GRAND CAYMAN - WHERE HEAVEN AND HELL MEET AND SEA LIFE COMES FOR LUNCH

By Pam Hobbs

It's one of those things I really don't want to do, but all around people are telling me it's great, a unique experience, not to be missed. And so I climb down the ladder and stand there - legs clamped together - as this huge cartoon-like character caresses my arm with a touch that's softer than silk. It has friends, 20 or more, and they're swimming purposefully toward me, looking for all the world like creatures from a sci-fi movie. They go right by, except for one who pauses to gently brush against me in his quest for lunch.



As a nonswimmer, I am not too thrilled to be standing waist-deep in water on a sandbar far from shore. All apprehension vanishes, though, when I'm ogled by this lingering stingray - a beautiful, velvety, steel grey-and-white creature, well over a metre across, flapping like a kite in the wind with a long thin tail wagging behind. We've been told that stingrays have no teeth and instead use suction to take in food. I gingerly extend an open palm, fingers stretched back so that my newfound friend can't vacuum them up along with the squashed piece of squid I'm holding. He sucks in the squid, neatly, efficiently, leaving my fingers intact, and goes off to join snorkellers beyond the sandbar, unmindful of my nervous squeal.

As tame and playful as underwater puppies, these guys have been hanging out with Cayman fishermen for decades. Our captain tells us that in the l960s he and his brothers used to stop here to clean their catch. As soon as the men dropped anchor, the stingrays would glide over for handouts. Now a boat trip to Stingray City is one of Grand Cayman's biggest visitor attractions.

Along with two smaller islands - Cayman Brac and Little Cayman - Grand Cayman belongs to the Cayman Islands, one of the United Kingdom's overseas territories. It sits surrounded by the turquoise waters of the western Caribbean Sea and is as perfect a winter's sun spot as I've seen. For starters, daytime temperatures usually fall somewhere within the very comfortable 70degF to 90F range. The island is clean, friendly and upbeat. Its prosperity reflects its tax-haven status. There's very little unemployment and just as little crime. In fact this is one place where you can walk a beach without being hassled. As a duty-free port, attractive George Town has shops to match the prices of any others in the Caribbean. Visitor accommodation runs the gamut from deluxe hotels to idyllic thatched cottages. And beachfront condominiums are particularly convenient for vacationing families. What's more, Air Canada's nonstop scheduled flights from Toronto make getting there really easy.

Long before the rest of us discovered this Shangri-la, Christopher Columbus sighted the two smaller islands in 1503 when he was blown off course. He named them Las Tortugas, after the many sea turtles he found there. By 1540, their name had been changed twice and Caymanas, (derived from the Carib word for marine crocodile) was finally settled on. In 1670, they officially became part of the British Empire under the Treaty of Madrid, and for almost 300 years after that were administered as a dependency of Jamaica. When Jamaica attained independence in 1962, the islands chose to remain tied to Britain (so driving is on the left, and the school system is patterned after Britain's.) Today the population of tehe three islands is 44,000, with the majority living on Grand Cayman.

On this occasion, I arrived on Grand Cayman by cruise ship, intent on having a very full day. Instantly I wished I could stay longer. Our morning tour took us past immaculately maintained homes and hotels fronting the golden Seven Mile beach, often listed among the world's Top l0. There is no litter, no hawkers and no hair braiders on this beach.

Our first stop was a breeding operation that raises turtles for release into the sea, as well as for local dinner tables. For me, the very name "turtle farm" conjured up imagines of Florida's alligator parks, where pathetic, often maimed, creatures lie listlessly on top of each other. But there was no comparison. Here we followed the life cycle of the green sea turtle, from eggs laid by huge breeders on the farm's sand beach to hatchlings and then teens and adult turtles, fed with high protein pellets to promote rapid growth. One tank held fairly small turtles which could be handled by visitors. I found it all surprisingly interesting, with attractions enough to keep me interested for at least half a day.

"Time for us all to go to hell," our driver told us cheerfully, and so we did, arriving minutes later at a small community called - you guest it - Hell. The story goes that an English commissioner was hunting in the area, shot at a bird, missed and said, "Oh hell." Now thousands of tourists every year buy and mail cards to have them postmarked "Hell."

A trip to Grand Cayman simply wouldn't be complete without a little bit of underwater exploration. Acknowledged by experts as the birthplace of recreational diving in the Caribbean, it continues to offer underwater adventures that lure divers of all levels with a wealth of exotic fish, healthy reefs and dramatic walls and shipwrecks. Marine life is unusual, if not unique, what with the tame stingrays and several species of turtles, schools of tarpon and more. The water is so clear and calm, even beginners and children are said to be accomplished divers and snorkellers following a few sessions with island instructors.

Prefer to stay dry? Easily done. A 46 passenger submarine takes visitors down 45 metres to fish-covered reefs. Two-passenger deep-diving research submersibles provide greater thrills, descending to depths of up to 600 feet. And if you don't fancy either of these, you can still see the underwater magic from a semi-submersible boat that cruises at only 150 centimetres below the sea's surface.

For cruise ship passengers, a morning tour and and afternoon visit to Stingray City are the appetizers. I have already promised myself a return for the main course - a bike ride out to the pirates' caves, a stop to watch the spectacularly showy blowholes and a long walk along Seven Mile Beach. I'll be sure to browse in George Town's boutiques, linger in the cafes and even hike the Mastic Trail through mangrove swamp, palm savannah and rocky outcroppings. Given the time, I shall hop on over to Cayman Brac to photograph some of the National Trust Reserve's emerald green parrots and perhaps to Little Cayman which I hear has whistling ducks, wild iguanas and a large colony of red-footed boobies. I doubt I'll bother with Hell next time. I'll be far too busy enjoying heaven.

For more information call (416) 485-1550 or l-800-263-5805 or visit www.caymanislands.ky and www.divecayman.ky to request colorful brochures.