We returned to Grand Cayman after an earlier vacation, looking for relaxation and the Caribbean sunsets. Every day is sunny, warm and breezy, comparable to perhaps 30 days all year in Tidewater Virginia. No wonder people flock here from Ohio, Canada, Germany, Poland, you name it. There are no panhandlers, no crime, no police sirens, no flies, no mosquitoes and no hassles.
Bonnie and I were there for ten days, which fell toward the end of Spring Break and before Easter Break. College kids were everywhere, and then they’d disappear for days. They are very big drinkers. Numerous families were on vacation as well.
The island lies in the Caribbean Sea 150 miles due south of Cuba, so it’s easy to get to. In our case, it was a 2-hour flight from Charlotte. I got the best quick guide to Cayman Paradise by a mariner who’s seen it all in the Caribbean.
An industrialist name Ken Dart is developing part of the island into a commercial/residential multiplex. He’s paying for an entire highway and underpass, all of this at a sort of new town by Dart Enterprises called Camana Bay, billed as a “one-of-a-kind master-planned community.”
One intriguing feature: The hurricane shutters are louvered instead of solid. In addition to looking better, the rain and wind can penetrate the windows enough to reduce interior pressure but still hold up. The last big hurricane was Ivan in 2004, which damaged or destroyed 95% of the buildings throughout the island.
We saw a family help a severely disabled young man out of a limo at Camana Bay, and it occurred to me that one sees very few handicapped space designated on the streets. The other notable feature is that everyone coming and going to work is so thin. It’s pervasive and remarkable, almost like a job requirement.
George Town is cleaned up and expansive, the natives quite friendly. Fodor’s Guide claims the island as the best in the Caribbean for personal safety, so that makes it appealing to cruise ship companies.
Boats, Ritz, Chicks
Up to six, seven and eight mammoth liners blow in overnight and are gone by dusk the next day. Poof. A passing mega-yacht worth millions looks tiny between two cruse ships.
A walking trail conveys historical points along the way, and the national museum in George Town describes the long history since 1503. That makes Jamestown’s founding date of 1607 look quaint.
Grand Cayman offers 192 things to do under Outdoor Activities in Trip Advisor. Buried within those are 67 boat cruises. Within them lie 10 sailboat cruises that parallel Let’s Go Sail. The boats here are bigger and the cruises an hour longer at four hours, but the prices are exorbitant: $750 and $800 minimum vs. my $150. I found an old catamaran for $450 a half day, but the sails looked ragged. Finally another catamaran turned up for $65 per person, but we took it last time. It motors out to a sandbar where people can jump in the North Sound to pet stingrays. On the way back, the boat is under sail but motoring quietly as well.
Much of the action is downtown and along Seven Mile Beach where all the hotels lie. As a country club rat growing up, I insinuated myself into the Ritz Carlton, where every guest room has a view of the beach. Later we had drinks and appetizers while sitting on a seaside sofa watching the sun set. Service was exquisite and we got out for a hundred bucks, without having to be a registered guest.
It occurred to us that Kingsmill Resort’s new owners could learn from the Ritz model. Instead of discriminating against the Great Unwashed, they could welcome nonmember residents with a markup on meals and services. That would still make membership worthwhile to both sides. What’s ironic is that owning a home in pretentious gated community doesn’t qualify for eating in the resort restaurants.
Why High Prices
“Of course they’re high,” said a fellow named Joe, a charter captain himself who jumped off a three-masted pirate ship named the Jolly Roger to chat.
“This is the Cayman Islands, where money is unlimited. There is no corporate tax or income tax, and no property tax either. No wonder banks and businesses flock here. I run a 65-foot schooner charter out of the BVIs, where the population is 27,000 but the number of businesses is 700,000.”
That sounds absurd, but similar ratios apply in Grand Cayman, with 40 of the world’s 50 largest banks registered. Cayman is in the BWI, or British West Indies. “Of course, these business people don’t work here and may not even know where the islands are.”
Many of those banks occupy only a small office or a post office box. Ironically, the retail side of banking is still pretty primitive. I stood in line for 20 minutes waiting for a teller to change out $20 US to CI. Turns out it was also the only bank on the island with an ATM machine.
Joe said, “The only tax is an import tax, basically on tourists. That’s why a basic burger at a restaurant costs $15 CI. I went on Airbnb to get a room here in Grand Cayman and it cost $150 a night, for a single room. There’s not a hotel on the island less than $300 a night.” I postulated $1,000 at the Ritz-Carlton and Mike said, “or higher.”
The import tax is vital because obviously everything except water comes from someplace else. When you look out at the cruise ships anchored offshore, it’s hard to fathom how many goods have to be stored on board for a ten-day cruise. Now multiply that fact exponentially to gather all the goods to sustain an entire economy.
Tucked between the cruise ships lies an unattractive barge with a weird ramp. It looked like a dredge parked there permanently. “No,” explained a beach attendant named Jason. He gave me a short tutorial on how to sustain an island economy.
“The barge is for offloading containers to take to the other two Cayman islands. Here at Grand Cayman we have room in port for the big ships to offload, but not so at the little smaller islands. At any given time, one barge is traveling to an island while the other remains to take on cargo. The empty barge goes to the George Town port for loading. When it arrives at the islands by tugboat, the ramp drops down so they can offload the containers. You rarely see them together, except maybe when they pass each other at sea.” A few days later I caught a photo of both barges offshore.
Albeit unsightly next to the sleek cruise ships, the barges are thus the most valuable boats out there. The situation would be vastly improved by building berthing facilities for the cruise ships, as Charlotte Amalie has done in St. Thomas. That has been controversial for some years, leading the government to spend $500,000 on consultants alone. One critic described the consultancy contracts as akin to giving the consultants “our wristwatch” for them to “tell us the time” for a fee.
Joe showed me a tourist guide with a crude nautical chart that disclosed the elusive reef surrounding Grand Cayman, which makes it so dangerous for sailboats. We saw precious few sailboats, most of them catamarans and only two or three sloops.
“I have to be careful with this boat,” he said of the pirate ship, “since it draws 9 feet. Catamarans do all right because they draw only a foot or so. There are some openings on the north side of the island where you can get in, but you need GPS and chart-plotter for sure. Don’t try to use paper charts because you won’t remember exactly where you are when you look at them.”
Cruising the Caribbean
Joe spent 21 years in Canada’s Navy and was once on loan to the US Navy at Indian Head, Maryland. “I lived in Woodbridge in Northern Virginia and would kayak across the Potomac to get to work in the morning. People asked me what I did when the river froze over, but it was just a skim of ice. I’m from Canada, so I’d just put on a sweat top.”
Joe now keeps his schooner in St. Martin where he will charter out of the south side after fitting out in a few months. Here he finds the Caymans delightful, like everyone else. “The cruise ship companies love it here because it’s safe and secure. No panhandlers or crime when four or six ships blow in and disgorge 10,000 passengers a day.” I’ve seen it at rush hour, and it’s a ballet of movement among a dozen tenders at a time.
“The Turtle Farm is the most popular attraction for visitors, but it’s run by the government and they continue to lose $500,000 a year on it. Can you imagine that? If you or I took a crack at it as businessmen I’m sure we’d be able to turn a profit shortly.” I suggested we might have to lay off a few turtles, and he laughed.
It was good to talk to a fellow mariner who also knew his way around Grand Cayman. He deadpanned, “I’ve been here a week.”
Lizards and Laissez Faire
All over the island we found mother hens with her baby chicks in tow. Some were just a few days old. It must be an Easter thing.
Equally populous, one finds lizards of all sizes and colors. They’re very fast and harmless, but they get might big when they evidently morph into small iguanas. A couple walked past us while watching a big one eat leaves. She said, “You know, they have a bounty of $2 on them. Bring one in and collect $2. It’s because they’re overrunning the island. In Florida they die off in the cold but here there’s nothing to kill them.” I shuddered to think of how to catch a big one.
I pointed out the aluminum cuffs on the palm trees, which are supposed to prevent lizards from reaching the top. The man said, “We were at the George Town Yacht Club where two couples were sitting at an outdoor table having lunch. Suddenly one of these creatures dropped from the top of a palm tree right onto their table. SPLAT! They were astonished.”
We saw only two dogs in ten days, and zero cats in ten days.
I went to the hotel hot tub to work on my shoulder and got into a conversation with a guy in his 40s named Brett. “I live next door at the resort there but I like to come over for the hot tub. This is one of the finest beaches in the world and the safest for children. There are no waves over six inches, no riptides, no sharks or jellyfish. We love it here.”
Brett was on a conference call using head phones. “I’m just listening. Our company is in Australia. My friends and I invented the carbon car wheel. The new Mustang and Mustang GT have them, and a car company in Great Britain signed on. The wheel is lighter and stronger than steel, providing a 4% to 6% improvement in fuel efficiency. For racing cars, it can pick up one second per lap. That’s a lot.”
Brett reiterated how expensive it is to live in the Caymans. “But it keeps out some of the Spring Break people and those looking for cheap vacations like Cancun or Costa Rica. The politicians resist the idea of ex-pats like me living here. I’m from Canada, and with my work can live anywhere. One guy called us driftwood. Can you imagine? For all the work we do to support the island economy, and he called us driftwood.”
Let’s Go Sail in Paradise