We circled the Orange Bowl at a thousand feet in the Grumman Mallard seaplane before lining up for our belly landing in Biscayne Bay. As we splashed down and skimmed across the surf, a daredevil woman on a jet ski zipped over and raced beside the stabilizing pontoon under one of the wings. Yes, we were definitely back in Miami. What a weekend.
I hopped out of the plane in sandals and shorts and turned to my friend: "I can’t believe this is a job."
We had just returned from Bimini, the nearest island in the Bahamas. To re-coin a Firesign Theater phrase, it’s the only part of Florida that’s not part of Florida. It’s a mere 50 miles from the Miami coast. In contrast, Key West is a 103-mile drive down the Overseas Highway once you leave the mainland.
But the connection to Florida is more than proximity. It’s politics. In the white-hot glare of the media spotlight, politicians need a place to retreat in privacy and, if possible, conduct scandals. Bimini is perfect. Close by, yet hard to get to. The cruise ships don’t stop there and they have no airport (although I recall a barren little landing strip on the south island, mainly for private planes). People mostly come by yacht or deep-sea fishing charter. A few more arrive as we did, by seaplane, pulling up to the ramp where Jody Foster and Anthony Hopkins appeared in the final scene of Silence of the Lambs.
What has kept Bimini special is the limitation of its size. The main island is a little tendril of sand seven miles long but only 700 feet across at its widest point. Not much foothold for mega development.
I know it sounds bogus, but my trip to Bimini really was business-related. I was working on a novel about Florida politics and Bimini kept popping up in my historical research. It reached a point where I had to put some Bimini scenes in the book, which I couldn’t ethically do without first-hand observation. Okay, I really just wanted to make the trip. I called up an old attorney friend who’s always game for my "research" junkets. He gets a kick out of my trying to explain to people what it is I’m doing. No, I’m not a cop. I don’t work for a newspaper. Just me and my little books.
We carried our bags a few hundred feet up the road from the seaplane ramp to the hotel. The sun was starting to fade. No traffic at all, just a balmy salt breeze.
I stepped up to the front desk and hit the jackpot right away. The receptionist was a regular Chatty Cathy. That’s the thing about the inhabitants of Bimini: They’re the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. So friendly, in fact, that if you’re used to living in Florida, you initially put your guard up. Okay, what’s the flavor of this scam? Is this leading into a time-share pitch? Eventually, after meeting enough locals, you realize they’re just sincerely nice, easygoing folks.
So I’m going through my usual awkward routine of explaining why I’m there, and that the first item on my scavenger hunt is to sniff out the trail of President Nixon and Bebe Rebozo, when they used to take Bebe’s yacht over to the island from his mansion on Key Biscayne.
Oh, I knew them well, she says.
My head popped back. You did?
She nodded and explained that back in the early 1970s, she had worked at a restaurant around the corner and had served them numerous times. "Nixon always had the same thing. Grilled ham and cheese, potato salad and a Beck’s. He was real nice. I had a picture taken of him hugging me, but the CIA grabbed the camera."
Just a great guy.
Okay, no real dirt, but the descriptions alone were already worth the trip. We stowed our bags and headed up the street on foot. That’s another special thing about Bimini. The main settlement is called Alicetown, which is actually a very tiny village. You can walk to everything along a couple hundred yards of the King’s Highway, which isn’t really a highway but an extremely narrow street with little stone walls on the shoulders at some points that make it practically impossible for two cars to pass. Which is fine because there are almost no cars. It was a quiet, starry night except for the tiny roadhouse on the side of the King’s Highway in the distance, where laughter and music carried out the open door.
The End of the World Bar.
They’re not kidding. There was no floor, just sand. But the small room was rocking with ultra-rich sport fishermen unwinding after a day on the water, getting a little drunker than they might if they were some place back home where they might run into a neighbor or client. The joint had that dangerous exotic air, like Rick’s in Casablanca, or a smuggler’s bar in Hong Kong. There was an even smaller second room off to the side of the bar where smoke drifted through a screen door. I wandered over. An old Bahamian woman was inside frying up batches of conch fritters in a giant kettle. So we went to the bar and ordered fritters and the obligatory beer of the Bahamas-Kalik.
But there was business to conduct. I’d heard that the late, flamboyant congressman Adam Clayton Powell had hung out here. (His "usual" was reported to be Scotch with a milk chaser.) Yep, the bartender remembered him. Great guy, real nice.
Just a great guy.
Now I got it. So this was why the politicians came here. It was just like with the receptionist back at the hotel. Even when they’re deceased, their reputations are safe.
Except for the photos, which, as they say, never lie. That came into play the next afternoon when I made my juiciest find of the trip. We took another stroll up the King’s Highway to the Compleat Angler, the island’s most historic-and rowdy-tavern. They have hotel rooms above the bar, but the front desk warns you in advance that you might not get much sleep because of the late-night raucousness.
Built in the 1930s, the bar and the hotel were Ernest Hemingway’s home away from home for several years when he made frequent trips to the island for marlin fishing (which became the inspiration for his Bimini-set novel, Islands in the Stream). Today, the bar has an entire room set aside as a museum of Hemingway memorabilia. Inside the bar itself is a wall of photos of more recent celebrities who have paid a visit. I was at the Angler to ask about Gary Hart, whose Presidential aspirations disintegrated after the Miami Herald reported his liaison with Donna Rice and tabloid photos appeared of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap aboard the yacht Monkey Business. Guess where the yacht was headed?
But before I could annoy the staff with my questions, the celebrity wall caught my fascination, then my surprise. There, in the middle of all the pictures, big as day, were two photos of Hart onstage at the Compleat Angler, shaking maracas and singing karaoke with Rice. Forgot all that nonsense you heard from Gary about the Herald persecuting him. This guy was begging to get caught.
Mission accomplished. The sun set and we headed back to our hotel, the rim of the western horizon aglow from the city lights of Miami just over the horizon. And I thought, this is the best job in the world.