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Monday, January 30, 2012

Paradise (A Kind of Library)

Three-Day Vacation, Day One Dept.: I'm taking the next three days off, so I'm leaving you with a Bahamas vacation. It's a vacation conducted twenty-two years ago, before the great falling-off of tourism there in the 1990s, and it celebrated (among others) a couple of resort hotels that no longer exist as such. Merv Griffin's Paradise Island Resort is now the Atlantis; the Carnival Crystal Palace is a run-down Wyndham Hotel. Enjoy the first leg of this nostalgic adventure.


YOUR FIRST SIGHT of the islands probably will be from several thousand feet above them. You took a seasoned traveller's advice and got a window seat on the right side of the plane. The day is cloudless.

The captain murmurs that the Bahamas are coming into view. You’ve read about them, seen them in movies or on TV – and you’re still unprepared for a sight that looks like a painter went crazy with turquoise, green, and blue.

And even after you’ve settled into your hotel and swum and snorkeled and donated a little to the Bahamian economy by way of one of the casinos – even after that you’ll catch yourself studying the beachfront in astonishment. It really looks like those incredible photos. With the artistic touches of the palm trees and coral that have flourished there since long ago, and a parasailor or two hanging over the water to remind us of the silly stunts humans dream up to celebrate such an area.

Landing in Nassau places you near two friendly resort centers: Paradise Island and Cable Beach. If you want to look at the beach all day, your hotel will probably provide access. But a Bahamas vacation offers more. Tourists are the major source of income for the area, so tourists are treated very well.

Lavishly appointed casinos are centerpieces of the two largest resorts: Merv Griffin’s Paradise Island Resort & Casino, and Carnival’s Crystal Palace Resort & Casino, rivals on two side of Nassau Harbor trying to outdo one another in engagingly creative ways. Casinos attract high rollers, players who will drop in one evening at the tables what you and I can’t earn in several years – and high rollers like lavish treatment. They also get some degree of their accommodations for free. (See tomorrow’s article.)

Bet a bundle at the Paradise Island Resort & Casino and you might be placed in the Merv Griffin Suite, a $2,250-per-night accommodation decorated to Griffin’s taste and providing round-the-clock butler service among its many amenities.

Movie stars hire Waldo Fernandez to decorate their houses, so Griffin hired him to give that luxury touch to the Resorts International properties on Paradise Island, which include the elegant Ocean Club and the epizeuxic Paradise Paradise Beach Resort.

Carnival’s Crystal Palace Resort & Casino, a rainbow-colored complex that sprawls along several hundred feet of Cable Beach, will not be outdone and turned to Miami-based designer Diane Sepler to create a series of theme suites with the $25,000-a-night “Galactic Fantasy” the centerpiece.

What does 25 grand – or some awfully generous betting – fetch you for the night? Ursula, for one thing. She has a silver Jane Jetson-like look but functions somewhat in the manner of Rosie the maid, greeting you at the door and conducting a tour of the space-age suite. A remote-control system originally designed for the Pentagon controls a plethora of toys and gadgets. You can drowse in the circular, rotating bed listening to sounds of a thunderstorm if you like, or marvel at the spectacular view so many stories above the beach.

There are two types of Bahamian vacationer. I discovered this in the John Bull shop that adjoins one of the casinos. One type goes into the shop to buy a Rolex wristwatch, spending anywhere from $3,000 to $18,000 to do so. “It’s a lifetime investment,” the saleslady assured me. “You’ll always get your money back on a Rolex.”

I believed her, but the craps tables hadn’t been quite that kind to me. Which is why I’m the second type of tourist, the type who hikes his sleeve to show her the cheap watch the Rolex would be replacing. Then I realized sheepishly that, like climbing statuary and buying hideous hats, this must be a true-blue tourist thing to do. “Do a lot of people feel compelled to show you their watches?” I asked her.

“Almost always. I saw a Tony the Tiger watch today. Guy said it was a collector’s item.”

We who show watches don’t stay in luxury suites, but there’s been a $250 million dollar renovation going on for the past couple of years to ensure that we’ll find something to our liking.

Not a few of those millions have gone into Carnival’s Crystal Palace Resort & Casino. The resort is calling its stretch of Cable Beach “The Bahamian Riviera,” and I’m willing to take their word for it. The several buildings comprising the complex have 1,550 rooms and 18 places to eat and drink.

Honeymoon and golf packages offer the most economical ways to enjoy the place (that is, you honeymoon or you play golf. You’d be silly to do both). Available through April, both give you a room with a balcony (and a TV set if you really can’t think of anything else to do). I’d claim newlywed status to grab the honeymoon package: it’s $1,010 per couple for three nights, and also includes an ocean view, complimentary fruit and champagne, full breakfast daily, a gourmet dinner and admission to “Jubilation,” a high-stepping musical revue.

Not to be outdone, Merv has some special deals across the bridge on Paradise Island. His Resort & Casino honeymoon packages are available in varying lengths of stay, from three nights for $659 to eight at $1,462 per couple. You get champagne and theater tickets as well.

Best thing, of course, is to see what’s up your travel agent’s sleeve. There are packages with airfare and any number of amenities written in. And you’re hardly restricted to resort packages. Renovations are going on all over the place.

Although the Ocean Club’s facelift has given the 35-acre complex a bright look in its corridors and villas, the grounds still have the manicured beauty that notable rich guy and eccentric Huntington Hartford encouraged – especially when he reconstructed an old Cloisters on the property, spectacularly placed at the top of carefully-maintained garden. A top-notch French restaurant accentuates the resort’s continental touch.

Accommodations range from single rooms to luxury villas. As well as single rooms doing an excellent impression of luxury villas. Over at Coral World, once known just as a showcase for saltwater denizens, there’s a complex of 22 intimate villas, each with a private pool, kitchenette and private terrace. And a king-sized bed. There’s a three-night package available at $666 per couple.

Six million dollars went into an overhaul of just about all of Le Meridien Royal Bahamian, but it still has an old-world look. There’s swimming and golf, of course, but don’t overlook the club-style billiard room. Old-fashioned tennis and newfangled windsurfing are added attractions.

It’s easy to feel like part of a pretty large crowd on the streets and beaches of the islands, but Bay View Village’s 54 units are tucked into a crest of Paradise Island near Harbour Cove. You’re going to pay a little extra for this seclusion, but there’s a promotional deal that offers three weeks for the price of two if you arrive between May 10 and June 10 or between Sept. 8 and Nov. 1, 1990.

This is only a brief best-of look at a tiny sampling of the lodgings available, but wherever you stay you’d be missing a most special treat of the Bahamas if you don’t sample the local cuisine.

Nettie Symonette is known throughout the islands for her cooking, and she’s recently added “Fit for Life” cuisine to her menu. Her Casuarinas Apartment Hotel in downtown Nassau has the informal charm of a family business in addition to its in-demand restaurant. Bahamian fare, richly seasoned with fresh thyme and decorated with the tropical fruit available year-round, centers around the conch, a shellfish served in salads and stews or eaten fresh out of the water.

You’ll wander through the straw market to engage in some lusty bargaining with native weavers to secure the best price on a basket or hat. You’ll catch sight of a cruise ship docked near Rawson Square. You’ll see money shoved in every possible direction, from market to casino, from hotel to bank, because the Bahamas are second only to Switzerland in benevolence toward financial dealings.

Finally, you’ll leave with a special sense of calm that comes from sun, clear water and some delicious rum. Give yourself a lengthy airplane trip to gather your reminiscences. They’ll seem like so much fairy-tale when that arctic air hits your face back home.

– Schenectady Gazette, Feb. 24, 1990

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