12:41 EST, 31 August 2013
12:41 EST, 31 August 2013
When I told friends that I had spent my 60th birthday learning to scuba dive in the Cayman Islands, most of them said: ‘Oh, stashing your offshore millions there, were you?’ Sadly not – I’m still waiting for the call from Hollywood.
No, we’d come for what lies beside, on and under the ocean. The coral reef is a magical place – another world that is endlessly fascinating and beautiful. Now that I have kissed a stingray, swum with my hand touching a grouper fish as though it were a puppy, and been circled by massive reef sharks without panicking (too much), my relationship with the sea has altered completely.
In at the deep end: The amazingly coloured reef off Grand Cayman
Qualifying as an open water diver has been a life-changing experience. If, like me, you’ve only ever been snorkelling in the Mediterranean and are bored by barren rock, then learn to dive. A new world awaits that no amount of watching David Attenborough films can replicate. It’s not difficult – two evenings spent in a pool in the UK before your trip, a comprehensive online learning guide, then four dives in two days at the resort of your choice (mine was at Dive Tech on Grand Cayman).
The PADI course is designed to be friendly and inclusive, and my fears about being too old, overweight and untanned were unfounded as all the Americans I dived with (or ‘dove’ as they insisted on calling it) were far older, fatter and paler than me.
The Cayman Islands – Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac – lie northwest of Jamaica and south of Cuba. Claimed by Britain in the mid-1600s, they were part of the colony of Jamaica until 1962, when they became a separate Crown Colony. The Cayman accent is charming – a soft American with a hint of Caribbean, the British influence manifesting itself otherwise only in driving on the left and introducing mini-roundabouts.
Lounging lizard: You’ll find the blue iguana on the Cayman Islands
While the visitors are mostly roundabout-averse Americans, a lot of the services are run by expat Brits, most of whom came for a holiday here and never went home. There’s a reason for this: the diving is world-class, the climate fabulous, the food terrific, the crime rate low, and the islanders are about the most friendly and welcoming people you could wish to meet.
While I was discovering a new underwater world, my wife Judy was finding out what there was to do for non-divers. We had both been working pretty hard, and could have happily spent the whole holiday strolling along Grand Cayman’s blissful Seven Mile Beach or relaxing at our three-bedroom apartment at the Caribbean Club (the couple in a nearby apartment stepped out on to the beach one day and got married, with the deep blue sea and setting sun as their altar). Judy could have tried out any of the other water-based activities – kitesurfing, water-skiing, snorkelling, kayaking.
She could even have donned a jetpack and flown above the water à la James Bond in Thunderball, but being a more land-based creature, she took me horse-riding instead. While Judy’s mount was sedate and well-behaved, mine decided to head into the sea, leaving me hanging on to the mane. It wasn’t a problem – cantering back along the beach after our little detour, I dried off in no time.
Shopper’s paradise: The newly-built Camana Bay mall
Later that day, while I drooled over the original Batmobile at the island’s Motor Museum, Judy took a nature tour with the doughty and extremely knowledgeable Ann Stafford and met blue iguanas at the QE2 Botanic Park. We both went kayaking at night among the natural bioluminescence of the undersea plants and creatures off Rum Point, and afterwards dined like royalty on the huge seaside terrace at the Grand Old House. The food was spectacular and the wine list the length of a short novel. It’s not often that towns get built from scratch, but that’s what’s happening at Camana Bay near Seven Mile Beach.
Officials grew the trees first, then built the town around them. There are shops, restaurants, art galleries, cinemas, homes and offices but the only traffic is from bicycles. From the harbour at Camana Bay, we boarded a motor launch that took us to Stingray City. I was quietly hoping for an underwater Supermarionation- type secret base, but it’s actually a shallow sandbank where, for generations, stingrays have congregated to feed on scraps discarded by fishermen returning to port. Standing waist-deep in the lagoon, huge stingrays swarm around you and like to be cuddled. If you kiss one for two seconds, you’re supposed to get seven years’ good luck. I was snogging away like crazy so I’m expecting a lottery win imminently.
Puckering up: A smooch with a stingray is said to bring seven years’ good luck
Boy did we eat well during our stay. On our first evening, we had the freshest of tuna steaks on a wooden terrace at the Calypso Grill at West Bay while water lapped beneath our newly-bared feet. We also tried lionfish, which are a real problem for the reef as they aren’t native to the area and have no natural predator. On the plus side, they taste great and there are plenty of them. You can get lessons on how to prepare them from the delightful Jen at the Greenhouse Cafe, while watching the divers coming out of the water, catch in hand.
Gateway to Cayman heaven: The marina and jetty at Camana Bay Marina
At another lazy lunch, we supped mojitos with owner Jane at Morgan’s Harbour, and watched as the barracuda for that night’s menu was brought from the boat to the kitchen. After our stay on Grand Cayman, we flew to Little Cayman. It’s like taking a journey back in time – after landing in a light aircraft on the tiny airstrip of what felt like our own private island, we walked straight to the waiting car and headed to the Southern Cross Club, whose motto is ‘Barefoot Elegance’ – if you’re wearing shoes, you’re overdressed. It’s also the first place we’d ever been where you don’t need a key for your room.
The rooms do not have locks – crime
doesn’t exist here. I say room – it was a sweet little bungalow just a
few minutes’ walk from the beach and the jetty where the dive boat waits
to take you off every morning. You really don’t need to leave the
Southern Cross Club. Although there is a market on the island and a
couple of tourist shops, that’s not really what you’re here for.
only stepped outside to experience the Hungry Iguana restaurant, where
the lionfish ceviche and conch fritters were outstanding. We both loved
the laid-back but efficient service at the Southern Cross, expat Brits
displaying saintly patience with the more pernickety guests. Meanwhile
the Americans I ‘dove’ with were a wonderfully eclectic bunch – a
firefighting gal and her mom from Virginia, Jack Nicklaus’s landscape
gardener, and a feisty New York agent with her softly-spoken, punk band
playin’ man with the coolest name in the game – Rusty Pistachio.
About the only thing Judy and I didn’t try was fishing. I spent what was probably the most boring day of my life when I was 12 with a child’s fishing rod (free from Weetabix) catching nothing by the canal in Berkhamsted, and I think it scarred me for life. But if you’re into it, or want to learn, this is the place to come. Here you can complete that rarest of feats – a ‘Flats Slam’ – bonefish, permit and tarpon in one day. Yup, means nothing to me either, but there were anglers around us in raptures so I guess it’s special.
Up close: Tim’s unforgettable time swimming with stingrays in the Caymans
We Brits have all stood on a freezing cold station platform at some point and stared longingly at posters advertising paradise islands. Well, for me, this was the realisation of that dream: swinging in a hammock, looking out at fishermen on the deep blue lagoon, listening to the wind in the palm trees under a blanket of stars – sights, sounds and smells that haven’t changed for millennia. Care is taken to ensure that it always stays that way – a research centre on the island teaches children about the fragility of the undersea eco-system, and visitors are asked to ‘take only memories, leave only footprints’.
My 60th birthday lasted the whole 12 days. That’s a memory I’ll cherish forever.
For further information on the Cayman Islands visit caymanislands.co.uk or call 020 7491 7771. Oyster Diving (oysterdivingholidays.com, 0800 699 0243) offers snorkelling and diving holidays to the islands. A ten-night holiday including five nights on Grand Cayman and five nights at the Southern Cross Club on Little Cayman costs from £1,490pp.
The price includes return flights from Heathrow with British Airways, inter-island flights and transfers. Oyster Diving can arrange for you to take your PADI Open Water Referral Course before departure from the UK from £470. Alternatively, book a trial dive in the Cayman Islands for £110.
The comments below have not been moderated.
-AnEnglishwoman, —- I’m not quite sure why you got down ticked because it is true. Anyway, I checked Expedia and Cayman Islands is too expensive, but St. Maarten is good enough for me! Woohoo! o/
I’m going to check Expedia rates right now! I need a break…
Remember Steve Urwin, he got too friendly with a sting ray and got a barb in the heart for his trouble.
Lived there for four years and loved it!