Bahamas-Florida Express ferry starts up with mixed reviews

Judging from its first-day crossing, the high-speed ferry linking Fort Lauderdale with the Bahamas holds promise for speed but faces hurdles on a route long fraught with problems, as Doreen Hemlock reports in Fort Lauderdale’s Sun Sentinel.

The Bahamas Express ferry company made Friday’s first passenger trip in three hours each way, with customers asked to arrive at least 90 minutes before the trip and needing at least 30 minutes for immigration processing on arrival. That meant at least five hours from terminal entry to exit each way.

The ferry is faster than the former Discovery Cruise line, which took about five hours just to cross. But some passengers missed the casino, buffet and entertainment that made the hours seem to fly on the aging cruiser that had plied the Freeport route for decades before ceasing operations in September.

The 242-foot-long catamaran ferry can reach a speed of 32 knots, or roughly 35 miles per hour. Operators hope that its velocity and modern amenities can attract Floridians and other vacationers leaving from Port Everglades to enjoy the beaches, water sports and leisure spots on Grand Bahama Island. And they aim to lure Bahamians who frequently travel to South Florida to shop because of bigger selections and lower prices.

A total of 20 people took the trip to Freeport and 91 traveled to Fort Lauderdale on Friday, mainly Bahamians eager to stock up for the holidays at such Florida spots as Sawgrass Mills mall, Sam’s Club and Toys ‘”R” Us. Bahamas residents said the ferry was cheaper than flying, and arriving in Fort Lauderdale was more convenient than taking the Celebration cruise to the Port of Palm Beach and driving south to shop.

But the maiden voyage had its glitches. Passengers bristled at slow check-in in the Bahamas, a lack of ice and bottled water for sale on board and the ferry’s duty-free shop not taking credit cards. Most vexing, Bahamians complained about lugging their bags up and down stairs, suggesting the ferry company add more ramps, especially for coolers toted to be filled with frozen foods in Florida.

“They have to make it easier for people to handle luggage,” said Cochise Parker, 32, of Freeport.

The Bahamas Express is operated by Spain’s veteran ferry company, Baleària Group, with a South Florida partner, Miami’s Capo group. Baleària operates 21 routes and more than a dozen ships in the Mediterranean. It is new to the Americas.

The company, offering a ship that can hold up to 463 passengers, is trying where other ferry companies have failed. One problem: choppy waters that can prompt seasickness among passengers. Larger ships cruising at slower speeds generally can handle choppy Atlantic waters better.

But seasickness did not appear to be a problem Friday on either crossing. Some passengers took precautions with motion-sickness pills. Bahamian Gail Zamor, 47, who often suffers from seasickness, dozed comfortably on the ferry’s bus-like seats to Freeport, describing the trip “like a cruise.”

The ferry has stabilizers to help cope with choppiness, area manager Pilar Lecha said in Fort Lauderdale.

The Bahamas Express is scheduled to leave Fort Lauderdale at 10 a.m. and depart Freeport at 7:30 p.m. daily, except Wednesdays. It features first-class and economy sections — first-class seats are more cushioned and recline — as well as a café, duty-free shop and three bars. It has no cabins and no casino.

Fares start at $49 each way for a one-day trip. With taxes and fees, the one-day round-trip costs $142. Trips that leave and return on separate days can run $200 or more. Travelers could fly between Freeport and Fort Lauderdale, but that’s more expensive. Fares generally run about $250 to $300 round-trip on Vision Airlines and even more on charters, Bahamas passengers said.

The ferry company was supposed to start operations this summer between the Port of Miami and the island of Bimini in the Bahamas. But plans were delayed, partly because the Bimini seaport needs to be dredged and its pier improved to handle the ferry, Baleària executive Victor Terricabras has said.

Port Everglades has been courting international ferry companies for months as a prelude to possible service to Cuba, once U.S. laws allow ferry service to that island. Service to the Bahamas can help ferry companies get to know Port Everglades and build a name among Florida customers, port officials have said.

The Bahamas ferry company will not take cars or cargo for now, but plans to add those services later, executives said.

Tips to ride the Lauderdale-Freeport ferry: Arrive at least 90 minutes before departure. Allow at least 30 minutes for customs and immigration clearance on arrival. Figure three hours travel each way.

Getting around: Grand Bahama is 96 miles long and up to 17 miles wide, so you need wheels to get around. Travelers suggest renting a car — you drive on the left — or taking buses. A taxi from the ferry to the Port Lucaya area, known for shopping and the UNEXSO terminal, costs $27 for two people and $2 for each additional person. It takes about 20 minutes to get there. Consider arranging tours in advance.

What documents to bring: U.S. citizens must carry a valid passport or passport card. Copies of birth certificates are not acceptable. Others generally need passports from their country of origin.

What baggage to take: Passengers can take two pieces of luggage free. The company can charge for excess items and any bag more than 45 pounds. No animals can be taken, except guide dogs.

Where to find more information:

For the original report and additional information go to fl-bahamas-ferry-trip-20111218,0,4937156.story

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