Beguiled by Bimini

Written by Hal Peat, photography by Mark Da Cunha and Hal Peat

For such a small island lying apart from the world’s busier mainstream, Bimini has certainly welcomed a diverse collection of characters to its narrow landscape over the centuries. Pirates and politicians, sailors and soothsayers, artists and businessmen have all at one time or another spent time on this tiny outpost. And while their imprint remains in various forms, this westernmost point in the Bahamas has been steadily catching up with contemporary life and trends. Even so, any traveller arriving here these days will soon discover that much of Bimini’s pleasure still derives from its own potent blend of history and legend, vibrant culture, abundant marine life and numerous fine ways to spend time and savour it all.

Situated less than 50 miles from Florida in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, Bimini is close enough to the mainland for the lights of Miami to be visible by night. In spite of this proximity to a giant neighbour, the island has enjoyed relative quiet even to the present, and the pace around the main town of Alice Town remains decidedly low-key. Traffic? Other than golf carts, the favoured transport when you are not on foot, or the occasional van or car Bimini roads remain unsnarled. The speed limit is all of 35 miles per hour, although you will rarely see anything move that fast. And while daily life has picked up around the island with the appearance of some major resort developments and expansions, most of the excitement you will observe around Bimini will come from the activity surrounding the next regatta, tournament or local festival.

Bimini actually consists of two islands, narrowly divided by a strip of water that most travellers navigate on a short ferry hop between South Bimini, if you arrive by scheduled airline, and North Bimini, where most accommodation, marinas and water sport are all located. Of course, tiny South Bimini has its own natural points of interest, ranging from its natural wealth of mangrove, tropical hardwood forest and saltwater pools, a small haven for fowl at Duck Lake. Along with that, you will find the reputed site of the legendary Fountain of Youth here; it is an 18-inch wide hole in limestone, located about two miles southeast of the ferry at Airport Road (watch for the sign at roadside as you go). Unless you arrive under your own power by private boat, the typical Bimini experience will probably otherwise begin at the ferry landing at Alice Town, where resort vans, cabs and the ever-present golf-carts await the ferries from South Bimini. A few minutes’ drive up the narrow King’s Highway delivers you to your own hotel or guest residence.

For decades, not much existed in terms of accommodation around Bimini other than a handful of small hotels and the legendary Bimini Big Game Resort & Marina. In more recent years, as word spread and fishing enthusiasts of every stripe came in increasing numbers to check out the offshore opportunities, more accommodation in every form has likewise opened up. Right within Alice Town, plans are afoot to develop the historic Browns Hotel & Marina into a world-class, deluxe condo-hotel resort catering to discriminating boat-owning travellers. But the most spectacular arrival of all which has already impacted Bimini and the region with the ambition of its construction, scale and concept is the new Bimini Bay Resort and Marina, located at the northern end of North Bimini.

An assortment of some 300 condominiums, loft-like treehouses and single-family homes designed in Bahamian-inspired architecture and a palette of bright pastels have brought this heretofore empty scrub and mangrove area to life.

Manicured streets and a collection of restaurants, shops, meeting facilities, a spa and other resort amenities at the heart of which is of course its own state-of-the-art marina have allowed Bimini Bay Resort to blossom rapidly as a leading economic and tourism asset. Along with all that, the resort has already begun to stimulate the big-game fishing scene by hosting new annual events, such as the Wahoo and Big 5 tournaments. But even though you can linger on adjacent front beaches, deck tops and poolside restaurants, with everything else on hand for a small village-style getaway, Bimini’s minute land size ensures you also remain in easy reach of the intimacy of the communities comprising Bailey Town and Alice Town. In fact, many resort staff still call one of these two small towns home, and will be your informal gold mine of information on all topics local. Change has definitely not affected the Biminian friendly and hospitable outlook.

While Ernest Hemingway spent much of his time while on Bimini in the Thirties involved in such pastimes as one-man boxing challenges at local bars, he was also a keen angler. From those experiences, his work such as The Old Man and the Sea and Islands in the Stream ultimately derived. In real life, his legendary figure and exploits contributed to the advent of some of the best fishing tournaments in the Caribbean. Nowadays, the start of the annual calendar of angling events even features one named in his honour in February, and the tournaments continue throughout the year into November. While big fish and wahoo are the prize to angle for in winter months, you can also charter a boat through one of several locally based operators and cast your reel for tuna, sailfish, and of course the famed blue marlin and billfish.
Indeed, Bimini has become an extremely popular host to a broad cross-section of fishing enthusiasts: its marinas see big game, deep sea fishing, bonefishing and eco-adventurers all moored for the next tournament or just the outstanding marine life along the nearby trenches or flats.

Given its living offshore diversity, it is not surprising that Bimini can also serve up some world-class experts to guide you on any type of marine adventure. With shallow waters running far out around both its north and south, the island is an ideal port of call for bonefishing enthusiasts, and the home-grown expertise is certainly on hand to make any bonefishing expedition something memorable. One such local bonefishing master is Fred Rolle, who operates his outings under the name of Eagle Eyes. And Fred really does live up to the nickname; a morning of seeking the bonefish in Fred’s small but efficiently outfitted motorcraft reveals he has the gift of swiftly gauging the presence of bonefish as he takes along the shallow flats off Bimini. While you might notice nothing at all in the waters, Fred’s lifelong-trained eyes are alert to the least movement that tells there are bonefish in the area. Part of the experience is hearing the anecdotes and facts about these waters and their life—the largest bonefish caught locally, the gradual changes along the coastline—all from a lifelong and passionate connection with this sport.

Taking time to drop into some of the small landmarks that still dot Bimini is the essential complement that rounds off any personal portrait you will take away of the island. This could take the form of anything from a snack and a beer at Captain Bob’s, where the walls are lined with photos of champion anglers of past and distant years, to a short browse through the tiny Bimini Museum, which has a selection of rare fishing films and photos of Hemingway and other prominent personalities from Bimini’s glamorous sport-fishing past. Or you might stop off at the whimsical and charming Dolphin House, where proprietor and historian Ashley Saunders will treat you to a vivid taste of Bimini life and lore. The walls of Saunders’s crowded ground-floor gift shop are lined with mementos and photographs of local events and personalities over the decades, while the upstairs guest suite areas are a kaleidoscopic display of shell, coral, tile, coins and other small items from across Bimini that cover almost every available section of wall and floor. The exterior of Dolphin House reflects the same brilliant collage, painstakingly put together by Saunders over the years.

Saunders himself is a walking compendium about Bimini, emphasising that his book, A History of Bimini, is very much a Bahamian perspective on the island’s legacy. “I wanted to tell people about who the first Indian inhabitants were – and I think I solved that question when I wrote the book,” he explains. “Also, I wanted to portray Ernest Hemingway, who is one of the central characters in Bimini history and part of its heritage.” As for aspects he continues to tell travellers about most frequently, he notes: “One of them would be that Bimini is the site of part of the lost civilisation of Atlantis. We have stones off Bimini, remnants of this Atlantis, that you can see in 15 feet of water while scuba diving or snorkelling or even from putting a glass bucket over the side of a boat. It’s an awesome sight to see these stones; they’re all from one of the most dynamic civilisations that ever existed in this part of the world. I also like to tell them about the healing springs in East Bimini, the Healing Hole, which is connected with Atlantis. This pool of water contains chemicals that when you submerge yourself and stay long enough in to take the dose has healing properties that can cure a number of both psychological and physical ailments. I also like to mention the Fountain of Youth, that was sought after by the Spanish discoverer of Bimini, Juan Ponce de Leon, who gave up a fortune in Spanish gold and the governorship of Puerto Rico to seek Bimini and the Fountain of Youth. The water’s supposed to be of such miraculous virtues that if you drink some it’s said to make an old man like a young man again!” Where exactly does legend leave off and reality begin on Bimini or in its waters? The answers seem more elusive than the clear shallow flats of its shores and cays at first suggest, with any number of hints, markers, myths and facts from which to draw in forming your own picture of Bimini. Yet this elusive quality only lends itself to the island’s real-enough magic, hanging off the edge of a great continent, still drawing dreamers and businessmen, or the traveller seeking retreat or revelry, but all in some way entranced by Bimini’s enduring mix of nature and dazzling promises.

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