Caribbean Islands, August 2022

We came to Grand Cayman to visit our friend Rod McDowall, who Michael taught to dive 43 years ago and shared a flat with for a few months. This is a picture of Michael in 1980 when he did his instructors course in San Diego, USA.

We’ve been meaning to visit him for the last 30 years and we hadn’t been here more than a few hours before we were asking ourselves why we had waited so long. This place is paradise! The temperature is warm to hot this time of year, there is a little humidity and the water is crystal clear. Palm trees and gentle breezes add to the tropical paradise vibe.

The Cayman Islands are made up of 3 islands: Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac.  Grand Cayman is the main tourist destination, with Little Cayman being more unspoiled and people from both seem to poke fun at the ‘Braccers’.

The islands were first sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1503 and were originally called Las Tortugas because of all the sea turtles that abound around the islands, which soon became an important meat source for passing ships. The islands don’t have a good natural water supply and are supplied today from rainwater cisterns and desalination plants.

The poor water supply is probably the reason the islands weren’t inhabited by native Caribbean Indians, as were other islands in the West Indies. The first settlement probably begun in the early 1700s and a census of the island in 1802 showed a population of 933, of whom 545 were slaves. Slaves and pirates made up a large part of the early population and the island celebrates Pirates Week in October each year. Slaves were freed in 1835.

Many people are surprised to learn that the Cayman Islands are actually a British Crown Colony and not part of America. However, the American influence is strong with the majority of tourists coming from there and the Caymanian dollar pegged against the USD. The Cayman Islands were formally a dependency of Jamaica (until 1959) but these days are governed by a crown-appointed Governor, a Premier, an Executive Council of seven ministers and an elected Legislative Assembly.

The island is totally flat but has some nice plant life, including giant flame trees in red, orange and yellow as well as a million different types of palm and flowering bougainvillea.

We weren’t expecting all the chickens running about the place. They’re everywhere! They’re not eaten, so there isn’t much to control them. It needs a cull, as happened with the iguanas. After the 2004 Hurricane Ivan which nearly obliterated the island, the iguanas came out of the bush and began to take over the island. The government decided to pay $5 per dead iguana and 1.5 million were killed! The numbers are much more in control now.

We stayed with Rod, a very generous and well-planned host and we ran up quite a bill at the ‘pool bar’ in his back yard!

Rod picked us up from the airport, then began a series of tours around the island. The first included a local market as well as a tour of the business he is part-owner of, called Red Sail Sports. Starting from scratch about 35 years ago, it is now a premier water sports company, teaching diving and taking dive tours all around the islands as well as hiring out paddle boards, wave-runners and other water equipment. They also have retail stores and 5 enormous catamarans that take out tours to the famous Stingray City, dinner or sunset cruises and other snorkeling excursions. They have the contract for several of the big, high-end resorts. It’s a huge business and we were really impressed with what Rod and his partners have achieved.

Rod soon had Michael signed up for a refresher diving course with one of his instructors, which he passed with flying colours. Then we all (Michael, Rod and his daughter Jessie) went out on one of the dive boats for an open-water dive at Paradise Reef.  The water temperature in Cayman is a beautiful 820 and the visibility for that dive was around 60-80 feet. They saw a turtle, a small barracuda, about 4 big lobsters, lots of colourful schooling fish, part of a shipwreck and 4 pushbikes, as well as soft and hard corals and fan corals. Michael re-discovered his love of diving and was really excited by the experience. They are very safety conscious here and do a decompression stop for all dives.

He was very impressed by and appreciative of the attention of the Red Sail Sports diving instructors.

Rod has lots of great stories about his experiences over 40 years in the Caribbean. You can imagine how much it’s changed during that time! One of our favourite stories was of his treasure-hunting in different areas of the Caribbean. He still has some of the glass beads and pieces of eight he found, although the rest has all gone to the museums.

The Cayman Islands need to import just about everything except bananas and plantains, but the food is varied and the standard very high, with a strong southern/mex-tex/jamaican feel. There are lots of good BBQ/smokehouse places and the highly spicy flavouring or rub called ‘Jerk’ is everywhere. Chicken wings, ribs and beef are all popular items on menus, as well as seafood. However, there are also lots of international restaurants – Thai, Indian, Japanese, Mexican etc. We took every opportunity to eat spicier food than we can often get in Europe and especially loved the Cayman Spicy Chicken Wings served at a local sports bar.

We were soon introduced to one of our favourite spots – Sunset House. This was a dive resort with a great casual bar/restaurant with a fabulous view of the sun setting over the Caribbean Sea towards the Gulf of Mexico. We went there several times.

After a week on Grand Cayman we got up early to catch a tiny twin engine De Havilland Otter for the short flight to Little Cayman, 75km across the sea. Little Cayman is the smallest and most tranquil of the Cayman Islands and its 10 square miles is beautifully natural and pristine. There are only about 60 full-time inhabitants and diving, fishing or bird-watching are the main attractions.

Little Cayman is everything you would think of as classical tropical island paradise: palm trees, sandy white beaches, a fringing reef and a million colours of blue. The sea ranges from a deep sapphire blue through azure, turquoise, to aquamarine. Sometimes when we were out on the boat, we could see all these shades at once!

Rod, Michael and Sue went to Little Cayman to visit Meredith and Mike Guderian. Meredith is an old friend from Adelaide who has lived in the Caribbean, on and off, for many years as well as in Willunga, South Australia. Mike is now the Department of Environment officer on Little Cayman, in charge of the infrastructure and actions that support care of the environment, such as moorings, signage, catching conch and lobster poachers, supporting visiting scientists etc. Until recently Meredith had been teaching at the very small island school. They lead a very busy but simple life focused on the nature of the area as well as the local inhabitants. We stayed in an extremely comfortable holiday rental on the beach not too far from Meredith and Mike’s and joined them for every meal.

The diving in Little Cayman is world famous for its coral walls with vertical wall drops. It drops off in gradients, eventually to around 6000 feet. Michael did several dives with Rod and Mike along the famous Bloody Bay Wall. They dived the wall to a depth of 105 feet. Cumbers Caves is renowned for shark sightings and they saw two black-tipped reef sharks, one a 5 foot and the other a very curious 4 foot shark. They also saw turtles, stingray, grouper, barracuda, and a million little highly-coloured fish. There were lots of varieties of coral – fans, organ pipes, barrels etc. Sue and Meredith snorkeled and saw many of the same things, but not the bigger fish and sharks.

The next day was even better, stunningly clear and sunny with minimal current, hardly any wind and fantastic visibility. Out on the water it was pleasantly warm, but once back on land it was really hot.

Please note, while all these photos are from the Cayman Islands, not all are our photos. However, they give a good indication of what we saw.

The Cayman Islands have many interesting reptiles, including three varieties of iguana. Little Cayman has the only rock iguanas and they’re endangered so very carefully protected. Meredith feeds two of them, one is a female who is called Elizardbeth. The islands also have many small, harmless snakes but they still give visiting Australians a fright!

Of course, there are chickens everywhere, but there were also lots of hermit crabs, from tiny to shells as big as conchs.  They love to eat coffee grounds and other kitchen scraps. There are tarpon ponds and a rare colony of Booby birds and frigates. So, lots of wildlife to observe. We were lucky to be there during turtle nesting season and Meredith was monitoring several nests, some of which have now hatched.

Meredith says she has learned a million pieces of information totally useless anywhere else except Little Cayman, and she made sure to share all of them with us!

As well as enjoying the natural environment we thoroughly checked out the eating and drinking establishments on the island. There were 4 resorts and quite a few holiday homes on the island so there was more restaurant choice than you would expect. We went to a BBQ run by a local, mostly for locals, on Saturday night. She was Caymanian and a real livewire. It was fortunate that the mozzies stayed away and the sunset was lovely so we could linger and enjoy the smokey BBQ beef and jerk chicken, along with an incredible local dessert called ‘heavy cake’. It was made from a base of cassava but tasted a bit like Christmas pudding.

We love a restaurant where you can wear your swimsuit and flip-flops and have your feet on the sand! We loved one bar in particular that was really just 4 flyscreen walls with a big bar and tables and chairs inside. They had great music and a really well-stocked bar. We tried a Japanese Yuzu gin that was really strong and dangerously delicious. One of the bar/restaurants we went to has a ‘quick-kill-switch’ for the overhead fans, in case anyone felt the need to dance on the bar!

When we returned to Grand Cayman, we went on one of Red Sail Sports’ Stingray tours. We were on a catamaran that went to a sandbar in the North Sound, a place where fishermen stopped to clean fish for over 50 years. As a result, the stingrays have populated the place and mix freely with all the tourists who now come to visit. The rays came in a range of sizes from the babies to those over a meter in diameter. Their skin felt like wet mushrooms and they were happy to swim around you and even be gently picked up. Snorkeling was so much fun because they were so close. Michael even got to kiss one, so now he’s reportedly blessed with inner peace.

We stayed for three nights at the eastern end of Grand Cayman in a very luxurious three-bedroom holiday house that Rod owns, called Ocean Paradise. Rod’s holiday house is one of five set around a pool and right on the beach. It had hammocks and comfy outdoor furniture – perfect for lying around listening to the breeze through the palm trees and perhaps nodding off at times, before a reviving swim in the pool and a dinner on the deck over the water at the local restaurant. A hard life, indeed!

With Rod’s business Red Sail at Tortuga Divers, Rod, Michael and Jessica did two dives just outside the fringing reef. They really loved this experience of two very different dives. Both dives were about 45 minutes long, with a 45-minute rest in between.

The first was very much a deep wall dive to 105 feet.  The Cayman Trench to the north-east is 25,216 feet deep!  One shark followed them for more than half the dive.  It was a six-foot black-tipped reef shark. There was one massive canyon that came out into the deep blue ocean.

The next dive was shallower and had lots of canyons in the reef that were home to stingrays. Michael saw a grey nurse shark. The dive instructor nearly swam into it! Michael found the diving very therapeutic because you needed to slow down, stop and really look into the coral to appreciate all the millions of coloured fish and everything around you.

We were really lucky with the weather, because August is prime hurricane month. Hurricane season is from June to November. This is the slowest tourist season and lots of the locals go “off-island” on holidays. It was on September 13th   2004 that Hurricane Ivan decimated the island, 18 years ago. Yet people still talk about the experience of going through a hurricane of that magnitude and of living for weeks with no power and water and little food. Nearly everything needed to be rebuilt or repaired to some extent so there are very few traditional Caymanian old homes left.

The Caribbean is renowned for its rum, with most being made in Jamaica or other islands of the Caribbean. Cayman Islands make only one unique rum. Rod converted Michael into drinking rum and ginger ale, a very refreshing drop. Michael took to it so well that he demanded to go to the local distillery for a tasting tour. It was very interesting but most of the rums were too sweet for Michael and Rod’s tastes. However, they did make a really wonderful gin called Poseidon that had 11 botanicals, including a few that were native to the Cayman Islands. The native Butterfly Pea flower made the gin a purple colour, but when you add tonic, it turned pale pink. We actually liked it better just over ice as it had a lovely long, smooth finish with a hint of lavender.

Our next excursion was to Cuba, the first time either of us had ever visited a communist country. We were only going for three days and only to the city of Havana (La Habana). We again flew Cayman Airways, feeling like frequent flyers. As we flew over the island it appeared quite lush in its vegetation and we saw lots of fields of what we presumed was tobacco.

The culture shock started as soon as we arrived in Havana, with the gloomy airport where only three lights were on, to save electricity. There were long lines for passport checks, but the staff were very friendly. Even though we were only visiting for a few days, we still had checked-in luggage because we were carrying a bag full of medicines, toiletries and US dollars for Rod’s friend Perie. We were really surprised by the mountains of luggage that returning Cubans bring home from their travels, to make up for all the things that aren’t available. It seemed that every person had three or four very large suitcases, all tightly wrapped in plastic to deter pilfering airport staff.

The other big shock was the heat. It was 320 but felt like 390 in the sun and the humidity was a sopping wet 85%! We’ve travelled to Asia but had never experienced humidity like this. Just slowly ambling along made you drip with sweat.

The other shock was the cars. Of course, we had heard all about the old American gas-guzzlers still in use but thought they’d be more of an oddity rather than the usual form of transport. Even the ‘modern cars’ were the 35 to 40-year-old Russian Lados.

Rod’s friend Perie had organized our accommodation in a small boutique hotel that was quite new. It was very clean, comfortable and well-decorated and the couple who ran it were friendly and helpful. The breakfast was really generous. The hotel was in a terrific location, one street back from the main drag and two blocks from the Old Town. But the street it was in and all the streets around didn’t reflect the promise of the interior. The streets were all rubble, full of rubbish and most of the buildings were decaying. The locals were very poor. Throughout Havana it was easy to see the bite of the American sanctions and the position of the Cuban communist government on overseas investment. Unemployment was very high and no money appears to be spent on maintaining infrastructure such as rubbish removal and electricity plants. This is in spite of very high levels of education and a terrific university system. So, they have highly qualified unemployed or underemployed.

We were expecting that we wouldn’t have good internet access but were a bit surprised by how dependent we’d become on Google maps, especially when we couldn’t find a paper map anywhere. We were also told that USD weren’t readily accepted and that we could use euro and our French credit card in euros. This was totally inaccurate when we were there. USD and euros are equally accepted and credit cards are not. We couldn’t even use our credit card to take money out of the bank.

Because our time in Havana was precious, we started exploring immediately. We walked for miles looking at some of the major buildings – the beautiful Grand Teatro de La Habana, built in 1914 and the home of the Cuban opera and ballet companies.

Then on past the very elegant Capitol building, that has been extensively restored and was modelled on the Washington capitol building.

We managed to stumble upon Hemmingway’s bar, El Floridata, supposedly where Hemmingway hung out when he was in Cuba from 1932-1939. It is believed that the frozen daquiri was invented here and the bar is still famous for its range of daquiris. It had a life-sized bronze statue of Hemmingway as well as lots of memorabilia. Apparently, the British author Graham Greene, who wrote Our Man in Havana, was also a regular patron.

Just nearby was the Holy Grail Michael had been searching for. Unfortunately, the factory of Romeo y Julieta cigars was closed and we weren’t keen on visiting a ‘cooperativo’ where street hustlers kept trying to lure us, because ‘cigars are half-price today’. We found the decidedly up-market Partagas Cigar Lounge, just near El Floridata. It had cigar-rolling, a huge range of cigars and an elegant bar where you could smoke and drink rum. They also had a rum tasting going on. Michael was in heaven!

On day two we were up early, before it got too hot, and took one of the classic 50s cars to visit the fort and the new parts of town. Our car was a 1957 Chevrolet Belair (red, of course) but we actually picked the car based on the English competence of the driver. It was great fun to cruise around with the wind in our hair, listening to catchy Cuban music.

The drive took us under the bay through a tunnel built by the French in 1955 to the opposite side of the harbour and the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, a huge fort on top of a hill that guards the harbour and city. Built in the late 15th century on a site used by people since neolithic times, it has miles of moats and tunnels as well as incredibly thick walls. And so many cannon! In fact, in old Havana we saw surplus cannon used as bollards.

Then we visited the massive statue Christ of Havana made by a female Cuban sculptor in 1953. Of Italian Carrera marble, it was carved in parts and then assembled in Havana. It’s quite beautiful.

The Plaza de la revolution was something quite different, with its wide-open spaces and buildings in the ‘Russian bunker’ style, as well as the huge monument with nesting condors. We loved the steel representations of Che Guevara and other heroes of the revolution that were displayed on the sides of the buildings.

Unfortunately, the Museum of the Revolution was closed for renovation and will be for quite some time by the look of it. It’s a pity they didn’t relocate the collection as it was top of our ‘must see’ list.

In the afternoon Rod and Sue visited the Museo de Belles Artes to look at the modern and contemporary Cuban art on display. They were surprised by the level of dissonance allowed considering they were from ‘a generation of artists nurtured and forested by the triumph of the Revolution’. They were ‘concerned with the search for Cuban identity--- through strong symbolic imagery’. (Quotes from the official guide). It was a very big gallery, with huge collections from some particular artists. Nonetheless, it showcased just how vibrant the Cuban art scene is.

We all loved the richness of street art available, with almost every street having wall paintings or sculptures on every block. Even the very poor street where we stayed had buildings adorned with art of a political flavour.

On our last day in Cuba we walked through the area of the old fishing village full of street art and on to the beautiful baroque cathedral. It was built in the eighteenth century, between 1748 and 1777 and was constructed of coral stone embedded with lots of marine fossils. The outside has two bell towers of different sizes and it has the lovely curving lines of the baroque style. It is set in a square of cloisters and is thoroughly elegant. The inside is neoclassical in design, so more restrained.

We decided to follow up that religious experience with something a little more decadent, so caught a taxi to the Hotel Nacional that overlooks the beach promenade called the Malecon. The taxi ride itself was an adventure. Sue was so tired she jumped in the first taxi that went past – in spite of the fact that it had no muffler, suspension, interior linings and door closings. The driver had to get out and carefully lock us all in and every time it back-fired we all jumped a mile. The 10 USD we paid probably bought the car!

However, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba was worth the drama. It was opened in 1930 and was a haunt of the US mafia for a few years and since then it has been the place to stay for the rich and famous. It has beautiful tiled walls and a carved wooden ceiling as well as lovely shaded gardens on the top of the hill, overlooking the ocean. The dining room was very elegant and has a classic menu, largely unchanged for many years. There was a very interesting wall of photos of celebrities who visited over the last 80 years and the menu item they chose. Everyone from Fred Astaire to Paris Hilton as well as political and sporting figures. Interestingly, Hemmingway never stayed here.

During our stay in Cuba we had been testing the mojitos. The competition was won by a little hole in the wall bar in the old town. The bartenders proudly wore a uniform and name tags proclaiming their trade. Across the road was a hole in the wall takeaway food shop that was quite busy with the locals, so Sue went to investigate. They were serving a local soup and after all the discussion it would have been rude not to order some. Unfortunately, it was served in a filthy cut-off plastic coke bottle with no spoon, so none of us were game to eat it. Apparently, it was made from cassava and a little pork fat. Not very appetizing, but it was only 80 cents for a generous serving.

A lovely excursion to finish our tourism of the Caribbean was a sunset catamaran sail with Red Sail Sports. It was interesting to see the seven-mile beach from the water and relaxing to sail quietly while drinking cocktails and nibbling on chicken wings. The sunset was lovely.

Our last meal with Rod and Jessica was at their favourite Mexican restaurant. Just as well we didn’t go here earlier or we would have put on even more weight. We are very grateful to them both for being such generous hosts for a whole month.

Watch out for our France, September vagablog with our new Adria camping car...