After the Storm
Grand Cayman: Come On Down, the Stingrays Are Fine
Sunday, November 21, 2004
Two weeks after one of the worst hurricanes in history made a direct hit on Grand Cayman Island, the Westin Casuarina reopened. Doormen who days before were shoveling sand and fishing pieces of roof from the pool returned to their posts in crisp white uniforms.
During the Sept. 12 assault by Ivan, employees ran through the building nailing boards across gaping wind tunnels that had been patio doors. Today, scraggly foliage offers the only hint that the Westin sits on an island that was buffeted by sustained winds of 160 mph for 12 hours and gusts of 250 mph.
Even the flora at the Westin will be fixed in a few days, when full-grown palm trees and tropical bushes airlifted from Florida complete their quarantine period and are planted.
Yet drive a half-hour or less up the road and see entire apartment complexes that were lifted from their foundations and swept across the road like dust before a broom. The scenes, set against a backdrop of pristine blue waters and glaringly white beaches, are mind-boggling. Houses collapsed into piles of rubble. Strips of metal roofing wrapped around splintered telephone poles. A chair hanging in a tree. Towering dunes created when bulldozers pushed sand from the road.
In other words, it's a mixed bag. But to my mind, there will never be a better time to visit. First of all, you'll never again find the glorious beaches of this Western Caribbean island so lightly touristed. Secondly, you'll get a warm welcome from locals who are desperate for reminders that they are not alone in the world, after all.
Seeing what was endured, and the islanders' fighting spirit to overcome, comes as a surprising bonus. Cathy Finkel, a Westin employee, exemplifies the spirit.
"Initially when people asked how we fared I'd say, 'We lost everything,' " Finkel said. "Two days later I was saying, 'We have four walls and a roof, and so we're fine.' "
Should you take my advice, you'll find that the most heavily touristed areas of Grand Cayman -- downtown George Town and the resorts along Seven Mile Beach -- suffered minimal damage compared with the southern and eastern portions. All roads are open.
Visitors were banned until this month from Grand Cayman, which suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Cruise passengers were the first allowed to visit, and when they arrived Nov. 1, the week I was there, islanders celebrated
Overnight visitors were invited back as of yesterday. Until then, the island was struggling to restore basic services to residents. Additionally, both the government and the tourism industry agreed that tourist areas should look good before visitors are invited back.
"We wanted to take our time and do it right, to resist the urge for short-term gains," said Mark Bastis, general manager of the Hyatt Regency and president of the island's tourism association. "Cayman's always been an upscale destination. We want it to remain that way, and reopen that way."
Initially, only 529 rooms of about 3,000 will be available to visitors, a figure that should grow substantially by Christmas. Resorts must pass government inspections before they can reopen, and from what I could see, those slated to open soon are truly ready. Along Seven Mile Beach, those hotels not yet open are basically dealing with mold, mildew and missing roof tiles, not devastation.