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The Caymans - from turtles to tourists.

The Caymans-- From Turtles to Tourists

Like the latest best-selling novelist or the hottest movie star, Grand Cayman has been "discovered.' It's the "in' island of the '80s, the Caribbean's newest overnight success story. But unlike many places whose vogue fades quickly after only a few seasons' fame, Grand Cayman is likely to enjoy long-lasting popularity.

Just 22 miles long by 8 miles wide, Grand Cayman is almost triple the size of its sister islands, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. All three Cayman Islands, situated 500 miles south of Miami and 200 miles south of Cuba, seem more like tiny specks in the vast ocean than the jutting peaks of the huge undersea mountain they actually are. Their deep waters are among the most fish-filled in the world--Grand Cayman puts marine life on view like nowhere else.

For starters, it has 20 different scuba and snorkeling operations, an unusually large number for such a small island. In fact, for many years scuba divers were the only tourists. Both the snorkeling and the diving are so good that on Grand Cayman --often referred to as the "Super Bowl of Scuba'--even many of the cruise-ship passengers head straight for the reefs and leave their shopping until the last minute.

Yet you don't need special scuba training to see Grand Cayman's underwater vistas. Its three deep-diving vehicles make it the submarine capital of the world. The specially constructed Atlantis can transport 28 passengers down to 150 feet. She's based on the same concept as the venerable glass-bottom boat, except that passengers sit on long benches while viewing through portholes. The rides last about 45 minutes.

A real diving thrill is offered by Research Submersibles Ltd.'s smaller craft, which can transport two people 800 feet down to view a genuine shipwreck. Another sub, which can dive to 2,000 feet, is available whenever it's not in use by marine researchers. Grand Cayman is one of the few places in the world that offer tourists such deep dives.

Even the shallowest sub dive or snorkel trip is an unforgettable experience. The fish are so tame they readily swim to people for handouts. Huge vase sponges, large enough for a diver to sit inside, and giant mounds of coral are common-place.

Bordering this underwater wonderland on the west coast is spectacular Seven Mile Beach, one of the Caribbean's finest. Seven Mile Beach, which honest locals admit is actually a little less than six miles long, fronts a placid bay that normally is no more rippled than a swimming pool, thanks to the direction of the prevailing winds. As one might expect, Seven Mile Beach is hotel-condo row. Although most of the beachfront has been almost completely developed--more by condominiums than by hotels--all of it remains open for walking, jogging, swimming, and sunning.

When temporarily out of the water or off the beach, visitors are most likely to go to two unusual sightseeing locations. One is Hell, a small blackened cluster of sharp limestone formations that look volcanic in origin and supposedly resemble the charred remains of hell-fire. A post office (which furnishes a "Hell' postmark) and souvenir shops stand adjacent to this strange formation.

Some 17,000 marine turtles, ranging from newborns to mature adults, live at the Cayman Turtle Farm. The farm, which furnishes all the island's fresh turtle steaks, is an open-air exhibit of how the turtles are bred and reared. So scarce were turtles locally when the farm started in 1968 that eggs needed for the hatching program had to be imported from Costa Rica and other areas. None of the turtle items on sale in the gift shop can be brought back into the United States, because marine turtles are on its endangered species list.

Turtling was Grand Cayman's first major industry. In the 1500s, turtles were so abundant that explorers claimed they looked like rocks cluttering the shore and the seaway. The seemingly innumerable turtles were soon wiped out, giving way to the more profitable business of buccaneering. Most of the great pirates visited or headquartered at Grand Cayman: Henry Morgan watered his ships there in 1670 before sailing off to attack Panama, and on one stopover Blackbeard is said to have shot and lamed his mate Israel Hands, whom Robert Louis Stevenson later immortalized in Treasure Island.

Grand Cayman has no pirate museum to commemorate those swashbuckling days, but something even better: Pirates' Week, the island's biggest celebration of the year, held every October. Locals dress in festive pirate costumes (tourists are encouraged to do so as well), and in general, everyone tries to see how much grog he can drink.

Even before the current tourist boom, Grand Cayman was one of the Caribbean's most prosperous islands, ranked with Switzerland and Liechtenstein as one of the world's largest international banking centers. Although the island's population numbers only around 20,000, at last count it had nearly 500 registered banks and another 17,700 licensed corporations. Most do not actually exist on site; they are instead represented through other banks or trust companies doing business there. Thus, they are discreetly hidden, not evident on every corner like convenience stores.

Despite its enviable financial situation, the government has followed a policy of carefully controlled growth and development in order to prevent the island from suffering the way some other islands did from over-rapid expansion. This policy has given Caymanians a per-capita income among the highest in the Caribbean and defused possible resentments against tourists. On the contrary, the Caymanians are open, friendly people who genuinely like us.

To prove it, they've provided a much broader range of accommodations than most islands. Preeminent are the condominiums along Seven Mile Beach, where visitors typically stay a week and sometimes as long as a month. True luxury hotels are only a recent addition, the first having opened in late 1985--the Grand Pavilion, a small 60-room facility with what many regard as the island's best restaurant.

Last winter, the Grand Pavilion had to relinquish its position as the Caymans' only luxury hotel when the new $50 million, 236-room Hyatt Regency Grand Cayman opened just a few blocks away. The Hyatt faces the new Jack Nicklaus-designed Cayman Course, the first golf course in the world featuring the use of a Cayman golf ball. This ball, lighter than the traditional golf ball, travels only about half the distance.

Few other hotels quite match the Grand Pavilion or the Hyatt, but the old-timers have one advantage: they are directly on the beach. The Holiday Inn, for example, has a very large water-sports operation that offers scuba diving, windsurfing, sailing, jet skiing, and parasailing, as well as day picnics on a catamaran.

All the water-oriented activities make shopping a lesser draw than it is elsewhere, yet the main city of George Town, like all major cruise-ship ports, is well-stocked. Besides the beautiful black-coral jewelry made on the island, stores feature duty-free crystal, perfumes, watches, and electronic equipment. Although the official currency is the Cayman or C.I. dollar, U.S. dollars are gladly accepted anywhere. However, our dollar is worth only about three-quarters of the Cayman dollar.

Two museums, the Maritime Museum and McKee's Treasures from the Golden Galleons, provide safe harbor from the temptations of bargain shopping.

Most tourists are so busy they never go beyond Grand Cayman to either Little Cayman or Cayman Brac. Situated 89 miles to the northeast, both islands seem a world away, largely unaffected by the tourist boom. Little Cayman, just 10 miles long and a single mile wide, is the kind of deserted island vacationers dream of running away to. Burgess Meredith had the perfect getaway home there before the permanent population swelled to 22 and three guesthouses were built.

Only hard-core beachcombers, fishermen, and scuba divers go to Little Cayman, and they enjoy some of the finest bonefishing and small tarpon angling found anywhere. Jacques Cousteau himself ranked the deep wall on one side of Little Cayman as one of the most spectacular dives in all the Caribbean.

Cayman Brac appeals to the same sort of people. Separated from Little Cayman by a 5-mile-wide channel, the 12-mile-long, 1-mile-wide Brac has a population of 1,600--over-crowded by Little Cayman standards. Having only three hotels, Brac is dominated by a towering, cave-riddled cliff at one end of the island.

The weather in all the Caymans is so warm year round that any time is a good time to visit. The temperature ranges between 70 and 80 degrees in winter, 80 and 90 degrees in summer. Water temperatures between 80 and 86 degrees all year turn the ocean into one huge bathtub.

From dramatic ocean depths to colorful island attractions, the variety and beauty of Grand Cayman and company should keep the human population higher than the turtles' for many years to come.

Photo: Coming out of one's shell may be the goal of many a carefree visitor to the Cayman Islands, but for these local residents it's no laughing matter.

Photo: Caribbean scuba divers and fishermen are unanimous about the water quality near the Caymans: "The best.'

Photo: Seven Mile Beach is more like six-- but its other attractions just might make up for the disappointment.

Photo: Not exactly Switzerland--but George Town, Grand Cayman, is a banking capital too, and the fishing's a lot better.

Photo: One of the world's safest places to windsurf, the waters fronting Seven Mile Beach are remarkably placid.
COPYRIGHT 1987 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:O'Keefe, M. Timothy
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Dec 1, 1987
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