushness and tang. Now, you can buy locally crafted scents and make your own at Freeport's The Perfume Factory. The factory is based in a reproduction of one of the island's grand mansions and painted pink. Inside is like a luxurious, colonial-era boudoir where you can sit to select fragrances and mix your own.
What to eat
Sixty-five years ago, the West End neighborhood of Grand Bahama Island, the first settled part, was where it was at for tourism. Today, it's more of a local's secret, gritty and close-knit. In a ramshackle shack that could be a rural bus stop in the States, I discovered the most delicious conch salad I ever had and possibly the best seafood salad, period! Star Restaurant and Bar has a little outbuilding across the street called "Conch Shack." You can't get fresher conch than on the West End; all kinds of local characters fish for it every day. It's prepared like an instant ceviche. I spied ingredients like salt, chili paste, limes, onion, green pepper and tomato.
The award-winning Bahamian chef at Flying Fish takes his cuisine seriously, but not himself. Chef Tim Tibbitts doesn't let his AAA 4 Diamond award go to his head: he brings it all in a laid-back format on Casual Sundays. Smart ones dine outside right on the dock to see Chef Tibbitts perform Classic Rock! With the darkened atmosphere, a few high-in-demand cushy sofas and ghostly white bar, this is the hottest date night in town.
I was the one in "the audience" who ordered foie gras as an appetizer. Upon overhearing my selection, Chef Tibbitts was off and running with some insider foodie anecdotes about foie gras.