It was only after reading a magazine article on the plane that I started to get nervous.
The article said the Cayman Islands are considered to be a world center for banking. The Caymans? The trio of tropical islands I was headed toward for a four-day vacation?
The Caymans, the article said, were ranked fourth among the world's banking centers, with a record 500 banks licensed to operate there. Banks? I think banks and I think checking accounts, drive-through tellers, the dreaded monthly statement. I think Cayman Islands and I think crystalline water, Seven Mile Beach, evenings in a strapless dress. I think banks, I think navy blue. I think Caymans, I think azure. I grew a little concerned.
About 10 minutes later, my Cayman Airways flight slid onto the landing strip and rolled to a halt. Outside, flowers exploded in color on the bushes -- pinks, purples and reds. The air was warm and heavy with the smell of just-cut grass. Banking? Here? I shuddered in the sunshine. The only kind of financial dealings this place could encourage would have to be Banking by Bathing Suit.
It was my second day on Grand Cayman. The sun hung overhead, the Caribbean stretched before me like an acre of aquamarine carpeting, and Seven Mile Beach spread its train of white sand to the right and left. I was having trouble remembering the incentives of the civilized world. I adjusted my beach chair and faced what would prove to be the most pressing decision of my stay: Should I stick with the SPF 8 suntan lotion or should I live it up with coconut oil? I tabled the decision and ordered a pinåa colada.
Ten years ago, "Where are the Cayman Islands?" would have made a juicy Trivial Pursuit question. These days, name recognition of this British Crown Colony on the western edge of the Caribbean is high, marketing budgets aggressive. In the clotted Caribbean market, the Cayman Islands have become a popular destination, due in part to their proximity to South Florida (480 miles south of Miami), political stability, plentiful facilities and superior beaches and scuba diving.
Before the tourists came, the economy of Cayman Brac, Little Cayman and Grand Cayman depended on the huge, green turtles that lived in abundance here. Turtle farming was the big industry, turtle meat an indigenous delicacy. And although turtles have been replaced by tourists in the economic scheme of things, their legacy is everywhere; they still are bred on the island, on what is said to be the world's only sea turtle farm.
Turtles also gave the islands their original name. Back in the early 1500s, Christopher Columbus was sailing his West Indies circuit, planting the Spanish flag on every patch of earth that had risen above sea level. In 1503 he bumped onto the shore of Cayman Brac (Gaelic for bluff). Columbus surveyed the little chunk of land (12 miles long, one mile wide) with its reptilian residents and proclaimed the islands Las Tortugas -- "the turtles."
Grand Cayman is the most developed and heavily visited of three islands; tiny Cayman Brac and Little Cayman are sparsely populated and much less accessible. George Town, the capital city, is a blip of prototype suburbia on Grand Cayman, with satellite dishes, a Burger King, strip shopping centers, video rental shops, rush-hour traffic. George Town, above all, is a business town. Much of the business is due to tourism, but a large part of the economy -- as warned -- is banking. About 500 banks and trust companies park an office on the Caymans, including 20 of the world's largest 25, lured by the siren of a tax-free haven. There are no income, capital gains, inheritance or other direct taxes whatsoever in the Cayman Islands.
No taxes and nothing taxing, my idea of paradise.
I'm a disciple of the philosophy that the perfect island vacation is to go somewhere and plan nothing. "To Do" lists are something I actively flee. But Day 3 of my vacation rolled around and I was a little itchy. My beach potato urges had been sated, my heretofore deficient natural beauty quotient replenished with two full days of sleeping, swimming, snorkeling and sunning. I didn't know what I wanted but I knew I had to walk toward George Town, in search of whatever would cast a net over me. And there it was, in the downtown harbor, the answer to my quest -- the Atlantis, a "professional recreational submarine" offering hour-long rides.
I've had "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" fantasies ever since the sixth grade. A submarine ride sounded exotic and felt spontaneous, two crucial vacation components. Why not? I handed the man my $45.
We were ferried out to the sub and led down a narrow set of metal stairs, into a long, narrow room lined with portholes. The submarine descended silently between vertical sheets of coral, transporting us to a world with water the color of Aqua Velva, and walls of coral latticework -- a labyrinth for the marine life. Brazen fish swam up to the glass and peered inside. I began to understand the passion some friends feel for scuba diving.
Post-submarine and pre-happy hour, I had an hour to kill. Time, I thought, to go to Hell and send the requisite Wish-you-were-here post cards. Hell is a pinpoint town in Grand Cayman's West Bay district that is said to have been named for the black rock formations that look as if the fields were charred by hellfire. I had to check it out.
All that was missing was the smell of smoke. Fields of black rock stretched out in front of a wooden boardwalk, part of a recent $24,000 renovation. The post office, one of the handful of buildings in the town, has been gussied up as well. Three appropriately tacky souvenir shops sold post cards that say "You saw me in Hell first" and "This is one Hell of a place."
As the sun began to fall below the tree line, I headed toward the local watering hole, the only watering hole -- Club Inferno. The little, listing building, unsung in the tourist brochures, is run by the McDoom family. I sat down at the bar and smiled wanly at the toothless guys playing cards next to me. The freezer hummed; a radio eked out some scratchy reggae.
I felt great. And why not? I was tan. I was rested. I had just spent three days in paradise and had a cold beer in Hell. The guys back at the office would never believe this one. I'm not sure I do either. WAYS & MEANS
GETTING THERE: Eastern Airlines flies daily from Washington (with a stop in Miami) to Grand Cayman Island. Eastern is currently quoting a midweek round-trip fare of $419, based on availability; tickets must be purchased at least one week in advance.
Inter-island service is provided by Cayman Airways several times a week.
Proof of citizenship (birth certificate, citizenship card, voter registration) is required to enter the islands. GETTING AROUND: One of the best ways to see the sights and absorb the sunshine is to rent a scooter or moped. Rental shops are scattered around Grand Cayman, mostly in George Town and its outskirts; the daily rate is about $10. The only drawback is remembering to drive on the left. WHERE TO STAY: Hotels abound on Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman's seemingly endless stretch of sand and water. Among the choices:
Hyatt Regency Britannia, West Bay Road. The hotel sits across the street from the beach, but has a beachfront concession with windsurfing gear, sailboats and lounge chairs. The hotel is elegantly landscaped and offers one of the most impressive Sunday brunches imaginable. The Hyatt also has the only golf course on the island -- an abbreviated course designed by Jack Nicklaus, for playing a golf spinoff called Cayman Ball. Winter rates start at $175 for a standard room.
West Indian Club, on West Bay. This charming, private nine-room inn, on the oceanfront just beyond the city noises of George Town, has a pool, unlocked vistas of the Caribbean and large units with sitting rooms.
Little Cayman is for serious divers, and the Southern Cross Club is the place serious divers stay. This historic, family-run, 10-room inn has some of the best diving in the Caribbean, and light tackle fishing as well. Privacy is the selling point. The inn sits on a barrier reef-protected bay. Room rates vary and the rooms are booked well in advance. WHERE TO EAT: Almost any sort of food cravings can be satisfied on Grand Cayman. The food resources of the island -- bananas, cassava, plantains and seafood -- make up many of the spicy Caribbean dishes, and the international influences of the British, French and Jamaicans have flavored Caymanian food in an exotic way. Among the restaurants:
The Cracked Conch, in the Selkirk Plaza on West Bay Road. The atmosphere is casual and the place is usually jammed with locals as well as visitors. Lunch prices are moderate ($4 for conch chowder that will make you weep, $5 to $8 for entrees).
The Lobster Pot, farther up the road on the way into George Town, where you can order Caribbean dishes and watch the sunset from your seaside table. Prices are moderate and the view is priceless.
The Almond Tree, North Church Street. You just can't get more islandy-looking than this restaurant, which sits on the oceanside behind overgrown vegetation. The specialties are native dishes of lobster, conch and turtle. Lunches are casual, but dinner calls for more than a T-shirt and flip-flops. Reservations are critical; the place is usually jammed every night of the week.
Grand Old House, South Church Street. This restaurant, owned by television cooking-meister Chef Tell, is housed in a majestic turn-of-the-century building. The menu is a mixture of continental and seafood, the ambiance elegant and subdued, the wine list extensive. Dinners cost about $50 per person, lunches from $10 to $15 each. INFORMATION: Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, 420 Lexington Ave., Room 2312, New York, N.Y. 10170, (212) 682-5582.
Laura Kelly is managing editor of South Florida magazine.