Freeport, an industrial center, is located on Grand Bahama Island, the archipelago's northernmost island. Grand Bahama, just 70 miles from Palm Beach, Florida, is a regular stop on the short-cruise circuit from South Florida. But the fourth-largest isle in the Bahamas' 700-strong chain, also owes its popularity to its smooth white-sand beaches and water sports, from snorkeling to deep sea fishing.
In the 1950s, the island realized its potential for tourism-related revenue when Wallace Groves, an American financier from Virginia, proposed building a town that both appealed to visitors and sufficiently supported industry. Since then, Freeport has boomed with hotels, restaurants, casinos and ecotourism attractions like Lucayan National Park. Its island atmosphere and miles of sunny beaches coupled with its close proximity to the United States makes Grand Bahama Island a top vacation spot for Americans.
Port Lucaya and its marketplace have evolved into the tourist hub of the island, partly through design and partly because of hurricane damage to other parts of the area. Freeport's got everything from shops and beaches to restaurants and a casino -- not to mention a handful of major golf courses.
There's very little in Freeport Harbor. Sure, the port facilities look mighty pretty -- passengers arriving might spot pastel-colored bungalows selling souvenirs scattered about, plus a gazebo where a Bahamian band plays from time to time. But very few of the bungalows offer useful shops or services, with the exception of a snorkel and beach tour. Chain restaurants Fat Tuesdays and Senor Frogs and Pier One (a waterfront seafood restaurant) are located at the harbor, but that's about it. Industrial factories and refineries surround the port for miles before reaching anything of interest.
Lucaya: This is the island's uber-destination. The town is anchored by two big beach hotels: The Grand Lucayan Beach and Golf Resort and Memories Grand Bahama Beach and Casino Resort. Port Lucaya Marketplace offers tourists shopping at more than 70 boutiques, as well as a handful of restaurants and Count Basie Square, where entertainment is offered in the evenings. Additional activities at Grand Lucayan include Treasure Bay Casino and the Reef Club golf course. The beaches there are marvelous and offer all the key services from jet-ski rentals to oceanfront bars.
Freeport: The island's open-air fruit market is worth visiting; it's located across from the Winn Dixie supermarket. The best thing to buy there isn't fruit at all, but a homemade red pepper sauce that's incongruously sold in half-pint liquor bottles. The sauce -- a Bahamian specialty -- is great for spicing up meat and vegetables. The Rand Nature Center is another worthwhile stop in the heart of the downtown area that consists of 100 acres of natural beauty.
Dolphin Swim: If you're interested in swimming with dolphins, Unexso, or Underwater Explorers Society, features a variety of encounters (as well as Scuba diving adventures with dolphins or sharks). (Port Lucaya Marketplace; 800-992-3483; open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; dolphin experience prices start around $85 per person)
Deadman's Reef: Located on the island's west end, it's a top snorkeling destination. In addition to the reef, you also can see underwater archaeological excavations. Paradise Cove Beach Resort provides transportation from the cruise port. (Queen's Highway; 242-349-2677; restaurant open 10 a.m. to sunset; around $35 per person)
Lucayan National Park: At this 40-acre park, highlights include a seven-mile system of underwater caves, mangrove swamp and hiking trails (Gold Rock Beach is absolutely pristine). You can also take kayak and cycling tours. The caves, in particular, are fascinating; both Ben's Cave and Burial Mound Cave are inhabited by rare fish and underwater crustaceans (and migratory bats in summer). (Grand Bahama Highway; 1-866-978-4838; around $5)
Garden of the Groves: This 12-acre botanical destination has around 12,000 species of colorful birds, plus gorgeous flora and fauna. An air-conditioned restaurant offers Wi-Fi. (Magellan Drive; 242-374-7778; Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; around $15)
Bahamian Brewery: About two miles down the road from Freeport Harbor is the island's brewery where short but informative tours are offered explaining the 25-step brewing process. After, there's a 45-minute, all-you-can-drink beer sampling. (Queen's Highway and Grand Bahama Way; 242-352-4070; open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday; around $7)
Taxis line up at the pier. If you are taking a taxi to a beach, arrange a time for your driver to pick you up to return. A taxi for two to Lucaya will cost about $25; if you ride in a collective van with other visitors, the fare would be about $5 per person each way. Otherwise, you can rent a car; Avis (800-331-1084) and Hertz-Red Kap Car Rental (242-352-9250) will send a courtesy van from the airport. Important note: Drive on the left! Motor scooters are also available for daily rentals from Island Jeep and Car Rental (Freeport Harbor; 242-351-7333) and cost around $65.
When you exit the port, you can hop on a local bus as it turns around and heads back to Lucaya. However, there's no schedule posted; they simply run when they're full, so you might be waiting a while. This could be an option during the week for those on a tight budget, but they rarely run on weekends.
Best for Lively Recreation: Lucayan Beach, which runs in front of Grand Lucayan, has water sports outfitters, bars, restaurants and equipment rentals. Find the entrance next to the police station. Another candidate is Mather Town Beach, about three miles from Port Lucaya. There are limited water activities, but it's a great place to swim, eat, drink and hang out with the locals.
Best for Families: Taino Beach, in front of Taino Beach Resort and Clubs, offers water sports, and the surf is calm enough for kids. A ferry to the beach is available from Port Lucaya Marketplace.
Best for Relaxing: Gold Rock Beach, part of Lucayan National Park, is protected by the National Trust. There aren't many services -- bring your own lunch -- but it's gorgeous and away from the crowds. While you're there, check out the birdwatching trails.
Not surprisingly, seafood is a staple of residents, and the signature dish of the Bahamas is conch salad, chilled conch marinated in lime or orange juice and mixed with tomato, onion, celery, cucumber and green peppers. Many locals believe conch is an aphrodisiac, and the mollusk is also deep fried (cracked conch), mixed in stews or soups and served as a breaded appetizer (conch fritters). Other dishes include Bahamian "rock lobster," fresh grouper and bonefish accompanied by side dishes like peas and rice or johnnycake (simple bread). Wash it all down with the appropriately named, "Gully Wash," the Bahamian cocktail made with gin, coconut water and condensed milk.
Port Lucaya Marketplace: Options abound, and two favorites are Cafe Breeze (242-373-2664; open daily from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.) and Zorba's Greek restaurant (242-373-6137; open daily 7 a.m. to 10:45 p.m.).
Margaritavilla Sand Bar: Located at Mather Town Beach off Millionaire's Row, the "Sand Bar" serves casual fare with a laid-back beach vibe and American football on the television. (Spanish Main Drive; 242-373-4525; open for lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. until the party winds down)
Flying Fish: Formerly The Ferry House, Flying Fish offers seafood specialties in a posh setting. For something truly unique, ask whether they are serving lionfish, an invasive species that is destroying the coral reefs but is delicious. (Next to Port Lucaya Marketplace; 242-373-4363; open 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday to Friday for lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday for brunch and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday for dinner)
Tony Macaroni's: At Taino Beach, look for the thatch-roofed shack with outdoor dining and amazing views. Its specialty is roast conch, but it also serves conch salad, roast lobster and shrimp and hot dogs. If you happen to be in port after 4 p.m. on Sunday, Tony hosts live jazz at the beach. (Taino Beach; 242-533-6766; open for lunch and dinner from 10 a.m.)
Sabor: Tucked away in the garden of Pelican Bay Hotel overlooking Port Lucaya marina, Sabor has a changing fusion menu with a Latin flavor that features the best seasonal catches. The menu includes items like baked Bahamian grouper or classic mushroom and Swiss burgers. (Sea Horse Road at Port Lucaya; 242-373-5588; open 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.)
Pier One: The shark feeding at this seafood and sushi restaurant might be the best-kept secret at the cruise port. Hidden on the other side of the port, you'll find both an upscale dining room and a casual wraparound patio located right on the water. The best part: the nurse sharks swimming around the water and the feedings that take place at 7 p.m., 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. daily. (Freeport Harbor; 242-352-6674; open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Friday and 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday)
Ships dock at Freeport Harbor, an isolated area that is a 10-minute drive from the city of Freeport and about a 25-minute ride from Port Lucaya. Taking an excursion or renting a car (or scooter) is an excellent option: The island is dotted with quiet beaches that are perfect for escaping the crowds.
Pickpockets and thieves target tourists, so keep your belongings protected. Also, while travel guides might still mention the International Bazaar (a once a robust collection of shops and restaurants), because of hurricanes, it's essentially a ghost town and not worth visiting the few remaining vendors.
The currency is the Bahamian dollar, but U.S. dollars are accepted throughout the islands. ATMs are available at banks, but few provide U.S. dollars. For updated currency-conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
English is the official language -- British, not American -- but it might be laced with Bahamian dialect.
A straw basket purchased at the straw market and the square 15-cent Bahamian coin you receive as part of your change make nice mementos from your visit.
Try a Goombay Smash at Sparky's, located in Port Lucaya Marketplace. The drink is a mix of spiced rum, coconut rum, apricot brandy, pineapple juice, orange juice and "secret ingredient."