Unexpected Treasures of the Caribbean
By Chris McBeath
We landed smack down in the middle of their soccer practice, taxiing up the rough, grassy airstrip that moments before, had seen the centre forward thrust a ball headlong into the net. Islanders on Little Cayman take their soccer seriously, and with an upcoming inter-island championship, our De Haviland Otter had rudely interrupted vital practice. But when you consider the airstrip doubles as a soccer field, and the terminal also does duty as a fire station and post office, you know you’ve arrived to a place that’s somewhat out of synch with the rest of the world.
Nestled between its showy sister, Grand Cayman, and busy Cayman Brac, Little Cayman is the smallest and least developed of the three Cayman Islands. Located 770 km from Miami and 150 km south of Havana, Cuba, the Caymans have been a part of the British West Indies since 1670 and there are parts of Little Cayman that certainly echo another time. Measuring a paltry 10 miles long and barely one mile wide, the island is so small that even Hurricane Wilma bypassed this Caribbean jewel and although Wilma’s tailwinds downed a few silver thatch palm trees, they have simply added to the allure of its pristine beauty. Secluded beaches are still crowded with conch, and mangrove forests, tropical wetlands and wild banana orchids still dominate the landscape.
On Little Cayman, no-one locks their doors, keys are left in car ignitions, and the largest crime among the 135 or so residents, is bicycle theft. Usually, they have been ‘borrowed’ to travel the mostly unpaved roads and they generally show up leaning against a tree at the end of the ‘loan’. Bikes are not only prized transportation, they are the easiest ways to keep below the 25 mph speed limit – which is strictly enforced by the island’s two British bobbies, a married couple whose uniform is disguised as flip flops and sunscreen!
Perhaps in deference to the island’s Rock Iguanas, everything on Little Cayman languishes at a slow speed. In fact, where else in the world do iguanas have right of way, or does traffic come to a standstill for a lizard lounging in the sun? Many of these living fossils have become quite tame, and they emerge from the undergrowth like a forgotten creature out of Jurassic Park – red eyes aflame with territorial intent as they stalk across the searing hot asphalt. And they’re BIG. Iguanas never stop growing so adults measuring five feet in length are not uncommon. And the reptilian wonders don’t stop here. The soft white sands have a thriving sea turtle nesting population which islanders are diligent to protect, and the inland brush is home to one of the oldest species of lizard – the tree-climbing Anulis maynardi - which is rare enough to have acquired no other name.
Birds are also an important ingredient of the island’s natural mix, with nearly 200 species of resident and migratory birds which stop here en route to the West Indies, Central and South America, and other warmer climates. Cayman-born birds include the pied-billed grebe, tricolored and green herons, the black-necked stilt, the Cayman Parrot and the endangered West Indian whistling-duck.
The most famous bird on Little Cayman, however, is the red-footed booby, an albatross-looking sea bird. They live in “Booby Pond”, a freshwater lagoon designated a UNESCO Ramsar site, where they constitute the largest colony of these birds in the world. The Cayman islands’ only breeding colony of magnificent frigates lso nest in the same area and the nightly aerial battle between these two contestants, as the frigates try to steal the boobies’ daily catch from the sea, is quite a spectacle.
Fishing, too, is a big draw to Little Cayman with plenty of fishing experiences for any age and all skill levels. Offshore, there are blue marlin, mahi mahi, kingfish and various types of tuna, while the fertile flats inshore offer one of the best chances in the world to catch a one-day ‘grand slam’ consisting of a tarpon, bonefish and permit. In addition, tarpon that were trapped in a freshwater lagoon known as Tarpon Pond have reproduced and the water positively glints with smaller silver-plated fish.
For all its star qualities, most people visit Little Cayman for the scuba diving. The reefs along the Cayman Trench, the deepest point in the Caribbean sea, are unparalleled in their beauty and accessibility, with many a shipwreck to entice the more adventurous.
Bloody Bay, apparently named for the dye exuded by the mangrove roots and not for the gruesome antics of Caribbean pirates, is a favourite spot, as is Jackson’s Bight with its tunnel systems and crevices. The prime location however, is where these two reef formations meet to create a ‘the mixing bowl’. This impressive dive site, coloured with bright sponges, corals and all manner of marine creatures, starts as shallow as 20 feet, making it perfect for night diving, novice divers and snorkeling, before its wall drops straight down 10,000 feet into the blue well of the ocean’s abyss. Here, you float above the mountain tops of the long-submerged Sierra Maestra Range, looking down into a fathomless world that seems as deep as the sky is high. And you realize that Little Cayman really is of another time and place. It’s a paradise, found.
How to get there:
Air Canada offers year-round service between Canada and the Cayman Islands with up to three weekly non-stop flights during the winter. Cayman Air provides inter-island shuttles.
Where to stay
The Southern Cross Club, the island’s first (and still the best) resort offers 10 oceanfront bungalows, and quality amenities as well as the island’s most professional dive instructors and fishing guides. www.southerncrossclub.com Tel: 800/899-2582
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