Its distinctive shape comes into focus as it coasts languidly through tendrils of coral that whisker the seabed. Up at the surface, I wait patiently for the moment my new companion comes up for air. Suddenly it happens: two paddle-like flippers pull powerfully towards me. The world slows, I forget to breathe, and for a few stupefying seconds the hawksbill turtle and I are eye-to-eye. I take in its tapered head, bird-like beak and the intricate markings on its glossy carapace. The turtle eyes me with detached suspicion, pops its head up for a few gulps of air and disappears back down to the safety of the deep.
I’m not the first to be awestruck by the turtle-rich waters of the Cayman Islands. When Christopher Columbus sailed past in 1503, he named the uninhabited archipelago Las Tortugas due to the sheer abundance of turtles in the surrounding waters. It was those same creatures that drew in passing sailors and buccaneers, who came here in search of fresh meat for their ravenous crews. Yet it was another animal that Francis Drake reported sightings of in 1586; ‘great serpents called Caymanas, large like lizards.’ Alas, this once-thriving crocodile was hunted to extinction, but not before bequeathing its name to the islands as its legacy.
Under British rule since the 17th century, Cayman (never the Caymans) is now known more as a tax haven than marine hotspot — a place for stashing ill-gotten gains or, as John Grisham described it in his bestseller, The Firm, ‘sex, sun, rum, a little shopping’. Yet I’d heard of a wilder side — one of secret caves, endangered species and underwater marvels, and it was this aspect I hoped to uncover during a week-long island hop between the largest and liveliest island, Grand Cayman, and her petite sisters, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman.
That said, it doesn’t take long for me to succumb to tropical cliche. At the ritzy bar of the Grand Marriott on Grand Cayman, I lounge poolside between bejewelled sun-worshippers sporting itsy-bitsy bikinis and flawless nutmeg tans. Beyond spreads the West Coast’s famed Seven Mile Beach — a decadent stretch of powder-white sand, home to the island’s most luxurious resorts, where the glitterati congregate for their see-and-be-seen showdowns. I watch handsome guitarists serenading beautiful bodies against a lipstick-pink sunset, and feel only marginally guilty; it’s all quite hard to resist.
The next morning, however, beach-lounger is exchanged for hire car as I explore the little-developed North Side. The island is barely 20 miles from top to toe, but I take it slowly, Caribbean style. First comes George Town, the island’s capital, but hardly the shining financial hub I’d envisioned; more a series of colourful low-rises and gift shops huddled around a harbour. Leaving town, I join a road that hugs the shoreline and showcases the island’s subtler delights: candy-coloured bungalows on wooden stilts and locals selling coconuts along the roadside. Free-range chickens scratch along the sun-baked tarmac and every break in the vegetation reveals a stretch of dreamy coastline.
A rutted track strewn with nibbling goats leads to the starting point of the Mastic Trail. Here I meet Stuart, a National Trust guide, for a hike along this thoroughfare long used by islanders to herd cattle. Its boundaries of black mangroves and abandoned farmland bookend a slice of subtropical forest left undisturbed for some two million years, thriving in native flora. We follow a narrow boardwalk into a cocoon of thorny arches and three hours of immersive nature.
Stuart knows the woodland like his own backyard. He picks leaves that expel a peppery cinnamon scent and points out wild banana orchids — Cayman’s national flower — sprouting from mahogany trees. I learn to recognise the broad leaves of the silver thatch, an endemic palm used by early settlers for roofing, basketry and producing hardy salt water-resistant rope. “Guess what islanders named this one?” Stuart smirks, pointing to a trunk with a deep-red flaking bark. “Meet the Tourist Tree — a week on Cayman and most visitors look similar.”
Breaks in the canopy illuminate the leaf-littered forest floor with brilliant shafts of sunlight. We move at a meditative pace, the silence broken only by the strident calls of jungle birds; the mournful coo of the tropical dove drowned out by a raucous duet of parrots. Across a damp boardwalk, we strike northward through a warp and weft of twisted roots and fallen trees toppled by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
We give a wide berth to an innocuous-looking fruit tree that turns out to be a deadly manchineel, one of the world’s most poisonous. “Just brushing against its leaves will cause your skin to blister. A drop of its resin will burn your skin like acid,” Stuart warns. Soon after, we reach a limestone platform, where savagely sharp tooth-like rocks spike us underfoot, and the nearby tree trunks appear riddled with bullet holes — a sign that a yellow-bellied sapsucker (woodpecker) has declared ownership of the territory. From there, it’s on into overgrown grassland where iridescent butterflies bring welcome flashes of colour after seemingly endless green.
My morning of moderate exertion permits a pit stop at Rum Point, a sandy spot on the island’s northern tip. Legend has it the beach gained its name after barrels of rum were washed up here from a shipwreck. True to the name, wickedly potent rum punches are served from a series of colourful shacks slung across a beachfront where bathers gorge on jerk-seasoned mahi-mahi fish and sizzling conch fritters. At the Dak Shak, I order a Mud Slide, a deliciously rich blend of Kahlua, vodka and Irish Cream. Well-positioned beach hammocks encourage you to snooze away any tipsiness, lulled by lapping tides and relaxing reggae grooves.
As the sun’s heat grows merciless, I find subterranean refuge in the Crystal Caves. My guide is Azan, a local with faded tattoos and an enviable swagger, who in singsong Caymanian tones spins stories from a misspent youth spent spelunking among the stalagmites. “My parents would tell me, stay away from those caves. When they came home they’d know straight away where I’d been. That red you see on the ground — no stain remover gets that out.”
Curiously, there’s a wild fig tree over nearly every entrance to the caves, the roots of each one dangling down between the limestone fissures like prying fingers. In addition to hordes of sleeping bats, the caverns are home to a series of otherworldly sculptures; some smooth as a shell, others contorted like a grimace. I become acquainted with Azan’s favourites; the cranial-shaped Skull, the air-fisting Statue of Liberty and the silent Bell. Our last view is of an underground lake with water so pure it reflects the ceiling’s limestone spikes with crystal clarity.
Back in George Town, I learn more about the natural bounty of the island at The Brasserie — a farm-to-table restaurant that, on an island strongly reliant on imported supplies, is leading a much-needed move towards localism. I’m here for its Harvest Dinner; a shared-plate affair where 20-or-so guests dine on homegrown and locally sourced fare at communal tables. Our backdrop is an expansive conservatory lined with vegetable-sprouting raised beds, hanging herb baskets and trellises tumbling with heirloom beans. “We want to showcase what we’re producing,” chef Dean Max tells us. “Most visitors to the Caribbean never get a true taste. We’re trying to change that.” For canapes, there’s melt-in-the-mouth goats’ cheese truffles rolled in pollen and drizzled in honey from the restaurant’s own apiary. Next comes succulent roasted pig, a hearty bean stew sweetened with Cayman’s sun-kissed tomatoes and textured snapper caught on The Brasserie’s fishing boat. It seems that Cayman’s farming traditions, though largely abandoned in the 1970s, are now undergoing a renaissance. Long may it continue, I mumble between mouthfuls.
Meeting the locals
It’s little after 10am but Devan is already trying his luck. “You here with your husband, Miss? Leave him home tonight, I take you to Paradise,” he guffaws from behind mirrored lenses. I’ve met Cayman’s answer to Casanova over conch chowder at George Town’s Saturday farmers’ market — a recommendation from my previous evening’s dining companions. It’s a refreshingly local affair, replete with friendly stallholders peddling baskets of fiery scotch bonnet peppers, homemade sea-grape jams and strange barks tied in bundles. I slurp a mango smoothie from a banana-strewn breakfast truck and strike up conversation with a young girl weaving baskets from what I recognise as silver birch. “It’s an old skill,” she tells me, “my mother-in-law taught me. I’m trying to carry on the tradition.”
Many other native plants are on show in the Botanic Park along with the island’s most exotic resident: the blue iguana. Soon after arriving I spot one basking on a rock — a hefty, prehistoric beast with bloodshot eyes, curling claws and dinosaur-like spikes arching along a sagging, blue-tinted body. “They may look fearsome, but they can’t fight,” says Alberto, a guide at the Blue Iguana Recovery Program, who refers to each ‘baba’ with a father-like pride. A decade ago, there were less than 25 of these critters left on Grand Cayman, but thanks to a dedicated conservation mission there are now close to 1,000. “They’re territorial, so we know where to find them,” Alberto explains. I casually enquire exactly where this might be; I don’t fancy meeting one without warning.
On my last night on Grand Cayman, I indulge in a huge seafood feast at the Cracked Conch, enjoying its palm-thatched bar and breezy seafront setting. I skip dessert for a finale at Office in George Town — a gritty, backstreet bar where the young, fun and scantily clad gather for after-work drinks. On the outside terrace, dreadlocked dudes smoke suspiciously aromatic roll-ups to the beat of bass-heavy speakers. Inside, it’s a steamy cocktail of cultures; tourists and locals, hip-wigglers and rump-shakers, pressed together to dance until we drop.
The next day, our little plane descends towards a dusty runway, and I gaze down at a splinter of land, pancake-flat and sand-fringed. Little Cayman is aptly named; just 10 miles long and one mile wide, its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it centre consists of a strip of shop fronts, counting one grocery store, a bank open twice a week and the airport that doubles as a fire station. When I borrow a bike to explore the island, road signs give right of way to iguanas — understandable, when you consider they outnumber the island’s human population of around 200. I pass no cars on the way to Point of Sands, a perfect crescent beach backed by bowed palms, where I bathe without another soul in sight.
Checking in at Southern Cross Club, I’m slightly alarmed to learn my rustic bungalow has no room key — a testament to the island’s nonexistent crime rates. Days at the beachfront resort slip by in soporific indolence, split between swims, siestas and gazing into that azure sea. While more dynamic guests propel themselves around on paddleboards, I manage a leisurely kayak out to Owen Island, a tiny bush-tangled spit, which I comb for conch shells. Eventually I paddle back before the sun burns its way across the horizon.
Come evening, a motley bunch congregates at the hotel bar, telling tales of their day’s sightings out on the reef between lengthy slugs of rum. They’re exactly the kind of quirky castaways you’d hope to wash up on a desert island; nomads and mavericks, the sozzled and the shoeless, wayward explorers and incurable romantics pricked by the promise of paradise. Here I meet dive instructor Ed, who has shaken off his Brummie accent for a sibilant, sun-soothed purr. “Why would I want to go back to England,” he scoffs, “when my office is this sea?”
Another cloudless day breaks; early morning is Little Cayman’s magic moment. Perched on a snarl of bleached driftwood, I watch the early light blush the beach in a roseate glow. After breakfast, I join Ed and his crew for a boat ride to Bloody Bay, where pirates allegedly fought battles so fierce the waters ran red. Today, it’s one of the finest dive sites in the Caribbean, largely due to the coral reef lying just above what’s known as ‘the Wall’ — the edge of a submerged cliff that starts as shallow as 20ft before plunging to dizzying 6,000ft depths.
We leave the bay’s luminescent waters and head out to the deep. I plunge gracelessly off the boat straight into a kaleidoscope world of brilliant coral, swaying purple sea fans, and neon-yellow tube sponges, amid underwater terrain as rugged as any terrestrial precipice. Transparent jellyfish ghost alongside razor-toothed barracuda. Around a towering pinnacle, I narrowly avoid a headlong collision with a grumpy-faced grouper before getting lost in a school of stripy sergeant major fish and clouds of tiny florescent creole wrasse sparkling like confetti.
If Little Cayman is an island of beach bums and aquatic fanatics, Cayman Brac — just 15 miles away — is better suited to those with a restless streak. It’s the wildest island in the archipelago, and there’s little evidence of mass tourism. Locals are proud of their otherness, referring to themselves as Brackers, not Caymanians — the ‘Brac’ taken from the Gaelic word for bluff, referring to the 150ft-high rock sweeping across the island’s spine like a mighty limestone fortress.
The name came from the Scots who settled here in the mid-19th century, later joined by Jamaicans, Welsh and other hardy souls. Many of their ancestors remain — like Mitzi, a soft-spoken woman who traces her heritage to the first settlers. “They were deserters from Cromwell’s army,” she tells me. Together, we’re braving the island’s wind-battered lighthouse path that leads into arid scrubland littered with spiky agaves and cacti towering like giant candelabra. Finally, we reap our reward; a sighting of endangered brown boobies nesting in the cliff edges.
The next day, I find myself in Le Soleil d’Or, a boutique hideaway recently opened on the island’s south side, decidedly fanciful for rugged Brac. Its main building, awash with terracotta tiling and bougainvillea-strewn balustrades, is redolent of a European chateau. The beach club boasts a private stretch of immaculate sand adorned with massage booths and perfectly spaced parasols. But the real draw is the hotel’s 20-acre farm; an Eden of ambrosial produce that sustains the on-site restaurant. I tuck into their spoils for breakfast; an omelette cracked from freshly-laid eggs, homemade bread with sun-sweetened mango jam and an exotic dragon-fruit salad.
With the moment of my departure looming, I take a final meander along the beach. Not so far out at sea, I spot a dark shadow break the glassy surface — a turtle peeks his head out to say goodbye. There can surely be no better send-off.
Getting there & around
British Airways flies direct to Grand Cayman from Heathrow four times a week.
Average flight time: 12h.
Cayman Airways Express flies daily between the islands.
Grand Cayman is easily explored by hire car. Buses cover all districts.
When to go
Mid-May to October is hot and rainy, while it’s mild and dry from November to April.
How to do it
British Airways Holidays offers seven nights at the Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort from £1,845 per person, room-only. Includes BA flights from Heathrow.
Published in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)