NORTH BIMINI, Bahamas - The ship docked about 10 p.m., the last streaks of color long gone from the sky, the ocean like a black hole absorbing light from the ship. A shuttle waited to take us to Resorts World Bimini, where I followed a line of eager passengers into the casino. I lost a roll of quarters in a slot machine and downed a fruity rum drink before I took the shuttle back to the ship.
It wasn't until the next day that I got a good look at the water. From the shuttle stop in Alice Town, I walked to the almost-deserted beach at the south tip of North Bimini. The water was brilliantly clear, the rippled sand on the ocean floor in sharp focus. Bits of vegetation floated by. Behind me, on the beach on the west side - the island at that point is not more than a couple of hundred feet across - someone exclaimed over fish spotted in the crystal water.
The Gulf Stream, a powerful, 45-mile-wide current, flows past the island, bringing the warm, nutrient-laden waters that give Bimini outstanding sport-fishing grounds. For years, fishing was a main tourist draw - especially giant blue marlin and bluefin tuna - and it still is, although the big game fish have grown scarcer.
But now there's more.
This little cluster of islands collectively known as Bimini is less developed than Nassau or Grand Bahama and has a population of only about 2,000. But there are new attractions on North Bimini, the most populous of the Bimini islands: a casino, a new hotel, a marina for mega-yachts, and a ship that ferries tourists from Miami, all owned by Genting, the Malaysian resort and casino giant.
The resort already has made a difference in tourism. From 2007 to 2013, Bimini had 40,000 to 60,000 visitors a year. Last year, the first full year that Genting's casino and ferry were in operation, the number jumped to 117,315. Genting bought the former Bimini Bay resort, renamed it Resorts World Bimini, and added a casino. The company is also building a hotel, Hilton at Resorts World Bimini. Partially open, it will have 305 rooms when completed in the spring.
After Genting started running the three-hour ferry between Miami and Bimini in 2013, the company built a 1,000-foot jetty where the ship docks - over the protests of people worried about its effect on sea life. Free shuttles run all day and much of the night, taking visitors between the ship and the resort and into Alice Town.
Although the company experimented with day trips and one-night trips, currently all the cruises are two-nighters. Guests can stay in one of the ship's 180 staterooms or in Genting's lodgings on the island - or make their own arrangements.
But be warned: Although the Bimini SuperFast is clean and well-maintained, the ship is small and spare, its amenities few, the service friendly but limited. It's comfortable transportation, not a floating resort.
The Bimini SuperFast, a 13-year-old, 669-foot renovated ferry that once worked the waters between Italy and Greece, departs PortMiami in the early evening. From the aft lounge, I watch the Miami skyline shrink as the sun sets behind it.
About 45 minutes into the trip, the casino opens - a reminder that this whole expedition is about opportunities to gamble, whether on the ship or on shore. Genting hasn't succeeded in building its bayfront casino and resort in Miami, so it built a smaller one 50 miles away.
As the sky darkens, I go to the buffet, which has only a fraction of the choices available at a typical cruise-ship buffet. Meals are usually available for windows of two to three hours. There's also a table-service restaurant, the Ponce de Leon, with additional fees of up to $25 per person. The only food outside mealtime are sandwiches and snacks at the bar.
The ship has no pool, fitness center, or children's center. There are occasional trivia games, line-dancing lessons, karaoke, table tennis, a spa area with massages, a tour of the bridge.
The SuperFast's casino has slot machines and the usual table games; private rooms are available for high-limit games, although most high-rollers arrive on a Resorts World seaplane or its private jet.
The ship has inside, outside, and deluxe staterooms. I have a small inside cabin with two narrow beds and two upper bunks that fold down. There is closet space for hanging clothes, but no drawers or shelves for underwear and socks. There is no TV, no bathmat, no washcloths, no tissues, no water glass, not even a paper cup.
The ship arrives at Bimini on time, and after clearing Bahamian Customs, we disembark about 10:30 p.m. for the short shuttle ride to Resorts World. The table games there can start as low at $15, but most have a minimum of $25. There's a high-roller room, a sports book, and more than 100 slot machines. A lot of people from the boat come - some are curious, some want to use the free drink coupon we got when we boarded, some gamble at the slots, but few head for the table games.
I had planned to sign up for a kayak excursion on the second day, but through a variety of misinformation and missteps - mine and the crew's - it doesn't happen. Lesson learned: Book the excursion in advance. Resorts World has a variety of shore excursions, including a glass-bottom boat tour, South Bimini nature tour, Bimini Heritage Trail, seaplane tour, Jet Ski tour, wild dolphin expedition, shark encounter, and snorkeling. Equipment such as kayaks, water bikes, and paddle boats can be rented.
I spend the day exploring the island, starting with a shuttle tour of the resort, its beach, two marinas, and nearby Fisherman's Village, with a few shops and restaurants.
Then I catch a shuttle ride to Alice Town, Bimini's biggest town. We go south along Kings Highway, the main street on an island only seven miles long and 700 feet wide. We pass Bailey Town, where most of the locals live, and see battered-looking houses, a shack selling fresh conch salad, and enormous mounds of discarded conch shells in the shallow water.
Ernest Hemingway came here to fish and write in the late 1930s. Bimini is said to have inspired The Old Man and the Sea and the first story in Islands in the Stream. Three-quarters of a century later, evidence of his presence remains, though much of it was lost in the 2006 fire that destroyed the Compleat Angler Hotel, where he stayed.
The shuttle drops us off at the Bimini Craft Centre, which, like straw markets elsewhere in the Bahamas, sells straw bags, hats, and other souvenirs. A bust of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech while staying on the island, stands at the center of the market.
Down the street at Big John's, a restaurant with outdoor seating overlooking a marina, a 60ish woman at the next table invites me to sit with her. As I eat conch salad and she eats a whole fried snapper with black beans and rice, she tells me she is a gambler who wagers enough that most of her travel is comped by the casinos. She says she has just been on a cruise that Royal Caribbean comped and is headed next to Las Vegas, where again, a casino will fly her out and cover her room.
On this trip, Genting flew her over on the seaplane and comped her room in the new Hilton, when only a small number of rooms were completed. She played baccarat and lost. Played craps and lost. Played blackjack and lost the last of her cash, so she went to an ATM and got more money. She returned to baccarat and lost more.
Then she started winning. In 30 minutes, she says, she won back everything she'd lost. When she was $100 ahead, she stopped. "I don't like to gamble all the time," she says, so she took the shuttle into Alice Town for sightseeing.
Later, we ride the same shuttle back to the casino, and she introduces me to two of her friends. They also flew over on the seaplane, which is only for high-rollers and VIPs - you can't buy a seat. They are rated players, meaning the casinos track how much they wager and comp their rooms. Mostly they cruise, paying only the taxes on the fares.
The next morning, the SuperFast takes me back to PortMiami. I stand at the railing, looking for streaks of sapphire in the emerald sea, watching the tiny bumps on the horizon grow into the Miami skyline.
The Bimini SuperFast departs PortMiami on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and docks for two nights by Resorts World Bimini. Fares start at $175 per person double occupancy and include port fees, stateroom, and buffet meals, but not gratuities.
For more information on Bimini, go to www.bahamas.com/islands/bimini, or call 800-224-2627.