Fall Caribbean Issue

Caymans Confidential

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 13, 2002

Squeamish about the swarms of bugs in the shower, I go to bed in our sweltering, $75-a-night B&B with sand from Grand Cayman Island beaches still clinging to my skin.

Our night in this frayed hotel is part of our grand experiment to test accommodations at both ends of the price spectrum on Grand Cayman, one of the costliest of Caribbean islands. We'll stay in two budget properties at less than $100 a night. Then we'll take a leap to a $300-a-night resort, and see if we have three times more fun.

My notion is that accommodations will not be terribly important on a vacation to this most perfect of islands, where we'll spend most of our time on golden beaches and snorkeling in water so clear you can see a fish darting 120 feet away.

Besides, on the nights we're spending $300, we'll skimp on everything else in this pricey set of islands. But when we sleep cheap, we'll splurge some of the difference on good food, a car and side trips.

I'm betting that a room is a room is a room, and that we'll have more fun, given the splurges, at a budget property.

So here we are on sagging beds, far enough from those golden beaches that ocean breezes can't reach us. My husband keeps trying to coax a little more conditioned air from a window unit. My daughter struggles to get a single station tuned on our snowy TV and asks if we can leave early.

I try to stave off this night's depressing atmosphere by focusing on tomorrow's step in our experiment -- the luxury resort. Running through my head all evening is the theme song from TV's "The Jeffersons": "We're movin' on up . . . to a de-luxe apartment in the sky . . ."

But all that is not to say I was wrong. On yet another night, we find a perfectly acceptable motel on the sea for $75. And if I were to return to the Caymans, it would be to one of two places we found off the beaten track while driving around in search of other options: the Turtle Nest Inn, where rooms start at $89 a night and Cobalt Coast Resorts, where oceanfront rooms range from $160 to $240.

In other words, the playground of the wealthy can be within reach of the middle class.

And what a playground it is. The Caymans -- comprising Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, and located about 150 miles south of Cuba -- are the most prosperous and modern of the Caribbean islands, with good roads and medical facilities and an average household income of about $64,000 a year.

The islands boast the best diving in the Caribbean. The snorkeling is superb, the beaches glorious. Because there are no rivers or streams, there is no runoff to cloud the water. Grand Cayman is also highly favored by golfers, and it's one of the rare places on Earth where friendly stingrays freely gather like goats or puppies, eating treats from your hand.

Because the government of this British colony imposes no income, corporate, inheritance, capital gains or property taxes, the islands are a favorite tax haven. In fact, there are more registered companies on Grand Cayman than people: 59,922 vs. 37,083. Critics complain that some of the 449 banks and 115 trust companies have an unfair advantage because they aren't too picky about the source of money deposited in them.

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