What could be better than a long weekend on a Caribbean island in mid-January? Leaving behind the sub-freezing temperatures of the urban Northeast for a condo on Seven Mile Beach in Grand Cayman? Color us there! Well, one of us.
The alarm didn't go off the morning we were to leave, but we managed to make it to LaGuardia Airport by 5:30am (for a 6 o'clock flight). The ticket agent scolded us for our late arrival as she checked my bag and looked over our E-tickets. She asked for ID, and I pushed my passport across the counter.
"Did you know this is expired?" she asked me. (Sound of screeching brakes). Now, I am a travel editor. I edit a dozen or so books a year in which there is a planning chapter with complete information about getting and renewing your passport.
"It is?" I cleverly replied. We hadn't traveled internationally in 2007. My passport expired in May.
"Well, what do you want to do?" she asked us. I pulled my folder with press materials out of my shoulder bag and handed it to my intrepid significant other. "They're expecting us," I told her. "There are tours, and meals arranged."
"The flight closes in three minutes," the agent told us.
"Go! Go!" I said. She grabbed the folder, and went. And I went home. The remainder of this story will be reported by the person who had a valid passport.
According to Frommer's Portable Cayman Islands (which I didn't have a copy of through most of the trip, because it was in our luggage, which was lost for most of my time in the Caymans) renting a condo is a good way to economize on lodgings on one of the Caribbean's higher-cost islands, and on this trip, we were hosted by the condo resort Aqua Bay Club (tel. 800/825-8703; www.aquabayclub.com).
The condos are located in a quiet area of the famous Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman. By taxi from the airport, it's about 20 minutes and CI$30 (if you can, get Cayman dollars at the airport, because while almost everyone accepts US dollars, you'll end up paying less overall if you use the local currency).
The 21-unit compound, built in 1989, is on quiet, well-kept grounds. Coconut and palm trees, hibiscus and other native plants sprout all over the property. Manager Deena Rivers and assistant manager Renda Cornwall are hands-on supervisors, and on top of the daily management of the grounds and units, quick to answer questions and respond to requests.
Each unit has the same layout, most with two full baths and two bedrooms. Nineteen are available as rentals (one bedrooms from $275-$425 per day, two bedrooms $325-$625 per day). You can also book various packages which include seven nights at Aqua Bay Club as well as activities/excursions (starting at $899 for an Escape package; $1,199 for a Dive package). Each unit is individually decorated. Ceiling fans, A/C, High-speed DSL Internet and cable TV are in each unit. The airy master bedrooms in the two-bedroom units have a sliding glass door leading to a terrace. The second bedroom is off the hallway, which leads to the full kitchen equipped with utensils, dishes and cookware. A stove/range, microwave, dishwasher, toaster and refrigerator allow guests to prepare meals as simple or fancy as they wish.
A sunken living room with a sleeper sofa is large enough to entertain comfortably. French doors open onto a screened patio, which faces the ocean, overlooking a grassy area leading to the freshwater pool and Jacuzzi. Barbeque grills are near the beach for use by guests. An onsite laundry facility is open 24/7. Management also provides a cell phone for each unit. Time on the phones (CI$10 for 10 minutes) can be purchased locally, which can save roaming costs on your own phone.
The simplest, easiest activity is steps away: grab a towel and park yourself on Seven Mile Beach. Or, you can venture a few steps further into the water to snorkel. The famous Cemetery Reef is about 50 yards offshore. Bring your own or rent your gear from many of the diving and snorkeling shops on the Island. Beach shoes (sold locally for about CI$10) are advisable, since you'll run (or walk) across dead coral and rocks near the tide line. Wear them for similar protection when you're snorkeling.
Aqua Bay isn't walking distance from a lot of things, so I mostly relied on taxis, which were reasonable, and had uniformly friendly drivers. Nice Taxi (tel. 345/777-7777) really did have the nicest ones. Ingrid proved to be my guardian angel, as she appeared from nowhere just when I needed her. She gave me her cell phone number so I could call ahead for a pickup after dinner, and for a lift to various attractions and shopping expeditions. I also shared a ride with Elvis (or perhaps a look-alike) who is alive and well on Grand Cayman Island.
Since we have turtles at home, I thought I'd visit some of their ocean-going relatives (and other Cayman creatures) at Boatswains Beach (825 Northwest Point Road, West Bay Grand Cayman; tel. 345/949-3894; www.boatswainsbeach.ky). Both animal park and breeding farm, the compound provides a solution to years of hunting, poaching, and stealing green sea turtle eggs and mature turtles that brought the species to the brink of extinction. In addition to the animal displays and breeding program, the program provides meat for local markets as well as releasing turtles into the wild. Guests can tour the farm, visiting tanks of turtles at different stages of development including The Breeding Pond where you can see turtles weighing up to 600 pounds and over 70 years old.
Touch Tanks allow visitors to hold yearling turtles, which are about the size of a full-grown cat. The farm also has a walk-through aviarywhich has many native birds. Next to the Aviary is the Iguana Exhibit with indigenous Blue and Gray Rock Iguanas. The Butterfly Farm opens at 9 am and offers visitors a chance to mingle with the fluttering beauties. Early morning visitors may witness new butterflies emerge from their cocoons. The area is a peaceful setting of tropical plants and ponds.
The largest swimming pool (1.3 million gallons) in the Cayman Islands is at the turtle farm; it's called Breaker's Lagoon, and two waterfalls cascade over mossy rocks allowing swimmers to relax and stay cool in the water. Snorkeling is also available at Boatswain's Lagoon where a synthetic reef system supports various colorful marine life. Visitors can come to face to face with sharks or moray eels (via underwater viewing panels!) on the Predator Reef, which can also be viewed from the safety of land.
Shoreline Nursery, a reef-like home to juveniles and small adult marine life serves as a safe-haven for individual fish that suffer from disabilities that would prevent them from surviving in the wild. The Education Center provides information to visitors about turtle breeding and egg incubation. Approximately 45,000 eggs are incubated each year.
A tour of the turtle farm is is US$18 for adults and US$9 for children ages 4-12. Use of the entire park (including lagoons, pools, and other animal exhibits) is US$55 for Adults and US$25 for children ages 4-12.
We don't have any stingrays at home, but I still wanted to swim with them. Oh Boy Charters (tel. 345/949-6341; www.ohboycharters.com) picked me up from Aqua Bay, and we headed out on a motorboat to a sandbar where the 'rays congregate, much to the delight of visitors. Snorkeling equipment is provided. The crew will help you on and off the boat on the sandbar, where you are surrounded by the graceful creatures, which look as though they are flying in the water. They'll "kiss" you, and if you kiss one of them, it's supposed to be good luck. In addition to frolicking with the rays, the boat also stops off at Coral Gardens, where you can continue to snorkel and observe the beautiful underwater life. The whole trip, including pickup, costs US$39 for adults, and $27.50 for children 4-11, and from start to finish lasts a bit over 3 hours; you can also book a full-day tour, with a beach lunch and conch dive.
While the fridge in the condo proved to be a real money saver (I mostly ate fruit, cereal, and sandwiches for breakfast and lunch), I did get out for a couple of dinners at local restaurants. At Casanova's (2828 Old Fort Building, Georgetown; tel. 345/949-7633; www.casanova.ky) a Cayman favorite, owned and run by the Crescente family, the chef uses the abundant local seafood in traditional Italian cuisine. For a starter you might try a ceviche of fresh conch marinated in a zesty pimento sauce with chopped onions, tomatoes, and green olives. Pastas include a penne with fresh lobster, and among the mains, keep an eye out for the Fresh center-cut yellow fin tuna in light oregano sauce on a bed of orange-seaweed salad. Casanova's is open for lunch Mon-Sat 11:30am-2:30pm and Dinner Mon-Sun 6-10pm. Main courses at dinner run around CI$13-CI$28 (US$16-US$35). There's an excellent international wine list as well.
I also had a fine dinner at the Reef Grill (West Bay Road, Seven Mile Beach; tel. 345/945-6358; www.reefgrill.com). Styled a "beach bar," it's one of the best restaurants on the island. You can dine indoors, or go for a more casual feel out on the garden patio, or on the terrace overlooking the ocean. Wherever you sit, there's an excellent menu, ranging from sandwiches/salads/pizzas at lunch (a grilled mahi-mahi sandwich with jerk mayo; a calamari hot fry with jalapeno aioli) to a more complex dinner menu (Caribbean lobster risotto with coconut reduction; honey soy glazed sea bass with basmati rice and red Thai curry). Reservations are recommended. Mains will range around CI$17-CI$32 (US$21-US$40).
My clothes arrived Monday, and it was time to return Tuesday, sunburnt and relaxed. The one of us who stayed home spent the weekend getting new passport pictures and sending in her passport renewal form (expedited!). Next time, she will not miss the kissing manta rays and grilled mahi-mahi for want of current identification.
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