Published in The Sunday Telegraph in 2011
In the beginning there were three uninhabited islands in the western Caribbean. So small and flat were they that when Christopher Columbus came across them in 1503 he didn’t trouble to go ashore. In 1670 Britain took control of the islands – by then known as Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac – and settlers began to arrive, apparently undeterred by the caimans, mosquitos and scarcity of drinking water.
So much for the history lesson. I’ve missed out the one thing most people know about the Cayman Islands: somewhere along the way they became a tax haven. Legend has it that King George III granted the islands tax-exemption status after locals rescued his son from a shipwreck – though it’s more likely that they just didn’t produce anything worth taxing.
The islands still import 90 per cent of their food and consumer goods, and their income comes mostly from tourism and financial services. All the same, the development of the biggest island, Grand Cayman, has been relatively recent. When I last visited in the Eighties, you stayed at the Holiday Inn or a dive lodge. Now there are dozens of resorts lining the gracefully arcing Seven Mile Beach (actually five and a half miles) on the island’s
There are office blocks for the offshore companies, tax-free shops for the cruise passengers, condos for the well-off and beachfront mansions for the super wealthy. There are vast supermarkets selling just about everything you can think of, including Waitrose sausage rolls. “It’s just like Miami there now,” shuddered a former inhabitant who now farms on Cayman Brac.
After a 12-hour flight from Heathrow, we picked up our hire car and drove the few miles to Seven Mile Beach. “Hmm. We’ll be OK if we need a takeaway,” observed my companion, as we passed all the usual fast-food outlets. “They weren’t here 20 years ago,” I said slightly dismayed. Nor was the traffic or the roundabouts that so perplex American visitors.
In truth, Seven Mile Beach is a tiny bit like Miami these days. From West Bay Road, which runs the length of the beach, you used to be able to see the sea. Now you can only glimpse it between the buildings, many of which bring Florida’s Spanish Revival architecture to mind.
But the similarity fades once you get beachside, the high-rise buildings behind you and the warm, turquoise sea in front of you.There’s no litter, nobody waving restaurant fliers or trying to sell you beach jewellery, and if you were to leave your camera on your sunlounger, it would still be there when you got back. Probably.Our plan was to spend a few days on Seven Mile Beach, then head for the far less-developed north shore before flying over to Little Cayman, with a day-trip to Cayman Brac, so that we could sample the four distinct Cayman experiences.
All of them, essentially, are for the keen or budding diver or snorkeller. With more than 300 marked dive sites, and an abundance of marine life in crystal-clear waters, the Cayman Islands are considered to offer the best diving and reef snorkelling in the Caribbean. There are some beautiful beaches, too, though if all you want is to lie under a palm tree with a book, there are nearer, less expensive Caribbean islands.
The first two stops on our itinerary conformed more or less to expectation – one was lively and very American, the other laid-back and, well, still fairly American. Swimming with stingrays, snorkelling, diving and kayaking through the mangroves can be done from either starting point; and between the two we found the island’s lovely Botanic Park, the sanctuary that has saved the island’s unique blue iguanas from extinction, and Pedro Castle (a house rather than a castle) – though it was no thanks to the island’s woeful road signage. “Why don’t you have a sign on the main road?” I grumbled to the assistant in the Pedro Castle gift shop.”There’s one right behind the gas station, Ma’am,” he said brightly.
We went far west to one of the world’s finest car museums, and east to a restaurant, from which it was claimed you could see the remains of that tax-exempting shipwreck (we couldn’t). In four days, on an island just 22 miles long, we used a whole tank of petrol.
Then we went to Little Cayman, where we swapped our car for rented bicycles.
Little Cayman is very small: just 10 square acres of forest, shrub land, mangrove and beach. If I tell you that the airport’s departures/arrivals lounge is a wooden bench outside the ticket office; that the school has four pupils; and that there is one church, one super-market, one liquor store and one road running all the way around the island, not all of it surfaced (yet), you will get the picture.
But it would only be half the picture because Little Cayman is inhabited by a community of around 100, spurred on by the redoubtable Gladys Howard, who runs a splendid dive resort called Pirates Point. In discreet villas scattered across the island live all sorts of interesting characters, from the glamorous former owner of a Monte Carlo nightclub to the family of the man who invented the ring pull and an American pizza magnate.
But there’s nothing fancy about Little Cayman. Here, a rich and diverse marine life means more than dollars and islanders are quick to tell you that one of its dive sites, Bloody Bay Wall, is one of the top five in the world.
A local man was once arrested for cultivating a marijuana farm (the cells don’t have plumbing so they put the farm in the jail rather than the miscreant), but nobody ever thinks to lock their doors.
We ventured briefly to Cayman Brac, known as The Brac. With a population of around 2,000, it has the feel of a busy market town next to Little Cayman’s sleepy hamlet. But like its neighbour, it appeals principally to divers with 11 sites accessible from shore.
Two charming young men from the tourist board showed us the sights but it was a stiflingly hot day, there were mosquitoes in the tour bus and we were itching to get back to Little Cayman.
For our final night we checked in to the Ritz-Carlton back on Grand Cayman. It’s the only five-star resort on the island (for now) and this being Grand Cayman, it costs an arm and a leg. Over a mango margarita ($30 for two plus service), we thought about how we would sum up the Cayman Islands.
They don’t feel Caribbean, in the way that Jamaica does; nor are they Anglo-American like the Bahamas. Anyway, each island has a different feel from the others, Little Cayman being our favourite.
In the end we settled for somewhere between the two. Then we pushed the boat out and ordered two more margaritas.
Cayman Motor Museum (864 North West Point Road; 947 7741;www.caymanmotormuseum.com). Fabulous collection of classic and vintage cars – including the original Batmobile – owned by the Norwegian shipping magnate, Andreas Ugland and curated by his former chauffeur, Peter Dryden.
The best villas
Cayman Villas has around 70 properties across the islands, including Fantasea, where we stayed, a two-bedroom/two-bathroom beach house on Cayman Kai with boat dock and pool (www.caymanvillas.com; from US$360/£233 a night until December 15).
The best hotels (Grand Cayman)
Caribbean Club £££
Luxurious serviced apartments on Seven Mile Beach, with a great Italian restaurant, Luca; breakfast is not available but there’s a mall with supermarket and coffee shop just across the road plus a grocery service (001 345 623 4500; www.caribclub.com).
The Cotton Tree £££
Four two-bedroom cottages in landscaped gardens just above the beach on the island’s northwestern tip, with outdoor spa and shared pool. Self-cater, eat out or order in. Chic and romantic (943 0700; www.caymancottontree.com).
Everything you’d expect from a five-star resort hotel. Fabulously slick service from a crack team of multinational staff. Confusing layout though, as half the resort is on the other side of West Bay Road, linked to Seven Mile Beach by a covered walkway. Special mention for waiters Ronnie and Matt in Blue restaurant who wrote us a thank-you note and for the Silver Rain Spa where treatments are followed by a glass of champagne (943 9000; www.ritzcarlton.com).
The best hotels (Little Cayman)
The Club, Little Cayman Beach Resort £££
One-, two- and three-bedroom self-catering villas run by the Little Cayman Beach Resort next door. A bit lacking in atmosphere as there’s no bar or restaurant (you can use the resort’s facilities) but very comfortable. Diving is with a local company, Reef Divers (948 1033;www.littlecayman.com).
Pirate’s Point £££
Guests arrive as strangers and leave as firm friends – with each other and with the owner, Gladys Howard, and her dedicated team. Ten charming rooms and three beach cottages. No televisions or phones in the rooms but you won’t miss either. Evenings are spent swapping stories in the bar or playing a fierce game of dominoes with Gladys. Excellent food; in-house diving and tuition (948 1010;www.piratespointresort.com).
Southern Cross Club £££
Twelve beach bungalows and one two-bedroom beach-house, with indoor and outdoor showers but no television, phone or Wi-Fi (all available in the main building) on 900ft of white coral-sand beach. In-house diving and fishing operation. Open-air dining room and bar. Laid-back and friendly (619 563 0017; www.southerncrossclub.com).
The best restaurants (Grand Cayman)
Kaibo Beach Bar and Grill £ & ££
A lovely spot on Northside. Casual beach bar & café downstairs, chic beach-lounge-style restaurant upstairs. Simple but sophisticated dishes; go for the five-course tasting menu – with or without the three paired wines and glass of rum, $85 (£55) (Water Cay Road, Northside; 947 9975).
“Native fusion” cuisine (Australian with a Caribbean twist), served on a beachside terrace. The home-made lemonade with rum is heaven (Queen’s Highway, East End; 947 2700).
Top-notch food under Eric Ripert at the Ritz-Carlton. Exemplary service; dinner only. Three-course prix-fixe menu around $100 (£65) per head without wine (Seven Mile Beach; 943 9000).