TRAVEL Divers Entertainments

In the Cayman Islands not all the scenery is underwater.

What Cayman Islanders like about the United States is country music. They don’t play much calypso or reggae or salsa, but in every third native bar on Grand Cayman you can get a pretty fair rendition of “Lovesick Blues,” with a nice Caribbean lilt to the yodel. One weekend last September the most popular people on the island were a western swing band from Houston – the house was sold out a week in advance. The Caymanians’ love of C&W can be attributed to geography and a quirk of the ionosphere. The three islands, Grand Cayman, Little Cayman, and Cayman Brac, lie at the western end of the Caribbean chain, 150 miles northwest of Jamaica and 200 miles south of Cuba – too far for good radio reception from Kingston or Havana, but at night Little Rock and Nashville come in fine.

What many Americans like about the Cayman Islands are the banks. The islands’ corporation, tax, and banking laws have made them a capitalist’s paradise. Corporations are taxed but little, individuals not at all; Caymanian law requires banks to keep their customers’ transactions strictly secret. In spite of the IRS’s crackdown on tax havens in the past couple of years, Cayman’s banks are still growing – perhaps because civil disturbances in Bermuda and the Bahamas made tax evaders look around for safer deposit boxes. There are six international banks on Grand Cayman (pop. 15,000, about the size of Waxahachie).

The Caymans’ principal tourist draw is underwater. According to those who claim to know about such things, these islands offer some of the best diving in the world. There are wrecks all around Grand Cayman, and, because there’s no continental shelf, a tremendous variety of big deep-water fishes visits the coral reefs ringing all three islands. An extra attraction is the coral wall – a vertical dropoff from the reef (forty feet deep) to the ocean floor (200 feet or more). Swimming along the wall is said to be like flying along beside a high cliff – a vertiginous thrill.

The only drawbacks to diving at Grand Cayman seem to be the large numbers of divers there and the barges operated by the dive services, all of which have tape decks playing extremely loud rock & roll. Many divers consider Grand Cayman overrun, preferring to visit Cayman Brae (pop. 1500), which has only two hotels and one diving service. The big day of a week-long dive trip to Cayman Brac is an expedition to Little Cayman (permanent population 17), for what is said to be the most spectacular wall dive in the world.

The Caymans offer more than the opportunity to scuba dive and not pay taxes, but to find it requires a bit of courage and imagination. The islands’ department of tourism limits its promotional efforts to Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach, a six-mile resort strip built on what was a salt marsh 15 years ago. After a few days of hotel life, it’s time for the traveler to explore the island.

If you’ve been to the Bahamas or the Virgin Islands recently, you may feel uneasy about venturing off the tourist track. Don’t worry. The tourist brochures claim that Cayman Islanders are politically conservative and color-blind, and in almost every case it’s true. The absence of racial tension makes sense when you consider that Caymanians come in every shade from black to blond, and they all seem to be third cousins. Every other person you meet is a Bodden, a McTaggart, an Ebanks, or a Scott.

It’s easy to strike up a conversation at Welly’s Cool Spot. Egerton M. Wellington keeps a well-stocked bar and serves homemade soup, fried plantains, boiled papayas, avocadoes and tomatoes from the kitchen garden, red beans and rice, and a choice of two entrees for about $3.50. Highly recommended are Welly’s broiled fish (usually mangrove snapper) and curried goat, which is as close to being the Caymans’ national dish as anything is. Other good native restaurants are the Blue Marlin (serving salt codfish and ackee, a popular breakfast in Jamaica) and the Mango Tree Drive In. After hours, the action moves to Reynolds, open from 10 p.m. till 3 a.m. or so, depending on the liveliness of the clientele.

For fancier dining, there’s fresh spiny lobster, conch, sea turtle, snapper, and grouper; in the winter you can get game fish – marlin, wahoo, dorado, and bonefish. The best dining outside the resort hotels is at the Lobster Pot (great lobster and a better view of the sunset), Pedro’s Castle (an old fortified house reputed to have been built by pirates), and the Almond Tree (featuring sing-along entertainment and the best pina coladas in the known world).

Night life is family style. Grandmothers and 20-year-olds drink and talk at the bar (Heineken beer is the Caymans’ number one import), small children sit around the dance floor, and everybody dances – freestyle to C&W tunes. The hotels on Seven Mile Beach draw locals as well as tourists, and there are dances most weekends at the Apollo Eleven (the astronauts once visited there) and the Inferno (in the town of Hell, A.R. McDoom, prop.).

Conversation with the Caymanians is easy once you break the ice; the islanders will talk to you all night long. Just about every man on the island is much better-traveled than the average tourist. Before the banks and tourists came, the islands’ principal sources of income were postage stamps (prized by collectors) and seamen’s remittances. Caymanians are renowned for their seamanship, and most of the young men serve at least a year in the world’s merchant fleets; they seem to cherish memories of Galveston, perhaps because of the abundance of bars with Conway Twitty on the juke box.

A trip around Grand Cayman tells you why there’s a strong seafaring tradition – the islands are almost all mangrove swamp, offering little opportunity for farming. (Cayman Brac is an exception, most of the island being occupied by a limestone bluff – “Brac” is the Gaelic word for bluff.) Grand Cayman’s marshiness is especially evident in the two rainy seasons (April-June and September-November), when the evening air is clouded by mosquitoes, despite the best efforts of the petrochemical industry.

The interior of Grand Cayman is a swamp, but a scenic one. The marshes are crisscrossed with dikes, the tops of which are graded into rudimentary roads (unmarked – don’t go without a guide). The mangroves are decorated with orchids, and there’s plenty to interest butterfly-and birdwatchers. The native birds include herons, egrets, hawks, kites, and eagles; migratory birds winter there. At dawn you may see a treeful of parrots, especially if you’re exploring the South Sound or eastern district. Dawn’s the best time for a swamp tour anyway; it’s awfully sticky after nine o’clock.

A cool shady place is the longleaf pine grove (the Caymanians call them weeping willows) out South Sound road from George Town. The town of Prospect, the island’s capital in the late 1800’s, stood here; all that remains is a ten-foot-high concrete obelisk, a few foundations and “cabooses” (old ship’s-style stoves, really just small sandboxes), and a restored wattle-and-daub church. In the churchyard there are 20 graves, many marked by frangipani trees; among families that couldn’t affort headstones, it was the custom to mark a new burial with a branch from the tree over an ancestor’s grave.

Down the hill from the church is a small shallow cove, one of the principal harbors of the island until the hurricane of 1932, when it became filled with sand. (That was the most recent hurricane to do serious damage in the Caymans.) It’s a fine spot for finding seashells, especially after a storm has stirred things up a bit. Among the shells are bits of blue pottery, the remains of the cargo of a merchantman that sank in the cove a hundred years ago, and now lies buried in the sand.

There are wrecks all around Grand Cayman – many struck reefs because the island is low-lying and flat, with no distinguishing landmarks, so navigation is tricky. For this reason, and because of the Caymans’ isolation from the rest of the chain, they were a notorious pirates’ lair in the late 17th century. Among the rogues reputed to have holed up there are Edward Teach (Blackbeard), Henry Morgan, and Neal Walker. The islands’ first permanent residents were also brigands, deserters from Cromwell’s army, which had taken Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655.

The principal industry of the islands’ early days was turtle fishing. When Columbus discovered the Caymans (actually, he only sighted Cayman Brac and Little Cayman), he named them Las Tortugas, because, as his son Fernando wrote, the islands were “full of tortoises, as was the sea about, insomuch that they looked like little rocks.” The settlers captured turtles and sold them as ships’ provisions. A turtle could be kept alive on deck for weeks, and provided 30 rations of fresh meat. The turtle hunters later found a market among the rich planters of Jamaica, who thought the meat might have powers to restore tissues weakened by high living.

There are still thousands of sea turtles on Grand Cayman, but no wild ones. The islands were fished out a hundred years ago; now only a few nest at Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. (The islands were renamed in the late 16th century; Cayman is the Carib Indian name for a marine crocodile, no longer found there.) Though the wild turtles are gone, the Turtle Farm on Grand Cayman is a large-scale experiment in turtle husbandry. It was started with eggs from Surinam, Costa Rica, and Ascension Island. Though the farmers have persuaded the reptiles to breed in captivity and have worked up some interesting recipes, the project has yet to turn a profit. The deficit is reduced somewhat by guided tours of the farm and the sale of tor-toiseshell jewelry. Because sea turtles are on the endangered species list, this is one of just a few places in the world where one can buy tortoiseshell for legal importation to the U.S.

Grand Cayman is unspoiled as Caribbean paradises go, since it’s been in the tourist trade just ten years. But if you really want to get off the tourist track, Cayman Brac is nearly undeveloped, having only two hotels. The entertainment there comprises diving, exploring the caves in the limestone cliffs, and visiting the half-dozen bars and dance halls. Little Cayman makes a likely hermitage; the tourist facilities are a few guest houses and two fishing camps. The two smaller islands are ideal for a total-relaxation vacation – and you can say you were there before the tourists found them.

Getting there: Cayman Airways has flights from Miami to Grand Cayman every day, and from Houston Thursdays and Sundays. If you fly from Miami, get a window seat on the right side of the aircraft; the flight passes over Cuba, and the pilot will bank to give you a look at the Bay of Pigs. Transportation between Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac is by 30-year-old (and still FAA certified) DC-3, on Red Carpet Airways.

Tourist information and rate sheets forhotels, guest houses, and condominiumsmay be obtained from: Cayman IslandNews Bureau, Box 330106, CoconutGrove, Miami, FL 33133.


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