Mystery, History and Construction Cranes in Bimini
True story: A rather ambitious explorer by the name of Ponce De Leon set off to locate the Fountain of Youth with his entourage in 1513. He found the well in Bimini, Bahamas and some 500 years later, I took a hearty swig of what supposedly keeps me forever young. Maybe it's the thrill that made me feel like the sprightly Peter Pan—a giddy rush of youthfulness hijacked my worn body—and I went to discover more of the island—on foot, thank you very much.
Bimini (comprising North and South islands, totaling seven miles long) is something like the mystical island in the TV show Lost: It's chockfull of mysteries, strange legends and magic. For instance, there's the Healing Hole, discovered approximately 20 years back, a mineral-rich pool hidden deep in the mangroves. Locals swear by this water that contains significant amounts of sulfur, said to have healing properties. On the other side of the island there's Bimini Road, predicted to be discovered in the sixties by late psychic Edgar Cayce and coincidentally encountered during that time. The underwater assemblage of large granite stones is believed to lead to the lost city of Atlantis, destroyed in a natural disaster several thousand years ago. As directed, I submerged myself twenty feet to get a closer look at this phenomenon, which is undoubtedly manmade. There are even deliberate grooves in the rocks (similar to the Incan's building method).
Magic also comes to the island in what visitors like to consider as favorable lack of mass tourism. Though rich in history with interesting attractions (not to mention the coast of sublime beaches so deserted they are basically your personal playground), Bimini caters primarily to wealthy fisherman and their wives due to the large stock of game fishing. Throw in the handful of curious visitors on a spiritual quest, and you've got yourself an unusual market. Nevertheless, no matter what lures visitors to these islands, there's practically no other tourists here. In fact, it’s so small there's no room for more.
But things are changing.
Conrad Hotel Group managed to Starbucks its way through the most eastern part of North Bimini, setting up camp to develop a luxury resort complex while destroying a substantial portion of the mangroves along the way. Upon passing through the gated entrance of Bimini Bay where I had arranged dinner, the "feng shui" of the island immediately became just as lost as my sense of environment. A substantial section of the site (some high-end condos erected, some not) looked like the vomit of one of the island's discovered vortexes. Conrad has big plans, including a cruise port, air strip, theme park, etc., having potential to spoil the “unspoiled” island. The 400-room hotel is slated to open in 2010, while 300 private condos and residences are currently available.
At dinner, the signature restaurant Casa Lyon was low on ambience and big on mediocre portions of Caribbean dishes, though it didn't seem to affect Sunday-dressed families speaking loudly over the "live" music of a local belting American classics off-key. In the end, I believed the restaurant had potential if "luxury" wasn't forced as a cult idea. I did, however, return my take-out bottled water after it came up on my bill for $10.
Lately, Bimini Bay has been the talk of the town, new material to pass time while fish gutting since the Compleat Angler hotel burned down two years ago. (It was the social center of Bimini, and homed Ernest Hemingway, who put Bimini on the map with his frequent visits for sport fishing and writing the novel "Island in the Stream.") Even if the development of Bimini Bay may change the whole dynamic of the denizen's little oasis (the bad news), there's always the good news: more work for the unemployed and more money for the island. The locals—who just kinda go with the flow—are hardly fazed. Perhaps the most concerned are the researchers at the shark lab. These 9 twenty-something international students who actually live in the lab in a reality-show-ish way went numb when the mangroves were destroyed. "The sharks here depend on the mangroves for fish. If there are no mangroves, there are no sharks," says Australian-born manager Kat, who hopes Conrad Group will work in a more ecological, sustainable way.
Even with the little resistance acted upon, the Conrad will have to dangle a pretty big carrot. The island's most charming and authentic hotel, Big John’s Hotel, has more game, established already with loyal, satisfying visitors who have been returning for generations. A major expansion is in store with a new residential and commercial real estate project called Heritage Village, comprising Brown’s Beach Club (an outdoor bar with daybeds and waterfront lounging),17 marina slips and 17 hotel/condo units (open fall 2009) to upsize Big John’s seven rooms. The eccentric cast of characters that you find on the property will (thankfully) remain the same. If endearing dive master Jeff isn't talking you up with his obsession of the island's magic and contribution to keep it alive, you'll be awed-inspired by local historian Ashley Saunders. His vivid memories of Hemingway boxing his relatives in a make-shift ring brings the island to life, a story more engaging than the tabloidy fact Melanie Griffith met Antonio Banderas here. Magic in the air, indeed.
The award for best story, however, goes to Ashley's brother, Ansil, who took Martin Luther King Out for a bonefishing trip in 1968. "He was writing part of his eulogy on my boat," recalls Ansil. "He told me he had a feeling he was going to die. Three days later, he was assassinated."
If his story doesn't move you, the island most likely will. Having faith in its legends? Well, that’s a whole other story.