Grand Cayman: More than just a pretty face

I’m waking to the rush of waves, a floor-to-ceiling panoramic view of the Caribbean, and light rising into the sky as if controlled by a dimmer switch. This is the magic I favor.

I’m leaving this sensuous paradise today with my husband, who is, in fact, the magician who made all this appear in my life. This story is about the first stamp in our passports, a beautiful island, its people, and the living metaphor of Grand Cayman.

Welcome to the jungle. The traffic jungle. Most of the island consists of two-lane roads that hug the coast and meander like a long slithery snake. In the mix of this are countless roundabouts. If you can picture an octopus with eight arms reaching, and in some cases crossing over one another, you have a visual of what the traffic flow is like in George Town (the capital and largest city of Grand Cayman). 

As we needled through traffic, driving on the left side of the road (it’s a British territory), more than once I covered my eyes from the passenger side of the car and tried my darndest not to squeal in absolute fright. It’s a good thing my driver (husband John) maintained the calm resolve of James Bond, although I think we both could have benefitted from a stiff shot of Scotch each time we dared the drive and reached our destination.

Surely engineers did not deny themselves of a few pints while they designed such organized chaos. During our 10 days, we encountered only one traffic light on the entire island. Occasionally, people randomly stopped in the middle of the road. One chap, on a 50 mph straightaway, appeared to be rearranging items in his trunk because why would you consider pulling aside to do so?! 

“The city’s infrastructure struggles to keep up with its increase in population. Today we have about 80,000 residents compared to 10,000 in 1970,” explained a conservation officer we chatted with on Starfish Point. “There are only two seasons is Grand Cayman, hot and hotter,” he chuckled with a thick British accent, “but as you can see this isn’t a bad office view.” 

Grand Cayman images include the ever present iguanas and roosters, starfish and sunbeams over the water.

Later we learned just how culturally diverse the area is. It is home to more than 135 nationalities. We met folks from Ireland, Nicaragua, the United Kingdom, Jamaica, and coincidentally, two brothers from northern Indiana as well as a couple from Columbus, Ohio. Just maybe the world isn’t as big as it feels sometimes.

“Island time” is real on Grand Cayman. When we asked our property owner which day trash was collected, she responded, “Whenever they decide to pick it up.” Equally island-ish was the discovery that one of our Grand Cayman neighbors had a pet bull. A BIG pet bull – tethered like a dog on a leash. Perhaps it’s their version of “Go big or go home!”

Along the roads, we spotted signs that warned of iguana crossings. The blue iguanas trudge along with a John Wayne swagger as if they own the place. Equally as comical are roosters, which are more prevalent than the polka dots in Minnie Mouse’s wardrobe. And let me tell you they are not bashful at making their voices heard! And those “voices” start to crow at 4:30 in the morning!

Grand Cayman is a land of contrasts. There is bustling George Town located at the southwest “knuckle” of the island, complete with high rise hotels on beautiful Seven Mile Beach. It serves as a port for cruise ships and curious tourists. We opted to stay on the quieter northern end of the island in Old Man Bay, perhaps the best-kept secret. Waterfront mansions are scattered throughout the island as well as humble dwellings, some that appear to be abandoned with shuttered windows, but with laundry on a clothesline. 

It’s not every day you see a barbeque joint set up in someone’s front yard, but we spotted Big Tree Barbeque along a stretch near Collier Beach on the East End. There was indeed a big tree that provided a canopy of shade under which set several tables and chairs awaiting hungry guests. Close by on Queen’s Highway, and just as random, was a turquoise double-seated swing facing the sea. Across the header it read: #goodmoodswing. In case you’re wondering, it had the intended effect.

But 18 years ago (Sunday, Sept. 12, 2004), Grand Cayman sustained a Category 5 hurricane. On our flight home, we sat next to Bill, a transplant from Louisiana and local on the island for 33 years. He described the devastation and the horror of living through this storm. “It wiped out every form of vegetation on the 22-mile island. No tree was left standing. Waves rose 20 to 30 feet and consumed every inch of the flat landscape. Bodies were seen floating down roads in rivers of water and it was feared many residents had perished.

“Later, it was determined only two lost their lives in the devastation; one from flying debris and the other from drowning. The floating corpses had come from above ground graves that were demolished during the storm. Unlike some hurricanes that hit and run, Ivan stalled over the island and hovered for 72 frightening hours.”

 I asked Bill how he and his family (which included two young children at the time) survived. He paused for a minute and responded thoughtfully, “It was bad, really bad, but in desperate situations people come together and the people of Grand Cayman did that.” I heard pride for his people, as well as gratitude, manifest in every word he shared.

When we open ourselves like a shutter of a camera and get quiet, life speaks. It spoke to me in the form of hearts we found in abundance on the island, along the shore, in a sunrise, a full moon, a shooting star, and a falling meteor fireball. “Notice me,” they seemed to say. I did and am better for it.

How grand is Grand Cayman? Even if I mentioned nothing more than the pristine turquoise water, starfish, white thistle palms, conch shells, stingrays and sunshine that bathed each day – that would be enough, but there’s so much more. It’s more than just a pretty face.