The Times-Picayune: "...the Turtle Nest is perhaps the best buy on the island" (10/11/02)
Grand time on Cayman
Middle class families can find comfort on one of the Caribbean's most expensive
By Cindy Loose The Washington Post
GRAND CAYMAN -- Squeamish about the swarms of bugs in the shower, I go to bed in our sweltering, $75-a-night B&B with sand from Grand Cayman Island beaches still clinging to my skin.Our night in this frayed hotel is part of our grand experiment to test accommodations at both ends of the price spectrum on Grand Cayman, one of the costliest of Caribbean islands. We'll stay in two budget properties at less than $100 a night. Then we'll take a leap to a $300-a-night resort, and see if we have three times more fun. My notion is that accommodations won't be terribly important on a vacation to this most perfect of islands, where we'll spend most of our time on golden beaches and snorkeling in water so clear you can see a fish darting 120 feet away. On the nights we're spending $300, we'll skimp on everything else in this pricey set of islands. But when we sleep cheap, we'll splurge on good food, a car and side trips. I'm betting that a room is a room is a room, and that we'll have more fun, given the splurges, at a budget property.
So here we are on sagging beds, far enough from those golden beaches that ocean breezes can't reach us. My husband keeps trying to coax a little more conditioned air from a window unit. My daughter struggles to get a single station tuned on our snowy TV and asks if we can leave early. I try to stave off the depressing atmosphere by focusing on tomorrow's step in our experiment -- the luxury resort. That's not to say I was wrong. On another night, we find a perfectly acceptable motel on the sea for $75. And if I were to return to the Caymans, it would be to one of two places we found off the beaten track: the Turtle Nest Inn, where rooms start at $89 a night, and Cobalt Coast Resorts, where oceanfront rooms range from $160 to $240. In other words, the playground of the wealthy can be within reach of the middle class.
And what a playground it is. The Caymans -- comprising Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, about 150 miles south of Cuba -- are the most prosperous and modern of the Caribbean islands, with good roads and hospitals and an average household income of about $64,000 a year. The islands boast the best diving in the Caribbean. The snorkeling is superb, the beaches glorious. Because there are no rivers or streams, there's no runoff to cloud the water. Grand Cayman is also highly favored by golfers, and it's one of the rare places on Earth where friendly stingrays freely gather, eating treats from your hand.
A tax haven
Because the government of this British colony imposes no income, corporate, inheritance, capital gains or property taxes, the islands are a favorite tax haven. In fact, there are more registered companies on Grand Cayman than people: 59,922 versus 37,083. Critics complain that some of the 449 banks and 115 trust companies aren't too picky about the source of money deposited in them. But what lax financial laws mean for the tourist is this: no obvious poverty, no begging, an extremely low crime rate, no desperate hawkers following you with trays of cheap jewelry, no obvious resentment from the locals. Nearly all of the development here has been confined to the largest of the three islands, Grand Cayman. Even on Grand Cayman, construction is concentrated on a pristine stretch of sand called Seven Mile Beach. Anyone who likes the ritziest sections of Miami's Biscayne Boulevard will feel right at home along Seven Mile Beach.
But we're looking for cheap sleeps, and the Harbour View Inn, at $75 a night, is one of the first places I call to check availability when I plan my trip. It has the advantage of being on the water, near the edge of Seven Mile Beach. The friendly island cadence in the owner's voice is a good sign. I imagine her as a motherly woman of ample weight who would smother you in a hug at the slightest provocation. I tell her I'll talk it over with my husband and call back.
Two weeks later, I do. She says she's sold out. "Oh," I say, "I'm sorry I didn't book when I called two weeks ago." She has no idea I'm a travel writer, but she remembers that phone conversation and has a room for me -- she's been saving it, waiting for my call. Hey, even if the place turns out to be a dump, this is a woman to whom I want to give my business. We arrive at the Harbour View from the airport, and it turns out my mental picture of the owner was exactly right. She welcomes me with a hug before check-in.
Snorkeling and dining
The Harbour View is a newish hotel of apartments facing the water and an older, one-story, motel-like property with a concrete porch. We're in the latter. A pan of water for rinsing sandy feet sits in front of each stoop. The room's a bit dark, and drab, but it's clean, the bathroom modern. There's just enough room to squeeze a cot beside the double bed. A sandy beach, with palm trees and picnic tables, ends in a smooth sheet of rock a couple feet from shore. So what? We have our beach, and there are schools of fish around the dock and just beyond. We snorkel for hours, until time for dinner. We eat in style next door, at a fancy restaurant called the Wharf. Then we take a boat to Sting Ray City, which turns out to be the highlight of our trip.
There is no city in Sting Ray City, but there are stingrays. Dozens of them. Decades ago, when Grand Cayman was a village of merchant seamen and fishermen, the daily catch would be cleaned at this offshore sandbar. The stingrays that surrounded the vessels for scraps either never forgot or are just happy to see tourist boats arriving with free sardines. Divers play with stingrays deep underwater. We stand knee-deep on the sandbar and stroke the velvety skin of these alien creatures. They fan their bodies against our legs, then surface as if asking to be petted. They eat from our hands. I hold out my arms just under the water's surface, and a stingray comes and lies across them. They only sting if you step on their tails, so we shuffle through the water. You must go barefoot to avoid injuring the rays. The tour guide briefly lifts one from the water and turns it so we can see its white underside. Their little piggy eyes are on top of their heads, but underneath, they have a scrunched face that seems to be smiling. I'm mesmerized.
We're on a high that quickly plunges when the tour operator's bus drops us at our second night's budget accommodation, the one with the rattling, inefficient air conditioner. The owner, who seemed very kind on the phone, was off island attending a funeral at the time of our visit. She might have addressed our problems had she been around. The guest book in the entryway had nice comments from some guests, so I can't find it in my heart to name the place and ruin a family business that may satisfy others. This B&B is a short drive from both the beach and the shopping and entertainment areas. My conclusion, after a night there, is that there's no use traveling to the sea unless you are on, or within a couple blocks of, the water. We escape our room by going to dinner -- but the highly recommended Almond Tree is also a disappointment. The food is described in gourmet language, but our meals don't match the descriptions or the prices. We pack before going to bed. The minute we awaken, we head out to spend our savings until it's time to check into our deluxe hotel. A rental car is one of our splurges.
Later, exploring the island, we keep our eyes peeled for affordable hotels that might have been omitted in guidebooks. I skid to a stop when I see the Spanish-style, two-story Turtle Nest Inn. A red-tiled breezeway leads to a small pool, a sandy beach, then the sea. A tangle of seaweed mars the water's edge, but it clears just offshore, near a coral reef. The rooms and one-bedroom apartments are furnished with wicker, filled with light and have clean tile floors. Each has a patio or balcony. Best of all, with rooms starting at $89 a night, the Turtle Nest is perhaps the best buy on the island. "This is a great place to relax away from the crowds," says David Pex of Portland, Ore., a repeat guest who's running the hotel while the owner vacations. "We like to be connected to a place. As tourists, you'll never be part of the community, but staying out here you interact with the community."
During my days on the island, I continue to search for acceptable lodgings for less than $200. It's relatively easy to find options within those parameters off-season, but winter rates tend to knock out most contenders -- at least those on the waterfront. That's especially true along the prime location of Seven Mile Beach, which runs along the shore several miles from George Town. My best advice for those who insist on staying close to this upscale part of the island: Treasure Island Resort. Winter rates are technically at least $20 more than my $200 threshold, but deals are available. In October and November, for example, when rates are normally $155 to $190, the resort recently was listed on Expedia.com for $115. A series of swimming pools weave through the property. Rooms have tile floors, air conditioning, cable TV and sliding-glass doors leading to patios or balconies. It's a good buy for the location in the heart of the action.
Another mid-range hotel we liked is Cobalt Coast Resort and Suites, a few miles down from Seven Mile Beach, where rooms start at $160. One of this hotel's greatest assets is its feeling of remoteness. The two-story property is simple yet elegant and only two years old. All of the rooms are modern, with tile or wood floors. At the high end of the scale, the Westin Casuarina offers everything you'd expect from a top resort, down to the manicured grounds around pools with swim-up bars. We learn upon check-in that the hotel's Casa Havana is the only four-diamond restaurant on the island. We walk a shaded path lined with carefully tended tropical flowers. Since our splurge is now the hotel itself, we'll be going across the street for dinner, to Chicken! Chicken! (It's a Boston Market of a different name.) We take out our dinner to enjoy it on our third-floor balcony, overlooking the broad white beach and turquoise water.
Pretend you're royalty
One way to appreciate a trip is to stay in a place better than your own home, and this resort certainly fits that definition. As we stroll the beach the next day, we come upon other lovely self-contained resorts. The Marriott Beach Resort, in particular, seems like it could deliver on its promise to "transport you into a lush paradise, adorned by fragrant flora and colorful fauna . . . ." We've no reason to look for a better beach while here, because this is the best. We can no longer afford the boating trips offered on our beach, but we don't need them. We can swim to a good snorkeling spot next door to the Westin, at a public beach in front of the residence of the governor, appointed by Her Majesty the Queen.
It's easy to just laze around, without a care in the world, and pretend this is your life. What's not to like? But as I put on my resort wear so as not to feel too trashy walking through the Westin lobby, I kind of wish I could just walk out in my bare feet to the terrace of the Cobalt Coast, or the breezeway of the Turtle Nest Inn, or even the concrete porch of the Harbour View. Besides, I don't think the owner of the Westin will ever offer to let me run the place should he need a vacation, no matter how often I come back.
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