Side Order: On Grand Cayman, a castle that never saw a king — or a pirate

When we stop beside the road along Grand Cayman’s south coast to ask a local riding a bike in the rain for directions, he looks at us in bewilderment.

“Pedro St. James?” he repeats. Then his eyes light up. “Oh,” he says. “You mean the castle.”

He points back the way we’ve come. We at last find “the castle” — as in Pedro St. James Castle, a national historic site and museum — at the end of a rutted road shaded by mango and mahogany trees.

The surf pounds the shore past the modern visitors center. The scenery — razor-sharp ironwood and scraggly cactus — feels downright otherworldly. Our car is the only one in the parking lot, and we’re on a quest for history instead of duty-free rum cakes or tan lines.

Few places can claim to be the erstwhile hideout of Captain Henry Morgan, the notorious pirate of the Caribbean, as does Pedro St. James. And few islands boast as swashbuckling an ambiance as Grand Cayman — displayed in the annual Pirate Days festival in the capital of George Town, the pirate galleon straining at her dock lines in the main harbor, a pirate’s grotto-themed gift shop and a statue of a legendary ruffian named Black Dick scowling over George Town’s main square.

Grand Cayman Pedro St James National Historic Site Tourists at Great House Living Heritage Museum. (ALAMY)

Too bad that pirates never actually landed on Grand Cayman. Too bad that Morgan never actually slept in “the castle.” Too bad it isn’t even a castle.

But Tom Hubbell didn’t care.

Though the Pedro St. James Castle is one of Grand Cayman’s most important historical properties — the former plantation house is the oldest stone structure on the island, for one thing — it had fallen into ruin by the time the retired U.S. Air Force colonel bought it in the 1950s.

Hubbell flattened the roof and paved it. He built a crenulated wall around it to make the building actually look like a castle, complete with battlements. A whitewashed plastered entryway leads to a formal men’s and ladies’ double staircase that ascends to the main living area. You can still see the date etched into the plaster above the doorway. It reads 1631.

Never mind that the place wasn’t built until 1780.

But Hubbell didn’t stop there. He found some cannons and scattered them around the grounds. He collected and resurrected old furniture — the sort of bed suited to a marauding pirate dreaming of treasure. He got his hands on some swords and placed them strategically indoors. And he even distributed treasure that he claimed to have found on-site — baubles and pieces of eight.

And then he advertised the rudimentary little inn he’d created. “Captain Morgan slept here.”

Maybe the history books have it wrong. Maybe Hubbell was the first pirate to make landfall here. Nevertheless, his saga deliciously spices up the tale of Pedro St. James, which he ran until 1963. After that, it was a bar and restaurant until 1989; the government purchased the property in 1991 and reopened it as a historic site.

Staff interpreter Erdinia Welcome, a lovely Jamaican lady wearing a goldenrod bandana and a red homespun skirt, adds to the recipe.

Built with slave labor on the plantation of William Eden, the house, so much bigger than its late 18th-century neighbors that locals referred to it as “the castle,” was occupied by his descendants until the daughter of one owner was struck and killed by lightning. Haunted by the accident, the family moved out and the house ultimately fell into disrepair. That tragic incident is portrayed in the state-of-the-art theater in a 20-minute multimedia presentation, complete with blowing mechanical winds, lightning flashes and buckets of water whipped by the elements. It’s a display worthy of the Magic Kingdom.

“Some say Mary Jane’s ghost is still here,” says Erdinia. “I have seen other ghosts. Two weeks ago, I saw one.”

But no ghosts haunt the site this morning. It is, in fact, downright soporific.

We have a look around the 7 1/2 acre grounds, at bougainvillea and poinciana blossoms, at banana and mango and mahogany trees, at the gracious, refurbished great house.

Erdinia nods at the overpowering structure and gestures. “Like to see inside?” she asks.

Great sweeping verandas boast panoramic water views across the Great Lawn, past a gazebo that’s popular for concerts and weddings. The floors are polished mahogany. The ceilings boast rough-hewn timber beams and wooden peg construction. Period furniture is either contemporaneous or carefully collected reproductions. Huge louvered windows, too, boast gleaming mahogany. Even the walls in the dining room are lime-washed with a traditional oxblood color.

Nowadays, you see living history here — from the outdoor kitchen with interpreters dressed as slaves to the jail cells on the ground floor that attest to one of the place’s alter egos: It was once the island’s courthouse and jail.

You learn why this building was considered so important that the government took it over and restored it to its former glory to the tune of $7.5 million.

It was here that democracy was born on the island — the castle hosted the first legislative assembly on Grand Cayman. The Emancipation Proclamation freeing all the slaves in the British colonies was announced from its veranda on a May morning in 1835.

Here is a glimpse of Cayman history, a world away from the beaches, from the hustle of George Town — a delightful, meaningful side trip.

Even if Captain Morgan never slept here.

details

Pedro St. James National Historic Site

Pedro Castle Road

Grand Cayman

1-345-947-3329

www.pedrostjames.ky

Daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. $10, children 12 and younger free.

Stevens is a freelance travel writer based in Canada.

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