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