The annual pilgrimage to friends and family has arrived. The plan is simple – anywhere but Uncle Billie’s for the holidays. Others may need an escape right now, before the rush.
“We wanted a friendly place with activities and water,” says Janette Savarin, traveling with her husband and three-year old daughter from Los Angeles. “We liked Nassau our last time in the Bahamas, so we choose Grand Bahama this time.”
Floridians know the nearby, 700-cay-rich island nation floating in the Atlantic has much to offer. Grand Bahama is just 55 miles off the coast. For the holidays, Junkanoo replaces jingles bells and casinos in Freeport chime with the sounds of the season – Mr. Cashman at the slots.
If you haven’t been back to Freeport since the days of Freddie Laker’s long defunct sky train from Florida cities to Grand Bahama, then add it to your wish list this holiday season.
The Spanish christened this island Gran Bajamar, meaning "Great Shallows." A major center for tourism, it attracts cruise ships with its deep harbor. The Freeport-Lucaya area is a mecca for duty free shopping and the country’s second largest city.
Last year Grand Bahama (fourth largest island) welcomed 800,000 visitors. “About 70 percent of the total is cruise guests, including arrivals by ferry,” says Betty Bethel, general manager for Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, Grand Bahama Island. “There’s a misperception that there is nothing to do, but that’s not true. Beside outdoor activities and sights to see, we’re upgrading the entire vacation experience.”
Take a look at the changes. What used to be three resorts along a mile of beach has been redeveloped into the magnificent Grand Lucayan, a 542 room resort that exceeds expectations. Whether you’re on a cruise ship with a day pass or spending a few nights, the property will impress. “Things have evolved since the traveler of the 1970s,” says hotel manager Benjamin Davis. “People now want to see and do more at a destination. The benefit of tourism is more widespread.”
Grand Lucayan is completing a major renovation and rebranding. Sumptuous Lanai suites are being added on the beach. The spa is first class and the dining options are original. My favorite is Willy Broadleaf, an inspired breakfast restaurant themed with distinct sections depicting Egypt, India, Africa and Italy. It rivals anything at Disney and incorporates the new tag line “The Bahamas You Remember, A Resort You’ll Never Forget.”
Spacious grounds and accommodations, eight restaurants, three swimming pools, four tennis courts – it’s all here, along with the 18-hole championship golf – The Reef Course, designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. Check out the golf package with unlimited rounds available for booking through Dec. 25. Rates start at $142 per person based on double occupancy. Green fees and golf carts are included.
No need to stay at home New Year’s Eve. Grand Lucayan’s bash is totally big time with The Temptations performing live. Festivities start off with holiday buffet and dancing in the resort’s Grand Ballroom. Midnight brings a champagne toast and beach fireworks display. Tickets for The Temptations start at $75.
Grand Lucayan offers family-friendly holiday activities throughout December. Kids will like the Santa Walk and Saint Nick’s Scavenger Hunt. Everyone lines up for the colorful Junkanoo parade on Boxing Day. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinner buffets are feasts.
For dining variety, trot across the street to Port Lucaya Marketplace. Look for Bateman’s Restaurant, where owner Bateman Smith blends his New Orleans motif with holiday necessities – conch salad and tempting desserts. “We sell a lot of alligator,” says Smith. “Fixed anyway you like it.”
When you go
From Port Everglades to Grand Bahama, Balearia Bahamas Express is the best bet. Sure, there are flights. “But when you step aboard here, your vacation getaway begins,” says Commercial Executive Pablo Aviles. “No airport hassles, just relax and enjoy the ride.”
Depart at 8:00am, return at 10:00pm. The crossing takes three hours and port authority formalities are minimal. The company operates year round first class and economy service. Onboard diversions include duty free shopping, a full bar and plenty to snack on. Oh yes, let’s not forget gaming – slot machines are placed throughout the two level craft to help pass time.
A popular getaway is the combo package that includes a two-night stay at Grand Lucayan, plus roundtrip ferry. Fare information: www.fastferry.com.
Balearia Group is one of the leading Spanish shipping lines, providing passenger and cargo services in the Spanish Mediterranean. The company brought its 463 passenger vessel to Port Everglades two years ago. Traveling from Spain to Gibraltar? Chances are you will be seated aboard their 32-knot fast ferry. In 2010 Balearia transported more than 3 million passengers with a fleet of 14.
What to do
Natural attractions include Lucaya National Park (one of 25 in the Bahamas), a stroll through Garden of the Groves, and kayaking in a mangrove tunnel. Too strenuous? Visit Fragrance of the Bahamas Limited, better known as The Perfume Factory. No need to go to France. Take home a bottle of Bahama Papa (smooth citrus zest with musk and wood oils) or create your own fragrance as a special holiday gift. The Aston family owns this landmark, in business for 40 years.
The Bahamian Brewery & Beverage Co. has been operating just six years. Already the walls are filling up with awards. The 40,000 sq. ft. facility cost $15 million to build and employs 70. Good news for the economy is a plus for you. This walk-through experience is both educational and quenching. See how beer is fermented and bottled, and then sample the six locally produced beers like Sands and Triple B at the tasting bar. Admission $5.00
The most publicized excursion is UNEXSO’s dolphin program (Underwater Explorers Society). Travel 20 minutes by boat to the eco-friendly lagoon and get in touch with talented show-off residents, 14 bottle nose dolphins. Dolphin encounters start at $85 adult/$50 children.
It’s okay to wait until the last minute. Book excursions during your Bahamas Express ferry ride. Jeep journeys to brewery tours. Of course, a good guide can make the day. Fortunately, H. Forbes Charter Services, the island’s largest tour operator, has David Rolle to escort and entertain guests. On his sightseeing jaunt through Freeport, he points out a medical facility and announces to passengers, “I fired my doctor because he allowed a mortuary to be built next to his clinic. Maybe he was running two-for-one specials.”
For information on holiday getaways, visit www.GrandLucayan.com or (877) 434-2996.