Eleuthera Island, Bahamas: It’s not for everyone

eleuthera bahamas

Eleuthera, Bahamas – Before I came here it was hard to fathom the rationale for promoting an island with a negative (“Eleuthera, It’s Not For Everyone”). But after ten days spent roaming its 110-mile length and half-mile breadth up close, the official motto of the long, skinny, desert-dry island the slogan began to make sense.

It is a special place: Hot, dry, swept by strong winds, much of its 220-mile coastline surrounded by calf-deep, psychedelically blue waters, a limestone-and-coral rock at the edge of the 700-island Bahamian archipelago, plunged up from a shallow ocean floor.

Home to fishermen, both sportsmen and lobstermen, the nearby Grand Banks remain fertile, suffering more from poaching that overfishing, far more abundant than the rocky, desert-like land. To grow anything here – from mangos to tomatoes, arugula to yams — dirt must be imported.

Though locals insist that the island’s biggest economy, tourism, is doing okay, I spent many, many hours exploring long stretches of sandy beaches, whether on the Atlantic or Caribbean side, alone.

Its small towns, from Deep Creek to Gregory Town, James Cistern to Tarpum Bay, are quiet, simple. While multi-million dollar tourist homes – some owned by celebrities from the U.S., most by expatriate descendants of the escaping Englishmen who first colonized the place in the 18th century – line some of the beaches, people are so few, so spread out that much of the island has a deserted feel to it.

Remember … it’s not for everyone.The same could be said for much of the Bahamas, I guess, though plenty of bone-fishermen, tax-evaders (there’s no corporate, income, capitol gains or estate taxes here) and a few renowned drug dealers happily call the place home.

(Regarding the latter, more than a dozen sizable drug trafficking operations have been based in the Bahamas, including Colombian king pin Carlos Lehder whose cigarette boats ran cocaine through the islands for a couple decades. As recently as the 1980s its Prime Minister was alleged to have received more than $57 million in drug hush money.)

Curious about stories of drug dealers and pirates (Blackbeard was said to have buried several fortunes on Eleuthera’s Atlantic coast) I came to talk to fishermen and scientists, about the state of Caribbean fishing and the future of the island to be more self-sufficient.

The fishing grounds here seem to be in better shape than on many islands and seas I’ve visited around the globe during the past couple decades – especially its lobster trade, which sends jets big catches around the world every day. The island’s big fishing fleet of 200 to 300 boats is based out of the northern spit of Spanish Wells.

But with a barrel of imported fuel oil already costing over $100, I would think there should be a more urgent push to rein in the abundant wind and sun that washes the islands nearly 24/7/365. Solar panels are few and far between. Island life is as laid back here as anywhere on the planet … not always a good thing.

One history of colonial life here, for example, mentioned the downside of eating barracuda taken from these shallows. Doing so, said British residents in the early 20th century, would cause your hair and fingernails to drop off.

Hoping for some local knowledge just in case someone presented me with a fresh barracuda for dinner, I poked around at the elegant Haynes Library in the capitol town of Governor’s Harbor. Across the street the shallows were dotted by a trio of bone fishermen; the town’s boat ramp hosted a crude plywood table covered with the day’s catch speared off nearby reefs – jacks, grouper, crayfish.

I asked the very sweet librarians if they’d had experience with barracuda, and if they’d lost anything in the process.

“Oh no, I never heard that,” said the first, her co-workers shaking their heads in agreement.

“Barracuda. That’s a sweet meat,” said a second. “Watch out though. The young ones, the smaller ones, can be poisonous.”

“Hmmm, yes they can,” said a third. “I ate one once and for six weeks every time I ate fish, no matter what kind, my hands would go all tingly. Everything that was cold was hot, everything that was hot was cold, in my mouth and in my hands.”

I left them nodding their heads under the whirr of tall ceiling fans, my fingers, somehow, already tingling.

[flickr image via mfrascella]

Cruise line private islands, a very safe port

Cruise Line Private IslandsOften a highlight of a cruise to the Bahamas or the Caribbean is a stop at one of the cruise line’s private islands. Probably one of the safest, most controlled ports of call you might visit, cruise line private islands are consistently ranked high by passengers. Most are located in the Bahamas and each one is unique.

On every private island you will find crystal clear water, sandy beaches, water sports and activities along with beach-side service for drinks and lunch will be served. Some require tendering in from the ship, others dock at the island.

The first passengers off the ship will find a pristine beach raked and clean, along with resident workers ready to make your stay comfortable. There is plenty to do (or not do) for adults and kids and even serene adult-only areas.Cruise line private islandsGreat Stirrup Cay, Bahamas is Norwegian Cruise Line’s private island, under their care since 1977 when the line became the first to have one. The island features Snorkeling

Recent enhancements to the island that started in January of 2010 will continue through the end of this year. Several new island activities have been added since the project began including more than 16 wave runners, kayak rentals and an eco-adventure boat tour around the island. These are in addition to the existing snorkeling; floats; inflatable hippo slide; and parasailing.

The second phase of enhancements includes an arrival/departure pavilion, additional bar facilities; several comfort stations; a band stand; cruise program activity area; private beachfront cabanas; a kid’s play area; straw market; and beach volleyball courts. The beachfront will continue to be expanded on the island’s west end.

cruise line private islandsHalf Moon Cay, Bahamas This Holland America Line island (now also a Carnival island) was originally called Little San Salvador Island and has been rated as “Best Private Island” by Porthole Cruise Magazine. An international bird sanctuary in the Bahamas, the beauty and serenity of Half Moon Cay is unique.

There are a variety of exciting and new activities to choose from while exploring this privately owned paradise. You can go horseback riding on the sand and through the surf, take a stingray adventure, visit the Half Moon Lagoon Aqua Park, hike a nature trail or simply relax in an air-conditioned, private beachfront cabana.

cruise line private islandsPrincess Cays, Bahamas is Princess Cruises private island on the south side of Eleuthera Island about 30 miles from Nassau. Princess Cays guests will find equipment for many beach activities. Water sports fans can choose from water craft such as sailboats, catamarans, paddle wheelers, kayaks, and banana boats, while those who wish to explore the island’s coral reef can rent gear for snorkeling.

Floating mattresses are available for lazily drifting in the sun, and several protected swimming areas are available on both the north and south beach areas. Beachside, reggae and calypso music set the mood, and guests can enjoy a game of volleyball or basketball, or choose to relax with a hammock, beach chair or under an umbrella.

cruise line private islandsCocoCay, Bahamas is one of two private islands for Royal Caribbean. This one is more along the lines of other cruise lines private islands with sandy beaches (duh) and a nice hammock here and here to enjoy your island-style seaside barbecue.

Tip: When you get off the tenders, there are three beaches to go to. The first one is the biggest and the most crowded. Keep walking and you’ll find the second beach, which is a little smaller and less crowded. Keep going even further and you’ll find the third beach, which is the smallest and least crowded.

cruise line private islandsLabadee, Haiti in is the home to what Royal Caribbean calls their “private destination” and with good reason. On the north coast of Hispaniola, the secure, secluded area is surrounded by exotic foliage and mountain slopes. Guests can enjoy beautiful coral reefs, a pristine public beach as well as a very nice private beach area reserved for suite guests.

A year ago Royal Caribbean International came under close scrutiny as the line planned to visit their private destination of Labadee, Haiti shortly after a devastating earthquake rocked the island. I was on board Freedom of the Seas last January when critics said it was in bad taste for the line to have cruise passengers go ashore for fun and sun while so many were suffering on different parts of the island nation. A year later, not a lot is better in Haiti and Royal Caribbean continues to call.

cruise line private islandsCastaway Cay, Bahamas is Disney Cruise Line’s private island. Unique to Castaway Cay is that the ship docks at the island, no tendering involved, which makes for a great experience. Recently updated, this one has it all.

This is Disney Cruise Line turning an island into a theme park, complete with rides, trams to get around on, gift shops plus really good food. All other private islands pale by comparison. Really.

They should build hotels here and let people stay a while. No wonder some sailings include two stops at the popular island.

If all those are not good enough for you, maybe you should just buy your own



Flickr photo by fotodawg

Caribbean tourism surges

When the global economic crisis grew into the monster it became and began impacting the lives of people everywhere, the amount of vacations to the Caribbean, not surprisingly, sharply declined. Of all expenses budgeted into any one family’s financial plan, these expensive vacations, once sources of annual pride for members of the bourgeoisie, were among the first to go.

Luxurious beachfront vacations commonly cost thousands to put together for a family–and then there’s the money lost from not working for any traveler without vacation pay (…and here I am daydreaming about what it’d be like to be a travel writer with vacation pay…). Clearly, most other types of spending in everyday life come before this kind of spending during times of economic hardship.

But for the first time since this devasting blow to the Caribbean tourism industry in 2008, travelers are visiting the area again in steadily increasing numbers. Yahoo! News reports that more than 23 million tourists visited the region in 2010, myself included thanks to my September trip to Grenada. This is close to a 5 percent increase from 2009.

The jump in tourism is largely due to cruise ship passengers. Travelers like these spend less money to visit destinations, like the Bahamas, than those actually staying on the islands. Although hotels in the Caribbean only saw a 1 percent rise in occupancy last year, it’s looking like those numbers too will be up in 2011.

Now that Caribbean travel is again popular, I’m curious: which Caribbean destination would you most like to visit this year if given the opportunity?

[photo by Elizabeth Seward]

Companions fly free to the Bahamas through June 30, 2011

Back by popular demand, the Islands Of The Bahamas are again offering a free companion air credit. The specifics allow for fairly easy travel – the credit of up to $300 applies to any traveler booking before December 1, 2010, for stays of four or more nights. Travel must be completed by June 30, 2011, and some blackout dates, including November 23 through 29, December 23 through January 2 and March 3 through April 30, 2011, apply.

Although obviously a ploy to drive tourism to the islands, it’s an effective one – the islands are a quick flight from most major East Coast destinations and the extra cash is certainly added incentive to book a warm-weather trip this winter or spring.

[Image courtesy of Bahamas.com]

Hotel review: RIU Palace Paradise Island, Bahamas

Is it really better in the Bahamas?

The archipelago located in the Caribbean is a U.S. favorite for a quick beach getaway, but does it really stand up to the hype? The Bahamas is home to gorgeous beaches, shopping options ranging from t-shirt stands to Gucci stores, and a nightlife to rival some of America’s hottest city spots, but where you stay in the Bahamas is equally important as what you do. From Nassau to Paradise Island, hotels and resorts line the white-sand beaches offering everything from paragliding to booze cruises.

RIU Hotels & Resorts, widely known for their luxurious accommodations in Jamaica and Mexico, recently renovated their Paradise Island home, but did it stack up to their other flagship properties?

The Check-in

The RIU Palace Paradise Island is an all-inclusive resort featuring five different restaurants, a spa, fitness center, jewelry store, convenience store and pool with poolside bar on the premises. The remodeling did this hotel good – upon walking into the lobby, it’s hard not to notice the decadent red-and-gold decor, accented by a dark wood lobby bar and check-in area. Gold chandeliers hang from the ceiling and life-size statues sit in the corners of the lobby, welcoming guests to all points of the resort.

Checking in proved to be a bit chaotic. As is typical in the Bahamas, guests usually arrive via van or shuttle bus with other guests, which means check-in happens at once for everyone. On this particular day, however, only two check-in attendants were available for guests, which resulted in a lot of standing around and waiting. Thankfully, a bartender with a tray of rum-infused cocktails made her way through the check-in offering guests something to bide the time.

The hotel does prominently post a 3 p.m. check-in time on its website, and due to a high-occupancy the weekend of my arrival the rooms weren’t ready until 3 p.m. We had to wait one hour until our 3 p.m. check in time and filled it, quite literally, with food from the restaurant’s Bahamas Restaurant lunch buffet.
%Gallery-97367%The Rooms

The rooms at RIU were redone when the renovations took place, giving travelers more open space and efficient design for moving around the room.

Each room features a four-poster king bed or two double beds, plasma TV, sitting area and mini-bar, which is part of the hotel’s all-inclusive feature. The rooms have individual climate controls so you can set the temperature to your liking – a nice addition following a long day in the hot Bahamas sun. There aren’t a lot of outlets but U.S. travelers don’t need converters in the Bahamas, so charging your electronics is an easy task. Before you plug your laptop know this: the hotel does not offer Internet access in the rooms, either free or for a fee. If you want to connect, you need to log in from the lobby – a nice distraction for those who want to ‘unplug’, an anxiety attack for those who need to check in while traveling.

When you make your reservations, request a room with an ocean view and you won’t be disappointed. The personal balconies offer views of the vast Atlantic Ocean, Paradise Island and, if you’re located in a room at the end of the hall, you can see past Paradise Island into downtown Nassau.

The Bathroom

The best part of the bathroom is the size. Featuring his and her sinks and a shower/bathtub combination, the bathrooms are nothing luxurious but plenty efficient. There are robes, typical bath amenities (soap, lotion and shower caps) but instead of individual shampoos, conditioners and shower gels, the hotel stocks an all-in-one bottle in the shower that serves all three purposes. If you like using different products, bring your own.

My bathroom seemed to have a water-heater problem, which meant taking a hot shower was rather cold. I called a few times over the course of my stay to ask maintenance to look into the issue but unfortunately, the problem was never fixed.

Lesson to travelers:
If there’s a problem with your room and it isn’t resolved within a few hours, ask to be moved. It’s the hotel’s responsibility to ensure guests are satisfied, and that includes making sure guests have hot water.

The Amenities

Heaven descended upon us when we discovered the serve-yourself mini bar, complete with bottle dispensers of our favorite liquors. If the night calls for a rum and coke or vodka tonic, you don’t have to look farther than the little nook in your bedroom.

Unfortunately, this work-a-holic-even-while-traveling traveler suffered a minor panic attack at the realization of one missing amenity: no Internet access in the rooms. This was a foreign concept to me — most hotels today are wired for Internet access at all floors and even at a fee, it’s a nice amenity to have. I checked the hotel’s website and found a line item that says “Internet available for a fee,” but I’m assuming this was only valid for business center computers. I understand the need for unplugging on vacation, and I envy those travelers who can do it, but it admittedly seemed odd that after a renovation, the hotel didn’t foot the bill for WiFi or high-speed access in the rooms. Internet is available in the lobby, however, only in one section and if you’re a late-night worker, this area won’t serve you well. You’ll have to connect at the lobby bar, which is located right outside the hotel’s nightclub area.

The Restaurants

The hotel features five restaurants and two bars, all part of the all-inclusive offerings.

Breakfast: The breakfast buffet is offered daily and features tables of breads, fruits, cheeses and hot items. Early morning eaters definitely get the prize at the buffet. When first laid out, the food and display is fresh and attractive. Come later to breakfast and you might find another scene. It didn’t seem that the hotel did much to replace trays of food on a regular basis. You could be left with the slim pickings of bacon hardened in its own fat at the bottom of the tray or soggy eggs sitting in a water-like substance. If you choose to wait for a new batch of food, you could be waiting a while. I choose the waiting game and after 10 minutes gave up.

There are hot food stations where chef’s prepare made-to-order items, but by the time I arrived to breakfast around 9:30 a.m. one morning, the griddles were already crusted with food. I opted for toast and orange juice. The moral of the breakfast buffet: Get there early to get the good stuff.

Lunch: Served in the Bahamas restaurant area, the lunch buffet is set up similar to the breakfast buffet and the same rules apply – go early, or consider another option. By 2 p.m., the meats were sweaty and the cheese was starting to congeal. I picked the freshest vegetables I could find from the salad bar and grabbed a side plate of french fries to tide me over. Surprisingly, the french fries weren’t too bad.

Dinner: There are three a la cart restaurants in RIU — Krystal, a fusion restaurant; Tengoku, a Japanese restaurant; and Sir Alexander, the hotel’s “gourmet” restaurant. You must make reservations to dine at any of these restaurants. The seatings are 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. and each restaurant offers a set menu. You’ll have your choice of a few appetizers, a few entrees and a few desserts, plus a full wine/liquor and beverage list.

The only problem with this concept is that guests have to decide early on where to eat. Because the restaurants are small in size it’s likely some guests won’t get reservations, but it’s equally likely that many guests change their mind half-way through the day and decide not to eat at the restaurant and forget to cancel their reservation. In addition, if you make a reservation and you’re not on time, you don’t get seated.

Since the menu’s are set, there aren’t many options based on your ‘mood.’ I had dinner one night at Sir Alexander and was pleasantly surprised at the size of the portions and made-to-order freshness of the entrees. On another night, I made a reservation at Krystal but had to cancel after realizing the set menu featured salmon dishes (the one food I’m allergic to). Since guests aren’t allowed to order off the menu, I opted not to dine at the restaurant and instead dine out at another restaurant in Paradise Island. This defeats the purpose of an all-inclusive hotel, but on the flip side, you can always go to the buffet.

Word to wise for travelers: Check the menus and consider your options before making a reservation at one of these restaurants. If all else fails you can have dinner at the buffet in the Bahamas restaurant, or go nearby to another restaurant.

The Pool/Beach

The pool area features lounge chairs, a swim-up bar and a good dose of island music. Get here early – it’s a small space and chairs are limited, but you can take your towels and head to the beach, just steps from the pool deck.

The thing to remember about the Bahamas is that no matter where you are, there’s always someone selling something. On the beach, you’ll be asked to buy everything from bracelets and sarongs to jet ski rides. If you don’t want anything, just be polite and say “no,” then go about your lounging.

The Staff

Despite the long wait at check-in, the front desk staff couldn’t have been lovelier. Our questions were answered with patience and politeness, and the check-in clerk made sure we knew about the options available to use while we waited for our room.

Know this: The Bahamas is on ‘island time’, which means what normally takes 10 minutes at home can take up to an hour in the Bahamas. If you want something, you’re going to have to get it yourself. At one point during my stay I opted to take in the lobby Internet service. I copped a squat in a nook off the side of the lobby bar, and asked a staff member if the light above the sofa I was sitting on could be turned on. I was told that wasn’t her job and I should ask the front desk whose job it might be. When I asked for a glass in the breakfast buffet so I could pour myself some fresh squeezed orange juice, I was told I’d have to wait for fresh glasses to come out. Additionally, wait times at the bar averaged 20-30 minutes and only when we attempted to climb over the bar to pour our own drink were we asked what we wanted.

On the flip side, every time I ran into the cleaning crew on my floor I was greeted with smiles and friendliness. These ladies loved talking to hotel guests, and I was more than happy to spend a few minutes asking about their days. The day before my departure I went to check on the confirmed transfer with Majestic Tours. I admittedly feared the worst, but the Majestic Tours representative at the hotel was organized and friendly, located my reservation and confirmed my departure the next day. Everything was on time (the only variation from ‘island time’ I experienced during my Bahamas trip).

The Bottom Line

It’s important to note that RIU has variations of brands. If you’ve been to the “Palace” brands, which is what this Bahamas hotel is branded under, you might be surprised at the difference. Palace is denoted as the hotel’s elite brand of resorts, but unfortunately, based on prior customer reviews, it doesn’t quite compare to its sister properties in Mexico, Jamaica and Aruba. The RIU Paradise Island hotel does, however, offer the traveler on a budget a great option for visiting the Bahamas with rates starting at $185 a night for the off-season.

It’s placed in a perfect location on Paradise Island (right next door to the gargantuan Atlantis Resort) and is two steps from the beach (which is likely why you came to the Bahamas to begin with). Since it offers one of the island’s only all-inclusive options, travelers don’t have to think when they are here. You can eat at your leisure, lounge all day long or take any one of the hotel’s shuttles to the downtown Nassau area for shopping and nightlife.
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