We began the day with our usual routine. Up before 7. Inna hit the gym while I walked the track on the upper deck and greeted a new dawn. It was warm and cloudy and the forecasted high was 82. THAT’S what I’m talking about!
Because we weren’t expected to land at Grand Cayman until 10, the boat was ghostly empty other than the staff in their blue and yellow flowery Hawaiian uniform shirts, always quick with the, "Morning, sir." It’s quite nice, but after a while, it starts to feel a bit like panhandling.
I noticed something curious that had jumped out at me on our first cruise. I was watching a crew of men in blue overalls, rapelling off the side of the ship to clean the windows. You can tell the maintenance people because they all wear blue overalls. And they are all Asian. Don’t ask me why. But they are. And they pretty much ignore the passengers. They aren’t rude, but they rarely make eye contact. It’s like their job is to service the boat, not the passengers. Watching them hang off the side of the moving ship I could see why they felt they were a breed apart.
We pulled into Grand Cayman right on time. We had already been alerted that the harbor at George Town is too shallow to accommodate a cruise ship – which in our case, draws about thirty feet – so we would be taking tenders to shore. Each tender could hold about 200-300 people. Dredging the harbor was not an option because of the world famous coral reefs that dot the entire harbor like a rocky patchwork quilt.
Grand Cayman is the largest of the Cayman Islands and like Cozumel it is made of limestone, not volcanic, so it’s flat as a board and incredibly narrow. From the top of the ship, I could see the ocean on the far side of the island. A fly ash landfill pile was the highest point around.
Snazzy, upscale buildings dominate the city center with many posh resorts carpeting the island’s big attraction, Seven Mile Beach. Seven Mile Beach, an uninterrupted stretch of white sand, is actually only about five miles long, but who’s counting?
There is no archaeological evidence that people occupied the place before the sixteenth century.
Columbus sailed by the islands in 1503 and named them “Las Tortugas” in honor of the sea turtles he encountered.
The first map of the area, dating back to 1523, labeled the islands Los Lagartos, meaning the large lizards. By 1530, the name had been changed to Caymanes, the Carib word for crocodile.
For the next hundred years, ships stopped at the islands for a taste of fresh meat and eventually, most of the turtles, lizards, and gators were history.
The Brits took control of the islands when they obtained Jamaica under the Treaty of Madrid in 1630, and for the next century the Caymans were embroiled in the constant power struggle for gold between Britain and Spain. Jamaicans were the first settlers in the 1700s and they shared its bounty with pirates. The Jamaicans ran the show until 1962 when Jamaica became a sovereign nation. In 1971, the Brits took over and they appoint a territorial Governor every four years. The Governor works with a somewhat fractious legislature comprised of reps from the island’s six districts, one of which is the Sister Islands of Cayman Brac and Little Cayman.
But from their inception the Caymans have been a tax haven and banking reigns supreme.
As one local described it to us when we asked him about jobs on the island, “When you go to school, you follow one of the two B’s – banking or beaching.”
There are almost 600 banks and trusts in the Caymans, representing 40 of the world’s 50 largest banks, holding assets in the billions. The islands are affectionately known as the money laundering capital of the world.
The Caymans are also considered to be one of the best places in the world to scuba dive.
There are definitely lots of things to do on Grand Cayman, and it’s so small that it’s easy and fairly inexpensive to see the sites.
Royal Caribbean was offering a myriad of excursions, most of them focused on the water and shopping.
Getting off the boat was a cluster scrum. They let the excursions leave first on the tenders, so the rest of us couldn’t disembark until noon unless we wanted to stand in long lines. The tenders look like old World War II landing craft and they docked amidships where we walked aboard for the five minute ride ashore.
Our original plan had been to catch a taxi to the north end of the island, to a place called Cemetery Beach, where the snorkeling was reputed to be outstanding. We figured we could snorkel and then walk back down the beach to the ship.
But we had gotten a much later start than we planned and had to be back by 5:30, so that didn’t leave a lot of time. That’s the problem when you haven’t booked an excursion. If you are constrained by time, you really don’t want to take chances and stray too far from the dock. And given that we would have to catch the tenders back home, and it stood to reason that everyone would be coming back in a mad rush at the end of the day, trying to squeeze every minute out of their brief stay, we were hesitant to travel too far afield.
There was a small terminal where the tender let us off and we started running the gauntlet of friendly tour guides. It was a bit overwhelming and we were joined by a throng of passengers from another cruise ship that had just pulled into town. It was hot, and loud, and we wanted to just run away from the chaotic scene. So, we headed out to the main drag in front of the terminal and started walking down the busy street that paralleled Seven Mile Beach.
Large, modern bank buildings lined the way. People were driving on the wrong side of the road. It was like a tiny tropical London.
We must have looked lost because a well-dressed young Caribbean banker asked us where we were trying to get to.
“The beach,” we replied somewhat breathlessly.
At that point a white van screeched to a halt on the side of the street, its horn blasting non-stop, and the driver waved for us to come over. Public transportation on most of the Caribbean islands consists of vans driving around relentlessly honking their horns in search of customers. You wave. They stop. And off you go.
“I take you to the best beach on the island,” promised the animated driver as we climbed into his van that was already carrying some passengers. Everyone smiled and didn’t seem to mind a few confused gringos.
A few minutes later, we pulled up in front of the Royal Palms, trying its best to look like an exclusive club and not quite pulling it off. We were met by a bored guard in a vaguely British Colonial uniform.
“Two dollars,” he said flatly.
“Two dollars,” he said flatly.
That’s all he said.
We walked by a nice pool that was closed.
There was an outdoor dining room and bar that was moderately busy in a subdued way. It was a far cry from Señor Frogs.
We headed for the fairly crowded beach, rented plastic lounges for $5 each from another bored attendant, and staked out a spot near the emerald water.
I swam around the shallows, soon realizing that the sandy beach would limit the snorkeling. But the beach scene was sweet. There were hotels and beach clubs stretching all the way down Seven Mile Beach like a postcard from paradise.
Inna had wanted to go parasailing for years and when I saw a sign advertising parasail rides at the concessions shack under a large sea grape tree I knew the time was right.
The young beach boss stared at me vacantly when I asked him if we could catch a ride, then picked up a radio and told the person on the other end that he had some customers. We paid him $140 for two.
“Wait. And they’ll come and get you,” said the beach boss who then turned his back on us before sitting down and apparently taking a nap.
We returned to the sea which was really quite refreshing and I even managed to spot the occasional translucent fish when I got away from the shore. About twenty minutes later a party barge, sporting a Wet n Wild logo beached itself nearby and the driver sat there staring at the beach, but saying nothing.
Was this our ride? And how the hell were we going to possibly get airborne in such a tub? There was no parachute sail. It was a water bus.
The barge operator finally shoved off, leaving us wondering what was going on.
The beach boss suddenly came alive and yelled over to us, “That’s your ride! Catch him before he goes.”
At this point, I was starting to wonder if everyone on the island was slightly sedated.
The driver turned out to be a very nice lad. He was essentially providing a water taxi service. All of the hotels along the beach were plugged into Wet n Wild and he would pick up the customers at each venue when called, and then shuttle them out to the sleek orange ski boat that was working a buoy course mid-beach.
After a fifteen minute putter down the coast we hopped onto the muscle boat and were greeted by Stan and Joe, two tanned Americans who looked mildly hungover and who had clearly adopted the “life is a beach” philosophy.
We were also joined by a mother and daughter team from Utah. The daughter was a dancer on the Navigator and the mother was getting a 7-day family discount cruise for $70. I’m still wondering how Royal Caribbean settled on such an odd price.
The mother and daughter went first, riding tandem, and enjoyed themselves immensely.
Joe offered to snap pictures. For $30, he would take multiple photos and then give us a scan disk in a little plastic case so we had digital copies for posterity. I’m telling you, tourism has come a long way, baby.
Rather than pay for photos, we agreed to use the girls’ camera and snap their photos if they returned the favor. The two boat boys seemed happy not to have to deal with the whole photography thing.
Inna and I went together in a canvass seat resembling the rapelling harness used by rock climbers. The wind was blowing a steady ten so getting airborne – even for a fat ass like me – was a breeze. Joe fed out the line and we were soon several hundred feet in the air, staring out over what I really must say is a pretty bland-looking island. Without any mountains or jungle, it was like looking at a long row of commercial crap. But the water was another story. The blue and green colors changed by depth and there were dark reefs scattered across the bottom of the sea like Rorschach ink blots. We sailed above the ocean for about seven minutes. To be honest, that’s all I needed. The seat harness is a tad constricting for men, if you know what I mean.
The shuttle boat driver picked us up and took us back to the Royal Palms where Larry and TC were waiting impatiently. They weren’t too enthused with the beach club, or the poor snorkeling, or the fact that the strap on the new swim mask that TC had recently purchased had broken. The beers were expensive and they wanted to beat the late afternoon rush for the tenders. So, they decided to try and walk back to the ship along the beach, and Inna and I chose to stay and hang out a bit longer.
I was already sunburned from the previous day in Cozumel, so we moved our lounge chairs under a sea grape tree next to the volleyball court. We watched some very scantily clad young men and women with European accents play volleyball in the sand and then realized they were dancers from the boat. It turned out that the Royal Palms was where the crew from the Navigator came to play if they were lucky enough to have a few hours of shore leave.
Inna and I agreed that we shouldn’t wait until the last minute before heading back to the dock because we had no idea what would happen if we didn’t catch a tender before our scheduled departure, so we packed up at 3 and started walking down the beach.
About a mile from the ship we came to a rock jetty that looked slippery as hell so we cut through the George Town Villas. The interior courtyard was landscaped with a wide assortment of gorgeous palms and flowers. Guests were arriving with their luggage while others walked their dogs. Everyone was very friendly even though there were NO TRESPASSING signs all over the place.
We came out onto West Bay Road which runs the length of the island paralleling the beach. We passed St. Matthews Medical School which looked like a converted motel and then stopped at the Dixie Cemetery where the whitewashed, above-ground coffins occupied a block of prime beachfront.
Property values are relative when you’re talking about an island at sea level. On September 11, 2004, Hurricane Ivan hit the Caymans dead on. The storm surge damaged most of the structures on the island. It was the worst hurricane to hit the Caymans in over eighty years. And that’s saying a lot for a place that gets hit with a hurricane about every three years.
And while many places on the island still show the effects of the hurricane, housing prices have definitely rebounded. Inna stopped at a real estate office and came out with a brochure.
“Look at this,” she exclaimed with disbelief. “They are asking $375,000 for a hurricane ravaged empty lot, and $3 million for a 4 bedroom house that is nothing special.”
Near the terminal we came to a small alcove of beach where there were makeshift tents lining the water’s edge.
Local fishermen were selling fresh red snapper and other local delicacies. The smell was intoxicating.
As we walked by a KFC, Inna remarked about all the trash lining the main drag. “You would think that in a place filled with so many banks, they would find the money to at least clean the main streets where most of the tourists go.”
The return trip to the ship worked like clockwork. We stepped onto the tender and it left the dock about a minute later. As we crossed the harbor dotted with sailboats at anchor we suddenly were greeted by a lunatic sailing over the water in some sort of James Bond jet pack with a long black hose. It did not look like fun and was noisy as hell, like a waterborne flying Harley.
Back on the boat, Inna headed to the room and I went straight to the pool bar for the boat drink of the day, a Grand Cayman Breeze, and listened to Caribbean Force play calypso and reggae tunes.
After the three S’s – steam, sauna and shower – I changed for dinner and then we joined Larry and TC for cocktail hour on their balcony before heading to the dining room for another outstanding meal and entertaining production of “This Is Your Dinner” by Alexander and the Kitchen Crew as Rizaldy played classical tunes on a grand piano from the landing on the gold leaf staircase.
The evening entertainment calendar was packed with fun and games: a Salvador Dali exhibition in the Art Gallery, “What’s That Rolling Stones Tune?” in the Schooner Bar, “Lovers” bingo with $300 cash prizes in the Metropolis Theatre, ballroom dancing in the Ixtapa Lounge, night time climbing on the rock wall, and a host of bands playing in the many bars scattered around the ship.
We opted for Larry and TC’s balcony, drinking our wine and catching up on our lives. There is something incredibly soothing about staring into the ocean on a moving ship at night. It is almost primeval in its enchanting mystery. You can’t help but wonder, “What would it be like to fall in?” And then you return to earth and invariably look away with a slight shudder. I find it both soothing and scary at the same time.
We ended up walking the upper deck and then heading to the Windjammer for a desert snack. Many other people had the same idea but we managed to find a fantail table overlooking the diamond sparkle ocean on a moon glow evening.
After our sugar fix we decided to check out the scene in the Cosmopolitan Jazz Club, a Jetsons-looking white space ship on Deck 14, where we drank Grand Marnier and toasted old times. By the time the Sunlight Band began their first set we were all nodding off.
“It’s funny. We sleep really well and yet we are always yawning,” remarked Larry.
“I think they pump very low concentrations of happy-happy, sleep-sleep gas into the air ducts,” I replied with a yawn.