ago I went to Hell. Now, don’t get the wrong idea. I was not in Hades
per se but I was in a very small town surrounded by jagged black rock made
up of spiky, porous dolomite and limestone worn away by millions of small
tropical algae. It was certainly hot there that day and the presence of
the devil was everywhere. Temptation surrounded me. Venders were offering
the usual satanic memorabilia and I nearly succumbed to a devilish
T-shirt, hellish mug and gaudy devil-may-care posters. I did however; send
home a letter postmarked ‘Hell, Grand Cayman’. I was in one of the
least touristy places I saw on an island of lush botanical gardens, a
gentle blue-green sea, tropical vegetation, modern hotels, villas and
condos that would make your mouth water. So, assuming that the other sites
on the island had to be better, off I went on a week of touring. I learned
much and have returned at least a dozen times. It’s like a home away
from home especially since I have part of my family living there year
round. I know many of the shopkeepers who wave to me as I pass their
stores or meet them in restaurants. I first went there in 1978. The island
was much less developed then. I carried a flashlight as I walked along the
road at Seven Mile Beach. Today, Mercedes and a long list of fast cars
whiz by on this same road, offering light to any intrepid visitor who
dares to walk.
They say that a British Commissioner, arriving in the
early 1930’s at this now popular site, cried “Oh Hell!” You can
imagine how primitive the place was seventy years ago. But time changes
all things and Grand Cayman, while still boasting a post office at Hell,
has become a tropical paradise, free of gambling casinos and some of the
western glitz and glitter. It’s a sleepy set of three islands about 200
km from Cuba or just over an hour by plane from Miami. But don’t think
that when I say ‘sleepy’, it hasn’t caught up with the twenty-first
century. Cayman is as modern as you get in the West Indies. Their
architecture is up to date, their shops fashionable and their restaurants
competitive with the best mainland eateries. When I say ‘sleepy’ I
mean there is no hustle bustle after the inevitable cruise ships leave
each day. The overcrowded city of Georgetown goes back to it’s relax
mode at 4 PM. Islanders watch the hundreds of cruise visitors with their
blue shopping bags. It’s great for the economy but the ‘blue bagers’
are not typical Cayman visitors.
The boat people with their tell tale shopping bags are
the mainstay of island commerce but for those lucky to live on the island
only for a few days, the evenings are cool and the ambiance friendly with
very little crime.
I’ve been there in the heat of summer when your
glasses would fog up when you left an air-conditioned store. I’ve been
there when the sea rose over the West Bay road and emptied the turtle
tanks, freeing thousands of sea turtles. I’ve been there when gale force
winds snapped huge Australian Pines and I’ve been there often when
gentle breezes and calm seas made for the perfect vacation spot especially
for divers. I fell in love with that flat 30-mile long island a long time
ago. I’ll go back again soon and often.
There may be few venues for entertainment, but an
evening in one of the countless restaurants can be rewarding. Late
afternoon drinks on ‘Seven Mile Beach’ brings the reward of a bright
red sun falling into the sparkling sea. I choose my words carefully. What
I describe, I promise. Sunset on Grand Cayman is a reason itself to travel
They say that Columbus visited the main Island on his
fourth voyage in 1503. His ship was surrounded by sea turtles, which were
important for their delicious meat. He called the islands (there are
three) Las Tortugas. They later became known as Cayman, from the Carib
Indian word for crocodiles ‘Caymanas’. Some say the main island almost
looks like a crocodile from the air. In 1670 the Cayman Islands were ceded
by Spain. They have been British ever since. Today an elected Legislative
Assembly rules the Islands with members representing districts from the
sister islands (Little Cayman and Cayman Brac). The Queen who is the
head-of-state appoints the Governor. .
The islands are there waiting for you to make your own
discoveries. Any guide can tell you where to go and what to see. I have my
own favorites and my own special haunts. Of course it all starts at
Georgetown, the capitol and seat of government. Here the banks too
numerous to count and the business offices of the islands are clustered
tightly facing Hog Sty Bay and the cruise boat jetty landing.
The city itself is modern and quiet in the off hours.
There is an old but remodeled post-office, glass office buildings, shops
boasting imports from afar and duty free gems in elaborate settings. There
are local crafts. Black coral is very popular. This is a rich man’s
island and the wares shown reflect that fact. There is a large middle
class of working people here too. Everybody seems to have a job. One
has to have working papers to be employed unless you are a native or have
island status. But if you do go there to work, remember you will be paid
in Cayman Island (CI) dollars. They exchange 20% higher than the US
There are resorts of all sizes that employ people as
well as restaurants, hospitals and dive shop operations once the main
island industry. The natural reef around the island makes Cayman one of
the best diving havens in the world. And if you are not a diver,
snorkeling is a splendid choice, especially around the wrecks. And if you
just like to swim among giant stingrays, the shallow waters of North Sound
is a must. Small children swim among these huge black water creatures.
It’s safe and especially exciting when they feed right from your hand.
And speaking of children, this set of islands has much for them to do.
There’s a unique turtle farm with hundreds of turtles of all sizes.
There’s a submarine, glass bottom boats, a botanical garden, blowholes,
shipwrecks and one of the best beaches I’ve ever seen. A great time for
family fun is during Pirate’s Week each October, which lasts for ten
days. That’s when everyone dresses up like a swashbuckler, parrot, eye
patch, hook and all. Each district has their own activities including much
music, fireworks and local food like rum or cassava cake, conch, oxtail,
plantain and even turtle steaks. Of course there’s a great selection of
cooling drinks available (many include Rum).
Last year I visited Pedro’s Castle. It’s a mini
museum recreated as it first looked when just a few people inhabited the
Cayman. But that all changed when the banks moved in and Owen Roberts air
field was first built. Now the island is inhabited by pleasure-seekers and
bank depositors from around the world. Condos are still going up but they
are often very expensive. Rental or ownership means you can eat your
special catch of the day overlooking a gentle sea. Fishing is a major
pastime. Here the natives will say, “Let’s go fishn-in”. Try
grouper, Wahoo, tuna or Dorado. And if you want to select a restaurant,
there are almost too many to choose from. A few of my favorites are: Bella
Capri opposite The Strand on West Bay Road, The Wharf and Ports of Call
Bar, a little closer to Georgetown, Grand Old House just east of the city
in an old historic house and The Lobster Pot on the main waterfront on
North Church Street. All serve fresh seafood and island specialties. The
prices vary but within most budgets.
Kaibo Restaurant & Yacht Club, on the other hand,
has a free, air-conditioned express boat ferry that takes you there from
the mooring near the Hyatt Hotel. You skim over the North Sound waters up
to the door 15-20 minutes away at Rum Point. The trip is part of the fun.
Inside, you face an exotic Caribbean New Orleans menu specializing in the
catch of the day. When I last visited, there were seven of us. We had all
sorts of things including steaks, fish, grilled eggplant, Irish coffee and
pastry. The bill was about $400 for the group, including transportation,
to and fro. Other items I made note to order in the future include, Creole
Tomato Sauce on roasted vegetables, Caribbean Lobster with Louisiana
stuffing served with cilantro, lime rice and julienne vegetables. Their
desert list included Praline Cream Brulee, Cherry almond bread pudding,
Island Rum Cake and Chocolate Pecan Pie. I’m drooling. As their motto
puts it, ‘Good Times are rolling at the Kaibo Yacht Club.
For the kids, try ‘Chicken Chicken’ in the West
Shore Center. It’s your basic grilled chicken on a spit. But knowing
young people, you won’t get any complaints. Of course, burger King and
Kentucky Fried are there too. It’s called progress. Ristorante
Pappagallo in West Bay is a Polynesian looking building on a man made
island. It’s part of a condo development and very popular. The service
and choices are Italian excellence. Meals are about $40 pp. It’s not far
from Hell…but we’ve already been there. Sunday brunch at the
Hyatt or Westin is a little more expensive but the offerings would satisfy
even the biggest eaters. I was there on New Years Day. It was crowded with
well wishers and tourists who come back year after year. I was surprised
at how many people I knew. I can walk into a shop on Main Street and know
the manager by name or I can drive along and have someone call out, ”You
still here?” I am truly at home. How can I not be? This is one friendly
Each time I return, I set out for The Cracked Conch.
It’s just next to The Turtle Farm, one of the most famous places to
visit. The Cracked Conch got a boost when Burt Wolf visited. He
recommended the restaurant at the west end of the island as did CNN, the
Discovery Channel, Gourmet Magazine and now us.
This restaurant has been on the island for 20 plus
years. I especially enjoy their Sunday brunch. The fresh seafood, turtle
and conch plus their mouth watering blackened, or charbroiled beef, pork
or chicken is famous. The local dishes are what made Burt Wolf take note.
Families enjoy this traditional restaurant since there are special
children’s menus for ‘Little Mates’ and if you are not into seafood,
try the ‘Landlubbers’ menu … Carib Chicken, Filet Mignon, homemade
‘psgetti’ with meat sauce or cheeseburgers and fries. It is in a great
spot, facing the sea. The day I was last there, the nor’wester was
bringing in waves that made the building shake. Even the wood
planking looks like it was taken from an old Pirate ship. The décor even
includes diving helmets from Bob Soto, who started the first dive
operation on the island. Today, divers come from all over the world. The
shallow waters that fall off at the end of the reef afford divers a rich
opportunity for unique diving. For non-divers there’s a submarine to
take you below without the fuss of diving lessons.
Next door to The Cracked Conch is The Turtle Farm. Home
to about 16,000 turtles, the Farm’s top priority is maintaining an ideal
breeding environment. With about 8,000 hatchlings a year, care is a
labor-intensive process. Of interest to people of any age, visitors enjoy
the opportunity to view the workings of an actual working farm. It is a
constant hive of activity. And if you wish to assist their conservation
program, you can sponsor and release a yearling Green Sea Turtle. You
receive a special certificate to proudly display at home. This usually
takes place in October when the yearlings are old enough to survive.
Other than Green Sea Turtles, the Farm is home to
Loggerheads, Hawksbill and Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles. There’s a snack
bar and souvenir shop but be careful what you buy to take home. T-shirts
and mugs are fine but sea turtle products are on the endangered species
When Columbus discovered the islands in 1503,
there were so many turtles, he named the islands ‘Los Tortugas’,
meaning The Turtles. The island had so many turtles on the beaches they
looked like they were covered with rocks. Nowhere else can you see an
endangered species so successfully raised. Since 1980, the Farm has
successfully released over 30,000 turtles back into the sea to replenish
the world population. Take a tour of the Farm. They are located at North
West Point Road in West Bay. Look for their web site at www.turtle.ky.
Most visitors to Georgetown, the capital of Grand
Cayman, are cruise passengers only there for the day. The island is much
quieter after they leave. Then you can pick out the soft sounds of the
natives as they speak their honey flavored English. They also speak a
certain rapid English-cum-Jamaican patois. I love the sound even if it’s
an argument. I heard this recently.
“I goin’ mash you up good, my man,” said an irate
His angry friend replied, “ Why you say dat? I goin’
pop you head.”
That’s where the argument ended.
After a few moments they were friends again. As I said
Cayman is a friendly place.
Other things to do on this sunny island include touring
by boat to Stingray City in North Sound. Swimming among gentle and exotic
giant Stingrays is not something we all get a chance to do. The day trip
usually includes a beach lunch consisting of the ‘catch of the day’.
If you are there for a while, rent a car or Jeep and
drive east to Bodden Town and East End. It’s less commercial but
inviting. Pass The Wreck of the Ten Sail and learn something of Cayman’s
history. Lunch at the Tortuga Club then swing west and tour North Side all
the way to Rum Point. You can’t get lost. All roads lead back to
Georgetown. And you’ll never run out of cash. There are ATM machines
everywhere. After all this is now a ‘banking island’.
Enjoy a different view of the islands, but watch out for
that noonday sun. I won’t say it’s Paradise but it is certainly not