Foreign Correspondence: The Bimini Of Old Has Resurfaced

What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

Mark Ellert, 54, is president of Guy Harvey Outpost Resorts, which reopened the Bimini Big Game Club resort on Bimini, in the Bahamas, on Memorial Day weekend. The Florida-based company has been working on the project for several years.

Q. I'm told this is quite a historic property and that author and outdoorsman Ernest Hemingway was involved in it. What's the story?

A. It opened in 1936 as the Bimini Big Game Fishing Club. It was founded by Neville Stewart, an entrepreneur and bon vivant from Nassau, in the Bahamas, as a formal dining club. Tuxedos and black ties were the order of the day. It grew, and in the 1950s moved to a new location and expanded. It grew again in the '60s. It was sold to the Bacardi rum family, which owned and operated it until 2000. It then passed through various hands and closed two years ago.

Ernie was there in 1935 and '36, partly for the sportfishing. He was interested in billfish, and "monster" billfish and tuna that were prevalent in the day.

Hemingway's younger brother, Les, lived part time on Bimini for many years and published weekly newspapers. He died in 1982. Les was almost the spitting image of Ernie, and from what I hear was a colorful character himself.

Bimini has a colorful history. During Prohibition it was popular with rum-runners and gamblers. And a lot of celebrities came to Bimini to hang out or to get off the radar screen.

Q. Did many stay at your property?

A. Records are incomplete but they suggest that. We do know that Martin Luther King Jr. stayed at Cottage 301. A local boat builder, Mr. Saunders, who is still around, showed me a photo album of him and MLK out in a mangrove swamp.

Q. Does the Big Game Club physically harken to any particular decade?

A. The cottages are characteristic of 1950s Bimini architecture — concrete and without a lot of frills. They were designed to be efficient and functional and withstand hurricanes. We have six cottages, of course renovated now.

The hotel has 35 standard rooms and four penthouse suites, all newly reconstructed. We're trying to make it "island casual and comfortable," not a modern luxury hotel. The rates are in the $200 range, and don't vary much by season.

Some aspects evoke the '50s and '60s. Phil Brinkman was an avid fisherman and a well-known artist who came here, and throughout the resort he painted a series of wall murals depicting island life. Most are in the original Gulfstream Restaurant.

We're restoring those as they're quite unique. This area will become our new lobby.

Q. Is the resort on the water?

A. The island itself is 3 or 4 miles long, and a maximum of about 700 or 800 feet wide. The hotel is at the harbor of Alice Town. Of the series of settlements on Bimini, Alice Town is the largest — sort of the capital and where the government dock is. The hotel is a block from the beach, on Kings Highway. Basically, the island has two streets. We're not on the beachfront, per se, but the beach is sort of everybody's property and we're one block away.

Q. How's the billfishing these days?

A. The monster fish these days are certainly more the exception than the rule. But we opened Memorial Day weekend and the following Thursday morning a man caught a 350-pound blue marlin.

Bimini is also on the edge of the Gulf Stream. Where the water that is 2,000 to 3,000 feet deep is literally two miles offshore. East of here is the Bahamas Banks, where the water is for the most part only 15 feet deep. Bimini is actually a cluster of islands that share shallow waters with seagrass beds and mangroves that are chock-full of bonefish.

The marine diversity also makes Bimini a diving destination. Scuba magazines usually have the island somewhere on their top-10 lists.

There's wall diving and reef diving here. Also, the Bimini Road.

Q. That's the undersea formation that some claim is what remains of a highway to Atlantis. Have you dived there?

A. Yes, I've been there. It's in 25 feet of water and is quite interesting. It's hard to get your mind around the foundation being natural yet so extremely geometric.

Q. What does it look like?

A. Huge stone blocks — maybe 30 feet square — that appear to be chiseled and just sort of laid down in formation. It's hard to understand how it could be a random formation. It's certainly an underwater marvel, if nothing else.