Terrific for turtles

Published in The Daily Mail (18th January, 2015)

The Queen’s portrait is on display in the airport, but it feels like arriving in Florida with joggers pounding pavements, jeeps on the roads and dollars in the shops.

Then there is the Cayman Islands’ reputation as a haven for hot money – not the most obvious incentive for tourists – and its eagerness to hold huge corporate conventions.

But when I ask my Surrey-born diving instructor if he misses Britain, I realise it is a daft question as soon as I say it. After all, it is mid-December and we have just surfaced from a superb dive in warm coral-rich waters. Now the sun is beating down on our backs as we bounce back in the boat towards a perfect tropical beach.

Darrin simply smiles: ‘What do you think?’

‘It’s not cheap,’ the former IT worker adds. ‘But it is beautiful and you can walk down the street at night without looking over your shoulder unlike Barbados or Jamaica.’

Tell people you are going on holiday to the Cayman Islands and invariably they joke about stashing ill-gotten gains, since this trio of islands 150 miles south of Cuba is so much better-known as a tax haven than for tourism.

When my wife and I land on Grand Cayman, the biggest island, one of the first things we notice is the business buzz. Our hotel – one of those huge places with ceaseless activities and bar-stools in the pool – is packed with boisterous Americans attending a giant insurance convention.

But looks can be deceptive. For the Westin has some of the best hotel food I have tasted in the Caribbean. And the islands turn out to be a terrific holiday destination.

Diving is the main attraction, with several fine wrecks dotted around the waters. There are scores of rock tunnels to swim through and deep walls close to the shore line which – draped in coral – ensure a constantly-changing kaleidoscope of marine life.

I glide through clouds of silvery jacks, stroke a giant grouper who follows me around and eyeball fearsomely-big barracuda with menacing looks on their fang-laden faces.

Then there is ‘Stingray City’, where creatures the size of small tables congregate on shallow sandbars at the sound of boat engines.

In the past these rays swarmed to scavenge when fishermen cleaned nets; now they are lured deliberately with squid so that snorkelers can caress them.

‘You hold them like a pizza box with two hands underneath,’ says one guide. ‘It feels like stroking a wet portobello mushroom.’.

But my favourites are the geeky-looking Hawksbill Turtles, which although endangered seem plentiful in these waters.

I encounter five on one dive alone. They appear unconcerned as I swim alongside while they forage, admiring their striking shells and sharp beaks.

The elegant reptiles were also admired by Christopher Columbus, who was the first Western visitor here on his final voyage five centuries ago. He even named the islands ‘Las Tortugas’ in their honour, claiming there were so many he could use them as stepping stones to the shore.

Later, the archipelago was re-named after its crocodiles. These have since disappeared, but the Caymans still claim more species of flora and fauna than the Galapagos Islands.

Certainly, it is the only place I have seen signs giving iguanas right of way on the roads.

The most precious of these quasi-dragons is the Blue Iguana, an endemic species growing up to five feet long.

A decade ago there were only a dozen survivors, but an intensive breeding programme has boosted numbers back to over 1000. Although not the most beautiful beasts, they are mostly quite friendly.

‘I love these guys, I really love them,’ says Alberto, the enthusiastic guide who shows us round their pens at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park.

Another day we walk the Mastic Trail, a lovely little hike through Grand Cayman’s ancient interior forest filled with woodpeckers, parrots and tree frogs hiding in holes of the creeper-clad trees.

Then, after plates of sizzling jerk chicken at a cafe hanging over the water’s edge, it is back to an afternoon lazing on Seven Mile Beach. Despite the name, this crescent of sand is actually 5.5 miles long and also the island’s main drag, lined with smart hotels, small shopping malls and restaurants.

As dusk falls, I float in the sea watching a giant cruise ship ablaze with lights. It slips over the horizon under an emerging full moon.

Later we drive down the road to Heritage Kitchen, a tiny shack hidden away on the front serving conch fritters and fried wahoo served with coconut, hot spice, rice and peas. The meal was simple and sublime.

Next day we hop on a tiny plane over to Little Cayman, a slip of a place home to about 170 people. A local provides a lift to our pastel-painted hotel, joking that it is rush hour when we pass another vehicle.

We take to the road ourselves,  hiring mopeds to chug around the ten-mile island, carefully avoiding the iguana sprawled on the tarmac as instructed by the signs. At Point of Sand on the northern tip, we swim and soak up the last of the sun.

Then it is time for the chickens to be cleared from the island’s runway and our return to reality.

Categorised in: