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GEORGE TOWN, GRAND CAYMAN—“A lot of people are really nervous at first, but after a little time here, they start to get used to it,” the tattooed, laid-back former Missourian told me, her eyes hidden behind big, brown sunglasses, her hands occupied with the task of handling a giant stingray.
As we chatted, waist-deep in the warm blue water on this sandbar out in the middle of Grand Cayman’s North Sound, several of these grey monsters swirled around, brushing past our legs or bumping into our backs in search of food. Nearby, as if on cue, a woman in her 20s screamed, “Oh my god! They’re all around me!”
She almost tripped on a small male ray in her attempt to scamper away from a group of curious rays that had surrounded her. Samantha, the Missourian, has worked on this sandbar, which is known as Stingray City, and welcomes boatloads of tourists every day, for more than five years—and she has the deep, even tan to prove it. That whole unfortunate business with Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin gave all stingrays a bad name, but Samantha says that these South Atlantic Rays are definitely harmless unless you step directly on, or happen to kick, their little appendage with the stinger — and even then you won’t die, but just render you into a state of discomfort for a little while. All of a sudden, I feel stingers underfoot with every step I take.
Stingray City is just one of the unique attractions on Grand Cayman. While many Canadians seek little more than sun, sand and a great tan from their mid-winter Caribbean vacation, this place — which doesn’t have a single all-inclusive resort — offers a much different experience than most tropical destinations. Made famous in the 1980s for its tax-free offshore banking system and its starring role in popular movies like The Firm, Grand Cayman (along with its smaller sisters, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac) includes a surprising array of fascinating attractions, the perfect place for travellers who want more stimulation out of their warm-weather trip than just a thick novel and a lounge chair.
Cuisine is one significant area where the Caymans have excelled, although Vico Testori remembers a time when this wasn’t so. Attracted here from his native Italy more than 25 years ago by the bright sun and the absence of taxes, Testori owns a lovely Italian restaurant called Pappagallo’s, a quiet thatch-roofed spot tucked away on Grand Cayman’s quiet north side.
“When I got here, it was exactly like that book, Don’t Stop the Carnival,” Testori tells me, his staccato patter having apparently persisted through a quarter-century of laid-back island life. Back then, his restaurant didn’t even have a water line. Agriculture produced almost nothing, and if the boat from the mainland didn’t come on Monday, he was left without milk or fresh vegetables. “In those days, the shelves were empty. Now we have all sorts of French cheeses in the supermarket,” he says. “It’s a trade-off. In the old days people were happy with less, and life was quiet and serene. Now we have more of everything.”
But there’s more to Grand Cayman than food, a fact confirmed for me by Anthony Clarke, a young Caymanian who grew up over in Bodden Town, a small settlement on the south side of the island. With a steady hand on the wheel of the catamaran that has just taken me snorkelling at the wreck of the Kittiwake, a World War II rescue boat recently sunk to create an artificial reef, Clarke, with a pleasant island lilt, explains that, far from the glam image of big dollars and soft sand that now (quite appropriately) marks the Caymans, his grandmother has told him stories about times past when hordes of mosquitoes plagued this place, a scourge so thick smoke pots burned inside every house and cows sometimes died from breathing in too many of the insects.
Life is better now, with the mosquitoes under control and with a good degree of general wealth, coffee shops, movie theatres and other elements of modern life. “There’s always a lot going on. Plays, food events, fishing and volleyball tournaments, waterski races—there’s always something,” Clarke says. And even though Grand Cayman has become thoroughly modern, Caymanians have preserved a few of the important elements from their past, including their proud seafaring heritage. Many people here own boats, taking them to Rum Point on Sundays (“they call it ‘going to Church,’” another local told me), and the island also celebrates with a number of boat-related festivals.
Just the Facts
DOING On the north side of the island, the Cayman Turtle Centre ( www.turtle.ky) has helped revitalize the Green Sea Turtle population. You can handle juveniles and swim with older ones. At the island’s Botanic Park, endemic Blue Iguanas sun themselves in the parking lot and scurry along the garden paths. Opened just last year, the Cayman Motor Museum ( www.caymanmotormuseum.com)displays the private collection of a wealthy Norwegian shipping magnate (and part-time island resident). It showcases more than a dozen Ferraris, one of Queen Elizabeth’s earliest royal limousines and the original Batmobile.