Cover story March 26

Here's why Grand Bahama Island should be on your bucket list


The ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately made it impossible to travel right now. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop dreaming, to stop plotting your big comeback adventure. Although it may feel like a long ways away, eventually coronavirus will be a distant memory and the world will again be your oyster. And when that glorious time comes, here’s why Grand Bahama Island should top your list of where to go next. 

Keith Cooper jokingly refers to himself as the pied piper of stingrays, but it’s not far from the truth.

As he steps off the boat at Sandy Cay, a small sandbar off the west end of Grand Bahama surrounded by crystal clear water, a dozen stingrays instinctively swarm around him. 

“They’re touching my leg with their sensors because they know who I am, they remember who I am and because of the special bond I have with them, they trust me as much as I trust them,” the founder of West End Ecology Tours says, kneeling barefoot in the water as the rays slither up and down against his body. “They all have personalities just like a puppy or a dog. Their mouth — now this is where it gets really interesting — if it sucks on you, it can leave a big hickey.”

Before launching his company, which offers travellers the chance to get up close and personal with wild stingrays through an educational ecology tour, Cooper stumbled upon the rays by accident during a fishing expedition 12 years ago.

“My grandfather and other fishers, back in the day during the 1900s and even as far back as the mid 1800s used to come out here and clean the fish that they caught, take the remains and throw them into the water, and because of the blood from those animals it attracted the rays and the sharks, mostly juvenile sharks,” he said. “First time I got into the water with these animals, I was out here fishing, I threw some bait into the water and next thing you knew the boat was crowded with them. I said, boy I better come back out here with my snorkelling gear. So I went out into the water and snorkelled with them, scared one of them and it didn’t kill me, so I thought that’s a good sign. That’s how it started, from me taking a risk to swim with these animals that most Bahamians and humans fear.”

Now, Cooper offers multiple tours, including a Coral Reef Experience to an infamous boat wreck situated in eight feet of water and The Sugar Wreck, a 16th century ship, as well as a Reef Fishing Experience Tour, but the Stingray Experience Tour is arguably the most unique.

Encountering stingrays can be a daunting challenge for many visitors unaccustomed to meeting wildlife up close and personal. Fear of the unknown is evident on the minds and faces of those who are contemplating whether or not to take the challenge and meet the rays – one on one. 

“Their mouth — now this is where it gets really interesting — if it sucks on you, it can leave a big hickey.”

Keith Cooper 

I’ll be the first to admit that when I read ‘stingray encounter’ on the itinerary, I was skeptical. Not because I was afraid — although that may have come later as I watched a stingray’s mouth make contact with my hand — but because I was worried it would entail an unethical experience not to code with animal rights organizations. But as the boat arrived at the sandy beach and I could make out the stingrays in the water, I quickly realized these were very much wild animals.

“A lot of people say hey, man, that dude Steve Irwin got killed, what could happen to us?” Cooper continued. “You will not ever get stung by a stingray swimming in the ocean unless you go up to the animal, grab it and try to do tricks with it.”

Despite his reassurance, when it was my turn to get to know the animals up close, I had an internal battle with my doubts. I felt my sense of courage build every time a ray rubbed up against my legs.

Touching the hump was easy, I thought as I continued to slide my hand across the spine. On the other hand, feeling confident that Hugger would eat the fish in my hands while leaving my fingers intact, was another story. After my first feeding, I happily passed on the torch to someone else.

Next, it was time to suit up with snorkelling gear and get under water. 

The crystal clear water made for an unforgettable experience as I’d never seen such colourful marine life in such clarity. And I didn’t even flinch as I felt stingrays pass over and under my legs. 

Floating in the water, I remember thinking how lucky I was to be there. What an awesome experience that adds to the offer of the destination. Little did I know at the time, it would wind up being my last trip of the foreseeable future as the realities of travel bans set in following the spread of COVID-19. At least I went out on a high note. 

So, while it’s impossible to visit Grand Bahama right now, I implore you to add it to your bucket list if it isn’t there already.

Carmel Churchill

The Grand Bahama Island Tourism Board

“The Bahamas overall has 700 islands, 16 of them populated and marketed for tourism. Grand Bahama Island is located just 55 miles east of Florida, and it’s the northernmost island in the chain, therefore making it the perfect gateway, offering travellers a perfectly balanced ‘taste of The Bahamas.’ 

A beautiful mix of boutique hotels, luxury resorts, secluded beaches, golf courses, a mix of elevated-fusion and down-home foodie culture and some of the friendliest people in the world are just some of the many reasons why Canadians make Grand Bahama Island their home away from home for the winter.

If that wasn’t enough, Grand Bahama Island is nestled among miles upon miles of powder-white sands, nature preserves and emerald-green seas. Our variety of cultural experiences and natural wonders makes us ideal for everything from kayaking, dolphin interactions, stingray educational experiences, bird watching and eco-adventures to scuba diving, bike tours and jeep safaris. We’re also the perfect location for destination weddings and honeymoons.”

Explore Grand Bahama Island

“One of the big things that separates us from the rest of The Bahamas is that Grand Bahama gives you a taste of Nassau and it gives you a taste of the Out Islands,” said Steven Johnson, who relocated from his Canadian post to Grand Bahama in October to take on the role of General Manager of Tourism on Grand Bahama Island for The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism & Aviation. “Grand Bahama is special. It’s a bigger island than Nassau however there’s a bit more of a quiet taste to it. It’s really kind of a magical island.”

Along with endless white sand beaches, Grand Bahama Island is home to one of the world’s largest underwater cave systems, historic fishing villages, three national parks and a variety of accommodation options ranging from all-inclusive resorts to luxury villas. 

Here are just a few ways to pass the time in this picturesque destination…

  • Hit the beach: for those seeking to relax in the sun, there are no shortage of long white sandy beaches to choose from. A popular choice is Taino Beach, another is Gold Rock Beach, where at low tide this secluded beach’s clear waters extend for almost 70 metres into the sea. 
  • Go national: Visit Lucayan National Park to discover one of the largest underwater cave systems in the world underwater cave systems in the world, where the island’s Arawak Indians lived before Columbus’ discovery of the Bahamas. This park includes five different ecological zones and is also home to Gold Rock Beach.
  • Curious about conch? Look no further than Tony Macaroni’s Conch Experience to not only feast on some local favourites, but learn everything you never knew about the Bahamian staple ingredient. Find out facts like when a conch becomes an adult (at age six) and how to tell the age of a conch (by looking at the layers on the shell) by taking part in the live Conch 101 Demo by proprietor Anthony ‘Tony Macaroni’ Hanna. 
  • Feast on this: Foodies will want to check out The Stoned Crab, a modern, breezy beachfront restaurant serving up delicious fare and cocktails. Following the meal, head to the beach to get an Instagram-worthy photo on the tandem swings. 
  • Hit the road: A great way to get an overview of the destination or for cruise visitors is to take a Bahamas Jeep Safari Tour. Participants get to drive their own 4×4 open top Jeep in a convoy, led by an experienced island guide. Typical stops include a visit Lucayan National Park and the Garden of the Groves, which offers winding trails through lush vegetation, cascading waterfalls and sparkling fountains.

Check out what awaits on Grand Bahama Island

Take off to Grand Bahama

Although Sunwing has temporarily suspended all southbound flights until April 30th, Deana Murphy, Vice President of Retail Sales says Grand Bahama has been a long-time favourite vacation destination amongst Canadian sun-seekers for the airline. 

“Known for its laid back and relaxing ambiance, the island’s breathtaking natural landscapes offer something for every travel style,” she says. “Beach lovers have no shortage of options to choose from, with sparkling white-sand shores and calm turquoise waters lining the coast. The calm waters and fascinating dive sites make it an ideal destination for those looking to discover the deep blue – snorkelling and scuba diving enthusiasts can swim alongside exotic marine life and above colourful coral reefs off the coast of Peterson Cay National Park and other popular sites. Eco-enthusiasts can explore the destination’s natural beauty on a Sunwing Experiences excursion, from riding bikes along the coast to exploring the world’s largest underwater cave system at Lucayan National Park. Sunwing Experiences excursions can be booked in advance as an add-on to vacation packages, giving travellers the chance to save by pre-paying in Canadian dollars.”

Typically, vacationers can choose from a number of hotels and resorts in Grand Bahama.

Viva Wyndham Fortuna Beach is a Sunwing favourite all-inclusive resort that’s perfect for families with exciting activities like trapeze, paintball and snorkelling. Plus, families can take their travel budget even further with SmileResorts™ inclusions where up to two kids (aged two-12 years) stay, play and eat free with no single parent supplement fee, supervised kids’ club and more.

Pelican Bay Hotel is an ideal choice for travellers looking to explore the island at their own pace, with a complimentary buffet breakfast every day. Foodies can explore the local culinary scene of Lucaya just a short drive away or dine at one of the hotel’s two on-site restaurants (at an added cost). The hotel also offers a complimentary ferry ride to nearby Taino Beach where they can soak up the sun or try out a range of water sports.

Island Seas Resort is a great option for larger families travelling together – with accommodation options that can sleep five or more. Every room at the resort includes a full kitchen, giving guests the freedom to cook their own meals. Guests who want to enjoy a classic all-inclusive experience can upgrade to the resort’s all-inclusive plan and dine at one of two on-site restaurants. During the day, guests can soak up the sun by the pristine beach while kids play at the Camp Coconuts kids club.