“It’s wonderful to see you again and be reminded that you once lived among us!”
This was how Ashley Saunders greeted me, a man who some 50 years ago was my student in Bimini’s ramshackle, one-room schoolhouse. At the time, I was just 16 years old.
Since then, I have returned periodically to this unforgettable island, the “gateway to the Bahamas” and one of the world’s top big game fishing and diving destinations. On my last trip here in 1976, I brought along my soon-to-be wife to celebrate New Year’s Eve.
Now, 40 years later, we returned to Bimini to see how the island had changed.
As it turned out, Ashley, one of the school’s best students, had gone on to become a teacher himself, as well as Bimini’s historian and poet. He’d also built a small museum, the Dolphin House, that’s full of historic Bimini artifacts and memorabilia.
We learned that Ashley and his brother Thomas had hosted Dr. Martin Luther King on Bimini just three days before he was assassinated in 1968. (Allegedly, his last speech was written on the island.) King was on a visit to recruit former U.S. Congressman from Harlem, Adam Clayton Powell, to the civil rights movement after he’d retired to Bimini. I, myself, had enjoyed lunch with Powell on Bimini’s waterfront in the early 1960s. (When Powell died in 1974, his ashes were spread over the island.) King had visited Bimini just once before. Today, his bust overlooking the island’s tiny straw market serves as a permanent tribute.
The old school house where I once taught is still in use—but it’s a high school instead of a combined elementary and junior high. And the adjacent house, where I had lived with the school’s Irish principal and his wife, houses the school’s office.
Just down the street, we saw the ruins of the Compleat Angler, a small, historic inn with a convivial bar where we enjoyed drinks on our aforementioned New Year’s Eve visit. (Two of my earliest photographs of Bimini once hung on its walls.) The inn, a former haunt of Ernest Hemingway (going back to the 1930s) and other notables had burned to the ground in 2006.
As we walked along Queen’s Highway, the island’s “main street”— a walkway that barely accommodates the few vehicles on the island—I encountered former students who remembered me. We also met Solomon “Sol” Frazier. Decades ago, he was the island’s best guitarist, a trophy-winning weightlifter and a role model who had helped me adapt to the island’s culture. Now 77 years old and struggling with serious health problems, he graciously welcomed us into his home and talked about the changes on Bimini.
The northern area of Bimini’s North Island has been taken over by the Malaysian multi-national company, Genting, under the name Resorts World Bimini. The developer has introduced a fast Miami-to-Bimini ship (called Bimini Superfast) to shuttle guests to a new Hilton-franchised hotel and the resort (complete with a rooftop infinity pool, condos, a casino, and fine dining restaurants)—all now in the final stages of completion. Genting has also built a marine terminal that’s allegedly one of the largest in the Bahamas.
Sol and other locals have concluded the changes are “bittersweet.” While the new projects have brought some jobs, more money-spending tourists and island infrastructure improvements, Genting has destroyed many of the Bimini’s eco-rich mangroves (with massive landfills on which to expand development) and introduced more cars and people. Relatedly, some offshore reefs that have long attracted divers and fishermen have been threatened, if not destroyed. And it’s not yet clear yet if Bimini has the capacity to handle the hordes of visitors the developer predicts.
Fortunately, the island’s authentic, laid-back ambience remains unchanged in and around the main settlement of Alice Town, about a mile south of the resort. But one gets the sense that Bimini now has two distinct cultures that are struggling to co-exist. (Locals humorously refer to resort workers brought to Bimini by Genting Corporation from Nassau, Grand Bahama and other islands as “seaweed.”)
There’s something very poignant about visiting a place that once was my “home away from home. ” I sensed the relentless passing of time and the impermanence of people and places that were once important in my life. Now there’s a conflict over the soul of Bimini— a gem of a place once so relaxing and unspoiled that Hemingway described it in his novel, Islands in the Stream, as “the end of the world.”
All things considered, taking the Miami-to Bimini ship for a 2-night stay at the new Hilton is both convenient and cost-effective. After the 3- hour, 60-mile cruise, you can relax in the Bahamas’ languid atmosphere and easily explore authentic Bimini on foot or with a bicycle or electric cart.
We can only hope that a constructive balance will be achieved between the interests of the developer and those of Bimini’s people to preserve their traditional lifestyle as well as the island’s fragile ecosystem.
For more information about the resort, visit: rwbimini.com. For information about the controversy surrounding the island’s development, go to: savebimini.org
The original schoolhouse hasn’t changed except for the addition of a few interior walls.
The powdery white sands and shades of blue in the sea around Bimini are as alluring as ever.
The main walkway on North Bimini has been re-paved to accommodate more electric carts and cars.
Bimini’s home-made bread has always been known for its wonderful aroma and taste.
The 1,500-person cruise ship of Resorts World Bimini that ferries visitors between Miami and Bimini docks 3 days a week at the resort’s property.
The beaches of Bimini are known for their beautiful shells including large conchs.