Mar
01
2011

Bahamas: More than a Pirate's Hideaway

Once dubbed the Pirate Republic, the Bahamas has a long and mottled history of acting as a refuge for nefarious characters, from swashbucklers to thrill-seekers. And those are just the personalities who stayed above the surface of the world’s best diving caves.

Few destinations share the Bahamas’ adventurous history, where pirates, rumrunners and bootleggers provided economic boom times for the citizens. A fellow named Edward Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard, proudly called Nassau home in the early 18th century.

Two centuries later, a modern-day swashbuckler named Al Capone set up residence in West End, Grand Bahama. With neighbours like these to provide  adventure, the world’s best cave diving, coral reef snorkelling and Shark Alley almost seem like an afterthought.

The West End: Bahamas' Heart and Soul

Today, most of Grand Bahama’s commerce flows through Freeport, a commercial community constructed by Wallace Groves who, true to the archipelago’s reputation, was a former Wall Street privateer convicted of mail fraud in 1941.

In 1955, Groves received some of the Bahamian government’s first tax incentives (i.e. no taxes at all) to build the airport, an offshore ship-fuelling station and Bahamas Amusement Ltd., his exclusive gambling licence. With such a cast of historical characters, the West End, the historical capital of Grand Bahama, appears like another innocent fishing village.

But peer closer and you’ll discover the Star Hotel, the island’s first commercial lodging and, formerly, the evening haunt of Mr. Capone, among the row of whitewashed stores that line the narrow street and seawall from Bahama Bay. West End residents are quick to emphasize that, although Freeport receives the attention today, this peninsula harbours the island’s history and soul.

Where the Real Bahamians Are

“The West End was the epicentre of bootlegging, filled with shady characters, including spies, who would slip in and out of the many bars to keep tabs on one another,” explains Nako Brice, a native Grand Bahamian who makes a point of taking his tours out of the familiar resort environs to explore the West End.

Thanks to Brice’s insight, I dive headfirst into the community at the Sunday night fish fry, one of the best and most-overlooked adventures on the island.

“Tourists rarely make the 40-minute drive to the West End because they think it’s a ghost town now,” concurs Lova Mae Nixon, co-proprietor (with cousin Roselyn Russell) of the Chicken Nest, which is rumoured to serve the crispiest fried snapper and conch fritters on the island. “It’s really too bad, because this is where you see the true Bahamians dancing, singing and carrying on.”

Grand Bahamians pour in from all over the island, the sound speakers are rolled out to the street and the descending sun sparkles off the sea.

“This is Bahamas. It make me weak!” shouts my dance partner and tour guide, Grand Bahamian Donna Mackey, as we shimmy and shake from behind the bar, through the crowd and out into the sunset.

Bahamians can appear aloof, but mostly when they’re working in the resort environment. Make the effort to veer off the well-trodden tourist path by going to the fish fry at Eight Mile Rock, or by popping by a Junkanoo rehearsal, and you’ll be embraced immediately.

Junkanoo: A Festival of Music, Dance and Freedom

“Many, many people come to the Bahamas for our festival, which we call Junkanoo,” Brice says, as we drive to a store parking lot where a band of 30 locals practise a coordinated dance to a pulsing island riddum. “But there’s plenty of soul at the various rehearsal sites to motivate you throughout the year.”

Junkanoo is named after John Canoe, a notoriously harsh 17th-century African slave owner, whose slaves would hide from his tirades in the bushes, where they would cover themselves in plant costumes, dance and sing.

Held in the West End on Boxing Day and on New Year’s Day in Freeport, Junkanoo today is a celebration of freedom, as beats and bodies move freely down the street.

Like Rio’s Carnival and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, Junkanoo involves a series of regional groups who come together to celebrate and show off their spirited dances, elaborate costumes and music.

Every Bahamian has a specific Junkanoo group, passed from parent to child, and the parade prep is a serious affair; part weekly reunion and part dance band practice, with the goal of wowing the crowd. Judges award groups in several categories, including best costume and dance.

Diving in Bahamas

Unlike Blackbeard, Capone and Groves, not everyone who comes here harbours a furtive history. In the 1970s, famed underwater explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau visited the Bahamas to seek his treasure, specifically the Andros Islands “Blue Holes”—portals into massive freshwater cave systems that braid their way beneath many of the 700 coral islands.

Blue Hole diving is also popular on Grand Bahama, but the systems are so complicated that only experienced cave divers with special government certification are permitted to dive within them.

And so I content myself with snorkelling along the surface, where I find caves at Eight Mile Rock Boiling Hole and Ben’s Cave in Lucayan National Park, the 40-acre preserve that also contains mangrove ecosystems and undisturbed beaches.Ben’s Cave, discovered when its roof collapsed during heavy rains, forms part of the Lucayan Cavern System—10 kilometres of tunnels that make it one of the largest freshwater cave formations in the world, with miles more uncharted.

Visitors descend steps into the cave and, during the summer, observe roosting migratory bats—although the cave entrances are closed to visitors when the bats are nursing. Deep within the cave, there are natural treasures, including the blind Remipedia crustacean, which was discovered in the late 1970s.

Considered endemic to the Lucayan caverns, biologists believe Remipedia has existed for millions of years. The cave also releases enough moisture to support the epiphytic bromeliads and orchids that grow near its entrance, but hardly anywhere else on the island.

Skeletal remains of the indigenous Lucayan people were discovered in 1986 within a second cave. Archaeologists later confirmed the cave floor served as ceremonial burial grounds for the natives, whose civilization was exterminated by the invading Spanish soon after contact with Christopher Columbus, who first struck land in the New World on October 12, 1492,
in the Bahamas.

A few steps from Ben’s Cave, a boardwalk carries the curious across a pristine mangrove system that forms part of Gold Rock Creek, populated by several heron species, turtles and other wildlife, including bright saltwater fish. The trail leads to the Gold Rock Beach, considered one of the most beautiful waterfronts on the island.

Claustrophobia, among other excuses, prevents me from putting on tanks and disappearing into the Lucayan Caverns, but doesn’t stop me from snorkelling along the brilliant coral reef ecosystem; at 200,000 mi2, it is the third-largest reef system on earth.

Fan and brain coral splay out below me while clownfish, blue angelfish, four-eye butterflyfish and others dart about, almost bumping into my mask. Diving with sharks is up there with base-jumping on the adrenaline junkies’ top 10 list, and Shark Alley is the ideal place to swim with the big guys.

To amp up the experience, tour operators feed the sharks as the assembled guests lock arms and observe from below. Cage viewing of the larger and more aggressive tiger shark is also available off the West End.

Eighty-five years ago, Al Capone considered Grand Bahama his tropical escape. What worked for Public Enemy #1 certainly works for me. Now, where did I put that treasure map?

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Crai S Bower

Award winning travel writer Crai S Bower contributes scores of articles annually to more than twenty publications and online outlets. His niche? "Adrenaline rushes that won’t kill you and end with a decent bottle of wine." The travel commentator for NPR-affiliate KUOW, Crai also writes “Life’s A Liability Release” for HuffingtonPost. 

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