Overlooked no longer, the Bahamas are swiftly becoming the new Florida
Remember back in high school when you suddenly noticed the girl or guy next door? It's like that with the Bahamas, which is right next door to the mainland U.S.-as close as 50 miles at one point. There's always been a steady flow of tourists to Nassau and Freeport, but for the most part the archipelago of more than 700 islands has been below the radar of luxury travelers. Now the kid next door is recognized as a delightful destination, one with the natural beauty and innocence that jaded jet-setters are seeking.
"Proximity is a big draw for the Bahamas," says Maxine Hussey, director of Bahamas operations for Damianos Sotheby's International Realty in Nassau, "as is the fact that we don't have income, corporate or inheritance tax. Our economy is one of the strongest in the Caribbean, and we still have a lot of desirable land that has not been developed. Because of the weak dollar, we're seeing a lot of Canadian, European and British investment in second-family homes-and Americans, too, in the mid- to upper-level range."
Christopher Columbus made his first landfall in the New World on the Bahamian island of San Salvador in 1492. He called it baja mar (shallow sea), which eventually morphed into "Bahamas." I first "discovered" the Bahamas in the 1980s, while doing research for a guidebook. I fell in love with the Out Islands, which were stalled in a serene 1950s time warp. But while I enjoyed strolling deserted beaches, diving on untouched reefs, feasting on fresh conch salad and grouper stew with the locals and staying in homey inns where open windows provided air conditioning, I realized that being "undiscovered" was not good for the islanders. Young people had to leave the islands to find jobs, and the residents did not have the quality of life tourism would bring.
That's all changing. Young people are coming home to take jobs in tourism, commerce or construction, and there's a new sense of progress and prosperity throughout the region.
The Bahamas is the new Florida, says Wim Steenbakkers, managing director at the new Cotton Bay Estates and Villas on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera. "Many of our new homeowners spent their working lives in the Northeast and looked at Florida as a retirement paradise. But now that Florida is growing by a million people a year, second-home buyers and retirees are looking beyond, to the islands of the Bahamas. It's the new paradise."
Paradise indeed. The 700 islands are spread over 100,000 square miles of ocean that varies from the shallows Columbus noticed to seemingly bottomless trenches. The world's third-largest barrier reef is here, surrounded by crystal clear water. It's an idyllic area for flats fishing and diving-and sailing. The Atlantic breezes are lively and there's always a sheltered bay nearby with an open-air bar where the conch fritters are hot, the Kalik beer is cold, and the Bahamians are smiling in welcome. Only about 30 of the islands are inhabited, so you can easily drop anchor next to a deserted cay and play Robinson Crusoe for as long as you like.
Or you can choose to own a piece of paradise. New resort developments have something for everyone, from marina condos to beachfront cabanas to golf course villas. Almost all are upscale, with amenities such as golf courses, spas, deepwater berths for large yachts, equestrian centers, dive shops and even airstrips.
Located 45 minutes by air from Miami, Great Abaco is the largest in an archipelago of about 120 islands, most sparsely inhabited. Known for its quaint, New England-style buildings, the area is frequented mostly by yachters. Great Abaco did not catch the attention of upscale landlubbers until 2004, when British entrepreneur Peter de Savary opened the Abaco Club on Winding Bay. The club occupies a 520-acre peninsula with a pink sand beach, a Scottish links-style golf course designed by Donald Steel and Tom Mackenzie, an equestrian center, a spa and an intimate clubhouse. There are 63 building sites ($2 million to $4 million) and 75 turnkey cottages ($1 million to $2 million) managed by Ritz-Carlton.
Great Guana Cay is another treasure that has been largely ignored since Disney's "Big Red Boat" ceased using it as a day stop. The island is home to a seven-mile beach with a snorkeling reef 50 yards offshore and a popular hangout, Nipper's Beach Bar. Life on the sleepy island will change as the Baker's Bay Club begins to take shape on almost 600 of the island's 1,800 acres. The community will feature 185 developer-built residences ($2 million to $5.5 million) around a 158-slip marina, 172 oceanfront lots ($2 million to $13 million) and a Tom Fazio-designed golf course. Progress is currently going strong, according to sales staff, the golf course well under construction along the ocean.
Fishhook-shaped Eleuthera (from the Greek word for "freedom") is 110 miles long, two miles wide and lined with white and pink sand beaches. It's a 90-minute flight from Ft. Lauderdale (20 minutes from Nassau) to the island's three airports. Rock Sound Airport on the southern tip was built in the 1950s by Pan Am founder Juan Trippe for access to his private enclave, the Cotton Bay Club, and its Robert Trent Jones, Sr. golf course (now owned by a Columbian investor). Upscale Harbour Island is just off the island's north end. British royalty used to vacation on gated Windermere Island, off Eleuthera's southeast flank.
Robert Trent Jones, Jr., has just broken ground for a new course next to his father's Cotton Bay links. It will be one of the amenities at the new Cotton Bay Estates and Villas, a 1,500-acre gated community with a marina, a 27,000-square-foot clubhouse, a spa, a Starwood Luxury Collection of 31 villas ($1 million to $3.5 million) and 114 estate lots (starting at $750,000). Preservation of the environment is a priority at the new development, says managing director Wim Steenbakkers. "We're members of the Audubon Signature Program, so the course will blend with the environment. The villas, too, have just 10 feet of space on each side; the rest is natural vegetation, so we have privacy and continuity." The project is moving forward, say the developers, despite the economy.
Taking shape on a 4,500-acre peninsula in southwest Eleuthera is the $85 million Cape Eleuthera Resort & Yacht Club. Featuring one of the largest marinas in the Out Islands, the development is steered by the DeVos family that once owned Peter Island in the BVIs. Bahamas scuba diving legend Neal Watson runs the resort's dive operation. Lining the marina will be two-bedroom townhomes, and there will be 26 estate lots along the beachfront. Real estate prices have not been set.
Just off the northern tip of Eleuthera, NFL Hall-of-Famer Roger Staubach is developing Royal Island, a 440-acre cay that will be home to a Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course, a 200-slip marina, an 80-room boutique hotel with spa and restaurants, 70 waterfront homesites ($5 million to $9 million) and 48 villas (starting at $4.5 million).
Arising on the site of the defunct Club Med is the new 365-acre French Leave Resort on Governor's Harbour, just south of the island's midpoint. The plan, orchestrated by Pennsylvania-based EIC Resorts, calls for a 51-slip marina and a luxury boutique hotel village with beachfront residences. "It's strongest asset is 4,500 feet of pink powder sand beach, a broad beach, great for bathing. It's spectacular and the site has elevations to 160 feet, most unusual in the Bahamas," says Paul Thompson, director of marketing."It's a truly boutique resort that provides luxurious amenities and services while being respectful of the Bahamian culture and people. Our architecture is influenced not by where we come from but by where we are." The development is currently moving forward.
The 365 cays of the Exuma archipelago are stretched over 120 miles of transparent ocean just 35 miles from Nassau. Great Exuma, the largest of the chain, has always been a favorite of sailors, fishermen, scuba divers and beach-lovers. The rest of the world became aware of it in 2003, when Four Seasons Great Exuma at Emerald Bay opened, along with its Greg Norman-designed golf course.
GRAND BAHAMA ISLAND
Second only to New Providence Island in tourism, Grand Bahama Island is larger, with more beaches and sparsely populated areas on the east and west ends. Freeport's Port Lucaya is the epicenter of activity, with luxury hotels, nightlife, extensive shopping opportunities and venues for land and sea sports.The Lucayan National Park is home to one of the oldest cave systems in the world. On the island's West End is the Old Bahama Bay Resort, a wonderful intimate small resort popular with Florida-based sports stars and big game fishermen.
NEW PROVIDENCE ISLAND
Nassau is the capital of the Bahamas and the frenetic social center of the country's best-known island. Tourists flock here to bask on the beaches, engage in watersports, mingle in nightclubs and try their luck in the casinos. Select portions of coveted open space are carefully being turned into upscale resort communities. Lyford Cay, the island's premier address, is a 1,000-acre second-home haven for celebs such as Sean Connery and a cadre of international billionaires. One of these is Tavistock Group owner Joe Lewis, the force behind Albany Golf and Beach Club-a 565-acre, family-oriented community adjacent to Lyford Cay. Plans call for 350 homes (starting at $4 million), an equestrian center, a spa, a water park, a marina and an Ernie Els-designed golf course. Tiger Woods is a major investor in the project.
The defunct South Ocean Resort next to the Albany site is being razed to make way for a resort community orchestrated by the New South Ocean Development Company. The first phase was the Greg Norman-designed Blue Shark golf course, which occupies the track of a 1970s Joe Lee design. Norman says he made a "silk purse from a sow's ear," and that Meadowbrook Golf maintenance will keep it that way. Plans call for a marina, luxury hotel, homesites, a beach club, a spa and a casino.
One of the most affordable second-home options in Nassau is the low-key but stylish gated community at The Porches at Coral Harbour. The south-side development features condos along the canal (starting at $349,000) or harbor-view villas (starting at $549,000). Paradise Island, connected by a bridge to New Providence, has become an island fantasyland, thanks to South African visionary Sol Kerzner's Atlantis Resort. The amenities enjoyed by guests in the 3,000-room resort towers include the world's largest open-air marine habitat (with underwater viewing in a maze called The Dig), a 63-acre water park, a Mandarin Spa, many restaurants and a huge casino.
REAL ESTATE RESOURCE
George Damianos, president of Damianos Sotheby's International Realty in Nassau, was born and raised on the island and followed in the footsteps of his father, who started the company in 1945. Damianos handles real estate in tony Lyford Cay, where homes range from $1.5 million to $50 million, and has sales representatives in every corner of the Bahamas.
FLY IN, FLY OUT
Private pilots familiar with the Bahamas have long been comfortable with the Million Air, the largest provider of flight services in the Caribbean. After an 11-year affiliation with the Million Air franchise, as of January 2008, the independently-owned company has re-branded itself as an FSP (flight service provider) rather than an FBO (fixed base of operations) under the new name Odyssey Aviation FSP. Ownership and management stays the same, but Odyssey Aviation is changing its uniforms and signage and investing in improved facilities, training, safety features and services. The Nassau FSP provides private lounges and conference rooms, sleeping rooms for pilots, 24-hour security, limo and car rental services, catering and 24-hour customs and immigration services. Charters can also be arranged. Click to View Related Video
The Abaco Club on Winding Bay, 888.303.2765, abacoclub.com;
Baker's Bay Club, 561.833.9590, bakersbayclub.com;
The Cotton Bay Club, 800.255.4539, cottonbayeleuthera.com;
Cape Eleuthera Resort & Yacht Club, 242.422.9977, capeeleuthera.com;
Royal Island, 888.512.2050, royalislandbahamas.com;
French Leave Resort, 242.332.3616, frenchleaveresort.com;
Albany Golf & Beach Club, 407.909.7000, albanybahamas.com;
Blue Shark Golf Club, 212.584.9170, bluesharkgolf.com;
The Porches at Coral Harbor, 242.362.2800, theporchesbahamas.com;
Turnberry Ltd, 305.937.6262, turnberryltd.com;
Sotheby's International Realty, 242.322.2305, sirbahamas.com;
Odyssey Aviation, 242.702.0200, odysseyfsp.com
What type of Second or Vacation Home Ownership model do you feel makes the most sense?