GRAND BAHAMA ISLAND - “It’s your birthday tomorrow. We have to find something special for you,” says Andre, the tourist official I meet at this island’s chic Pelican Bay Hotel.
I wonder what could be more special than escaping snowy Toronto to surrender to the warm light and nonchalance of Grand Bahama, where I’ve decided to kiss my 30s goodbye.
I have to admit I was surprised when I arrived here by the quiet atmosphere and the unspoiled landscape: no billboards, no ugly resorts, no vulgar tourist crowds, no insufferable noise. Vegetation rules with hundreds of palm trees, coconut trees, hibiscus, pine trees, fern and mangroves, and inhabitants move around at a tranquil pace.
Sipping a famous Bahama Mama cocktail on the hotel’s lovely terrace, I’m happy just to unwind and admire the vast blue ocean.
But André has other plans.
“We’ll have you swim with sharks in the morning, and go parasailing in the afternoon,” he announces.
Left: Aurelie landed on the Grand Bahamas intent on welcoming her 40s in style. Right: Her luxury digs.
Sounds like an interesting way to plunge into my 40s. But I remember the film Open Water was shot here (off the coast of Port Lucaya), in which the protagonists are left behind in shark-infested waters by an irresponsible diving company (and let’s just say it doesn’t end well for them).
The amazing turquoise sea suddenly appears less friendly to me.
“I know a good diving company,” André reassures me. “They will take you to the right spot and you will have the experience of a lifetime feeding the sharks and swimming with them.”
But I need to know more: How big are the sharks? Are they dangerous? How far from shore will we go?
“Sharks around the island are not dangerous,” André says with a laugh. “Agitated at times. They come in a respectable size and yes, we have to sail a bit before we meet with them.
“And you will love parasailing. You see the speed and the sensations are unique.”
I finish my drink thinking of tomorrow and decide to celebrate my last night as a thirtysomething downtown at the Freeport Market, where people come to dine, dance and drink after the sun dips into the ocean.
Above: Getting off road while on Grand Bahamas is a great way to see the inner beauty.
Next day, Mother Nature’s birthday gift to me is a cloudy sky and lots of wind.
“I’m sorry, but the weather is too bad to dive and to parasail,” André sadly informs me. “There will be no shark diving and no acrobatics in the air today.”
Then he passes, smiles and adds: “But I found something else for you to do, and I am sure you will love it.”
André drives me to the Pinetree Stables, where I take a three-hour horseback ride on a stunning Appaloosa into the lush forest where I’m serenaded by rare birds: Grand Bahama prides itself for being home to about 30 different bird and butterfly species.
I marvel at the variety of trees and plants that abound in this tropical forest and come face-to-face with some lizards and snakes before drifting onto a powdery, almost empty beach.
I gallop along the soft sand, the salty water splashing against my trusty steed, with the wind kissing my face and couldn’t be happier — parasailing and shark diving couldn’t top this.
In the afternoon, André schedules a jeep and walking tour with very knowledgeable guide named Joanne. As we walk and drive through a variety of stunning landscapes, she feeds me lots anecdotes and information about the ecosystem, archeology, history and beauty of Grand Bahama.
We walk among coastal flora and visit the island’s magnificent mangrove and pine tree forests. Later, I explore a cenote (watery cave) and enjoy swimming in the ocean with its abundance of sea life.
When I return to my bungalow at the very secluded Old Bahama Bay Yacht Club and Resort (movie stars like Johnny Depp like to stay here) I walk along the shore alone, a sea shell in my hand, and think what a wonderful gift the Grand Bahamas are.
A perfect place to turn 40.
WestJet offers 2 direct flights a week from Toronto to the Grand Bahamas. Air Canada Vacations also offers packages to the Grand Bahamas / Where to stay: Grand Lucayan, Pelican Bay Hotel and Suites or the Old Bahama Bay Yacht and Resort / Activities: diving with sharks or dolphins: UNEXSO (www.unexso.com
), jeep safari: Grand Bahamas Nature Tour (www.grandbahamanaturetours.com
), horseback riding: Pinetree Stables (www.pinetree-stables.com/