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Bimini: An Island in the Stream

What is it about translucent ocean water that so stirs the soul? Do we have some evolutionary memory of a time as sea creatures? Or is freediving as close as we will get to flying? Whatever the reason, come the middle of winter I begin to dream of the long delirious blue, and this year we came to Bimini, the haunt of people from Ernest Hemingway, Martin Luther King, Adam Clayton Powell, and, ahem, Gary Hart, not to mention Prohibition-era rum runners and latter-day drug smugglers:

Bimini Beachscape1.jpg

The Gulf Stream shoots through the 50-mile-wide gap between Miami and Bimini’s two small islands (reaching over 5 mph at times), and in waters that everyone here describes as “magical,” marine life big and small is abundant. We swam several milles offshore with wild dolphins and learned to spearfish (only with a Hawaiian sling, guns of all types being banned in the Bahamas). The locals make a living off of tourism: hotels and small restaurants and various home businesses that cook meals to order or prepare cookies and cakes in their private kitchens (Charlie’s makes great cheesecake, and we had made-from-scratch Key lime and coconut cream pies from Nate’s).

Thumbnail image for Hemingway Blue Marlin.jpgErnest Hemingway spent many months in 1935-37 on Bimini. He came with his boat, Pilar, and he fished for tuna, swordfish and marlin. An encounter with an enormous marlin is said to have inspired The Old Man and the Sea. He wrote part of To Have and To Have Not in the still-extant Marlin House (right), and his time here inspired Islands in the Stream. Hemingway would rent Marlin House, or he would stay at the Compleat Angler Hotel; the hotel and his other haunts — a long list of bars — have all since been destroyed by fire or hurricane.

Bimini Conch.jpgBimini styles itself as not only the Bahamas’ but the world’s conch capital, and from orations reminiscent of Bubba in Forrest Gump, we have learned to list the mollusk’s different preparations: cracked conch, scorched conch, conch salad, conch burger, conch chowder, conch fritters, steamed conch, fried conch, stewed conch, smoked conch, conch soup, and so on. Each conch shack on the beach has a semi-submeged cage full of pretty shells with live conchs in them. When you place an order, the chef repairs to the beach and selects a few, whacks a small opening on the top of each shell with a jeweler’s hammer, uses a long knife to detach the conch from its point of attachment to the shell, then winkles out the critter. After slicing to remove the inedible bits, and then various types of dicing (depending on the preparation), you end up eating raw conch flesh within five or so minutes of the creature’s demise. Quite delicious.

Addendum: Biminian speech contains several creative euphemisms: “summer crab” is the term for lobster taken out of season (fishing for spiny lobster is forbidden in April, May, June and July); and “square grouper” is most the desirable catch of all: a large bale of plastic-wrapped marijuana, probably thrown overboard from an under-duress smuggler’s boat, that has washed up on shore.

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