BIMINI, Bahamas -
One afternoon in Bimini, I was out doing what people do in Bimini — fish — when I mentioned to my guide that I was in the mood for pizza.
The guide, a Bimini native who calls himself Bonefish Tommy, suggested I check out Jontra grocery store down the street from my hotel. Ask for the woman who lives upstairs, named Sarah, who makes pizza in her kitchen, he said. After six hours and two fish pulled from Bimini's shallow coastal waters, I did just that.
When I asked for Sarah, the woman behind the Jontra counter handed me a telephone and recited Sarah's number. She answered on the third ring.
"What you want, baby?" she said.
I said I wanted pizza.
Come back in 45 minutes, she said.
When I returned, I called Sarah from the grocery phone again. No answer. I tried again. No answer. The woman at the counter said, "Hold on, I'll call her." She stepped around the counter, pushed through the front door and crossed a narrow street that runs the length of the island and shouted, "Sarah! Sarah!"
Sarah, wearing dark sunglasses and a baggy white T-shirt, stepped to her porch.
"The man here for his pizza!"
Welcome to Bimini, where a pizza restaurant that exists only in one woman's kitchen if you know to ask about it is most effectively contacted by hollering at the chef from across the street. Or, in simpler terms, Bimini is an old-school, small-town, charmingly down-and-dirty Bahamian experience. The westernmost portion of the Bahamas, it is a 30-minute flight from Nassau's teeming tourist masses but far enough that several lifelong Bahamians I met in Nassau had never visited.
Bimini consists primarily of two islands, North and South Bimini, with the bulk of its modest tourism on long, flat North Bimini, where I spent most of my time. The island stretches just a few miles and is narrow enough that, from its highest points, the blue-green ocean can be seen lapping both shores.
In other hands, Bimini's pristine beaches long ago would have been co-opted by big business. Here they are fronted only by the business of people living their lives: locals pedaling past in flip-flops, a healthy number of churches for such a small island and short concrete homes surrounded by lush growth.
There aren't a lot of reasons to visit Bimini, but there are good reasons, such as world-class fishing, be it the deep sea variety or the pursuit of bonefish skirting around the shallow flats just off the coast. Bimini hosts a handful of fishing tournaments each year that pack the islands. There also are diving, snorkeling and the simple joy of visiting a warm-weather island 50 miles east of Miami that is hospitable to visitors while remaining true to itself.
Ernest Hemingway spent time in Bimini fishing and writing. His name, therefore, is thrown around often, including at the Hemingway bar in the Bimini Big Game Club Resort and Marina; a letter from the man himself is displayed in the lobby.
Dated "March 4 On-board S.S. Paris," he writes to a friend about the Bimini fishing club to which they both belonged: "Never let Farrington be president because he is not really a sportsman, maybe he is, I've nothing against him, but he is competitive in a sport where the competition should be all inside yourself and we don't want bickering. He takes it too seriously too. It's serious while you're doing it but we have to remember it's fishing if we are going to have a sound attitude (toward) it."
Toward the south end of North Bimini, a brick chimney sprouts from pile of concrete and rubble: ruins of the Compleat Angler Hotel, which burned down in 2006. Legend says old Hem built a boxing ring in the hotel, offering money to anyone who could take him in three rounds. Of course, legend also says no one could.
Martin Luther King Jr. visited too, chartering a boat into Bimini's thick mangrove swamps to draft his speeches in peace. Recently installed near the spot is a bust of King set on a wooden platform as a place for quiet contemplation. It's accessible only by boat and worth a visit.
Modern-day Bimini can't be much different from when Hemingway and King visited. There is no gloss. There is no effort to charm. Bimini is just Bimini and the result is a charm that no resort could manufacture.
The charms are found in locals who, on a given day, might call you "man" (or, more accurately, "mon"), "baby," "big boy" or "brother" (I was called all of them). After about 36 hours, you start to notice the same people again and again, moving through island life at a casual pace. When, for instance, I showed up for the well-regarded lobster pizza at Edith's Pizza, I learned the chef was out of town and the restaurant was closed until her return.
"She might be back in two or three days," I was told.
Or, when I tried to rent a bicycle to tour the island one afternoon, the bike shop was inexplicably closed at 1 p.m. on a weekday. The woman running the grocery next door said I could rent her bike for $1 an hour less than I would have paid at the shop, and she sent a friend home to get it.
Bathed in a tropical winter breeze, I pedaled that pink-and-yellow bike up one of the two roads that run the length of the island, with no stoplights to interrupt my journey. I cruised alongside an ocean more green than blue and past the occasional cluster of brightly colored houses (pink beside blue beside green) where people lounged on their porches and boats sat upturned in front yards.
In tiny Bailey Town, just up the road from Alice Town — the biggest of the tiny towns on the islands — I passed two teenagers flirting in the street. The girl turned to me and said with a stony face, "Your tire's moving."
"My tire is ..." I said and looked down.
She exploded into laughter at her own joke. I laughed too and pedaled on to a roadside shack at a sharp bend in the road, where a man named Friendly Joe stood with his back to the ocean as he sliced the conch he had caught that morning. A few yards away, a group of boys played basketball with a milk crate tacked to a wooden pole. Friendly Joe told me that slow, laid-back Bimini is changing. At the north end of North Island, he said, a gated resort of pastel cottages is expanding with a 325-room hotel and casino, Bimini's first. Seaplanes carrying high rollers have been flying overhead several times a day since the casino opened last summer.
"This is supposed to be a little well-kept secret of an island," said Friendly Joe, 54, cutting the conch into a bowl with onion and green pepper. "I understand progress, but you put too much progress on a little island, and you spoil it."
I pedaled up the island to that new complex, Resorts World, where pristine cottages in yellow and pink abutted trim lawns and tidy streets. I rode past the casino — small by many standards — and peeked in the window to see the same frenzy and flashing lights I had gladly left behind in Nassau. The joy of Bimini until then was being in Bimini. The cottages and casino could have been anywhere.
Wandering around Alice Town the next morning, I ran into Bonefish Tommy as he sat behind the wheel of a parked golf cart (one of the island's primary modes of transport). A woman at his side gnawed on a chicken leg. We chatted for a moment, and then I asked him, again, for a lunch recommendation.
He pointed to the open hatchback of the Toyota station wagon parked ahead of us. The woman beside him, who identified herself as Sister Jan, said she made the food at home that morning to sell from the back of her car. Ten dollars later I was eating stuffed lobster, macaroni and cheese, potato salad and Bahamian rice from Sister Jan's foil pans.
I took the meal to a gazebo on the side of the road and thought about the resort on the north end of the island. Two unexpected meals made by locals in their own kitchens told me that, thankfully, so-called progress couldn't be too far along.
IF YOU GO:
EAT: A Taste of Heaven Bakery (Kings Highway, Alice Town) serves baked goods and plate lunches to go. Edith's Pizza (Kings Highway) and the restaurant at the Bimini Big Game Club Resort and Marina (800-867-4764, biggameclubbimini.com) in Alice Town are well-regarded.
STAY: Rates at Bimini Big Game Club, on North Bimini, vary from $149 to $179 per night, plus taxes. Resorts World is a new resort (888-930-8688, rwbimini.com) at the north end of North Bimini, and it includes the island's first casino; rates start at $119 per night. On South Bimini, Bimini Sands Resort & Marina (800-737-1007, biminisands.com) rates vary from $250 to $475, plus taxes.
DO: The fishing is world-class (both deep sea and bonefishing), and the diving/ snorkeling are top-notch. Hotels are a good place to find outfitters. Situated in the mangrove swamps and accessible only by boat, Healing Hole is a natural pool of water believed by some to have mystical powers. If chartering a boat there, ask the captain to also stop at the Martin Luther King Jr. bust in the swamps, accessible only by boat.
Josh Noel: email@example.com
(c)2014 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services