The Fourth International Bonefish and Tarpon Trust Symposium will take place on November 11th and 12th, 2011 at the International Game Fishing Association Hall of Fame in Dania Beach, FL. Representatives …
By Hannah Sampson
ALICE TOWN, Bimini — Sleepy is almost too caffeinated a word for the laid-back, sun-drenched Bahamian island just a 20-minute hop from Fort Lauderdale.
Locals — they’ll be friends before long — saunter by with a wave. Water laps at deserted white sand. Hammocks swing between palm trees. Legends of former visitors, including Ernest Hemingway and Martin Luther King Jr., still linger.
“He loved the island atmosphere,” said John Hemingway, the novelist’s grandson, who has visited the island since he was young. “This is calm. This is relaxed.”
Looking for the Fountain of Youth or the lost island of Atlantis? Local lore says you can find both around here. And even if you can’t, there’s plenty to discover if you know where to look.
What Bimini lacks in action — explore elsewhere in the Bahamas for shopping, entertainment, luxury hotels and lavish restaurants — it makes up for in richness of history and abundance of offshore options.
That history includes a colorful stretch during Prohibition, when partygoers made use of Bimini’s proximity to the United States to get away for outlawed refreshments. Decades later and still a getaway, Bimini found new notoriety when presidential candidate Gary Hart was photographed with companion Donna Rice on his lap.
Banking on the island’s storied past and lasting appeal, a South Florida-based group earlier this summer reopened the historic Bimini Big Game Club as a Guy Harvey Outpost Resort & Marina with a focus on environmentally friendly adventure. Harvey, a well-known marine artist and conservationist, has his art hanging throughout the resort.
Founded in 1936, the hotel closed two years ago after piling up a mountain of debt. The hotel’s demise was the final in a series of blows that devastated Bimini, starting with the December 2005 crash off Miami Beach of a Bimini-bound Chalk’s seaplane that killed all 20 people aboard.
Just a few weeks later, a hotel that was Hemingway’s old haunt, the Compleat Angler, burned down. One man perished in the fire, which also destroyed a trove of Hemingway memorabilia. Only charred ruins and a chimney remain where the hotel once stood, though the family who owns it plans to rebuild eventually.
BACK IN THE GAMENow, with a $3.5 million renovation, the 51-room Big Game Club has gotten a face lift — and the island has a new surge of energy.
For visitors like Bruce Freund, a Miami resident who has been coming to Bimini for decades, the resort’s reopening is a welcome addition to what he calls a “superbly romantic” island.
“I think the facility is as nice, if not nicer, than it was in its prime,” he said.
Freund, his wife Amy and their dog spent weeks this summer docked at the marina outside Big Game or out in the open water diving for conch and catching snapper or mahi-mahi for dinner.
“It literally is a foreign country,” Freund said. “But it’s 50 miles and two hours in my boat.”
The resort, with six cottages that have two guest rooms apiece, 35 standard rooms and four penthouse suites, also includes a 75-slip marina, a restaurant and bar, freshwater pool and shop. Still to come: a fuel dock at the marina, fitness center and spa, a theater for lectures and DVD viewing, and conference space.
Because of its focus on conservation and Harvey’s passion for protecting sharks, the resort has formed a partnership with a shark research lab on South Bimini so guests can learn more about the researchers’ efforts.
“They’re built to last,” said Harvey, who is trying to make the Bahamas a no-take zone for sharks. “And we’ve annihilated them.”
The renovated standard rooms are simple but comfortable, with porches or balconies, flat-screen TVs and, of course, Guy Harvey-branded rugs and pillows. Cottages have tin roofs and two double beds or one king.
Air conditioning in many island outposts fights a losing battle against the heat, but the rooms were cool on a recent visit. Even more pleasantly surprising was the strong wireless Internet signal that works throughout the resort.
Sightseeing on land won’t take much time: in the hub of Alice Town, check out the endearing Bimini Museum, which asks for a $2 donation to see old photographs and mementos of notable natives and visitors, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s immigration card; the small straw market across the street, the graffiti-covered End of the World Saloon and the Chalk’s airline office, now shuttered, where the final scene of The Silence of the Lambs was shot.
INTO THE SEABut people come to Bimini for water, not land, and activities run the gamut: Deep-sea fishing for big catches, bonefishing in the flats, shark encounters, swimming with dolphins, kayaking, diving and snorkeling.
The ocean floor holds shipwrecks, including the underwater remains of a former rum-running boat; reefs and sharp dropoffs. But probably the most famous diving site is known as the Bimini Road, a rock formation in 20 feet of water rumored to be the path to Atlantis.
There are a handful of other lodging options on Bimini, from the tiny Thirsty Turtle Yacht Club on South Bimini to the larger and more upscale Bimini Bay Resort in North Bimini.
Hemingway immortalized the island — and its fish — in his novel Islands in the Stream: “There was just the green light of the water over that floury white sand and you could see the shadow of any big fish a long time before he could ever come in close to the beach.’
For a teenage Guy Harvey, Hemingway was an early inspiration. After reading The Old Man and the Sea, he drew a series of illustrations to accompany the book. Years later, those were used as the basis of his first one-man show in Kingston, Jamaica, which launched his career as an artist.
At the resort that bears Harvey’s name, photos of Hemingway adorn the restaurant, and a Hemingway Lounge is planned.
“To be associated with his name and his reputation here in Bimini is just enormous for me,” Harvey said. “I think all the people who come here from all over the world, but particularly from Florida, will hopefully experience my enthusiasm for him and the town’s enthusiasm for the rich fishing history that is very vibrant here.”