It was a blustery January day on Grand Bahama Island, where the temperatures called for sweatshirts rather than swimsuits.
Anthony Hanna, aka Tony Macaroni, was the sole figure on Taino Beach in Freeport as he raked the sand behind his Conch Experience restaurant.
"Yeah, there's a cold front in the U.S. now, so it hits us, too," Hanna said. "It'll pass. It will be a beach day tomorrow."
His brightly painted shack, with wooden picnic tables seating up to 80 on the back deck, has been a fixture on the island since 1992, serving conch and other locally caught seafood every day.
"I'm a conchologist," Hanna said. "I know everything there is to know about conch and how to catch it, clean it and serve it."
Anthony Hanna owns the Conch Experience beach shack on Taino Beach, Grand Bahama Island. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers
Hanna's repeat business stands at 80%. He greets nearly 600 customers-turned-friends a year who return for conch, conversation and, if it's Sunday, a local musical trio.
"I want to make it to 100% repeats. That's my goal," he said.
Newcomers pull up daily in tour buses, while independent travelers in rental cars are steered to the Conch Experience by locals, hotel concierges and destination brochures.
Grand Bahama Island is best experienced through encounters with locals such as Hanna and tours of the island's natural attractions, like treks through the Lucayan National Park, deepwater fishing expeditions, bird-watching excursions, glass-bottom kayaking tours, ocean swims and dives with dolphins at the island's Underwater Explorers Society, walks through the Garden of the Groves and ATV rides through the island's remote East End.
One experience recommended by Carmel Churchill, director of marketing services for the Grand Bahama Island Tourist Board, is the Wednesday night fish fry at Smith's Point in Freeport.
"It's fresh seafood and gully wash pannycakes, which are like pancakes, followed by guava duff, a guava dough pastry topped with a sugar-and-rum sauce. There's music, beer, craft stands and hanging out with the locals," Churchill said.
The 21-mile-long island, one of the most northern of the Bahamas archipelago, is 55 miles from South Florida, a 35-minute flight from Nassau, an hour flight from Miami or, by ferry, four hours from Fort Lauderdale and overnight service from West Palm Beach.
Island recovering slowly
Grand Bahama Island has been in the tourism shadows for years, outshone by New Providence Island (Nassau) and the charming Out Islands of the Bahamas, which have dominated news, drawn investors and welcomed increasing numbers of visitors each year.
The island's hotel product was heavily damaged by hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, and recovery has been slow, according to tourism officials.
There are currently approximately 1,900 rooms on the island, 1,000 of which are in the all-inclusive market.
The beautiful Garden of the Groves is on Grand Bahama Island.
The latest entry in the all-inclusive segment, is the 196-room Lighthouse Pointe, which is a component of and adjacent to the Grand Lucayan resort (the former Radisson Our Lucaya Resort and prior to that a Westin), the island's largest property with 542 guestrooms and suites.
Lighthouse Pointe is not a newbuild. The building stood vacant for several years but underwent significant renovations prior to its opening in December.
Tom Anderson, chief marketing officer of the Grand Lucayan, said the opening of Lighthouse Pointe "is a response to what the market wants. We found that 95% of our groups booked at Grand Lucayan repeatedly requested an all-inclusive offering. Our U.S. guests, who make up 76% of our market, also wanted the all-inclusive option."
Lighthouse Pointe is a work in progress, as a recent visit confirmed.
Guests who have come to expect certain in-room amenities and resort services from an all-inclusive product might be disappointed.
Current room decor is standard issue, the lobby is bare bones in terms of furniture and ambience, staff training could use additional training and the overall impression is one of a resort still under construction.
However, the WiFi is fast and free, and an adjacent golf course got a thumbs-up from three ardent golfers as they replayed their earlier round over beers at the Lighthouse Pointe beach and pool area. Kids are welcome, and the water is calm for wading, swimming and snorkeling.
"There are challenges here, but our plans call for a larger kids club, a teen lounge, an entertainment stage, a yoga studio, a fifth restaurant, off-site excursions and in-room amenities including robes and slippers and local beers," Anderson said.
"It is our aim that Lighthouse Pointe will complement Grand Lucayan's existing European plan style," Anderson said.
All-inclusive Lighthouse Pointe guests can dine at four of Grand Lucayan's nine restaurants and utilize other facilities, including tennis, nearby golf, fitness facilities and a spa.
Elsewhere on the island, other all-inclusive properties include the Viva Wyndham Fortuna Beach Resort, an older property that targets the budget-minded market, and the 492-room Memories Grand Bahama Beach Resort & Casino, which opened in 2014 following renovations of the former Reef Grand Bahama and prior to that was the Sheraton Grand Resort.
Visitors to Grand Bahama Island benefit from U.S. preclearance facilities at the international airport in Freeport, which was recently upgraded and expanded.