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Grand Bahama & Why I'm Sorry I Listened to a Lonely Planet Guidebook

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Jan 7th, 2011, 02:08 PM
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Grand Bahama & Why I'm Sorry I Listened to a Lonely Planet Guidebook

A number of years ago, I was investigating the possibility of visiting a variety of Bahamian islands and was turned off of visiting Grand Bahama Island due to a Lonely Planet guidebook on the Bahamas, 2000. Comments by the author such as these were present: "if you're seeking sophistication or Bahamian culture, skip Grand Bahama", "arguably the least attractive because it is surprisingly middle American", "the island's history is colourless", "culturally antiseptic mecca for fast-lane-vacationers", "the island attracts a less sophisticated clientele than do Nassau or the Family Islands", "the center resembles an Australian outback town with about as much appeal". Generally I like the Lonely Planet series and I accept that Grand Bahama clearly wasn't to the author's liking especially; I'm just sorry this negative review kept me from even considering visiting for much of the last 10 years. In fact, had it not been for the fact that Grand Bahama is the only Bahamian island accessible by ferry, I might never gone... which, now that I've been, I think would have been a pity.

*Sea Grape B&B*

I cannot over-recommend this jewel of a bed & breakfast in Grand Bahama. My initial experience portended well since arriving at the harbour, I was so thankful that the Sea Grape's owner had sent someone to pick me up... especially since December 30th was quite the crowd with 1100 passengers being released from the Discovery Cruise Lines ferry from Fort Lauderdale and there was nary a taxi to be found!

Every day Katybel made a delightful continental breakfast, including home-baked breads, a variety of fresh fruits (including tamarinds one day)and tea or coffee. Both she and husband Barry were so incredibly helpful planning my stay, from reserving a kayaking tour in Lucayan National Park to lending me a bike for exploration to reserving a taxi to the harbour terminal my final day.

Equally ideal was the location: only 2 minutes walk from a relatively quiet part of Lucayan Beach (I loved seeing the lizards scamper up the walls of the passageway leading to the beach!) but also an 8 minute walk from Port Lucaya Marketplace and all the amenities (pharmacy, ATM, restaurants, dive shop, Internet cafe, snorkeling & glass-bottom-boat operators). I loved that I was able to stroll over to Billy Joe's in 8 minutes, a blue-painted beach shack on Lucayan where I indulged in that magnificently fresh Bahamian specialty, conch salad... where a Bahamian would cut the conch, peppers, onions, lime and oranges right before your eyes, then squeeze the citrus juice on top and immediatley serve it to you (seems relatively healthy and can it *get* fresher?) in a bowl. And then to be sitting on a bench, eating that conch salad and looking out at that floury-textured beige sand and turquoise water... so tranquil, so magical.

*My Experience Cycling on Grand Bahama Island*

Thanks to the generosity of my hosts, I was able to fulfill one of my passions, cycling, on two different occasions this vacation (something I don't do in Montreal this time of year). Unlike Nassau, where I didn't see anywhere I would feel safe cycling, Grand Bahama has a designated bike lane on Midshipman Road (which was about 10 minutes walk, 3 minutes by bike from my B&B) that extends out as far as Doubloon Road, well east of the busier Port Lucaya Marketplace area. The flatness of the island, combined with the bike lane, combined with the fact that once you're out as far as Doubloon Rood, you rarely see a car, in my opinion make the island an IDEAL cyclist's destination.

Cycling out past Doubloon Road about an hour and twenty minutes from Port Lucaya allowed me to get out to the magnificent and relatively secluded turquoise-watered Fortuna Beach as well as a restaurant in a gem of a spot called Garden of the Groves. The Garden is a delightful setting of semi-tropical vegetation, ponds and a (likely artificial but still lovely) waterfall; the conch chowder was terrific and homemade. I met my first ever white Bahamians here (restaurant owners/ staff) and I must say I did a bit of a double-take hearing a white person speaking with the Bahamian accent.

*Coming up: A few firsts for me: Junkanoo, Scuba Diving and Kayaking!
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Jan 7th, 2011, 02:40 PM
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That's why I prefer to research on internet travel forums like this one, where you get many people's ideas and perspectives. I don't use guidebooks, or at least not for things like that, that are only one person's opinion about something.
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Jan 7th, 2011, 03:36 PM
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Everyone has a opinion good or bad. It's always best to get as many as you can and then weed out the good and the bad to make your own decision. Some hit the mark and some don't. It's always a gamble. Not everything is going to please everybody or be exactly what they are looking for. Glad you took the chance and found to your liking.
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Jan 7th, 2011, 04:21 PM
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*Junkanoo*

This parade/festival takes place on New Years Day and has deep roots in Bahamian history. Junkanoo originated out of Nassau, and on that island, the festivities begin at 2 am and goes through the wee hours of the morning. Junkanoo has most definitely caught on in Grand Bahama, however the parade begins at the more reasonable (for the likes of me!) hour of 6/6:30pm in downtown Freeport up until around midnight or so the bus driver told me. Thank goodness for the city extended the hours of the bus service up until 10:30($1.25 from Lucaya-Freeport/$2 Freeport-Lucaya).

Well, the ambience was simply **electric** and the parade quite possibly was the *most incredible I've ever seen*. Unlike the crowds at Port Lucaya, which were probably 80% tourist/20%Bahamian, the crowds at Junkanoo were 85% Bahamian/15% tourist. Makeshift stands abounded selling a variety of foods and guys with giant bags were selling "Jimbo's Fresh Roasted Peanuts"; I went to one stand selling conch salad that seemed to grab a crowd with only a guy's name (was it Marvin Taylor?) and no prices shown. It was the most multidimensional conch salad I'd had on the island with a much wider variety of fruits and veggies (celery, green tomatoes were a few additional ones I saw)added to the mix that were not included at Billy Joe's at Lucaya Beach. And it was spicily delicious the way Bahamians apparently like it.

The costumes were exceedingly elaborate and colourful with tremendous 3D contours (African mask here, giant feathers abounding there) the likes of which I've never seen in a parade ever. I can't imagine the amount of work in preparation (my taxi driver said they start some 6 months in advance). There was a pervasive rhythm generated sometimes by drummers, sometimes by dancers gliding a stick along a ridged metal cylinders and others that just brought the audience (myself included at times) into a state of perpetual dance. Brass bands and saxophonists (equally dressed in elaborate costumes) added melody to exciting rhythm. Dancer from well-choreographed women swashbuckler pirates to a variety of warrior dancers with always elaborate costumes and often face paint created an excitement ("Warrior of Kindness" "Warrior of Hope", etc...). There are apparently teams (and I'd imagine prizes) as evidenced by judges who worked their way among the dancers and anxious parade organizers who were always on-hand to fix any costume part that came unhooked on any one of the many, many dancers. Kids participated also; one 4-year-old pirate with an eyepatch was so adorable blowing his whistle and moving his legs and arms terrifically well to the rhythm. Bahamian onlookers smiled at the kids and made periodic commentary, I'm assuming as someone they knew passed by.

I've never been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans or the Carnivals in Rio or Trinidad or for that matter even Nassau's Junkanoo. For me, somehow, I felt I might have preferred Freeport's; its size was just perfect...not too overwhelming a crowd as to make me feel hemmed in or worried about safety (plus, I could always find a vantage point to observe the parade participants working their way down the road), but enough of a crowd to create an exciting buzz. I'm only sorry it took me 39 years to see a Junkanoo...

*SCUBA next!*
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Jan 7th, 2011, 05:11 PM
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*Scuba*

So I'd never been SCUBA diving before and weather looked like it was going to stay around 74F throughout my stay in Grand Bahama. So I went to UNEXSO, a reputed dive firm situated on Port Lucaya Marketplace, to see what options were available to me. January 2nd, they said, a spot was open for their "Discover SCUBA" class with an hour-and-a-half of pool training followed by an open ocean dive and the office folk leaving me with the words "just to let you know so there are not surprises, you *may* see a shark!".

Anyhow, the night of January 1st, I was anxious about the upcoming day and my overactive imagination was thinking how sad my mother would be if I got eaten by a shark. I went to bed though thinking, chances are I wouldn't see a shark... probably mostly lovely colourful fish. And I thought to myself; if my 70-year-old mother can go snorkeling off Nassau, I can do this!

Well, so the dive instructor has 4 novices. He tells us a bit about the pool training and then says there are a few places we could go for an ocean dive. "We *COULD* go see a wreck", he says. I'm thinking, that sounds good... I remembered a documentary about corals attaching to old wrecks. "Or", he says, "we could go to SHARK Junction". At which point the 10-year-old boy on the dive says "yeah, yeah, I want to go to shark junction and the 20-somethings say "cool, let's go see sharks!" and I say, "I don't especially want to see a shark".

So, after the pool training (instructor named Tom was excellent, took us through each competency clearly & slowly), we go to Shark Junction. And needless to say, as I descend down that rope, I see Caribbean Reef Sharks in good number (I would say over a dozen throughout the dive). But oddly enough, I wasn't afraid looking at them. Perhaps it's because part of me was in denial that they were actually there with me (I kind of felt for the entire underwater experience that I was seeing everything on television, so alien to my every day world were the sights that I saw). Perhaps it's because I was more focused on equalizing my pressure, dealing with the water that was entering my mask and eyeing my pressure gauge and keeping a close eye on my instructor so as not to lose him. The sharks in some ways seemed the least of my concerns. Truthfully, they seemed mostly peaceful entities just swiveling from side to side minding their own business. I even found myself kind of liking them.

Other than the sharks (which *were* plentiful), though, I didn't see nearly as much marine life as I had expected. A few striking blue-coloured fish, a number of silvery/grey fish with big kissy lips, some eels, I was thinking we'd run into more swarms than we did. The coral were more sparse, here and there; the sea floor really was more, well, sand than I expected. As one of my fellow novice divers said, "it kind of felt like we were at the bottom of an aquarium". However, the other divers said visibility was poorer that day than usual; they said on other days, one really would see fish in the multitudes.

All in all though, it was an eye-opening, amazing experience to scuba dive and like with Junkanoo, I'm sorry I'm only just discovering it now at 39 years of age. This summer, I've decided to make it a project to get certified ("you mean, for SCUBA?" as my Dad said when I told him this HA HA). Especially a propos on a travel forum, I feel that scuba diving has just opened up a whole new world of places to travel that would not be accessible to me otherwise. And *THAT* is something I'm very excited about.

*A kayaking trip and final thoughts to come...*
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Jan 8th, 2011, 02:59 AM
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This is great, Daniel! Better to discover something later in life than never at all, yes? I love to kayak, look forward to the next segment.
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Jan 8th, 2011, 04:38 AM
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Daniel, your report is marvelous as always. I am enjoying it immensely (as I enjoyed my stay on Grand Bahama some years ago).
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Jan 8th, 2011, 05:07 AM
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Great repot Daniel lots of good info.

LP/TT guides no longer and Indie forun for profit

Sold by Tony Wheeler to the for profit BBC

Has been going downhill ever since

To cut costs they just use dated material

and send kids out cheaply to update the dated reviews..

TA similarly for profit since bought by Expedia

going downhill now for profit owner not traveller controlled.

www.fodors.com only major true traveler guide forum for me.

Sort of the last man standing as it were..

Anyway great report,
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Jan 8th, 2011, 06:43 AM
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*Kayaking Trip*

My B&B hostess had arranged for me to go with Grand Bahama Nature Tours to Lucayan National Park (for $79) on January 3. The van driver picked me up 1 minute walk from my B&B, we picked up 2 people from island hotels, but our group was composed predominantly of cruise ship passengers from Carnival.

Once in Lucayan National Park, given that the kayaks were for 2 people, I ended up getting paired up with a 14-year-old Boy Scout from Ohio with kayaking experience (which I was glad of, since I have never kayaked) and off we went through a passageway through the mangroves. I was pleased for the upper arm workout, enjoyed the fish and conversation with my kayak-mate who was steering in the back of the kayak. It took over an hour to get to our final destination, Gold Rock Beach, from the initial docks. At times the channel got quite narrow going through the mangroves and while my 14-year-old kayak steerer was generally quite adapt at avoiding the mangroves, at one point, we got caught in the middle of a loop and had trouble getting out of it. An escape required me to lift the mangrove root up and over my legs and the front of the boat... and for those of you who've never seen a mangrove root, it was kind of like lifting a slimy, muddy multipronged octopus over you...ick ick ick: very gross, but we managed to get back into the channel!

Gold Rock Beach, where we had a picnic courtesy of the Nature Tours, has to be one of the loveliest beaches I've seen. Extensive sand, an island (Gold Rock) in view that one snorkeller in our group swam out to, the water was calm, turquoise and the water increased in depth in a very slow fashion, which made it in my mind ideal for swimming. Although I think the Bahamians think we're absolutely crazy to swim when it's 74F, I enjoyed getting exercise doing backstroke laps in a distance from the shore of about shoulder-high water. I loved that whenever I decided to stop swimming, that the water was never above my head (or neck for that matter). Coming from Montreal, it seemed incredible to actually be swimming *outside* in January.

After an hour at Gold Rock Beach, the tour continued over a boardwalk where we saw many varieties of fish including what was my favourite of the bunch: the so-called "sergeant major", a silvery-grey fish with yellow & black stripes. Our tour guide would lure them to the surface with leftover bread crumbs from our lunch; it was enjoyable watching the flurry of activity as they gobbled down the treats. After passing through different ecosystems on the board walk, we paid a visit to Ben's Cave (which is also a popular dive site) and a second cave where skeletal remains and artifacts of Lucayan Indians (who were wiped out frighteningly enough, within 40 years of European arrival!) had been unearthed.

All in all, an enjoyable day, terrific especially to get exercise (kayaking & backstroke) in such a lovely natural setting.

*Final words to come*
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Jan 8th, 2011, 07:19 AM
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I apologize, sorry I didn't realize this was going to become a full blown trip report. Thank you for your time to post for the forum (I was sidetraced by the LP complaint in the title).
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Jan 8th, 2011, 08:41 AM
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*Final thoughts*

I understand how the Lonely Planet author came to his conclusions. Freeport/Lucaya may be young (founded in the 1950s), parts of downtown Freeport *do* look a bit like a supermarket area with popular fast-food restaurants (Wendy's, KFC, McDonalds, Quizno's) one would find in many small university US towns, and Port Lucayan Marketplace *does* seem created so as to cater to the desires of the day passengers arriving en masse from the cruise ships. Bahamian culture might be missed altogether, it's true, if a visitor sticks to certain beaten paths.

However, as I reflect on my 5 days there, as I remember the rhythmic energy of Junkanoo where I was surrounded by the lilting, quickly-rattled-out, not-always-understandable-to-my-ears Bahamian English, as I remember tasting conch salad prepared before my eyes at a humble but gaily-painted beach shack overlooking turquoise water, as I remember eating my conch chowder at Garden of the Groves while a goose with a red flap on its nose picked at bread crumbs in a lush, overgrown, pondside setting of semitropical plants... I can't help but feel that the Lonely Planet author somehow missed the cultural charm of Grand Bahama.

Not to mention the terrific outdoor activity. Whether it was cycling nearby the beaches, palms and turquoise waters of Fortuna Beach or coming within 3 feet of the casually-moving Caribbean reef shark while SCUBA diving, or seeing the shimmering turquoise wave ripplets approach on Gold Rock Beach looking out toward tiny Gold Rock Island as I did my backstroke, I really found Grand Bahama a stellar place to be getting exercise.

My last evening on Grand Bahama, right about sundown, I walked 2 minutes from my B&B to see the beach one more time that night. And lo and behold, 5 feet away from me in the surf I saw one, then two, then maybe a half dozen sting ray (for the first time ever in the wild) in a variety of sizes (I thought of them as the momma sting ray and the baby sting rays) gently flapping their wings (?) as they all moved eastward. I found out later that Billy Joe throws some conch part leftovers into the surf and the rays swim on out for the feast. However, at the time, I rather preferred my explanation that they came out to the surf to come say goodbye to me and to offer an incentive for a return visit.

Happy travels, Daniel
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Jan 8th, 2011, 09:33 AM
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Daniel,
Excellent report as always. You achieved many first time experiences in 5 days, quite an adventure all in all.

I've been in the water with sharks in the Bahamas and SCUBA dived (Mexico) but never been in a kayak as I have a fear of getting trapped. I'd finally been persuaded to kayak this spring and now I'm put off by mangrove roots.
Actually, I'll make up any excuse as there are no mangroves within hundreds of miles of the river I planned to kayak on but I'm hoping my daughter believes me when I say I just want to avoid icky mangrove roots!
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Jan 8th, 2011, 01:05 PM
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Friends have asked me the following questions about the island so I thought I'd share my answers with you.

Q: Are people friendly? A: Depends on the person. Some quite friendly, some more reserved & taciturn. Never did I experience outright hostility though.
Q: Did you encounter a lot of beggars/harassment? A: No. Two beggars (both older men) during the entire 5 days. I was asked once if I wanted ganja (bizarrely enough only one block from the police station!?). As soon as I said I had no money on me/was not interested, they didn't pursue the matter.

One additional aspect I appreciated about this trip was how it opened my eyes a bit more to Bahamian-ness (as seen through the Grand Bahamian lense). For this trip, I got my first inkling of a sense of pride in identity, as evidenced from the number of blue-yellow stripes with black triangles flag flying from buildings, homes or parade floats. The crisp lines of the handsome uniforms of the policemen and policewomen. The pride in which their treasured national dishes are made. The effort to put on a stellar show at Junkanoo and the number of people that attended the festival, a tradition which is uniquely theirs. Even the Bahamian currency struck me with its artistry, technology, colourfulness, with their nation-builders showing prominently. The infrastructure on the island was generally good (potable drinking water, good roads, electrical grid) and many people I met seemed happy & healthy. I too feel they have a lot to be proud of.

I've included a link on how I got to the Bahamas (USA Forum).

http://www.fodors.com/community/unit...s-by-train.cfm
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Jan 9th, 2011, 03:03 AM
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What a thoughtful report, Daniel, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your trip. Happy New Year to you and yours!
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Jan 9th, 2011, 12:37 PM
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What a wonderful report! Many years ago we sold our house, bought a sailboat, worked in Florida for the winter, then took off to explore the Out Islands of the Bahamas for 3 months. I think that you would truly enjoy and appreciate the people and culture on these "Family Islands"! We were in the Exumas, mostly, and there were so many wonderful places! No cruise ships or casinos, either!!!
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Jan 10th, 2011, 05:55 AM
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Hi AnnMarie_C, cmcfong: thank you for reading & enjoying this trip report as I know you have others. I love sharing a tale, but I equally enjoy knowing someone else in cyberspace found it worthy enough to listen to.

suze: No need to apologize. I'm the one who should probably be apologizing as I often concoct a title that will catch people's attention (really just a lure to get people to read my trip report hee hee). A possibly more appropriate title would have been "Grand Bahama Trip Report", but I thought I'd make it seem more controversial (and lure people in who like opinion pieces) by stating I had a bone to pick with a popular guidebook in the title.

Sassy_cat: Hope you end up kayaking anyway (and that, like in my case, the waters are fairly gentle). I find it just magnificent to get exercise while in a beautiful outdoor setting; I cycle, ice skate and snowshoe a lot which has given me a strong lower body. Kayaking would offer upper body workout, which I think I need to work more on as my arms were quite tired after even half an hour of paddling. Thanks for enjoying too!

whammy77: What an amazing experience that must have been! I have a feeling I would love the Family Islands too. Casinos aren't my scene either as I know how gambling has ruined some people; my only visits to Treasure Bay Casino were since they had ATMs dispensing $US. You reminded me that I was told that Bahamian citizens are not allowed to gamble on the islands (how odd it must be for a Bahamian to work somewhere that their moral code (as codified in their laws) does not permit *them* to do).

*One more story*

As I was waiting for the van to pick me up to go on the Lucayan National Park trip on Royal Palm Way right near my B&B, a middle-aged Bahamian woman was doing some gardening. She was clearly well-liked by a number of fellow citizens, as more than a few people would slow down on this two-lane road, honk their horn and call out a friendly greeting out the window to her. One car actually just stopped and the woman inside was exchanging friendly banter with this gardener for several minutes. Several cars behind this woman's had to stop and go around when the lane in the opposite direction was clear. I thought to myself, "never have I seen this in North America". Probably not the safest driving behaviour, but I found myself smiling nevertheless.

Happy New Year to all, Daniel
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Jan 11th, 2011, 06:38 AM
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Excellent report. You certainly seemed to have done a lot for being such a short while on the island. I am particularly attracted at how non-touristy Grand Bahama can be (I'd initially heard the same as you) if you want it to be. I also liked that you got around to mingle with the locals on your own time and get in some fun and enjoyable workouts while on vacation, both of which I like doing too. Well done !
Do you have any pictures that we can link to your interesting narrative ?

I've travelled often and quite extensively in the Caribbean but never to the Bahamas despite having friends there that I've known since university days; they've been urging me to visit, (yet again on New Years Day), and your report might just convince me to go.

M
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Jan 11th, 2011, 08:42 AM
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PS Forgot to ask : Did you eat any 'Boiled fish and Johnny cake' ? The fish used is often Grouper. My Bahamian friends used to cook this at the time of Jonkanoo when I knew them at school. They said it made the cold weather more bearable.
The conch salad sounds great and I've eaten the spicy version on other islands, usually with 'piments' and no orange - but once with grapefruit and wild lime, which just happened to be growing on a tree within arms reach ! Caribbean cuisine is wonderful.
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Jan 11th, 2011, 08:19 PM
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Hi Mathieu

I'm glad you enjoyed my report. No, I didn't eat boil' fish & johnny cake (which I perhaps mistakenly understand is a breakfasty-thing?). My B&B owner tended to have home-made breads & fresh fruit as the included breakfast, so I tend to just enjoy what she laid out for me.

While I did take some pictures, I did not put them online. I thought you might enjoy however a video that I found on youtube that captures some of the ambience of some of Freeport's Junkanoo this past New Years (I took pictures of some of the costumes you see).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wphIP...eature=related

I hope I didn't lead you to a false impression of Grand Bahama being non-touristy. Even while I visited the areas where there were more Bahamians or more secluded, such as cycling down Midshipman Road, watching Junkanoo, strolling down Fortuna Beach or eating at Garden of the Groves, there was some degree of tourist presence (and truly from all over: North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia). What ended up pleasing me were that I could find many more spots than I expected where Bahamian culture predominated (Junkanoo) or shined brightly.

Best wishes and here's hoping you do go to the Bahamas (700 islands to discover! I now have 698 to go!).

Daniel
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Jan 12th, 2011, 05:18 AM
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Daniel, your wonderful report got a very nice conversation going here! We just fell in love with the Bahamian people. I get frustrated sometimes when people knock the Bahamas, and they've only been to Paradise Island! Didn't you love the local bread? As soon as we arrived at an island we searched for the "bread lady", bought 2 loaves, and ate one on the way back to our boat! When we flew to Georgetown yrs later, we still found the bread lady there! I didn't know that Bahamians are not allowed to gamble -- interesting!
I've decided my favorite islands are the ones that cruise ships can't get to!
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