Golfers, if you haven't been to Grand Bahama Island for a few years, you are in for a surprise. If you haven't been there at all, it's time.
For many years, the island, which lies north of the smaller, more frenetic island of New Providence (Nassau), was stuck in the '60s after the first rush of big hotels and casinos were built.
Today is a whole new story. It's polished, upbeat, with great golf courses, sparkling new hotels and a thriving market center. For sure Grand Bahama remains a much quieter place than Nassau with a lot fewer resorts and casinos, but that's not to say a person looking for a lucky streak can't find a place to hunker down for a few hours.
In the Isle of Capri Casino in the Sheraton Grand Bahama Island Our Lucaya Resort, roulette tables spin, players hunch over their cards at the black jack tables and the sound of coins pinging into the trays of the 400 slots entice players to keeping trying long into the night.
Hotels are so improved, rebuilt and renovated, that the dated, over-painted look is just not there any more. What is there are things like the Senses Spa, infinity pools, Heavenly Beds and enough restaurants that you could eat in a different place every night for two weeks and never leave the resort grounds. Somewhere along the way, be sure to try conch, the national dish.
You can play golf on four designer golf courses, kayak through the mangroves at Gold Rock Creek, explore limestone caves at the Lucayan National Park, swim with the dolphins and check out the local market.
Sundays Tony Macaroni's on Taino Beach rolls out live Caribbean jazz and dancing (bring your own Kalik, the local brew). Wednesday, head to the fish fry at Smiths Point. Outstanding.
Places to Stay
The Sheraton Grand Bahama Island Our Lucaya Resort (242-373-1333 or www.starwood.com): Side-by-side hotels, each with its own style and a total of 1,260 rooms, share many amenities, including the stunning infinity pool, two other pools, more than a dozen restaurants, the 25,000-square-foot Senses Spa and two golf courses right across the street.
If you're bringing the kids, the family-friendly Sheraton has upbeat décor, a great pool with all the toys kids love, plus a "quiet corner" for adults, and Camp Lucaya.
For a more adult experience, Westin's rooms, designed in soft whites and naturals, overlook the sea. Its "Heavenly Beds" are the best.
Now if they would only shorten its name.
Pelican Bay Hotel and Suites (800-852-3702: www.pelicanbayhotel.com): Overlooking Bell Channel Bay and Port Lucaya Marina, Pelican Bay is a blush-colored, low-rise island boutique hotel with 186 rooms. There is no beach on the property, but there are three pools, two restaurants and the hotel is within walking distance of more than 30 restaurants and shops. Rates are from $149 per night.
Old Bahama Bay at Ginn Sur Me (242-350-6500; www.oldbahamabay.com): This little hideaway gem on the ocean at the tip of the island's West End has only 73 beach-front suites. Some evoke a British Colonial feeling while others go more island. Think hammocks, serenity, white, white sand, massages by the sea.
If you plan to come by private yacht, this would be the place. It has a 72-slip point of entry marina. Rates are from $320 per suite.
Viva Wyndham Fortuna Beach (242-373-4000; www.vivaresorts.com): This 276-room all-inclusive resort is the place to come if value-boy is your MO and you don't plan to spend a whole lot of time hanging out in your room. Popular with families, Viva offers a boatload of activities like kayaking, dance classes, poolside games and nightly entertainment. Rates are from $268 per person.
Places To Eat and Drink
Aqua (242-350-6320 www.oldbahamabay.com): For that special dinner by the water, Aqua's innovative Bahamian fusion menu blends classic Bahamian delicacies with fresh new dishes.
Churchill's Chop House & Bar (www.ourlucaya.com): Old-World charm and elegance set the tone for fine dining at Our Lucaya's Westin. Order a specialty cocktail to go along with your steak or seafood.
Ferry House (242-373-1595; www.ferryhousebahamas.com): Dine overlooking Bell Channel Bay in Freeport. A creative menu includes items like Golden Chilean Seabass with Lavender Potatoes & Curry Coconut Sauce and Chocolate Ganache Tart.
Luciano's (242-373-9100; www.portlucaya.com): A staple in the Port Lucaya Marketplace for more than 25 years, Luciano's menu features both classic European dishes and Island fare.
Grand Bahama nightlife
Count Basie Square (242-373-8446), located in the center of Port Lucaya Marketplace, is the place to be for nighttime entertainment. It's limbo and fire dancing on Fridays while Junkanoo whistles for you on Saturdays.
The Isle of Capri Casino: Located in Our Lucaya, the game is on. www.isleofcapricasinos.com/Lucaya.
Golf on Grand Bahama
Don't miss Westin Sheraton in the Bahamas' Lucayan Course and Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed Reef Course. Also check out the nine-hole Fortune Hills Golf & Country Club designed by Joe Lee and Dick Wilson.
Grand Bahama shopping
Check out Port Lucaya Marketplace & Marina and The Bahamas Arts & Crafts Straw Market for locally made jewelry, paintings and colorful handicrafts constructed from straw and wood.
Underwater Explorers Society (800-992-DIVE; www.unexso.com): Unlike some dolphin encounters I've experienced, at the Underwater Explorers Society on the south shore of Grand Bahama, the dolphins actually look like they are enjoying life with freedom to swim in open water as well as a 10-acre lagoon. Children can become "assistant trainer" for a while as they get into the water for a hands-on experience, petting them and hanging onto their flippers to be pulled into shore.
Lucayan National Park: (242-352-5438): The 40-acre park is laced by several hiking trails and elevated walkways through a natural forest of wild tamarind and gumbo-limbo trees, wild orchids, a mangrove swamp, Gold Rock beach and the largest explored underwater cave system in the world.
Kayak Nature Tours (1-866-440-4542; www.grandbahamanaturetours.com): Grab a paddle and kayak through dense, interconnected mangrove tunnels that open onto wide ponds filled with exotic marine and bird life. Tours include lunch, transportation, all equipment and an experienced guide.
You can also hike Whiteland coppice to Gold Rock Beach or book a five-hour kayak tour to Water Cay, where the infamous Edward Teach, better known as "Blackbeard," was captured.
East End Adventures (242-373-6662, www.bahamasecotours.com): Try these tours for a great overview of the island's historical and natural sites. Take a joy ride through a tropical forest, whisk off on a speedboat to Sweeting's Cay where you can snorkel and picnic on the beach.
Pinetree Stables (242-373-3600, www.pintree-stables.com): Hey all you cowboys, wanna see the island by horseback? Saddle up with Pinetree.