Palm Beach to Grand Bahama Island
Taking a Break from Winter on a Mini Cruise
Article and Photography by Jennifer Merrick
Two ships pass in the night. When Classica is enroute to the Grand Bahama Island, Celebration is heading to Palm Beach, Florida, and vice versa, each taking two days to complete the journey.
They’re both cruise ships belonging to Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, each with multiple dining options, onboard entertainment, spa, casino and deckchairs with views of the ocean and pools. But the ships are also a means of transportation.
“Some guests stay in the Bahamas for a couple of days or longer,” said Paulina, one of the ship’s friendly crew. “And local Bahamians come to Palm Beach to shop or a change of scenery.”
But for the majority of the passengers, including our family, the two-day cruise was a way to escape to warmer climates that we could fit into our schedule without breaking the bank.
Warm sunshine greeted us in Palm Beach, Florida. The 25°C temperatures were a tonic for our winter-weary bodies, and our dry, pale skin thirstily soaked up the moist, salty air. Honestly, that would have been enough for us. But the Palm Beaches, a county in the state’s southeast that extends from Jupiter in the north to Boca Raton in the south — along 47 miles of Atlantic shoreline, offered a wide variety of attractions from nature reserves and eco-centres to top-notch shopping and dining.
John D. MacArthur Beach State Park, located in the north of the county, preserves the lush, subtropical coastal habitat that once covered southeast Florida. As we crossed the 1,600-foot boardwalk, a flock of pelicans flew over us; and in the estuaries, we spotted cranes, egrets and a singing fisherman. His obvious joy was contagious, though it would be hard not to be happy in this spot. The boardwalk led to an interpretive nature trail, which then opened up to a postcard-perfect stretch of sandy beach. We rubbed our eyes in case it was a mirage; but when we opened them, the ocean was still there inviting us to take off our shoes and stroll barefoot in the waves, which we promptly did.
After seeing this natural treasure, we found riches of a different nature on a tour of the Town of Palm Beach. Sometimes called the island of Palm Beach or simply ‘the island’, this 18-mile-long swath of land between Lake Worth Lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean is home to some of the nation’s wealthiest citizens.
“There are more billionaires in this zip code than anywhere else in America,” said Leslie Diver, a long-time resident and owner of Island Living Tours. “But I’m not one of them,” she added. She was, however, loaded with a passion for architecture and rolling in information about the island’s rich history and even richer residents. Diver’s tours included driving, walking and biking, and on this sunny day we chose the latter. As we pedalled down palm-lined streets and the scenic Lake Trail bike path, Diver would periodically stop and comment on the architectural style, the striking trees we passed and the town’s gilded past, including some juicy, historical gossip.
It turned out that Flagler, who built the railways and developed the town into a destination resort, had a colourful personal life. By bribing the state legislature to temporarily change a law forbidding a divorce when your spouse was confined to a mental institution, he was able to marry wife number three.
“He was 71; she was 34,” said Diver. “And some say that started a Palm Beach tradition that remains on the island today.”
Money has always been in abundance here, and we could see just how well-heeled residents were on Worth Avenue, where over 200 shops offered a mix of high-end retail shops, art galleries, jewellers, antiques and dining.
Though I enjoyed the ambiance, especially in the courtyards, which were designed by American architect Mizner to mimic the piazzas in Italy and the Mediterranean, the only shopping I’d be doing here was of the window variety. Fortunately, there were more affordable retail options, including the nearby Palm Beach Outlets, whose outdoor complex housed over 100 shops with discounted brand-named merchandise. There were also attractions that don’t cost a cent, and two of my favourites were the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, a turtle rescue facility, and the Manatee Lagoon. At the latter, we spotted one of these endearing creatures who came to this location to enjoy the warm waters during the winter months. Just like us, I thought. This eco-discovery center is located right next to the Port of Palm Beach, where we embarked on our Bahamas Paradise Cruise.
Sailing to Grand Bahama Island
Aboard the Classica, we waved goodbye to the manatees and the mansions of Palm Beach as they disappeared into the sunset, and then turned our attention to onboard leisure pursuits of which there were many. Like a kid in the proverbial candy store (and there was a real one of those, too), the ship was fraught with temptations: spa specials, professional pho apps, a casino and specialty dining options.
Resistance was futile, and we decided to celebrate a couple of birthdays with an admiral’s dinner of surf and turf. Looking around at the many birthday and anniversary cakes, other passengers were doing the same. There was an extra charge for this meal, but the inclusive dining options, especially the a la carte menu at Yellow Elder Restaurant and the deck barbeque were also superb. Variety shows, a stand-up comic, lounge singers, Spanish dance lessons, Bingo and a Latin music party highlighted the entertainment portion of the cruise.
Grand Bahama Island awaited us in the morning, and we had a full day (8:00AM –4:30PM) to enjoy its charms. There are over a dozen optional shore excursions offered, ranging from jeep tours and sailing to relaxing on a beach and shopping. We decided to arrange our own adventure and spent the day at Paradise Cove, known for its excellent snorkelling and beach. Under the water, colourful fish and turtles swam by; on the beach, large conch shells hid in the tidal pools; and in the sky, sunshine smiled down on us.
We now understood how Bahama Paradise Cruise Line got its name. Next time, we’ll stay a little longer on the island, knowing that Classica and Celebration will bring us back, as they crossing back and forth –ships that pass in the night.