The new flight to Grand Bahama is the seventh international route out of RDU.
Words & photographs by Rachel Simon
About one week ago, on Thursday, November 17, I headed over to RDU and boarded a 1 ½-hour flight to the island of Grand Bahama. This wouldn’t have been a particularly notable trip, save for the fact that it was the inaugural flight on the new nonstop route from Raleigh to Freeport from Bahamasair—and the seventh international route offered by RDU overall. To both Raleighites and Bahamians, the launch of the twice-weekly flight (Thursdays and Saturdays) was a cause for major celebration, and I was lucky enough to be smack in the middle of the whole event.
The festivities started the moment I arrived at the airport, with a costume-clad greeter giving a preview of Junkanoo, the enormous music- and dance-filled parade that takes place in The Bahamas every holiday season. At the gate, a red carpet and balloon arc welcomed the flight’s guests (a mix of Bahamas Ministry of Tourism officials, travel agents, and journalists like myself, among others), as well as execs from both RDU and Bahamasair. The energy was palpable; everyone was excited to get the flight, and the burgeoning relationship between Raleigh and Grand Bahama, underway.
Although the connection between the two places might feel a tad random, it’s anything but. Raleigh and The Bahamas have long had a connection, with Raleigh’s Saint Augustine’s University, for instance, playing home to hundreds of Bahamian students (some of whom had been invited to take the flight for free, like I was). And for Raleigh residents, the chance to get to a tropical island in less than two hours’ time — for under $500 roundtrip — and also expand RDU’s international reach, is a unique thrill.
For Bahamians, meanwhile, the prospect of more tourists boosting the local economy, just three years after Hurricane Dorian decimated much of the area, is hugely compelling. As the many speeches by both RDU and Bahamasair executives before the inaugural flight made clear, this isn’t just any new route, but one with truly meaningful stakes.
During the ultra-quick flight, both Raleigh and Bahamas residents drank Bahamian beers and punch while cheering with excitement — and some with surprise as, per Bahamian tradition, the plane received a water salute (aka “blessing” the plane by spraying it with water) upon landing. When we stepped out of the plane, we were greeted by a red carpet and Junkanoo performance, before a ceremony during which officials like RDU president Michael Landguth and Bahamasair Deputy Managing Director Prince Storr exchanged tokens of gratitude for each other’s support. The real fun came after, though, when my fellow travelers and I arrived at our hotel (the four-star, all-inclusive Lighthouse Pointe Resort) and began to settle into our time on the island.
Although I was only in Grand Bahama for a total of 60-something hours, the number of activities and experiences I got to enjoy there was enough to fill a week’s itinerary. In gorgeous, 80-degree weather, my fellow travelers and I snorkeled with stingrays, rode ATVs on the beach, toured breweries and gardens, and ate piles of fish so fresh I’m still dreaming of the meals days later. Through it all, we truly got to know the Bahamian people and culture, thanks to programs like People-to-People, which pairs tourists with local residents who happily share their time, knowledge, and, often, cooking skills. On Friday morning, we enjoyed a delicious breakfast of conch stew, Johnny cakes, and grits at the home of a local woman, giving us an intimate look at Bahamian life and showcasing the unique hospitality of the people.
Every hour in Grand Bahama offered a different and exciting experience. Despite being only 95 miles long, the island has more to offer than many twice its size; one minute we were shopping for trinkets in the bustling markets, the next we were walking alongside wild pigs (!) at a beach where they regularly go for a swim. By the end of the weekend, I felt like I’d gotten to genuinely get to know and explore the island, a rare feeling after a whirlwind trip somewhere new.
Which isn’t to say there’s not still more to see and do — despite my action-packed travels, I’m already gearing up for another flight back to the island next year to take part in many more activities and celebrate The Bahamas’ 50th Independence Day in July. And now that there’s a nonstop flight from Raleigh that can take you there in the blink of an eye, anyone interested in checking out one of the country’s 16 island destinations (including Nassau, to which the Raleigh flight continues after Freeport) can do so with ease. There may be plenty of beaches around North Carolina, but during those months of the year when it’s just too cold to get in the water, hopping on a plane to the Bahamas might just be a worthy alternative — just don’t expect a red carpet welcome after every flight you take.
This story was originally published on waltermagazine.com on November 21, 2022.