Open Road

The Bahamas: Still Beautiful, and Now More Accessible Than Ever

Island life is now just a direct flight away.

By Scott Vogel January 30, 2018 Published in the February 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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What is the most beautiful spot on earth? Okay, there’s a fair amount of disagreement on that point, although only among earthlings. For those lucky enough to have observed the planet from afar, the consensus is clear. “The most beautiful place from space,” observed astronaut Scott Kelly once, is a 100,000-square-mile swath of ocean off Florida’s Atlantic Coast that extends southeastward to the tip of Cuba, an expanse dotted with 700 or so islands clustered against turquoise waters so blindingly bright they look lit from within. “The beauty of the Bahamas is surreal,” agreed another astronaut, Chris Hadfield, while aboard the International Space Station a few years back. The island nation is at one with the “hard to believe” colors of the ocean in which it sits, where “every blue that exists” may be found.

 It is to be inferred that the Bahamas’ natural beauty has left a deep mark not only on astronauts but the more than six million people who visited the islands last year, not to mention the Bahamian economy, which depends heavily on it (53 percent of the country’s jobs are directly or indirectly related to tourism). One can only imagine the panic, therefore, that set in on September 7 of last year, as Hurricane Irma churned its way toward the U.S. mainland. Most of the Bahamian islands avoided a direct hit, but as the powerful storm neared Florida, it pulled in surrounding seas from everywhere, in the process sucking up the Bahamas’ entire ocean. Within hours, its waters went from every blue to none at all, Irma having drained away every drop of turquoise, leaving only a dull brown seabed in its wake.

 “A rare weather phenomenon” was how a meteorologist characterized the event in the Washington Post, and soon, the Bahamas’ magically hued seas had returned. The existential question Irma posed—what was the Bahamas without its ocean?—was not a new one for Bahamians, but these days they are asking it with increasing urgency. Americans (who comprise 75 percent of the islands’ visitors) have more sun/sand options in the Caribbean and environs than ever before, some of them, like Cuba, boasting a novelty that the Bahamas, which has been welcoming tourists since the 19th century, can’t possibly match. Back when the country’s famous slogan “It’s Better in the Bahamas” was coined, decades ago, few would have disagreed. But what, if anything, makes it better now?

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Nassau's new Baha Mar, a resort of many pleasures

The easy answer, at least for Houstonians, is access. As of November, Bahamasair, the country’s national airline, began nonstop service between IAH and Nassau, a two-and-a-half-hour flight that leaves promptly at 8 a.m. twice weekly. (“We have specifically chosen this time,” noted the airline’s chairman on the day the new route was launched, “to get you into Nassau by noon, and hopefully get you onto the beach by 2 p.m.”) Not only is Nassau’s Lynden Pindling International Airport just 15 minutes from some of the Bahamas’—and the world’s—most famous beaches, it also offers easy access to Eleuthera, Bimini, Grand Bahama, and 10 other islands Bahamasair serves.

The speed with which one can trade the Gulf’s chocolate brown ocean for azure astonishment is a bit dizzying, or so it seemed to us, as flight 842 determinedly skipped beneath the clouds, revealing the entirety of almond-shaped New Providence, the island that Nassau calls home, before touching down on the tarmac at 11:57 a.m. local time. The trip through customs was swift as well (and would be even more so on our return, as U.S. Customs agents pre-clear travelers in the Nassau airport, allowing them to mercifully bypass Houston’s immigration lines). And within minutes, we made contact with Romeo Farrington, of Romeo’s Executive Limousine & Taxi Service, at which point time stood still for the duration of our visit to the Bahamas.

At first glance, Farrington seemed as old as the Bahamas itself. This is a man who remembers when automobiles first arrived on the island and everyone ran out into the street to watch them pass. This is a man whose acquaintances respond identically when asked about his age—by widening their eyes and whispering Olllllld. This is a man who inspires almost unbearable guilt when he loads your bags into the back of a GMC Yukon. And not incidentally, this is a man who will convince you once and for all that things are indeed better in the Bahamas, whatever those other Caribbean destinations might say.

It was Farrington who would ferry us to most of Nassau’s greatest attractions over the ensuing three days, none greater than our first stop, Baha Mar resort on Cable Beach. The marmalade-colored turrets of the brand-new property are visible from miles away, and much else precedes the mega-resort besides, most notably a long and checkered development history too labyrinthine to describe here. Suffice it to say that Baha Mar, the largest new resort built in North America in many a moon, has been in the works since 2005, and represents the combined efforts of two Chinese developers, three hotel brands (Hyatt, SLS and Rosewood), and 1,500 Bahamians running day-to-day operations. Last April, it began opening in stages, and 2,100 of its 2,300 rooms are now complete (the Rosewood opens this spring). At $4.2 billion and counting, Baha Mar is already the biggest construction project in the country’s history, an enormous gamble that, if it pays off, could ultimately mean jobs for more than 5,000 Bahamians.

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On the other end of New Providence Island stand two bridges leading to what is perhaps the greatest obstacle to Baha Mar’s success—the Atlantis Paradise Island, with its 5,000 rooms, gigantic aquariums, Dale Chihuly hamminess, and seemingly unlimited TV ad budget. (Has anyone not seen those Mayan waterslides?) Kitschy, crowded, and victimized by popularity, the Atlantis resembles nothing so much as a landlocked cruise ship, and the resort indeed sells day passes to cruisers, of whom thousands dock at Nassau each day (accounting for half the islands’ annual visitors). Baha Mar’s challenge, and also its best hope, is to become an anti-Atlantis, a mega-resort that doesn’t feel like one.  

The firm that designed it has described Baha Mar as “a contemporary spin on ‘former colonial’ meets ‘casual Caribbean,’” a statement that, while confusing in nearly every respect, makes a strange sort of sense when you see what’s on the other side of its curve of imposing towers: a grand staircase descends into pathways that wind past smiling structures—eateries, bars, changing rooms, you name it—whose color palette rivals Dylan’s Candy Bar. Buildings tend to be clustered around Baha Mar’s several swimming pools (seven now, 11 once the resort is finished), each with its own distinct design, vibe, and corresponding fan base, from casual to sun-seared. But even as all roads lead to a grand stretch of Cable Beach, along the trails are wide verandahs, divans, bed-like cabanas, and lots of cozy nooks, their privacy abetted by lush foliage.

Among resort owners, the objective has always been a simple one: provide such a satisfying experience, guests feel no need whatsoever to venture off-campus. But that’s a trickier goal than you might think. Baha Mar’s careful devotion to both whimsy and refinement might seem dizzying at first, but ultimately it’s the variety of its moods that make Baha Mar such a superb large resort. Do such places need caves with swim-through aquariums and rock promontories for the kids to cannonball into a pool? Of course. But they also need chic sushi joints like Katsuya, where the fashion-forward can cavort in their finery, and Cleo Mediterraneo for the pocket-square-and-pleated set. (Once complete, Baha Mar will have more than 40 bars and restaurants. Dozens of high-end retailers are also making their presence known.)

Given the ongoing arms race among Bahamian resorts, Baha Mar’s 100,000-square-foot, largest-in-the-Caribbean casino was perhaps inevitable, but in this case, the slots and craps tables are punctuated by a swanky martini bar, a lounge with piano nightly, and thoughtful work by prominent Bahamian artists everywhere you look. Throw in a Jack Nicklaus–designed golf course and a 30,000-square-foot spa, and you can easily imagine Baha Mar overtaking that lost city on the other side of the island. It’s in firm possession of a vibe that’s equal parts rowdy and refined, and one all too rare among mega-resorts.

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“They don’t get to see much of the place,” said Farrington wearily as we drove through downtown Nassau the next day, referring not to the denizens of Baha Mar but the hordes disembarking daily from the Carnivals, Royal Caribbeans, and Disneys at the cruise port, which accommodates up to seven ships at a time. Most passengers would likely spend a few hours sunning and swimming at a nearby beach, or browsing the noisy Straw Market and crowded shops of Bay Street, before mounting gangplanks and sailing away, their entire impression of the Bahamas formed by intel gathered mere blocks from the boat.

We would see a different Bahamas, Farrington promised, rolling up the windows, turning up some old Nat King Cole, and hauling us away from the madness, up streets lined with cabbage palms and yellow elder, the national flower. Transported by the music, we saw Nassau through Farrington’s prism, learning about his stint as a home builder and how shy he’d been with girls in high school—hence the mocking nickname Romeo, which had somehow stuck. We made stops at Graycliff and the highest point of the island, even as he told of the rich and famous who’d personally requested his services, celebrities of fast-fading name recognition all (Connie Stevens, Perry Como, Bob Hope). And he talked too about his no doubt painful decision to semi-retire and hand over the business to his children, as he has dearly loved his life as a guide and driver. But his voice had not a hint of sadness. As the SUV lumbered to a stop at the National Art Gallery, there was only appreciation for an existence that had introduced him to “so many wonderful people like you.” Not in the habit of thinking ourselves wonderful people, we staggered silently out of the Yukon and into the gallery.

Humans have lived on Bahamian islands since at least 300 A.D., and extensive archeological evidence exists of settlements by the Lucayan people, who “enjoyed a peaceful way of life” (per the Bahamas’ official website) for hundreds of years. Then came 1492, when Christopher Columbus visited, bringing beads, coins, crockery, enslavement and disease, and thanks to the last two, the Lucayans were completely wiped out within a few decades. The ensuing centuries brought European settlers, pirates, ownership as a British crown colony (only since 1973 has the country been an independent nation), and of course tourism, all of which have made their way into the Bahamian consciousness and the National Gallery’s art, which includes searching examinations of everything from the meaning of blackness to the commodification of the islands’ natural beauty, to the dominance of its conservative Christianity, to its complex relationship with the U.S., which lies just 50 miles to the west. Housed in a British colonial mansion dating back to the 1860s, the cozy museum possesses a power that eludes most national collections, hinting at the strange allure of the Bahamas, which one suspects would likely endure the drying up of its ocean, and clouds that permanently obscured its sun, if only because Bahamians themselves would still be there.

Pontificating about an entire country’s people risks comparisons to Columbus, who opined that the original Bahamians “show as much lovingness as though they would give their hearts” (a generosity he repaid by ultimately destroying their culture). But visitors to the country more than 500 years later are likely to come away with a remarkably similar impression. Warmth and generosity are not foreign to the islands of the Caribbean, but in the Bahamas, accidents of history and necessity appear to have forged a unique and disarming joy in hosting tourists. In focusing less on service than sharing, less on catering to visitors than celebrating their visits, the Bahamian tourism industry has turned hospitality into something of an art.

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Romeo Farrington (center) welcomes yet another pair of travelers.

“We’re hoping we can persuade you to stay here forever,” said Farrington as evening came and we boarded the Yukon for a trip to a neighborhood of modest, neatly kept houses deep in Nassau proper. Our destination was the home of Mrs. Elaine Lightfoot, who greeted our clan like family at the door, led us through her living room, where several young men sat watching football, past a kitchen filled with more family and friends, and out onto a back patio and an elaborate, home-cooked buffet. Lightfoot is one of the ambassadors of People-to-People, a free service which has been pairing visitors with Bahamian hosts since the 1970s. Over the next few hours and several Kalik beers, the talk and laughter was rivaled only by the food, a hearty medley of Bahamian greatest hits—peas and rice, cracked conch, grouper fingers, potato salad, and plantains. As the conversations of the crowd of dozens grew louder and the laughs longer, Farrington called us all to silence, stood up and announced his desire to commemorate the evening for “our new American friends”—us, that is. And then, in a voice far younger than his years, one so sweet Nat King Cole himself would have approved, Farrrington launched into an a cappella rendition of “Stay as Sweet as You Are.”

Young and gay, or old and gray,

Near to me or afar,

Night and day, I pray that you’ll always stay

As sweet as you are…

Like all great experiences in a traveler’s life, it was a moment unforgettable and perhaps better left undescribed. Suffice it to say that we found ourselves unexpectedly moved. Never had the betterness of the Bahamas seemed so abundantly clear.

Bahamasair flies nonstop from Houston IAH to Nassau on Mondays and Thursdays each week, with return trips on Sundays and Wednesdays. Roundtrip fares start at $445. 

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