Flying The Bahamas
Incredible sights, friendly people, good times
Flying The Bahamas
Incredible sights, friendly people, good times
By Harry Cutting
The tropical beauty of the Bahamian islands lures many different kinds of people– winter-weary escapees from northern climes, lovebirds, retirees, investors– to name a few.
A relatively small but dedicated and growing group arrives by air, not on giant airliners, as you may be thinking, but aboard sleek, pampered, privately owned aircraft. These visitors seek out the lesser-known islands–from Great Inagua in the south to Abaco in the north and from Bimini in the west to Mayaguana in the east.
Why? Because “it’s breathtakingly beautiful,” says Terry Carbonell, a lady pilot from Florida who works with Bahamian tourism officials spreading the word to fellow pilots.
Although Carbonell has flown these islands for many years she has never lost her admiration for them. “All the different hues of the water [and] the emerald islands–the views are striking from the air,” she says.
She’s not alone in her enthusiasm. Flying the archipelago is “on most pilots’ bucket lists,” says Mark Steinberg, also a Floridian and a frequent fly-in visitor.
According to Steinberg, some plane owners avoid the islands “because they think it’s too difficult to navigate the red tape and customs. It’s not, and after they make their first trip, they’re hooked.”
Removing red tape
The Bahamian government has made exploring The Bahamas by private aircraft relatively hassle-free.
Under the tourism department’s “Pilot’s Bill of Rights,” plane owners need only a few documents to fly here. Aside from filing a flight plan, they need only a cruising permit, plus immigration cards and passports for pilots and passengers. (See sidebar).
To boost private plane tourism the government allows Light Sport Aircraft (LSAs)–small, usually two-seater, planes that can cruise at about 120 mph–to freely enter and explore the Family Islands.
“We are thrilled,” says Mike Zidziunas of Plant City, Florida. Like Carbonell, he’s an “ambassador” for the Bahamian tourism department, encouraging LSA fans to fly The Bahamas.
“Sport aircraft pilots are an adventurous sort. I think they will be a huge benefit to the economies of the Out Islands. They like to get right out there,” says Zidziunas.
To make visiting even more enjoyable, there are special deals and discounts for pilot tourists. For example, a $300 fuel credit is offered to those who stay four consecutive nights at a participating resort.
Also offered is the Private Pilot’s Challenge, under which pilots can earn up to eight nights’ free accommodation by visiting 12 islands. Some private resorts and hotels offer additional incentives on lodging and activities.
Which islands do fly-in pilots fancy? Bimini–a onetime haunt of Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway–is popular because it’s fewer than 60 air miles from the US mainland.
Also much visited are the Exumas, a chain of some 360 beautiful islands that stretch more than 130 miles north of the main island, Great Exuma.
“For me, it’s the beach at Cape Santa Maria on Long Island in the southern Bahamas,” says Jim Parker, a veteran of many trips to the islands. “It’s one of the best in the entire Caribbean.”
Andros, the largest island in The Bahamas, and one of the country’s best-kept secrets, is the epitome of a wilderness island paradise, says Carbonell. “I am unabashedly in love with the place,” she says, “and fly there whenever I can.” She cites the island’s natural tranquillity, deserted beaches and friendly people.
Another island chain, the Abacos, is on many must-see lists. With pure white-sand beaches, famous nature preserves and many serene areas for kayaking, Abaco is a strong draw.
“I book at least 600 nights a year from private pilot tourists,” says Molly McIntosh, owner and operator of Green Turtle Club in Abaco. Like many resort operators, McIntosh is especially welcoming to private plane tourists because “they’re a gregarious lot, and pretty good spenders, too.”
“Pilots and their passengers stay in hotels and eat in local restaurants” providing support for many out-of-the-way resorts, says Zidziunas. It’s well-known that many pilots represent high-net-worth households that love to travel.
The economic slowdown that began in 2008 hit private pilot tourism, although not as hard as other sectors. Visits have been down, say tourism officials, but the decline appears to be levelling off. There were more than 70,000 pilot visits in 2010.
One reason for that is a popular Fly-In programme to the islands with support from cooperating resorts and hotels. Several pilots and their passengers fly in to one island to enjoy a local festival, mix socially, enjoy deep-sea fishing, local cuisine, and, of course, flying.
For private plane owners, flying The Bahamas is something special. As Jeff Birch, pilot and operator of Small Hope Bay Lodge on Andros Island, puts it: “It’s different when you’re flying. The flats and the water are stunning. You have to see it for yourself to understand. You won’t see these beautiful colors anywhere else in the world.”
Airstrips and fuel
There are 54 airports sprinkled throughout The Bahamas, from single-runway grass and gravel strips to international airports with all the amenities. Twenty of these are “entry airports,” which provide customs and immigration services. Pilots must land at an entry airport before flying on to other destinations.
Fuel is available at 11 airports, including, of course, the major ones in Nassau and Freeport. Credit cards are accepted by most, but not all, fuel providers, so carrying cash is recommended. US dollars are accepted at par throughout the islands.
For more information, call Greg Rolle, 1-800-327-7678, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.bahamas.com/bahamas/private-flying.
Pilot’s Bill of Rights
• No landing fee required for single-engine private planes under 6,000 lbs on a recreational trip at any government airport. A landing fee may apply at private airports.
• No overtime customs and immigration fee for private aircraft where the pilot declares that he/she does not receive any remuneration and the flight is for recreational purposes.
• No transire form (C38) is needed for private pilots passing through the islands for pleasure (a copy of the C7A will suffice).
• No tie-down fee is required at any government airport. Tie down fees may apply at private airports.
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