It's 3 a.m. and pitch-black except for a spot of light pollution emanating from the island of North Bimini — and a 669-foot-long ship bumping with club music.
Suddenly, DJ Zog, of Power 96 fame, cuts the sound. He announces that Kok Thay Lim has arrived to cut his birthday cake. After celebrating in Bimini with presumably vastly more important people, the international businessman has jumped aboard a catamaran, puttered out to the Bimini SuperFast, and climbed aboard. Now, the politely smiling executive in a short-sleeved button-up stands behind a cake replica of the ship with his wife, Cecilia Lim, in a conservative purple dress at his side.
Awkwardly, hundreds of partying 20-somethings all sing "Happy Birthday" to Lim, with everyone, including the MC, mumbling when they get to the words "Happy birthday, dearrrrr Kok Thay Liiiiiim." Most people in this crowd don't have the slightest clue that this man will largely decide the future of Miami. But complimentary champagne and sheet cake were passed around, so they could tell he was someone important.
As chairman of the Genting Group — a multinational Malaysia-based corporation specializing in resorts, casinos, and cruise ships, with a market capitalization valued at $45 billion — Lim is behind one of the most controversial developments in Miami. In 2011, Genting bought the waterfront property where the Miami Herald was headquartered and proposed one of the biggest projects ever imagined in Florida: a massive bayside resort that would include 5,200 hotel rooms, 50 restaurants, 60 shops, and the world's largest casino. Except, Florida law currently allows only limited gambling: racing and slot machines at pari-mutuels and full slots and table games on Native American reservations.
Genting initially tried to get the state Legislature to allow Vegas-style gambling at destination casinos, but when that failed, it planned a petition drive that would circumvent legislators and have voters decide on the 2014 ballot. But since the Legislature is currently in the midst of trying to set up a stronger, more permanent gambling regulatory framework — it commissioned a study and will hold hearings later this month — Genting has once again shifted gears, dropping the petition drive and indicating that it will work with lawmakers and modify plans for the Herald site as laws become clearer.
In the meantime, Genting is luring people away from the Magic City, to 50 miles east in Bimini — where looser laws already enable Vegas-style gambling and the drinking age is just 18. So last month, I boarded the Bimini SuperFast for an evening cruise. The voyage was perhaps a metaphor for Genting's arrival and future in South Florida: not exactly smooth, but refusing to accept no for an answer.
Despite living in the cruise capital of the world, I've never understood the allure of being captive and vulnerable to seasickness, even for a party. However, the novelty of taking my first cruise as a media trip aboard the Bimini SuperFast, which started service mid-July, seem too good to pass up. I got free admission, but for $49 round trip on Thursdays and Fridays and $69 on Saturdays, anyone with a valid passport can come aboard the SuperFast and party until sunrise. Day cruises, which depart at 9 a.m. and return at 7 p.m., cost $69 on weekdays and $99 on weekends.
Tonight, the ship is expected to hit the high seas at 10:30 p.m., anchor a mile from Bimini at 1 a.m., and return to Miami by 6 a.m. I stock up on Dramamine.
After checking in at PortMiami, I meet up with public relations reps Christine Corson and Aaron Gordon. Media get whisked away to a faster boarding line, alongside DJ Zog and his entourage of about ten people. The ship books headline DJs for night cruises. DJ Laz and DJ Irie have both spun already.
The SuperFast is a speedy ferry that can hold 1,600 passengers, travel up to 28 knots, and go the 48 nautical miles to Bimini in about two and a half hours. The 12-year-old ship was built in Germany.
At a final checkpoint before boarding, computers are down, and workers scramble to fix the problem. According to Yelp reviews, this doesn't seem to be the first time it has happened.
I enter the boat midship on deck seven, in the first of two casino areas. An endless array of penny and nickel slots and gaming machines is eerily quiet — we can't use them until we hit international waters. Everything shines like it's new, including a low-hung, gold-plated ceiling that might force anyone over six-foot-five to duck. The other gaming area, located at the stern of the ship above a sports bar, features high-stakes table games including blackjack, roulette, and craps. Everything in that area is gold: the carpet, the felt on the tables, the ceiling, the uniforms. Everything. Nametags identify workers' home countries: Malaysia, Singapore, Australia.
"Your cabin number is wrong. We have to reassign you," says the clerk. After a fix, I'm off. Cabins start at $40 per person. Mine seems laughably small and a bit outdated with its Formica tables and beige color scheme, but my shipmate says it's pretty standard size for a cruise ship. The twin bed looks tiny, but we can lie down and stretch comfortably. The private bathroom with shower will probably come in handy after a day's excursion.
Regular customers get a free dinner as a part of every night cruise, but that consists of college-dining-hall essentials: burgers, pizza, and hot dogs. For a $25 upcharge, you can have a three-course, prix-fixe meal at the restaurant, Ponce de Leon. We dine on steak, chicken, and fish as we are still docked. We are supposed to set sail at 10:30 p.m., but...
We finish dinner while still docked.
"Not sure," says the Genting rep. "But we'll be leaving by 11 or 11:30 p.m."
Corson and Gordon lead a media group on a tour of the entire ship. Of the ship's ten decks, only the top four are accessible to guests. Eventually, passengers will be able to load big-haul items like boats.
"In the winter, the Gulf Stream is rough to sail on a smaller boat," Gordon explains. "Now the SuperFast will let people cross without risk."
Genting's plan for Bimini is ambitious, and the SuperFast is just a small piece in a much larger puzzle. North Bimini (there's also a South Bimini and an East Bimini) is just nine square miles with a population of 2,000. Currently, only about 70,000 tourists visit the island each year, many of them sportsfishermen who arrive via small planes and charter boats. But Genting is hoping that by guaranteeing a safe and easy voyage, tourists will fill up rooms at the company's resorts and casinos there, though travelers are also welcome to use the ship for transportation and then stay at other properties. Genting served 20,000 passengers in its first month and predicts it will have taken 400,000 by the end of its first year.
Genting runs a 750-acre resort called Resorts World Bimini in North Bimini, and it features a recently opened, full-scale casino. The hotel has 450 rooms, a marina, restaurants, pools, and more. But the company has bigger plans for the island. On August 14, Genting broke ground on a 350-room marina hotel that is part of the company's plan to turn the small island into a luxury getaway.
And while the SuperFast cannot dock on the island yet — for day trips, it now docks a mile off North Bimini, and passengers transfer to a catamaran for the 20-minute trip to shore — a port large enough for it will be finished in November. Once the ship is docked, SuperFast passengers can easily explore the island and vice versa: People in Bimini can come onboard to enjoy the ship's casinos.
However, groups like Bimini Blue Coalition, an environmental group, called the resort's expansion and the planned construction of the cruise ship terminal for the SuperFast "unsustainable and misplaced," according to the Nassau Guardian. Some critics say that all the additional tourists and Genting's developments will strain the island's resources and ruin its quiet charm.
At Club Bimini — basically the whole top deck, tricked out with TVs, lights, and dancers — the downtown skyline still taunts us. Why aren't we moving?
"Not everybody has checked in yet, so customs is holding us back," Corson explains.
Names are being called over the loudspeaker asking them to check in at the front desk so we can depart. At Club Bimini, no one can hear over the music, so everyone keeps dancing.
At the center of everyone's attention is a guy the MC calls "el pollo loco," a random passenger who has dressed in a head-to-toe chicken suit, like he's going to a rave. Pair that with the fact that everyone has a glow-stick necklace or crown and it's starting to feel like Ultra Music Festival. The music of choice is trap, the latest EDM craze.
Then the MC announces that it's time for a "twerking contest"! Oh, Miley Cyrus, where are you? Huey's "Pop, Lock & Drop It" starts playing. After twerking, all three competitors get drinks on the house.
Eventually, someone realizes that the passengers on deck ten can't hear the announcements, so they cut off the music and read off a list of names. "The sooner we get everyone checked in, the sooner we can leave and everyone 18 and over can drink," the MC adds. Most clubbers disappear.
I go back to my cabin and lie down. In the elevator, a burly man with a deep voice speaks up. "Shit, I would have twerked for $1,000. That shit is rent money right there."
I'm starting to think this cruise will never leave and contemplate asking the Genting rep to let us off to try another time.
"Oh my God! We're moving!" yells my shipmate. I look out of my window to see the ship pulling away. Finally.
It's humid, even in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, so we head back down to the main casino for some relief. At the brightly lit semicircle bar, surrounded by rows and rows of liquor bottles, I encounter a boisterous group.
"My boy is celebrating his birthday," says a guy in perfect cruise attire: shorts and a tank top. "He's turning 20."
"I'm the captain," says the birthday boy, cleverly pointing to his captain hat.
I'm not much of a gambler but take $20 out of the ship's ATM — with only a $3 fee! (Or so I thought. When I got home later, Bank of America had charged me an additional $4.)
I put my crisp Jackson into a slot machine with spinning cherries and bars. A few minutes later, I'm up to $36.40 and decide it's time to cash out. At the cashier's cage, I bump into a group of 20-something men who are also cashing out.
"You win tonight?" one of the guys asks me.
The guy is counting hundred-dollar bills. "So did I!"
I've finally visited each of the four bars aboard the ship (where drinks range from $6 to $12), and after one too many Singapore slings, I'm feeling sleepy. My shipmate has to work at 8 a.m., so she decides to retire, but I wait it out for the chairman. Suddenly, I see the lights of Bimini and look down to notice that the ship is no longer churning the pitch-black ocean water. We've anchored.
After the awkward "Happy Birthday" and toast, Kok Thay Lim quickly disappears with barely a word. Once again, I look down to see black ocean water being pushed away from the ship and the lights of Bimini gone. The SuperFast had stopped for a total of 15 minutes.
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After breakfast (a free basic breakfast is served on deck ten, or passengers can pay $25 for omelets and bacon in Ponce de Leon), around 5 a.m., my phone chimes, letting me know I'm back in U.S. waters.
I'm lucky to be in the first group of people let off the ship to go through customs. Since we didn't disembark at Bimini, there are no traffic jams of officers looking for duty-free alcohol. An agent looks at my passport and waves me through. In a sleep-deprived haze, I lower my sunglasses to fend off the Miami sun. The voyage might not have gone off without a hitch, but it seems like nothing Genting's leaders have done in South Florida has gone according to plan. Still, if they were able to race the SuperFast to Bimini in time to celebrate the chairman's birthday, who's to say they won't race to transform Miami into a gambler's paradise?