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There’s More Than Hell In The CAYMAN ISLANDS
by

Arnie Greenberg

Years 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 so far.

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 dollar.

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 island.                                     

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 list.

 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 fisherman.

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 just Hell.

#   #   #

You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at

Email:  Ultours1@gmail.com

Over the past few years, Professor Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the globe including Italy and most of China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters from St.Petersburg to Moscow. 

"He took a group to Greece and another to northern Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico.  His newly found spare time is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders..  "So You Want To Be A Tour Leader." 

Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.  Keep reading his web for travel ideas.  His next novel HELLSTORM'S Folly, will be available this fall. He now lives in British Columbia.

Go to:  www.top-travel-ideas.com or contact him directly at ultours1@gmail.com.

(More about the writer.)

 

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