Bimini beckons cruise lines sailing out of South Florida

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Resorts World Bimini will build a beach club designed by Virgin Voyages. Virgin will have exclusive use of the beach club when its ship is in port.
Resorts World Bimini will build a beach club designed by Virgin Voyages. Virgin will have exclusive use of the beach club when its ship is in port.

For most of cruise history, Bimini has been off the grid. Despite being the closest island in the Bahamas to Miami, few cruise ships have called there. The Bahamas meant Nassau and Freeport or the industry's handful of self-developed private ports.

But interest is starting to grow. Silversea Cruises has several calls to Bimini scheduled this year. MSC Cruises is opening a private island near Bimini in November. And in 2020, Virgin Voyages will start making regular calls to let passengers frolic for a day at its newly developed beach club.

Located about 50 miles east of Miami, Bimini is a triangle of three islands: South Bimini, home to the airport; hook-shaped North Bimini, where most of the beaches and development are found; and uninhabited East Bimini.

Only about 2,000 people live on Bimini. Tourism has traded on its rusticity and proximity to deep-sea fishing, which lured writer Ernest Hemingway into a two-year stay at the Compleat Angler hotel in the 1930s.

The Chalk's seaplane service provided an exciting way to get to Bimini from Miami until 2005, when it was grounded by a fatal crash. One year later, the Compleat Angler burned to the ground.

Bimini's luck improved in 2012 when the Genting Group bought into the Bimini Bay real estate project and developed a small casino, the island's first. In 2014, it improved access by completing a pier so that guests coming by ferry from Miami didn't have to tender to shore.

The pier was phase one of a plan that envisioned other amenities, including a hotel and a beach club. Now, Resorts World Bimini will build the beach club to the plans fashioned by designers at Virgin Voyages.

Virgin pledged to create a destination to rival the best beach clubs in Ibiza and Saint-Tropez, with an expansive lagoon-style pool as its anchor. There will be six bars and complimentary, "thoughtfully sourced" food with Bahamian flavors. A hammock grove will offer a spot to relax beneath palms.

Virgin will have exclusive use of the beach club when its ship is in port. At other times, the facilities will be used by Resorts World.

"Bimini is a fantastic little island: 7 miles long, not well known, but it's one of those places where there are a lot of things to explore," Virgin president Tom McAlpin said at a New York press conference. "There are 7 miles of beaches that you can walk down. There's incredible watersports."

In its first season, every Virgin cruise will visit the beach club. Virgin's 2,700 passenger Scarlet Lady will increase transport capacity to Bimini, which is now served by a 400-passenger fast ferry from Miami and several small airlines, including Flamingo Air and Silver Airways.

Bimini is 265 miles from Havana, which makes it a fit for some Cuba cruise itineraries. This month, a 10-day, Cuba-intensive cruise on the Silver Spirit will call in Bimini on its way from San Juan to Fort Lauderdale. In April, a Silver Wind roundtrip Fort Lauderdale cruise to Santiago de Cuba and Havana will also stop in Bimini.

MSC Cruises also likes the area, although its $200 million Ocean Cay private island project is about 25 miles south of Bimini proper. In November, four MSC ships will start making regular calls there.

Rick Sasso, chairman of MSC Cruises North America, said it was more the proximity to Miami than to Bimini that led MSC to build its private Ocean Cay island in the area. Because it is so close to Miami, MSC ships can stay until midnight for after-dark movies and entertainment.

"It fit the schedule quite well," Sasso said.

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