From my window seat on the Bahamasair flight from Nassau in late January, the aerial view of Grand Bahama didn't look too bad.
Yes, I spotted the familiar blue tarps that marked missing roofs, and the foliage did not look as lush as I remembered from a trip there two years ago. But by comparison with much of Great Abaco and its surrounding cays 88 miles to the east, which I'd visited a few days earlier, Grand Bahama's recovery was progressing at a much faster pace.
Hurricane Dorian tore into both destinations at the start of September, stalling over Grand Bahama for two days with 185 mph sustained winds, covering 77% of the island with floodwaters that, in some areas, rose as high as 20 feet.
Residential areas took the brunt of the storm, but the 23% of the island where most of the tourism infrastructure is located was minimally impacted.
That has made the difference in the pace and progress of recovery on Grand Bahama versus on the Abacos, where the Marsh Harbour tourist center was blown away by Dorian's winds and several picturesque cays were damaged.
Grand Bahama Airport's runway was a debris field, and its main terminal was damaged, but the airport reopened on Dec. 5 to Bahamasair flights from Nassau and from Fort Lauderdale on Dec. 16 and to Silver Air flights on Dec. 19. Sunwing returned on Dec. 14 with twice-weekly charters from Montreal and Toronto. American was expected to resume daily Miami flights on Feb. 13. Delta, however, has not reinstated its seasonal flights from Atlanta.
Arrivals and departures have been temporarily relocated to the Fixed Base Operation building next to the main terminal.
Many of the island’s tourist areas and attractions have reopened. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers
I had just 24 hours to spend on Grand Bahama, and Carmel Churchill, a marketing consultant for the Grand Bahama Island Tourism Board who served as my guide, wasted not a minute of my visit.
"The airport is on the north of the island," Churchill said. "Areas heaviest hit were the south and the east end. Floodwaters came 6 to 7 miles inland.
"My home is gone, swept away by the floodwaters," she continued. "All that was left were four plates from my wedding china, and I found two brandy snifters full of mud in what had been the backyard."
She and her husband did not evacuate prior to Dorian. They moved inland and 3 miles north to her sister's home.
"Of course, we will rebuild. This is our home," Churchill said, a refrain I had heard on the Abacos, as well.
In a meeting later that morning, James Kwasi Thompson, minister of state, outlined what had taken place since Dorian.
"2019 was a life-changing year for Grand Bahama," Thompson said. "We'd had significant momentum economically and on the tourist side until Dorian. The storm put us on a completely different track. Close to 5,000 homes were flooded on the eastern side of the island, all power knocked out, but we've come a long way since September."
All power is back on in the Freeport area, solar power projects in eastern Grand Bahama will be completed in May, hotels started reopening with reduced room counts in October, Carnival Cruise Line returned on Oct. 1, ferry service has resumed on Balearia Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale and on Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line from Palm Beach, Fla.
Grand Bahama's pre-Dorian population was 50,000. It's now between 40,000 and 45,000, according to Thompson.
"Before Dorian, we had 1,625 rooms in hotels and timeshares plus 300-plus rooms in Airbnb, Vrbo and private villas," the minister said. "Now we have 1,426 rooms available, not counting the home-sharing accommodations."
Cruise calls are back to 95% of what they were pre-Dorian. Carnival signed an agreement in October to create a two-berth port near Freeport, which is slated to open in 2022.
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and the Mexican company ITM plan to redevelop the existing port in Freeport with three new berths and are in negotiations to purchase, renovate and expand the Grand Lucayan Resort, adding a theme park, waterpark and entertainment to the mix.
"We're resilient, we're strong, we get back up, and we're determined to fully recover," Thompson said.
Tony Macaroni’s Conch Experience restaurant on Taino Beach had little damage and never closed. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers
We stopped for lunch at Tony Macaroni's Conch Experience, a popular thatched-roof shack on Taino Beach.
"I didn't have much damage, so I never really closed, but there weren't any visitors until November," he said.
The place was doing a steady business when I was there, many patrons downing Tony's specialty of conch-grilled hamburger and conch salad.
I had the same, along with another of Tony's popular favorites, a drink he calls gully wash (green coconut water, sweetened condensed milk and gin).
Taino Beach Resort, one of the first properties to partially reopen, had 44 of its 157 rooms back in operation by Oct. 10 and the remainder by Dec. 20, according to Omar Pratt, guest services manager.
Its adjacent but separate 66-room Flamingo Bay Hotel has not yet reopened.
"We had many guests at Taino for Christmas and the first week of January. Many had booked for stays during Dorian, so when the storm came they postponed until we reopened," Pratt said.
The resort has hosted three weddings since Dorian. "Two were from the U.S., one was local, and no one wanted to switch venues," he said.
Churchill said 50% of Grand Bahama visitors are repeats, with the U.S. accounting for the largest market, followed by Canada.
"Grand Bahama has more than 40 land and water activities for visitors. There's an app, much like Uber, to hail rides, so there's really no need to rent a car," she said, "and we have a good public bus system for $2 a ride."
One of the island's most popular attractions, Lucayan National Park, reopened on Jan. 20, although there is still some restoration work going on.
The 12-acre Garden of the Groves botanical garden partially reopened in October and resumed full tour operations in December.
My quick visit ended with an overnight at the 274-room, all-inclusive Viva Wyndham Fortuna Beach, which reopened on Dec. 10 and was fully booked with Canadian guests the night I was there.