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Footloose in Freeport

Gorging on Golf, Grouper, Guava

November 16, 1986|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers.

FREEPORT, Bahamas — Al Capone and his boys probably knew this island of Grand Bahama better than Chicago's West Side, what with it being only 76 miles off the mainland and a busy port for their swift craft hauling rum with commuter-train regularity to a booze-starved nation during Prohibition.

Rum and boats of a different vintage are part of the Bahamas background, too, with every pirate short of those playing for Pittsburg once mooring in secluded bays and coves between rapacious raids against any ship on the horizon.

But Freeport, which didn't see the light of day until 1953, hasn't figured in on all these carryings on. The place was created from the ground up by 16 assorted millionaires, the ground in this case being golf courses, five of them at last count.

One of those well-heeled duffers apparently preferred playing with a smaller white ball, so his group opened a casino.

Here to there: Eastern will fly you with a change in Miami, TWA changing in St. Louis or New York. No airport bus, but the cabs are mostly limos with tabs of $3.60 to hotels in town, $6.80 to beach hotels.

How long/how much? Strictly a matter of how much beach time, golf, gambling and diving you want. Prices strike us as very moderate for a resort.

A few fast facts: Bahama's dollar is on par with ours and both currencies can buy whatever. Year-round temperatures in 70s and 80s, but humidity is lowest in winter, rains most probable June through August. Clean buses are privately owned, 65 to 75 cents a ride, $5 from one end of island to the other. Also a $5 departure tax and you may clear U.S. customs here.

Getting settled in: Castaway Resort (Box F2629, Freeport, Bahamas; $52 double in summer, $64 winter) has bright and attractive rooms with king-size or two double beds overlooking pool. Very near town, free transportation to beach 10 minutes away. Across from International Bazaar and Princess Casino.

Windward Palms (Box F2593; $50-$60 summers, $66-$78 winters) is a spread-out, motel-type place again near town with complimentary bus service to beach. Good-size rooms, inner patio with pool, lots of plants, bar. Attached Carib restaurant has a few native dishes plus plenty of roast beef and ribs.

New Victoria Inn (Box F1261; $37 summers, $55 winters) is small and modest, same for rooms, some of which have balconies overlooking pool-patio. You can walk to beach from this one, see below for restaurant.

Regional food and drink: Conch plentiful and delicious here: in chowders, steamed, stewed, salads, fritters, soups and "cracked," which is breaded and deep-fried. Snapper, grouper and lobster are on all menus, a "weekend" breakfast is made up of stewed grouper, sweet potatoes and johnnycake.

Peas-and-rice is a Caribbean staple, guava duff the local dessert. Chicken-in-the-bag is not your franchise type but a delicious version heavy on grease and hot sauce. It's called "eatin' barefoot" when you have it with a beer. Tourists drink Bahama Mamas, natives always go for rum and Coke. No local beer but plenty of Jamaica's Red Stripe and St. Pauli.

Moderate-cost dining: Scorpio's downtown is almost a must for native food, a little house with dining on one side, bar on the other, which gets a bit raucous at times. Bright-red tablecloths, jug of hot sauce on each, very casual and down-home. Your conch, lobster or barbecued chicken all come with peas-and-rice, potato salad and cole slaw, just so you don't go away hungry.

Basil's Seafood just outside town on Queen's Highway is another simple one that locals love for authentic food. Daily-special menus run to steamed turtle and red-bean soup, curried chicken and okra soup, curried mutton and pea soup with dumplings, all of which come with peas-rice and another side order. Again, you won't starve.

Hotel New Victoria's Lucayan Room has as broad a seafood menu as you'll find, all served in a pretty room. If a piece of key lime pie makes your day, there's a great one here.

Going first-class: Lucayan Beach Resort & Casino (Box F336, Lucaya; $85 double until Dec. 18; $110 then until end of April) is a sprawling complex of attractive buildings right on the beach, tennis courts, minutes from golf courses. All water sports, three good restaurants and a casino in separate wing. Bright and spacious rooms, a nightly show that may not be Las Vegas, but it's fun.

Best dining at Ruby Swiss, owned and run by a Swiss who hit these shores three decades ago, and his Bahamian wife. Broad and irresistible menu with such as cracked conch, lobster cocktail and, would you believe, grouper emmenthal? That's grouper in an emmenthal cheese sauce.

On your own: UNEXSO has been called by Skin Diver magazine "the most sophisticated and best-equipped diving facility in the world." Go from classroom to pool with underwater windows to a reef with your instructor, and they promise to teach anyone from 12-year-olds to those in their 60s.

There's a lovely garden to stroll on the island, game fishing and numerous twilight "booze cruises," as they're hawked. Now toss in the goombay festivals that run almost year-round: dancing and parading to the music of goat-skin drums, cow bells, whistles and horns. It's hard to believe all these joys of the Caribbean are just off our shores.

For more information: Call the Bahamas Tourist Office at (213) 385-0033, or write (3450 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 208, Los Angeles 90010) for brochures on the island, hotels, golfing and diving. Ask for the Freeport Package.

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