A fact sheet from the Cayman Islands News Bureau states that restaurants are "generally good with a number of gourmet establishments."
Although the word "gourmet" is often too freely bandied about in the Caribbean (except at a few top resorts) and although I did not have an opportunity to eat around widely, there are a handful of excellent restaurants on Grand Cayman (the Grand Old House is one example). And certainly the first part of the Cayman quote is broadly valid.
While the food at the "Chez Jacques" dining room in the Grand Caymanian Holiday Inn, where I stayed, does not represent the tops in Cayman cuisine, it was definitely of high quality.
The following is a sampling of items on the breakfast, luncheon and dinner menus at the hotel, still one of the best on Seven Mile Beach despite the criticisms in my first article (which appeared Jan. 20). The first two meals are served in the coffee shop, which is also open for dinner. Only supper is served in "Chez Jacques." All prices are in C.I. ($1 C.I. is worth $1.20 U.S.).
For breakfast, there was watery orange juice (small glass, 60 cents); a delicious slice of pineapple (90 cents); dry cereal (95 cents); one egg with toast ($1.10); western omelette with toast ($2.75); milk (55 cents). If you eat a hearty breakfast, it's easy to spend $4 C.I.
For lunch, fresh conch chowder (bowl, $1.30); fresh fruit platter with cottage cheese or ice cream ($3.25); hamburger with french fries ($2.75); sirloin steak with fries ($6); turtle steak with french fries and onions ($4.25). Service in the coffee shop was willing but very casual, and as the place filled up, delays were encountered.
Dinner could begin perhaps with snails in garlic butter and Burgundy wine ($3), or seafood baked and glazed in white wine, cream and tomatoes (3.25), or clear green turtle soup with sherry (cup, $1.75). Caesar salad was $4.50. Each day "la specialite du chef" was listed as one of the numerous entrees, such as rack of lamb, fillet of Dover sole and breast of chicken, for between $11 and $14. You could also choose fillet of fresh red snapper enclosed in foil and oven-baked ($11), lobster poached in white wine sauce, herbs and garden vegetables ($14), or native turtle stewed with vegetables spiked with rum and coconut milk ($9), which turned out to be rather tough the evening one of my family tried it.
The pastries and cakes are baked on the premises and were delicious. There's no live music while dining, but Barefoot Man and his combo sing and play good country/rockcalypso in the lounge (no cover for hotel guests).
Obviously, it takes little effort, after a day of inhaling fresh sea air, to spend $17 and up for dinner, depending on your tastes in liquor. Add that to breakfast and lunch (unless you skip breakfast and eat only a hamburger at lunchtime), and one person's daily bill for meals can run a minumum of $30 C.I. or $36 U.S., plus an automatic 15 percent service charge. Not exorbitant if one is accustomed to eating out in Washington, but it can swiftly contribute to a family's astronomical hotel bill after a week or more in the Caribbean "high season." Be sure to save a little cash to pay the departure tax at the airport, which has just been raised 33 percent to $4 U.S. per person.
Though water was never served in the coffee shop unless requested (as on most islands, fresh water is not wasted), glasses were kept full in the dining room, where service was always attentive. The Grand Caymanian operates its own desalinization plant, but also buys water when needed from the Cayman Water Company's plant. The island does not have either a public water supply or sewerage system. Buildings also use water from wells, or cisterns that collect rainwater from roofs.
Health conditions in the Caymans are very good and the major problem appears to be "a high incidence of genetic disorders," according to the "Cayman Islands Handbook and Businessman's Guide," a very informative paperback published annually by The Northwester Co. Ltd. (P.O. Box 243, Grand Cayman, B.W.I., $15 U.S., including airmail postage).
A research program, assisted by the Pan American World Health Organization and a professor of pediatrics from Columbia University, has resulted in plans "for clinics in genetic counseling and family planning in an effort to reduce the incidence of inherited diseases."
These illnesses do not affect the tourist, since they involve defects in sight and hearing, hemophilia, sickle cell anemia and mental retardation -- disorders that have resulted "from the interrelationships between closely-related families in a small society over some generations." And it is this "small society," its history, its present and its future, that has created such a unique Caribbean travel and business destination.
How do these islands evolve and who are the people of the Caymans?
Though the Caymans were not really put on the map until discovered by bankers and businessmen just 10 years ago. Columbus sighted the two smaller islands in 1503, noted the large number of turtles and called the land "Las Tortugas." Later the name on charts became Caymanas, derived from the Carib Indian term for the crocodile family and most likely referring to the iguanas abounding at that time. Oliver Cromwell's army captured Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, and the first settlers of the Caymans may have been deserters from that force.
Famous buccaneers, including Blackbeard and Henry Morgan, were visitors as pirate ships anchored in the Caymans to take on provisions of turtle meat and eggs. Later came shipwrecked sailors, slaves, debtors and even some stubborn souls from the Spanish Inquisition. In 1670, Spain ceded the Caymans to the British, along with Jamaica and they were formally annexed to Jamaica in 1863. The Caymans severed the last ties with Jamaica after that island became independent in 1962. One of the vanishing breed of British crown colonies (the postal address is the British West Indies), it is now guided by a governor appointed by the queen, an executive council and an elected legislature.
Caymanians are proud to be a "colony," as the "Handbook" explains, and are "determined to remain so despite well-intentioned, perhaps naive, pressure to the contrary from such bodies as the United Nations . . . While other tax havens and islands in the Caribbean have sought and achieved self-determination, which seems unfortunately to have led almost automatically to internal unrest and severe double about their economic and political stability, the Cayman Islands have expressed little interest in independence . . ." There are no political parties.
In 1975, a member of the Legislative Assembly told me that "mix is very important to us." He was referring to a proposed tourism development plan that would consider factors such as land use, population growth, accommodations for residents and tourists, and the mix between residents and visitors.
One important figure mentioned was "60 percent indigenous versus 40 percent who come to live and work here." Another figure that may relate to the peaceful atmosphere of these islands involves the approximate current racial breakdown: about 60 percent mixed, 20 percent white and 20 percent black. Apparently no racial discrimination exists, and there is a small, racially mixed elite social circle. Historically a seafaring nation whose original settlers just happened to drop in, the Caymans make no claim to an original culture. But the people are no less proud of their heritage.
While these factors are certainly of interest to thoughtful tourists who seek a restful, uncomplicated vacation in the sun, they are even more significant to the businessman and potential investor. Thus I was not surprised to find that the "Handbook," which is not an official publication but nevertheless carries forewords by the current governor and the financial secretary, takes a backhand swipe at some other Caribbean areas without naming any. It attributes to Caymanians "a greater sense of responsibility" and notes that "the lack of poverty, close family ties and the lack of tension also means that crime is not a problem in the islands." The people "look to the United States as a model."
Of equal significance to businessmen is the total lack of taxation. There is no income tax, no corporate tax, no capital gains tax, no tax on profits of any kind, no real estate tax and no death or inheritance taxes. The only personal tax collected is an annual head tax of $18 "on every resident male" over 18 and under 60.
Only three groups have unions, or something comparable the taxi drivers, the seamen (who work primarily outside the islands) and the civil servants, whose organization just threatened the government with a slowdown and won a higher cost-of-living settlement.
But, as is usually the case with every paradise, Cayman is not totally without problems. Most of them are growing pains, and the power structure eagerly seeks the prosperity that growth is bringing while striving to avoid the point of diminished returns.
The cost of living is very high even by British and U.S. standards, since almost everything must be imported (mostly from the United States), while the standard of living is perhaps the highest of any Caribbean area. Yet substandard housing exists, there is a lack of certain sanitary facilities and some residents are unemployable due primarily to age or infirmity, an official confirmed. But, I was told, when the government recently conducted a survey to determine how many residents were eligible for welfare assistance (the requirement was that a person be employable but without a job), there were only eight applications out of a population of almost 17,000.
Along with prosperity came a slight increase in serious crime, and illegal drugs remain the primary focus of police action, along with minor assaults and petty theft.
A government official explained that Cayman is still able to restrict the influx of unskilled labor, thus avoiding one source of possible friction in paradise. Skilled managerial types have no problem getting work permits if there are positions that Caymanians cannot fill, I was told. A local newspaper, "The Cayman Times," recently carried a paid notice about an educational program designed to help Caymanians prepare for jobs in tourism. But if business growth continues and requires an additional major leap in building, the need for unskilled workers may require importation -- and that is a cause of some concern, the official indicated. The islands are now in the midst of what has been called the greatest construction boom in their history.
If you're thinking about retiring to the Caymans, the government welcomes older immigrants, those with sufficient cash reserves who build homes in the islands, since they do not need to work and will not take jobs away from the native residents. Cayman law is quite precise about who is permitted to work, and the government obviously does not intend to allow immigration to destroy the islands' stability and prosperity.
The long-term effects of land speculation, the growth of international banking and the role of expanding tourism are unknown factors to some extent. In order to accommodate the growing number of visitors, officials frankly discuss the hope that investors will decide soon to build a major new hotel of between 200 and 300 rooms. Many of those visitors are not tourists, but businessmen attracted by the continuing spurt in commerce and finance. "Off-shore companies" is another name of the game. Beachfront lots sell for tens of thousands of dollars, and condos are going for anywhere from roughly $60,000 to $150,000 and more.
Since there is no taxation, the government collects its revenues from duties on most imports (about 37 percent of 1978 revenues); postage stamps (the 1979 estimate was 13 percent); and more than 26 percent from registration of companies and licensing fees for banks and trust companies. A good part of the balance comes from taxes related to tourism. Income is also received in the form of royalties earned from the transhipment of foreign oil in deep Cayman waters from large supertankers to smaller tankers that can enter shallower U.S. harbors. There is even hope that eventually a refinery will be built here after the current international crisis cools down.
Many U.S. firms seek to use Cayman as a "tax haven," but this does not infer tax evasion or other illegal activities by reputable groups. The "Handbook" points out that the islands passed a law in 1976 which "renders the trading and misuse of confidential information, now prevalent throughout the world, a criminal offense if committed in the islands and even if committed outside the islands." Last fall that law was tightened further. And Financial Secretary V.G. Johnson has stated in a budget message: "Those who are conducting offshore business must ensure that their acitivities abroad do not infringe regulations of other jurisdictions.It should be made clear that a tax offense in other countries is not an offense in the Cayman Islands."
Potential investors should seek competent advice and should be aware that tax havens such as the Cayman Islands offer secrecy but not depositors' insurance -- so if you put money in a bank that subsequently closes for any reason, there's no guarantee you'll get anything back.
Finally, let's take a look at those turtles mentioned earlier.
The Cayman Turtle Farm Ltd., perhaps the only sightseeing "attraction" in the islands, bills itself (correctly) as the "world's only sea turtle farm" with "over 50,000 turtles on view from 6 oz. to 600 lbs." It advertises "a wide range of turtle products" which include shell jewelry, shells, bath oil, soap and leather products. It also processes turtle meat.
But last May 29, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed a challenge by the farm and upheld federal regulations that ban the importation into the United States of all sea turtle products under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. This cut off the Cayman firm's major market.
The farm has appealed. It is a multi-million-dollar international consortium whose principal owners are West German gynecologist and inventor Judith Mittag and her husband, Hans, an international lawyer. It is also, in my opinion, not worth the $3 (U.S.) admission charge, since all the visitor is permitted to see are tanks full of turtles and the gift shop -- the laboratories (and slaughterhouses) are off limits.
A farm-connected gift shop in George Town also carries jewelry made from turtle products -- some of it very beautiful, and a clerk admitted that business was bad. She also shrugged in answer to a question and said it was up to me if I wanted to buy something, "put it in your pocket" and take a chance walking past U.S. Customs. I replied that only a fool plays games with Customs or the Internal Revenue Service, both of which are interested in the Caymans for different reasons. Unless you specifically ask, you probably will not learn at either gift shop that importation into the United States is now illegal. "(That includes turtle products purchased in other countries besides the Caymans.)
Incidentally, the farm surprised experts who had predicted some years ago that it would never succeed in raising green sea turtles, and maintains that since 1978 it has been entirely self-sufficient and no longer takes turtle eggs from the wild. Females lay their eggs on man-made beaches within the compound. The farm claims in its current appeal that its turtles are domesticated animals, not wild animals, and such should be exempt from the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District is expected to rule on the case later this year.
The Department of Interior and the Environmental Defense Fund had included argumetns in the U.S. District Court case that the evidence proves farming is responsible for increasing demand for products of endangered species, and this encourages further exploitation and decimation of the wild sea turtle population. Concerned scientists say many species of sea turtle are vanishing, and some countries which signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species continue to slaughter tens of thousands of turtles annually.
Another possible legal skirmish on the Cayman Islands does not involve endangered species -- not exactly, anyway. I'm referring to nude bathing by women tourists on warm Seven Mile Beach, a practice which is permitted in some parts of the Carribean but illegal in all forms in "veddy" proper Cayman. According to officials, it's punishable by a trip to the cooler.
I did not investigate whether the jail is cool, but I have willingly kept my eyes peeled while here. I can report that one day three foreign visitors (apparently Europeans) decided to take off the tops of their bathing suits. One read a book in front of the Holiday Inn, oblivious to the moderate stir she was causing.
But the prize went to one young woman who was sunbathing with a friend at one edge of the hotel property and suddenly decided to strip. She first swam and then stretched out nude on the sand, seriously disrupting family strolls and contributing to the sex education of minors.There were no police in view.