Vendor stall on Grand Bahama IslandGrand Bahama Island has taken a hit in recent years from hurricanes, hotel closings and the global recession, which led to an arrivals falloff from its main U.S. markets.

I took advantage of a recent daylong cruise stopover in Freeport on GBI to see for myself what was up, down and coming around on the island, the fourth largest in the 700-island chain of the Bahamas.

Tourism, banking and fishing rule as the top industries, but more than 70% of its 60,000 residents are dependent upon tourism for their livelihoods.

As I discovered on my brief visit, not only are there plenty of reasons to visit GBI, but there also are several bright lights in its tourism picture for the winter season.

I bypassed the shore excursions offered by the cruise line, although several hundred passengers did disembark and moved off in vans, safari buses, motorcoaches and taxis, headed for a dolphin encounter at the Unexso (Underwater Explorers Society) facility at Sanctuary Bay at Port Lucaya, tours of the 12-acre Garden of the Groves and visits to five heritage sites on the western part of the island.

Others opted for a glass-bottom boat ride; six hours of beach time at the all-inclusive Viva Wyndham Fortuna Beach Resort; or just shopping, strolling and snacking on their own.

I hooked up instead with David Rolle, licensed tour guide for H. Forbes Charter Services. When I later learned that the Ministry of Tourism named him the top tour guide for the northern Bahamas in 2011, I was not surprised.

International BazaarRolle knew his stuff, not to mention seemingly everyone on the island, drawing high-fives frequently during our day together.

First stop: an open-air market where vendors' stalls held the usual assortment of conch earrings and bracelets; straw baskets; fabric saris and bathing suit cover-ups; fresh produce; coconut milk samples; and shell wind chimes.

The vendors were pleasant and did not hassle me or other shoppers, but the merchandise was the same at every stall and not really noteworthy.

"Tourism officials try to encourage these vendors to expand their product lines and bring in more local, handcrafted items," Rolle said. "That takes money, and their business has been down for a couple of years."

Next stop was the International Bazaar. Once a thriving, 100-shop complex that opened in 1967, it has seen hard times since 2004, when back-to-back hurricanes slammed the island, closing the Bahamas Princess Resort & Casino at the bazaar and most of the stores.

"The bazaar is coming back," Rolle said, adding that more than 60 stores have reopened. "We've still got a problem because some taxis won't bring tourists here, saying there's nothing open, but it's starting to change."

The cappuccino I sipped at the Art of Giving, brewed in the Starbucks franchise inside the store, and the glass starfish ornament I purchased in its gift section made for one satisfied customer.

The Perfume Factory, also at the bazaar, was a new attraction for me, although the family-owned business has been around for years and is housed in a plum-and-white replica of an old Bahamian mansion.

Chrisanne Aston-Cash, vice president, admitted that "it's been a roller coaster ride since the hurricanes of 2004. Visitors dried up, marketing funds evaporated, but we've forged ahead with an expanded website, online product inventory and a new line of fragrances for men and women."

Sidney Pratt of the Glassblower ShopOn the tour, which is free for visitors, I saw the mixology department, where visitors can create their own fragrances, and the bottling area, where the finished products are boxed, packaged and labeled.

"We bottle between 2,000 and 4,000 bottles of perfume a week," Aston-Cash said.

Also in the Bazaar was the Glassblower Shop, another business unique to Grand Bahama.

Owner Sidney Pratt usually is found in the window of his shop in full view of visitors, who watch him create glass sculptures of everything from conch shells to intricate jewelry pieces.

"I've been in business 27 years," Pratt said. "I've seen business up and down. It's coming up again."

The large red Tori Gate, the recognizable symbol at the entrance to the International Bazaar, was a gift from the Japanese.

"The word tori means welcome in Japanese, and we want everyone to know that all are welcome here," Rolle said.

Over a lunch of conch fritters and Sands beer (a local brew) at the Junkanoo Club on Taino Beach, I ran into a couple of fellow cruisers from the ship.

Tony Macaronis"We've had a great day," one of them said. "We did some sightseeing, then came to the beach here to snorkel before we go back to the ship."

Final stop, after a detour down Taino Beach to Tony Macaroni's Conch Experience beach shack/casual restaurant -- definitely on my to-do list for lunch on my next visit -- was Port Lucaya Marketplace, with more than 80-plus restaurants, boutiques, bars and shops.

The centerpiece of Port Lucaya is Count Basie Square, named in honor of the American jazz pianist, bandleader and composer who owned a vacation home on the island. The home, when seen from the air, is shaped like a grand piano.

Musicians often perform in the evening in the square.

Rolle told me that the launch of service by Vision Airlines earlier this month from Fort Lauderdale; Richmond, Va.; Baltimore; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; and Louisville, Ky., "is a shot in the arm for Grand Bahama Island. It means more visitors can get here easier. We just have to make sure they have a good time and come back."

I had a good time. I'll be back.


For Caribbean and Mexico news, follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.


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