Grand Bahama Island
I kicked myself (figuratively) when I realized toward the end of our tour of Grand Bahama Island today that though I had my smartphone in my hands most of the time I failed to take one photo! We had arranged for a tour with a driver (Brice) and I got so involved in asking questions and listening to his answers and to seeing the things he was describing that it never occurred to me to take photos! What I did use my Galaxy S8+ for was to display a constantly-updating Google Map, so I could see where we were on the Island.
Grand Bahama Island is the northernmost in the Bahamas group of approximately 700 islands and 2,400 cays and is the closest to the US – 53 miles to Palm Beach FL. It is the fourth largest in the island chain and second highest in population at just under 52,000; the entire Bahamas population is just over 400,000.
We have no trouble spending US dollars here in the Bahamas; their Bahamian Dollar (BSD) is usually on a par with US dollars, so no conversion is needed. You will often get US money in change from purchases, though we have sometimes also received a mix of US and BSD. Of course being at an all-inclusive resort means far fewer transactions.
Grand Bahama layout
Grand Bahama Island is about 95 miles long east-west and 15 miles wide at its widest north-south. It is organized into three administrative districts: the Freeport Bonded Area and the districts of East Grand Bahama and West Grand Bahama. Freeport is the main city of Grand Bahama, it holds the main business district, the commercial ship harbor, and the main airport. There is a smaller airport for private aircraft. Lucaya is a tourist destination on the island, with beaches and hotels and is where we have been staying. West End is the capital of Grand Bahama. Eight Mile Rock is the largest settlement in Grand Bahama and all of The Bahamas; it stretches out eight miles of rocky shore, hence its name. McLeans Town is the easternmost settlement and a 30-minute ferry ride from the northernmost settlement of the neighbor island of Abaco.
Grand Bahama history
The Bahamas were originally home to various native groups, among which were the Lucayans, but Spain laid claim to the archipelago shortly after Christopher Columbus made his first landing here in the Americas in 1492. The Spanish never settled the islands, though, and they were mostly used for pirating activities. This was made more successful because the islands are surrounded by treacherous coral reefs; pirates would drive ships onto the reefs and pillage them once they foundered. In fact the Spanish name for Grand Bahama Island was Gran Bajamar, meaning “Great Shallows”. Remembering that the Spanish pronunciation of “j” is like “h” in English, and you have the idea of how the name came to be applied. However, the Lucayan (pre-Columbian) name for the island was Bahama, so both sources ring true.
The British claimed the islands in 1670, but it took about 50 years for them to curb the piracy. Grand Bahama remained relatively quiet until the mid-19th century, with only around 200-400 regular inhabitants in the capital, West End. During and after the American Revolution some British Loyalists moved from the American colonies to the Bahamas, many bringing with them the slaves they owned. In 1834, the towns of Pinder’s Point, Russell Town, and Williams Town were established by former Bahamian slaves after slavery was abolished in the British empire. The Bahamas gained independence from the United Kingdom on July 10, 1973 but remain in the Commonwealth of Nations. The Bahamas recognizes Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State and the Governor-General is Her Majesty’s representative in The Bahamas.
Grand Bahama development
There was little development activity on Grand Bahama Island until around 1955 when a Virginia financier named Wallace Groves began redevelopment with the Bahamian government to build the city of Freeport under the Hawksbill Creek Agreement and create the Grand Bahama Port Authority. Soon after, the ambitious Edward St. George, with the financial help of Sir Jack Hayward, took the company to new frontiers. Groves started by cutting the native pine trees that grew on the island and created a major timber and lumber industry with exports to the US and elsewhere. The whole of Freeport that we see today was built in the 15-20 year period of 1955-1975. The tourist center of Port Lucaya was begun in 1962 and Grand Bahama became the second most populous island in the Bahamas. There has been some development since those times, mainly in the Lucaya area and some in the industrial areas.
What we saw
Brice’s tour comprised the Lucayan and Freeport areas along with much of West End. As such, we got to see most of what Grand Bahama Island is about.
Even as we approached Grand Bahama on our way in by air I was struck by the huge number of water channels or canals geometrically arranged on the island. We learned that these were constructed as part of the Island’s development and serve at least two purposes. The channels connect to the ocean on both sides of the island and thus provide ocean access from interior properties. They also serve to collect rainwater that falls on the land and convey it to the ocean. The major roads cross over the channels via bridges high enough to clear even fairly large private vessels.
The Freeport area has an active port with commercial shipping traffic of all types. There is a large petroleum storage facility having many, many tanks in which both refined and crude oil are stored by offshore companies. There is a ship repair facility with both dry- and wet-docks.
There is some manufacturing in the area, though this is not an important industry.
By far, tourism is the major Grand Bahama industry with banking as a close second.
There is some agriculture on Grand Bahama but it was severely damaged by the hurricanes of 2017. Citrus and chickens were the main components of this.
We were surprised by “downtown” Freeport. We expected a city with buildings close together but instead found a spread-out district with low buildings.
Speaking of low buildings, many high-rise condos and other tourist-related buildings were damaged by the hurricanes, some significantly and to the point where they are not currently habitable. We can see why there had not been much interest in constructing tall buildings in the past!
Many of the smaller homes have not been kept up well, and weather quickly due to ocean storms and hurricanes. We saw damage to a lot of small private homes, with maybe half of them showing signs of repair. Many homes have a collection of junk vehicles and other junk items in their yards, similar to what we see in many rural US communities.
Brice took us through a “high rent district” near Lucayan where there are very expensive homes owned by professionals and wealthy retireds. Many of these also showed hurricane damage, mostly to roofs, but most were being repaired.
He said many of the smaller homes were probably priced at around $45,000 but showed us some larger places in the $100,000-150,000 range. No, we were not interested!
Grand Bahama Island is a great place to visit, and we look forward to seeing more of the Bahamas perhaps in the future.
Grand Bahama Vacations: http://www.grandbahamavacations.com/about-the-island/facts-and-figures/
Grand Lucayan: http://www.grandlucayan.com/all-inclusive/