FREEPORT, Grand Bahama -- For nearly 12 years, Grand Bahama was our home away from home, a large, flat, sleepy tropical island with white coral beaches brushed by clear turquoise waters. This was our escape from workaday rigors, only a half-hour flight from South Florida. As an investment, however, it didn't live up to expectations.
When my wife and I decided to sell our condo 11 years ago, what we left was a tired resort that had seen better days, shunned by developers despite its lack of taxes on real estate and imports and proximity (57 miles) to Palm Beach, Fla. Luxury cruise ships and big US airlines were steering clear of the 530-square-mile island with its 42,000 residents. Grand Bahama hadn't seen a new hotel in 20 years.
Out of nostalgia and curiosity, we returned recently. And have things changed. Barely a mile from our old Coral Beach condo building in the Lucaya Beach section, a whole new world exists. Gone is the creaky circa 1960 eight-story Atlantik Beach Hotel. In its place, a curvy two-year-old 10-story hotel anchors a new 372-acre oceanfront resort with two other modern hotels -- about 1,300 rooms total -- plus 11 restaurants, a ballroom, a state-of-the-art spa and fitness center, convention center, tennis courts, four swimming pools, and the soon-to-open gaming casino, the largest on the island. What was a forest of grape trees, weeds, and limestone rocks less than a mile away is now a challenging 18-hole Robert Trent Jones Jr. golf course, one of two the complex operates.
The island hasn't seen development of such magnitude since the 1960s, when the Bahamas was preparing to become an independent nation. The Lucaya development is part of a Hong Kong conglomerate's $700 million gamble to grab a piece of Bahamian resort business. Hutchison Whampoa financed, built, and named the humongous complex Our Lucaya Beach & Golf Resort and also helped upgrade the Freeport port area. Early this year, the company turned over operation of its resort property to the Starwood Hotel group, owner of the Westin and Sheraton chain.
When we began our four-day stay in the two-year-old hotel previously known as Breakers Cay, mattresses were being replaced by plusher Westin-brand ones. Down the road, truckloads of the older mattresses were being auctioned off to clusters of excited bargain-hunting locals who were carting them off on car tops, vans, trucks, and anything that rolled.
Across the street, Port Lucaya, a 10-acre touristy marketplace, marina, and entertainment center with 89 shops, including 18 restaurants and bars, was bustling with hundreds of visitors lured from several cruise ships and nearby hotels. The marketplace, it seemed, had doubled in size since we last saw it.
Nearby, overlooking Bell Channel Bay, the 69-room Pelican Bay inn that resembles a row of colorful Bermuda cottages was building an addition. At the west end of the 40-mile-long island, Jack Tar Village, a faded, seedy complex, has been replaced by an exclusive 24-suite property called Old Bahama Bay and Marina. Our sixth-floor room, with light Berber-style carpet and cool-green and royal-blue furnishings, offered smashing views of the sea and a heated serpentine swimming pool, one of four on the premises.
With temperatures in the 60s and a wind chill factor much lower, swimming was not an option during our first couple of days. Exploring the downtown shopping area, though, with its Grand Union and Winn Dixie supermarkets and old-style neighborhood shops, was. To get there, we hopped on one of the island's small public buses -- van-type vehicles that stop for passengers almost anywhere and take them almost anywhere within the 5-mile range between Port Lucaya and downtown for $1.
Signs advertising 50 and 75 percent off sales were everywhere, and a record store's thumping, ear-busting music permeated the 10-block area. In the center of a vast parking lot, fishmongers unloaded and tried to peddle their catches, but few locals appeared to be biting. Luckily, we found two of our favorite island restaurants had not changed. Chewy cracked-conch entrees at Ruby Swiss, near the landmark Moroccan-style International Bazaar, were as fresh and delicious as ever. At Port Lucaya's upscale Luciano's, Lonnie Wildgoose, the tall, cheery, dark-suited maitre d', threw out a welcoming right hand, insisting the years hadn't changed us. Caesar salad, perfectly charred 2-inch-thick filet mignons, and cherries jubilee went down nicely. Equally satisfying was dinner at Iries, Our Lucaya resort's colorful Bahamian gourmet restaurant with costumed waitresses. My wife thought her cracked conch was lighter and even tastier than at Ruby Swiss. My entree, macadamia-coconut-crusted snapper with mashed sweet potatoes, was superb. We had continental breakfasts at Barracuda's in the adjoining Sheraton Hotel. The room is an explosion of ultra-bright tropical colors with odd-shaped furniture and wall hangings and two-story windows. Its Art Deco style shouts South Beach.
The weather finally turned warm the day before we left. We donned bathing suits and walked the 2-mile-long Lucaya Beach. The ocean, calmed by a giant offshore reef, was as flat as a lake; the sand was cool and too hard for footprints. After a brief ocean swim, we ambled back to our hotel and joined other guests around the pool, marveling at its cascading waterfall and the sparkling Atlantic Ocean just beyond. Like the island itself, we felt rejuvenated.
Si Liberman is a freelance writer and retired editor who lives on the Jersey shore and in Palm Beach