I’ve never been a fan of the Bahamas. Previous trips to mega-resorts like Atlantis never appealed to the adventurer in me. As I recall, I was a teenager and the sight of lit up towers and massive crowds outside my window felt more like the Vegas Strip than a relaxing, tropical paradise. I returned years later with friends and much to my dismay, things seemed more commercial; crowds were bigger; lights were brighter. While there were plenty of good times, it was missing that “off-the-grid” feeling.
These few experiences created, for me, a stigma that left me quite reluctant to return to the well-known archipelago indefinitely. I found myself traveling further and further away; longer flight times were worth it. I’d exchanged crowds and cruise ship-goers for a more scenic getaway. Having grown up right outside NYC, I wanted to feel as though I was somewhere completely foreign from home. And as a result, I learned a lot about myself as a traveler. But it wasn’t until recently that I discovered how little I knew about the Bahamas.
For one, there are around 700 islands and cays, some of which are completely uninhabited. (Who knew there were that many?) The urbanite in me certainly didn’t. What’s more, many of these districts have quite the storied past—a rich cultural history that I’d not anticipated.
My eye-opening realization came prior to my recent trip to Bimini, the westernmost island(s) of the Bahamas located roughly 50 miles due east of Miami. Bimini is comprised of two larger islands (North and South) and a series of other small cays and mangroves. With a population of about 2,000 and an area of less than nine square miles, Bimini is a place that embodies slow-living, island life—one with no massive towers or cruise ships blocking the view.
I’ll admit, I initially thought getting to Bimini from New Jersey would be quite the chore. For those living in Florida, Miami specifically, there’s quite a lot of options: seaplane, niche airlines, flying private, even by boat. But without access to my own personal jet for the weekend I was left scratching my head. It was around that time I was introduced to Elite Airways, a niche airline that specializes in those under-the-radar cities and destinations in and around the U.S. Headquartered in Portland, Maine, the airline commenced operations in 2014 and now has roughly 11 planes in service–most of which seat about 70 passengers. Elite recently opened a direct flight from Newark International Airport right to South Bimini, with a travel time totaling about 2 hours and 30 minutes. The ease of the direct route—and just dealing with a smaller airline in general—made the visit that much easier.
We landed at South Bimini Airport, which is nested between some overgrown brush and the sea on every side–this already set the tone that the visit would be more scenic than I’d expected. To give you an idea, our shiny little 70-passenger plane was by far the largest thing on the runway all weekend.
From the airport, we boarded a ferry which took us directly across the channel to North Bimini, right to the doorstep of the Hilton at Resorts World Bimini. The 300-room hotel opened just last year, and is by and large the only real “hotel-hotel” on the island. Since opening, the Hilton at Resorts World Bimini has become an ideal place to serve as a homebase for exploring all of what Bimini’s shores and sea has to offer. While it’s set on a less commercialized island, the hotel does a great job of making us spoiled Westerners feel as though we have all of the little amenities we’d come to expect while staying abroad.
The hotel features a very different multi-use lobby, which helps make a small island (and by American standards, a small resort/hotel) feel alive. Juxtaposed in the Hilton’s main room are a few restaurants, serving everything from casual fare and sushi, to breakfast buffets and fine dining in the evenings. The Hilton also has a connected casino, a rooftop pool, swim-up bar, and a formidable spa which I attended on my final day. As someone who frequents the spa at home–mostly for deep tissue and sports massages–it was nice to work with a massage therapist who was just as knowledgeable as those back home.
The Hilton is also home to the largest marina in The Bahamas, an ideal stopping point for deep-sea fishermen able to dock just under 300 boats. For all you literature fans out there, Bimini was also home to famed-author Ernest Hemingway from 1935 to 1937. During his time there it’s said he wrote “To Have and Have Not” and spent most of his days offshore in search of marlin and swordfish. It’s also said that the tales of gigantic fish are what inspired Hemingway to eventually write titles such as “The Old Man and the Sea.”
Bimini isn’t just for cranky old men who fancy dry martinis and short sentences. It’s a place to unwind and sort of just be. I won’t lie, the island is pretty small, but it’s quite funny how even in such a small place there’s just not enough time to do and see everything. One of the best ways to get around and see North Bimini is by renting a bicycle or a golf cart if you’re in a hurry (pro tip: don’t be in a hurry, you’re in Bimini!). Golf carts are available for rental at the Hilton and bike rentals are just a stone’s throw away at Bimini Undersea. If you really want to get the most of the sights, I strongly recommend bike riding. In either case, just don’t forget that the sides of the road are reversed from what you’re used to in The States.
Biking down North Bimini through Alicetown—or as the locals call in “in town”—is probably one of the most relaxing things you can do on the island, that is of course aside from floating aimlessly in its calm turquoise waters. Along the road you’ll pass some quaint-looking conch shacks, home to some really incredible conch salad (if you like shellfish, this is a must). These little shacks are marked by dark wooden exteriors marked with the names of visitors, and small mountains of empty conch shells on either side. While the hotel has some pretty great dining options, the local food is definitely something to behold. More on that later.
One of our first bike stops was at a small boathouse, home of Ansil Saunders or as the locals call him, Bonefish Legend. Literally a living legend, the Bimini-native is a top custom boat builder in the Bahamas and a bone-fishing world record holder. From the minute you shake hands with Ansil, you know you’re in the presence of someone truly special—you can sort of just feel it in the breeze flowing from the shore through the front of his workshop. He reminisced on one of his fondest memories, taking Martin Luther King Jr. on a boat ride through Bimini’s mangroves. It is said that during this trip MLK wrote part of his speech that would go on to earn him the Nobel Peace Prize. We could’ve literally listened to Ansil’s “remember when’s” all day.
Our bike ride was frequently interrupted by stunning coastal views and undeniable photo-ops. This included the Dolphin House, a vibrant structure comprised of shells, tile and sea glass. “If Bimini gets hit with a terrible storm, this will be the last thing standing,” Ashley Saunders told me, who just happens to be the brother of Ansil Saunders (yeah, it’s a tight-knit community).
Another great place to stop is Radio Beach. There’s a good chance you’ll catch someone swinging a machete, hacking open a bunch of fresh coconuts—be sure to pay him a visit because you’ll be thirsty (and please, use a straw). Radio Beach is one of those places in Bimini where you really feel at ease. It’s not flooded with tourists, or really anyone for that matter. Not far up the road you can visit the Gallant Lady Shipwreck, which is right up against the rocks–it’s definitely an Instagram-worthy moment.
Riding around Alicetown is incredibly relaxing. Everything is so simple and its residents are so content with life—something so many of us lose sight of. On the way back to the Hilton at Resorts World Bimini, we stopped for a late lunch at Edith’s Pizza—an island favorite. This is one of those joints where you should definitely go bananas and order everything on the menu. (Alright not everything, you’ll have a couple miles to pedal back to the Hilton).
While many days can be spent biking and beaching, the most memorable come at sea. Our first seafaring excursion was to the SS Sapona wreck, a concrete ship which sank during prohibition. The boat ride takes about 20 minutes from Bimini Undersea, but it’s worth it. The ship itself is half submerged and embellished with graffiti that speaks to its age. While the waters around the wreck were quite rough, they’re usually pretty calm—so much so that families can explore the wreck together. Luckily, the rough waters made for some interesting shots on my GoPro—definitely the time to hit the record button.
Another highlight at sea is definitely Honeymoon Harbor. The small anchorage on Gun Cay is renowned for sunbathing and more importantly, feeding stingrays. Too shallow for scuba diving but ideal for snorkeling, this little slice of heaven will give you up-close and personal encounters with rays and nurse sharks—all of which are completely harmless. With a little squid in hand, you’ll see why stingrays are known as the puppies of the sea (just be careful not to step on anyone). If you want some more pulse-racing encounters—visit during the colder months for scuba diving with hammerheads (don’t bring squid to that).
With so much to do (and not do), it’s pretty easy to see why Bimini could become a hotspot for us New Jerseyans, especially with the ease of a direct flight. Though hurricane Irma recently tore through little island, the consequences have not been completely disastrous and the resort itself plans to reopen by Sept. 27. For more, please check visit the Hilton at Resorts World Bimini.