Over the years I’ve caressed many of the Caribbean gems, but never a set like the Cayman Islands. The Cayman Islands float at a magical inflection point influenced by three continents, and a radiance of nearby islands. Buccaneers and early settlers brought different music, dance, foods, customs, crafts, beliefs, and new human constructs….the travelers and adventures found shelter and social interaction, and the seeds of multiculturalism were sown. This is my guide to the Cayman Islands.
WHAT & WHERE TO EAT
Eat lionfish at The Greenhouse neighborhood cafe.
As part of the “Eat a fish, save a fish” initiative gaining momentum in the Cayman Islands, The Greenhouse proudly serves certified, ocean-friendly lionfish. The cook and co-owner, Jennifer Skrinska, fries up, in coconut oil, some lightly-floured lionfish, a flash in the pan we hope not…and concocts a lionfish ceviche served with homemade flatbread, which, though small in portions, is terribly tasty….and, if enough folks eat lionfish, encouraging more fishermen to clip the weed fish of the Caribbean, then the other, native fish will remain in healthy numbers. So, eat a fish, save the fish.
Stuff your face at a Fish Fry at Grape Tree Café.
The cafe is located on the beach in Bodden Town with its locally-famous Sunday Fish Fry. This is where the islanders come, and bask in deep-fried bliss. The café itself is the size of breadfruit basket and sizzling away inside are chunks of snapper, mahi, wahoo, swai, chicharrón as well as conch fritters, plantains, cassava and sweet potatoes, all for a fraction the price of the fusion appetizers at the resort hotels and trendier west end eateries. And outside, around thatch-roofed tables, an array of well-nourished Caymanians sit and nosh, swap stories and jokes, and generally enjoy the island life and food.
WHAT TO DO
Swim with the Stingrays.
“It’s like being hugged by a giant portabello mushroom”, says Ezona Hydes. She, along with co-captian Stacey, pilot the Heavenly Hooker offshore to a pristine white sandbar where the stingrays gather by the dozens. Since the 1980s stingray colonies have set up camp here waiting for the scraps from commercial fisherman who stopped here to clean their fish prior to landing on the island. Now a major tourist attraction, swimmers can safely glide with the stingrays in 4-feet of water (with the help of a piece of squid or two).
Visit Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park.
At Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, you’ll see first-hand one of the most remarkable species comeback stories in modern history: the back-from-the-brink saga of the blue iguana. The blue iguana is the largest native species on Grand Cayman, up to five feet in length and weighing in at more than 25 pounds!
Take a leisurely walk down Seven-Mile Beach.
Seven Mile Beach reeks of romance. Barefoot couples stroll the seam between sand and water, hand-in-hand, while others sip champagne on lounge chairs as the tropic air seduces. By the reckonings of a number of sand experts, this is the most romantic beach in the Caribbean.
Hire a boat to take you to Owen Island.
If you are seeking a digital detox, this place is a true desert island off the southern coast of Little Cayman. The isle has no lights; no electricity; no man-made structures; no men or women. Just talcum-soft white sand, driftwood, scrub and a lagoon.
Catch a live show by the Swanky Kitchen Band.
I was lucky, and allowed a visit to Hopscotch Studios, where the Swanky Kitchen Band was in full practice mode for an upcoming wedding performance. There music is an incredibly energized jam — it’s music that softens rock, and could bend the ironwood tree. Between takes I chat with the electric violinist Samuel Rose, the leader. He explains that “swanky” is a Cayman word for lemonade (made with brown cane sugar), and that Cayman kitchen music represents the melting pot that is Cayman, tracing influences back to Irish fiddling and Scottish jig traditions, mixed with African slave rhythms. Then it blends in ostinatos of calypso, reggae and jazz.
Go shopping at Camana Bay.
This new cosmopolitan development is packed with so many high-end restaurants, glam shops and luxury labels some call it Brand Cayman.
Go spelunking on Cayman Brac.
I climbed down a cliff overlooking Spot Bay and crawled into Peter’s Cave, one of 170 littoral caves on the island. Rumors persist this, and other grottoes, were used as lairs by pirates, even perhaps Captain Morgan and Blackbeard, using the dark recesses to hide their booty.
Go to Hell.
No, really! Hell, it turns out, is a flash in the road near West Bay, named for a swatch of spiky, tortured, black, ironshore that looks like midday in the garden of evil. There are just a few structures in Hell: a bar named Club Infernal; the Devil’s Den novelty shop, a post office where one can send a postcard from Hell; and the fire-red barn called The Devil’s Hangout, sporting Beelzebub on the side, and the devil on a sheet of plywood in front with a circular hole where the face should be.
WHERE TO STAY
On Grand Cayman Islands, this place was the Cayman Island’s first eco-development with solar and wind power. Set in a rugged iron-shore landscape, this eco-friendly development is surrounded by flora and fauna indigenous to the islands on the North West Point of Grand Cayman. Great views of the Caribbean and atmospheric nautical decor, including a lighthouse!
HOW TO GET THERE
I took the Bird of Paradise, Cayman Airways, from Miami, a Boeing 737-300, and am delighted to find the carrier allows two free checked bags, the exception these days. It is also the only carrier I’ve ever flown that offers rum punch on the service tray. Turns out the punch is supplied by the Tortuga Rum Cake factory, started by a former pilot, Robert Hamaty, whose son, Basil, is our captain.
As we pull to the gate at Owen Roberts Airport there is a giant green iguana on the tarmac. No ordinary airport, this. No ordinary airline. There have been dozens of airlines in the Caribbean that launched and then fell into the ocean of bankruptcies. But Cayman Airways has been around since 1968, and now serves half a dozen cities in the U.S., as well as Cuba, Jamaica, Panama and Honduras.
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