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TREASURE ISLAND Caves, kayaks and pirate adventures await visitors of the Grand Bahama Island

It should be obvious.

Escape Buffalo in the winter for Freeport on the Grand Bahama Island. A no-brainer.

Except . . .

It can get cold in the Bahamas. Really. We just happened to visit during the early January cold front that swept the Southeast. Not only did Florida hit the 30s, but Freeport and Lucaya dipped to the 50s during the days, and into the 30s some nights. Hasn't happened there since well into the previous millennium.

The local stores were doing a brisk business in fleece jackets and sweat suits, which were readily stocked. No tanned bodies and bikinis and thongs on the beaches (both genders bundled up). Even we, as seasoned travelers, were a bit unprepared.

We had never visited the Bahamas because we're just not the sun, surf and sand types. No lying on beaches, competitive fishing, golfing, diving or surfing for us. The Mall of America in Minneapolis. Great Lakes Crossing, Birch Run Outlets and Bronners in Michigan. Downtown Disney (Florida or California). That's where we normally vacation/shop.

But the chance to visit the locations of the two upcoming Hollywood sequels to "Pirates of the Caribbean" was too much to resist and more than enough to lure us to an island of magnificent beaches and outdoor sports, even during a freak cold spell.

We wouldn't have missed it.

We'd even go back -- and not just for the pirates.

Since the area is rich in pirate lore (pirates roamed the waters of the Bahamas throughout the 1700s) and has been the setting for the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, it's a natural for the hotels and attractions to tie in a pirates theme for tourists and that's exactly what they've done.

The three major hotels in Port Lucaya -- Pelican Inn, the Westin and Sheraton Grand Bahama -- are all featuring specifically themed Pirate Packages including accommodations, some meals, activities and promotional items. There are family oriented and more adult romantic getaways that all run through at least the end of the year.

Truthfully, we didn't experience as much about "Pirates" the movie as we'd expected. When the filming that had originally been scheduled in New Orleans for "Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest," was disrupted by Hurricane Katrina, it was added to locations already scouted on the Grand Bahama Island. Disney Pictures had begun construction on an outdoor "tank" -- a cove in a decommissioned naval base where controlled sea locations could be filmed, just down the beach from the Lucaya National Park.

"Pirates 2 and 3" are shooting back-to-back, and our excursion had the unfortunate timing to occur when the productions were coming off Christmas "break." Principal photography on the second movie had been completed, and while post-production (editing, scoring, special effects) proceeds the July 7 release date, live-action shooting for the third movie will take place for a July 2007 release.

The upshot is that we were there when the crews (costuming, stunts, sailing) were just arriving back and were beginning pre-production. With "stars" set to arrive just days after our departure, Disney instituted new security procedures so that tourists couldn't get access to the ships and sets.

Like true pirates, though, we culled a few gems. One of our guides, Chris, is playing an East Indian Trading Company soldier in both films. While on the way to kayaking through the Lucaya National Park, we detoured to an enclosed inlet where ships under construction were berthed. The Chinese pirate ship to be captained by actor Chow Yun Fat in "Pirates 3" was under construction, but just around the cove was Davy Jones' ship, the Flying Dutchman. In the film, when a pirate dies, he's given a choice, we were told. He can go to hell, or serve on Davy Jones' ship forever. We also learned that Davy Jones (played by Bill Nighy), who appears in the trailer as a deformed, part human-part marine hybrid, was so betrayed by a former lover that he ripped out his own heart and locked it in a chest at the bottom of the ocean.

While it's possible you might run into actual filming, or even some of the cast and/or crew is you travel there soon, you will definitely be able to vicariously live the pirate experience at many of the hotels in both Freeport and Lucaya.

Visiting the Grand Bahama Island is very deceptive. It doesn't feel like another country. Traveling there is quite easy. On our Air Tran flight, through Atlanta, everyone filled out a small customs information ticket distributed about 20 minutes before landing. After we deplaned, we cleared customs, got our passports their first stamps, and we were there.

There are no language or currency issues; American money is accepted at par, though you may get mixed currency as change. It all seemed quite local, until our drive from the airport to the hotel, when we drove on the left side of the street. Glad we weren't renting a car this trip.

The airport is in Freeport, our accommodations were in Port Lucaya, about 15 minutes away. More signs of home as we drove: McDonalds, Burger Kings, KFCs, Subways all lined the main highway. While there are no malls as we know them here, there is the International Marketplace and the Bahamas Arts & Crafts Straw Market near the airport. Many buildings, though, were closed or still partially demolished from the hurricane. No, not Katrina. This damage was from the storms of 2004, and many areas are still recovering from that disaster.

Businesses that couldn't afford to rebuild in Freeport moved down the road to Lucaya, so named for the Amerindian tribe that settled there circa Columbus' time.

Even the hotel where we stayed, the Pelican Bay at Lucaya, still had roofing tile damage visible. A little unnerving, but fears were quickly dispelled once we check in, thus proving the venerable Bahaman philosophy when faced with any dilemma: It's noooo problem.

So, why do you go to Freeport?

Simply to get away from it all. And to enjoy it in extravagant style.

The Grand Bahama Island is not a very touristy area. Nassau is. There isn't a great deal of nightlife. There are numerous restaurants and bars in the dock area of the Port Lucaya Marketplace and Marina, and we were treated to the music of a local band, Culture Explosion, featuring the Port Lucaya Fire Dancers. All beautiful, all talented, and the most limber limbo dancer anyone had ever seen. But these are generally only once weekly performances.

Yet, it was unusual to enjoy this tropical entertainment while just a few feet away a tall Christmas tree and holiday creche overlooked the inner harbor. In fact, many of the people we talked to were obsessed with snow. It hasn't snowed there since the '50s, and these people would be willing to travel here to see feet and feet of snow. One guide said she always dreamed of making a snow angel. This after we apologized for bringing the cold weather with us. The grass is always greener, or the snow always whiter.

Port Lucaya has some of the most elegant accommodations we've ever seen. The Pelican Bay has sumptuous rooms and suites, beautifully decorated and fully outfitted with kitchenettes, minibars, freshly baked breads and rolls delivered every morning, and the most comfortable beds imaginable.

It faces an inner harbor with a breathtaking sunrise and sunset, and an infinity pool filled right to the very rim that melds into the ocean at the right angle.

Adjacent to the Pelican Inn are the Westin and the Sheraton Grand Bahama. The Sheraton, 14 stories tall, is outwardly designed to resemble a cruise ship. Both hotels have the finest immunities, including spas, weight rooms and beauty parlors. There is also a casino nearby, but frankly, it's quite a disappointment. Perhaps we're spoiled by the excess of Vegas, but the Port Lucaya casino is just a room to gamble in. No themed decorations, no pirate slot machines.

Fine dining is quite another matter. Again, something new to us, we dined in high style at the Pelican Bay's Ferry House and Irie's at the Westin. Both restaurants feature nationally renowned master chefs. All of the food was delicious. We had custom appetizers and desserts at Irie's, but the real find there was "The Best Pina Colada in the Caribbean," and their special Pirate Grog.

Served by beautiful wenches, we were told that this was the drink of pirates, given to the crew just before a raid to buoy their courage. It also helped stave off scurvy. In fact, the secret recipe for Pirate Grog is very simple:

1 46 ounce can of pineapple juice

8 ounces of coconut rum

1 ounce lime juice

Serve over ice (and share with others)

Once you're well rested and fed, there's plenty to do. Right across the parking lot from the Pelican Bay is UNEXSO, a dolphin sanctuary where you can swim with dolphins, scuba dive and snorkel. UNEXSO provided all of the underwater photography for the original "Sea Hunt" television series.

There are miles and miles of golden beaches. To get the best taste of Lucaya, there are some excellent excursion packages. Lucaya and Freeport are very nature conscious. No businesses or tourist ventures are permitted unless their impact upon the environment is clearly defined and controlled. For years Disney has tried to set up a presence in Freeport, but it ultimately was deemed too intrusive.

We sampled abbreviated versions of two all-day ventures, both well worth experiencing. The first was the Kayak Nature Tour and Cave exploration. It begins with a brisk ride along the Freeport major highway to a beachhead near the Disney studio tank. The Freeport major highway is one lane in each direction, and the maximum speed limit is 30 mph. A heavy traffic day is more than one car traveling in each direction and passing one another.

You will also cross the second highest elevation point on the Grand Bahama Island, a scant 62 inches above the waterway. After this excitement, kayaking up the wetlands may seem anti-climatic (we actually couldn't do this due to physical limitations), but we heard that it was terrific, even if you don't overturn your kayak.

We enjoyed the Gold Rock Beach, an area where you can really get away from it all. We saw no one else for almost two hours and the beach was utterly silent. Just the waves lapping on the sand, the cry of birds and some wind. It's amazing.

Cell phone will work from there (philistine), but you won't want to waste too much time talking. You get lunch on the beach, and then go through the Lucaya National Park on a Nature tour, examining the various flora and learning all the herbology of the region. Crossing the street, you can walk through the Lucayan Caves, one of which houses the bones of some Lucayan Indians underwater. If you are an experienced scuba diver, guides will explore the underwater caves with you.

The Bahamas are actually all "connected" by deep underwater caverns and tunnels, with parts of the land masses breaking the surface. Having never fished, we were a bit reluctant to go on a bonefishing excursion, and while we probably would not try this again, it was another experience that was not to be missed for anything.

We were ferried out to Deep Water Cay Club, a private retreat for some of the finest fisherman in the world, and taught how to cast for bonefish. Bonefishing is mostly a competitive sport, although it can be eaten if prepared properly. More memorable, though, than actually catching some fish, was the sensation of traveling by offshore boat to the various locations.

At one point, as we clung to the seats, all of the land around us disappeared. We were surround 360 degrees by the clearest, most colorful water imaginable, with the bottom clearly visible. And yes, we did catch some fish, but not the prized bonefish. This mostly due to the persistence of our guide, John T, who aptly instructed us how to cast, waiting patiently through several hundred failed attempts, and finally navigating us to what must have been the "bunny slope," where no doubt someone waited underwater for our lines to land, and then attached a fish to them for us to catch. Seems the most reasonable explanation.

By far the most appropriate ending to our experience was that as we were leaving, the temperatures began to rise. We took the cold weather back with us to Buffalo.

When we return and we will -- we'll try to leave our weather behind.

>If you go

"Pirates" packages:

* Pelican Bay at Lucaya:

A three-night "Treasure Chest of Romance" package includes a swim with the dolphins program for two, sunset cruise, Champagne, chocolates and more. Rates for two start at $1,549.

A three-night "Swashbuckling Family Escape" includes a half-day Skull & Crossbones fishing charter, a pirate's beach kayak excursion, chocolate gold goins and buried treasure map for the kids, and deluxe suite accommodations and poolside continental breakfast. Rates start at $1,499 for two adults and two kids.

Information: Call (866) 296-7963 or visit www.pelicanbayhotel.com.

* Viva Wyndham Fortuna Beach:

The Viva Pirates Package at the all-inclusive resort includes accommodations, meals, unlimited non-motorized water sports, free sports collective lessons and a daily activities program. Kids receive a "pirate kit" (hat, telescope, eye patch, pirate map), and can participate in pirate-themed activities. The rate, based on double occupancy, is $115 per person, per night. Ages 3 to 17 are $30 per child, per day.

Information: Call 800-WYNDHAM or visit www.vivawyndhamresorts.com.

* The Westin and Sheraton at Our Lucaya Beach & Golf Resort:

Caribbean Pirates Getaway includes accommodations, daily breakfast at Willy Broadleaf's, a "Pirates of the Caribbean" DVD, a daily grog cocktail and a surprise welcome amenity with pirates theme. Nightly rates (based on double occupancy) start at $290 at the Sheraton and $360 at the Westin.

Information: Call 877-Our-Lucaya (ask for code LEVENTA), or visit www.westin.com/ourlucaya or www.sheraton.com/ourlucaya.

Other family adventures:

UNEXSO: The dolphin sanctuary offers various packages allowing children and their parents ot interact and swim with dolphins, scuba dive and snorke. For info, visit www.unexso.com

East End Adventures: All-day cultural safaris are offered for families, including a ride through Grand Bahamas' eco-zones. For info: www.bahamasecotours.com.

Pinetree Stables: Two-hour guided horseback rides are offered for adults and children ages 8 and older through the Pine Forest, Rocky Coppice and Wetlands, along the beach and into the sea. For info: www.bahamasvacationguide.com/pinetree.html.

For information:

For general information on traveling to Grand Bahama Island, contact the Grand Bahama Island Tourism Board at (800) 448-3386 or go to www.bahamas.com.

Pirates of Nassau Museum. www.pirates-of-nassau.com
Bonefishing: www.pelicanbaybonefishing.com

Kayak Nature Tours: www.grandbahamanaturetours.com

Deep Water Cay Club: www.deepwatercay.com

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