Grand Bahama Renaissance

Freeport vicinity gains well-known hotel brands, new airport terminal

By: Theresa Norton Masek

This warm-weather gambling getaway spot has been suffering from an inferiority complex, losing travelers and elan to neighboring Nassau for years.

But that is changing, as Freeport and Grand Bahama Island are finally gaining international hotel brands and a retooled tourism pitch.

“This is the renaissance of Grand Bahama Island,” said Terrance L. Roberts, executive vice president of the Grand Bahama Island Tourism Board.

“We are repositioning Grand Bahama Island to recast the old image of Freeport, which had a reputation as a cheap, quick casino getaway, into a quality resort destination.”

Instead of simply promoting Freeport, the new tourism slant is promoting the entire island, Roberts said.

“We want to suggest a total island experience,” he explained. “We have old fishing villages, birding experiences, fly-fishing for bonefish and the International Bazaar at Port Lucaya.”

Lucaya is a tourist area developed in the 1960s with five properties around a marina. It includes the bazaar and a rustic shopping mall.

With the recent developments, Grand Bahama tourism officials say they are working to attract new air service with an eye on West Coast travelers.

“We’re certainly interested in developing marketshare from the Western states, and in increasing airlift opportunities in the not-too-distant future, so the West Coast can also consider us among their destinations of choice,” Roberts said.

And the island now has a lineup of new or renovated properties to offer.

“In the last two years, we really have seen a nice, diverse product line,” he said. “For the first time in 30 years, about 80 percent of the product is either brand-new or newly refurbished.”

The big news in Freeport this year was the branding of the Our Lucaya Beach & Golf Resort by Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. Starwood manages the property for the Hutchison Whampoa Group of Hong Kong.

Our Lucaya, situated along a lovely beach, encompasses three hotels that underwent a $400 million renovation before the property reopened in December 2000.

Two of the hotel buildings are operated as Westins, while the third is a Sheraton.

The Westin features upgraded amenities, including the line’s signature Heavenly Bed and a quiet ambience. The Sheraton is geared more toward families and has a big pool with a waterslide and waterfalls.

In all, Our Lucaya has 1,260 rooms, two 18-hole golf courses, a spa and fitness center and 14 themed restaurants and lounges. A 40,000-square-foot casino is scheduled to open in late September or early October.

“Our Lucaya is without a doubt the lead property on the island,” Roberts said. “Having branded properties means they can meet customers’ expectations, particularly North American customers.”

Another resort that gained highly recognized names just over a year ago is the 965-room Royal Oasis Golf Resort & Casino, which has a Holiday Inn SunSpree and a Crowne Plaza, both InterContinental Hotels brands. It formerly was the Bahamas Princess Resort.

The SunSpree, aimed at families with children, features a kids-only restaurant and supervised children’s programs. Room categories are described as standard to superior, while the Crowne Plaza offers superior to deluxe rooms and suites. Each property has a swimming pool, and the two share a beach pool with a sandy bottom and no waves.

The Royal Oasis also has two USGA-rated, 18-hole golf courses and a 28,000-square-foot casino.

For a smaller resort, there’s the 90-room Pelican Bay at Lucaya and the 48-suite Pelican Bay Suites, located at Port Lucaya. A project to double the accommodations at Pelican Bay Suites is under way, scheduled for completion in mid-January.

Pelican Bay is home to the Ferry House Restaurant, a surprisingly sophisticated dining spot and easily one of the island’s best.

The new resorts and hotel renovations are helping to boost tourism to Grand Bahama Island, Roberts said.

Regarding air service from the West Coast, travelers must fly to the East and transfer to another flight. After a five-hour transcontinental flight, the jump to Grand Bahama Island is only 35 minutes or so.

Among the options are American Eagle from Miami and Fort Lauderdale; Continental Connection from Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Miami and Orlando; AirTran from Atlanta and Baltimore; and US Airways from LaGuardia, Charlotte, N.C., and Philadelphia.

On Oct. 15, Delta Air Lines will start flying 50-seat jets twice daily from Atlanta to Freeport.

The Grand Bahama International Airport is being expanded. The $35 million project includes a new international terminal with new security and U.S. Customs and Immigration facilities.

Roberts said it is tentatively scheduled to open in June 2004.