Nature lover Erica Gates recalls when Garden of the Groves was one of Grand Bahama's most popular tourist attractions

The eco-tourism industry is a very active and developing one for Grand Bahama, and places like the Garden of the Groves are prime attractions that can be used as a major draw for visitors to the island.

That sentiment was shared with Rotarians of the Freeport Club yesterday by long-time nature-lover Erica Gates, owner of Grand Bahama Nature Tours and co-chair of the Bahamas Parks, Gardens & Recreation (BPGR).

Gates explained that since its establishment in 1990, Grand Bahama Nature Tours has grown to offer several different tour packages and activities including kayaking, snorkelling, biking, hiking, birding and Jeep tours.

Gates recalled mentioning her idea about opening an eco-tourism tour business to Edward St. George some 18 years ago.

"He said, 'It's a nice idea but it would never work. You would never get any numbers,' " she said, adding that she wished she could share the company's success with him now.

The Cacique Award winning company hosts an average of 30,000 guests each year, and also delivers lectures within the schools and conducts educational field trips for the local community to gain a better appreciation for the environment.

The tours offered take guests to places such as Gold Rock Creek, the Lucayan Waterway, Petersen's Cay, the Lucayan National Caves, the Lucayan National Park, and Taino Beach.

Gates said guests are usually in awe when they get the opportunity to witness first-hand the beauty of Grand Bahama's largely untouched natural environment.

Gates then took Rotarians on a walk down memory lane to when the Garden of the Groves was among the island's most popular tourist attractions.

Created 35 years ago as a tribute to Wallace Groves and his wife, the nature park was destroyed by the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 and subsequently abandoned by the corporation originally holding the lease.

"The Grand Bahama Port Authority has now resumed responsibility for the Garden and has committed to a restoration budget," Gates explained, adding that she and her partner Michelle Hanson are now supervising the restoration project, which began in November 2007.

Now in its final stages, the work on the 12-acre property included extensive landscaping, the installation of new pumps for waterfalls, ponds and fountains and the demolition of unstable structures. A new children's playground and arts and crafts village were also constructed.

The chapel located on the grounds, which is a replica of the first church built by Wallace Groves in the Pineridge area during Grand Bahama's logging era, was also renovated and will be officially consecrated for the first time in October.

Among its new features is a labyrinth, which was constructed by local volunteers looking to add a unique flare to the new Garden.

Referring to the restoration project as a labour of love, Gates said it was at times an overwhelming task.

There were tons of debris to remove, she explained, and there was a significant amount of vandalism that had been carried out to the property, including the burning down of the original straw market area and the theft of copper wires from the electrical breakers.

"We are determined to restore this jewel of Grand Bahama to its original beauty... We have given of our own time and expertise and personal resources to bring this important attraction back on-stream for visitors and the community of Grand Bahama Island," she said.

Gates explained that once

it is officially opened on October 1, she and Hanson will be leasing the property from the GBPA.

"We will rededicate it to the Groves, without whose vision and determination many of us would not be enjoying Grand Bahama today," she said, extending an open invitation to those present.

"We invite you to experience the tranquility of the restored garden, enjoy the hospitality of the cafe, bring your children to the enchanting playground, take a tour with our friendly knowledgeable guides, mediate at the first labyrinth in the Bahamas, or even get married at our soon to be consecrated chapel."