I love this island, not just for its great fishing, tropical colours and crystal-clear water, but also because it’s a part of my family history. We’ve been coming here for more than 80 years, to the place that has always defined us as Hemingways. My grandfather, Ernest Hemingway, first visited Bimini in the spring of 1935, cruising over from the mainland in a new 38-foot Wheeler Playmate that had been outfitted for bluewater fishing.
Bimini is indeed, as it calls itself, the ‘Gateway to The Bahamas’ but in its colourful history it was often the gateway to the United States. Stories abound of the gangster Al Capone walking down King’s Road in broad daylight and Joe Kennedy, the father of JFK, stacking whiskey crates he intended to smuggle into the United States two floors high. As the story goes, the hurricane of 1926 scattered Kennedy’s bottles far and wide and for years after, they could be found out in the bay by fortunate bonefishermen who would attest the whiskey was so good it should be savoured with a spoon.
The island has always been a spiritual, healing place, and for some, even more than that. My grandfather’s brother, Leicester Hemingway, for a time believed the legendary Fountain of Youth was located on Bimini. Leicester searched for the fountain on the South island and in the nearby mangroves but he never found it. However, explorer Dr. Richard Wingate discovered the ‘Healing Hole’ in Bimini’s mangroves—a sulfur spring said to have curative powers that remains a popular attraction today.
Even stranger than the Fountain of Youth are the mysterious ‘Bimini Steps’ or ‘Bimini Road,’ large rectangular stone formations found off the coast at a depth of about 30 metres. The formations appear to be man-made and some speculate that they were once located on the shoreline of the mythical continent of Atlantis. For those who are interested in seeing these stones up close, diving charters can be arranged at Bimini Big Game Club’s dive centre. There also are many wrecks and reefs in the area, chief among them the S.S. Sapona, a concrete-hulled ship that went aground in the 1926 hurricane and now lies in about 5 metres of water. With its crystal-clear waters, Bimini is considered by enthusiasts to be one of the premiere diving locations in the Caribbean.
Ernest never had a home on the island, spending most of his time at the Compleat Angler, which was destroyed by fire in 2006. Back in the 1930s, Ernest often stayed next door at the ‘Marlin Cottage’ at the top of the hill and today the house is still pretty much the way he would have seen it. It belonged to his good friend, Michael Lerner, a marine biologist and the founder of the IGFA.
Many people are unaware of the fact that my grandfather was a keen observer of the marlins that he chased out in the Gulf Stream and that he collaborated with marine biologists regularly in the 1940s and ’50s, sending them information regarding the feeding habits of these majestic predators. Guy Harvey, the world-renowned marine artist and conservationist, whose company played an important role in the renovation and re-opening of Bimini’s Big Game Club with its new dive and aquatic activities centre, has done much to continue my grandfather and Michael Lerner’s work in the conservation and understanding of the Blue Marlin and other species of billfish.
During a recent visit I stayed at the Big Game Club and each afternoon, I made a habit to step out onto the deck and have a rum and coke in my grandfather’s honour. The view is spectacular looking out at the bay; I could spend hours watching the boats dock and leave, the white caps on the waves and the colour of the water changing with the sun and passing clouds. Sometimes I could almost picture my grandfather, who I never knew but who I think I’ve come to know on this little island.
Bimini is the near-perfect mix of action and reflection. At sea, Ernest could test his endurance and physical limits hauling in enormous marlins and makos, while on land there was the quiet and cool of the early mornings when he would write and the camaraderie of the bars where he would listen, drink and talk late into the night. It is an island that has its own coherence and simple, yet extremely sensual beauty.
Two of my grandfather’s greatest short stories, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, were written and published during the period when he was visiting Bimini. To know this island, in my opinion, is to get a taste of the kind of atmosphere that inspired a talented writer to go beyond himself and create works that would stand the test of time.