Travel: Cayman Islands, Scotland on Sunday travel

The Cayman Islands’ tax haven status has stopped it becoming a tourist trap, but the welcome is still warm… even from the marine life

A Seafire Resort room, Cayman Islands
A Seafire Resort room, Cayman Islands

‘A sunny place for shady people” is how Somerset Maugham described the French Riviera a few decades ago. However, it is what one friend said when I told him that I was visiting the Cayman Islands. Indeed, it is quite amazing just how many large legal and accountancy firms have offices on the islands whose population is about 80,000. The Paradise Papers television documentary on financial activities here may well have been what inspired the comment (although the UK government has now made the Cayman authorities supply a beneficial ownership list of investors and people who use the islands for business).

As a result there is a very different vibe to other Caribbean islands to which I have travelled. This place is full of people who work rather than being an economy based mainly on tourism. Visitors aren’t encouraged to stay within some beach bound compound, but instead go out and about to restaurants and tourist activities. The residents love this island and are happy to extol the pleasures of living on this small sun-kissed place.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Seven Mile Beach

The Kaibo marina

Most tourists and those living the high life are found around Seven Mile Beach, a beautiful strip of perfect sand that is always mentioned in lists of the world’s best beaches. It is, however, not quite what it seems – apparently the sailor sent to pace it out when boats first landed had rather short legs and so it’s more like six and a half miles – but even so, very impressive. Well-known hotels hug the west coast here, and in between there are the £1m-plus condos with the capital, George Town, to the south.

Stingray City

If you want a holiday that offers more than lying on the beach there is plenty to do, although sunbathing seems a popular pastime. Locals say that one trip everyone has to take is to Stingray City – an area of shallow water near a reef where the stingrays are happy to be stroked in return for a bit of prawn. Distant relatives of the shark, they are not the most beautiful of fish, but who am I to turn down a kiss from anything with a beating heart?

Bio Bay Boat Tour

Stingray City, an area of shallow water near a reef where stingrays are happy to be stroked

One evening after sunset, rather than turn to the rum punch, we boarded another boat for a Bio Bay Tour with Six Senses, an eco tour company proud of being runners-up in the Cayman Island Governor’s Conservation Awards. We arrived in a small, shallow bay which seemed unremarkable until the water was displaced, resulting in what could only be described as a light show produced by marine organisms.

We slowly lowered ourselves in, being careful not to touch the sand below, and swam slowly with what looked like smoke emanating from our fingers. With gentle strokes it looked like we were creating sparkles. Donning some goggles and going underwater, it was as though a million stars danced before our eyes. It is certainly one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced.

During the day the sea was full of jet skiers, snorkellers, scuba divers and paddleboarders. And on an island where salaries are sky high there were a heck of a lot of boats and yachts – I mean what is the point of having lots of money if you can’t just show it off now and again? When a friend who lives here identified the British owners of some of the largest vessels, they most definitely fitted Maugham’s description.

First sighted by Columbus in the early 16th century, the islands were originally called Las Tortugas after the abundance of turtles around the shoreline. Fishing for these creatures was the main source of income after settlers arrived and now they are fairly rare.

Seven Mile Beach, Cayman Islands, where the perfect beach attracts tourists and locals

Bodden Town

One of the original families to live here were the Boddens. The former capital is Bodden Town and we visited nearby Pedro St James, and the first stone built house on the Cayman Islands. The plantation dwelling has been restored with tours conducted by a descendant of William Eden who had it built in 1780. The manicured lawn is a popular wedding venue, adding to the various uses this house has had over the centuries, including cotton plantation, jail and government assembly.

Driving further round the east coast as we headed for lunch at the Kaibo Yacht club (“the” place to be seen for a Sunday lunch), it was amazing how many cemeteries overflowing with bright flowers there were. “Prime real estate for dead people” is what the local property developers call them – no doubt despairing of the bodies lying where there could be condos.

Queen Elizabeth Botanic Park

A Carribean destination that's a cut above

On our return we visited the Queen Elizabeth Botanic Park, which is beautifully laid out with the indigenous flowers and plants, including rare orchids. As we walked around the five themed garden trails in 65 acres, the air was alive with parrots and butterflies. There were West Indies whistling ducks in the pond, although none of them were bothering to show off their talents. A tiny traditional house stood beside a medicinal plant garden; an example of the simple rustic lifestyle before anyone had heard of a tax haven.

Seafire Resort

To have a look at the other end of the available accommodation scale, I visited Seafire Resort at the top end of Seven Mile Beach. This is real luxury and one of the latest hotels to open. It has an amazing penthouse which is booked most of the time, obviously by people with eye-watering amounts of dosh to spend on holidays. Lunch at Avecita, their Spanish themed restaurant in a timber building overlooking the beach, was delicious. Needless to say there is a tip top spa and any kind of water sport you can think of is available.

Eating Out

Eating out is the norm in Cayman, and there’s no shortage of whatever type of food you fancy. At the newly built town of Camana Bay there’s a waterfront of restaurants, but I preferred the more local, Caribbean style, with fish being the main ingredient. In George Town I would suggest heading to Da Fish Shack or Rackhams for fun, casual spaces with great food. Another eatery at the other end of Seven Mile Beach is Macabuca, sitting beside a volcanic beach with scuba equipment available to hire.

The Black Coral and Bikini House

Of course, every island has somewhere unique and quirky to visit. On Grand Cayman it’s The Black Coral And Bikini House. Inside this little shop an ex-Hell’s Angel, Carey Hurleston, sells jewellery and knickknacks made from black coral and exhibits his collections of marbles, geegaws and, yes, bikini bottoms. The latter collection started in 2004, and when I visited he claimed that there were 1,280 dangling from the ceiling – one apparently donated by Jackie Onassis. I guess “woke” hasn’t hit some parts of this island.

Whether you want to hide your millions from the taxman or are simply looking for a Caribbean holiday that’s a cut above, the Cayman islands might be the place for you.

Clockwise from above right: a Seafire Resort room; the Kaibo marina; Stingray City; Seven Mile Beach; by the pool. Photographs: Getty/iStockphoto

FACTFILE

British Airways flights to Cayman Islands from Heathrow, www.ba.comWhere to stay: Kimpton Seafire for luxury, www.seafireresortandspa.comA cheaper option is Sunshine Suites, www.sunshinesuites.comEco Tour five-hour trip including Stingray City and Bio Bay tours with Six Senses,www.caymansixsenses.comSunday lunch at Kaibo Yacht Club, www.kaibo.kyQueen Elizabeth Botanic Park, www.botanic-park.ky