Cayman Islands: Above and below the surface

Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers dove 65 feet under the sea without getting wet, toured a 200-year-old kitchen and talked turtles with an expert in Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands. Her report follows:

lthough I love being in and on the water, ear problems prevent me from diving. On a recent trip to Grand Cayman, I discovered the Bubble Sub, and it opened up a new underwater world for me.

Picture an adult version of a kid's float toy, in neon yellow, that looks like part-tank/part-moonwalk vehicle, complete with a joystick, a glass-bubble Plexiglas dome and a professional underwater pilot.

My adventure began when Cayman Submariners' motorboat picked me up at the Westin Casuarina on Seven Mile Beach one morning.

Accompanying me was a professional dive friend, also visiting Grand Cayman, who wanted to check out this newest water sport.

Ten minutes later, we pulled up to the dive boat. Moored alongside was the perky-looking Bubble Sub.

Simon Boxall, one of the four Bubble Sub divers, briefed us: "The sub is watertight, pressurized, approved and inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard. We'll go down 65 feet. I'll point out fish and reefs as we go. You can hear me on your earphones. I'll be right behind you in the water, steering the sub. Give me a hand signal if you want to steer and just grab hold of the joystick."

This sounded like a ton of fun. We climbed aboard, strapped on seatbelts and earphones, closed the hatch and began the descent.

For the next 30 minutes, my world was one of iridescent French grunts, schoolmaster snappers, groupers, tube sponges, star corals and fish identified as trumpet, parrot, angel and sergeant majors.

The view from the 360-degree see-through dome was like being in the front row of a great Broadway show. The pilot's patter came through loud and clear, and my ears never felt better.

I was eyeball to eyeball with a coral reef. Lurking in its shadowy crevices were spiny sea urchins and undulating sponges. Darting in front of the bubble window were tiny transparent creatures. They all appeared to be smiling.

Boxall said the dome's shape altered our perspective. "The fish are really a lot bigger than they appear."

Stingray City in Grand Cayman is a popular attraction in the Cayman Islands, famous for its snorkel and dive sites. Too soon we were back on the surface and aboard the dive boat for the short return ride to Seven Mile Beach.

In the two years since Cayman Submariners began operations, the sub has completed more than 2,500 dives (two passengers per trip and a maximum of eight dives per day). A second bubble sub joins the "fleet" this month.

"We pick up passengers at any hotel along Seven Mile Beach," Boxall said. "If passengers stay elsewhere, we arrange transfers from their hotels to the beach."

The sub is handicapped-accessible, and the rate of $139 per person, based on two, is commissionable at 10%.

How could that adventure be equaled? A Stingray beer -- brewed in Grand Cayman and, unfortunately, not exported -- perked me right up.

On to Pedro St. James National Historic Site, which Caymanians revere as the site of their independence. It's in Savannah, on Grand Cayman's south coast, 30 minutes from George Town.

Pedro St. James is definitely worth a visit from an historical perspective. Built in 1780 by slaves as a private residence, the house later served as the birthplace of Caymanian democracy when the first elected assembly was formed in 1831.

Four years later, Caymanian leaders read the Proclamation of Emancipation, which abolished slavery, from the Palladian staircase of the house.

I explored the tiny jail cell used to detain offenders. The "prisoner" in the cell is a very realistic mannequin, so be warned.

I saw the replica of a 200-year-old wooden cook room, or kitchen, and enjoyed the 30-minute multimedia show that tells the story of the house, complete with theatrical effects, fire and dripping water.

The site was restored after the Caymanian government purchased it in 1991, reopened in 1998 and last year welcomed more than 30,000 visitors.

Next stop on my abbreviated itinerary was Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, a 65-acre garden preserve about 20 minutes east of Pedro St. James in Grand Cayman's interior.

I wanted to see Charlie, whom I'd met and bonded with on previous visits. Charlie is a majestic blue iguana with a fondness for visitors wearing bright colors and big earrings.

Charlie remembered me, and we reconnected again when we made eye contact, with the safety of a four-foot stone wall between us.

The park has a half-mile walking trail, replete with native orchids, stands of silver thatch -- the national tree of the Cayman Islands -- palms and brilliant green Caymanian parrots in the brush.

John Lawrus, park superintendent, said up to 120 visitors stop by each day. "We don't get many cruise ship visitors because we are a bit off the tourist path," he said.

Business fell off last fall, but "we had a good winter season," Lawrus said.

My last stop was the Cayman Turtle Farm and a chat with Kenneth Hydes, director.

The farm, north of Seven Mile Beach, sustained major damage last November from Hurricane Michelle. It's open to visitors again but is relocating its turtle breeding facilities further inland.

"We initially lost many of our turtles in the storm surge, but Caymanians helped rescue them," Hydes said. "We are strengthening the sea walls, redesigning the facility and will be fully operational by next winter."

New attractions will include a cave system in the nearby cliffs, more kids' programs and maybe an aquarium.

Hydes said that more than 340,000 visitors found their way to the farm last year, 75% of them off cruise ships.

The typical cruise visitor stays 45 minutes at the farm, while stayover visitors linger almost two hours. I definitely recommend the longer visit.

In fact, I recommend that all visitors stay longer in the Cayman Islands than I did.

So many sights, so little time.

Contacts: Grand Cayman, by the numbers

Cayman Islands Tourism Association
Phone: (800) 346-3313

Cayman Submariners
Phone: (345) 916-DIVE
E-mail:[email protected]
Rate: $139 per person, based on two people per dive

Pedro St. James National Historic Site
Phone: (345) 947-3329
Hours: Daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Admission: $6, $4 ages 3-12

Cayman Turtle Farm
Phone: (345) 949-3893
E-mail:[email protected]
Hours: Daily, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
Admission: $6, $3

Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park
Phone: (345) 947-9462
Hours: Daily, 9 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
Admission: $5, $3

Room key: Westin Casuarina Resort & Spa
Address: Seven Mile Beach Rd., George Town, Grand Cayman
Phone: (800) WESTIN-1 or (345) 945-3800
E-mail:[email protected]
General manager: Dan Szydlowski
Sample rates: From $241 to $435 per room, per night, double to mid-December. Special promotions and packages are also in effect.
Location: Right on 700 feet of Seven Mile Beach, about 20 minutes from the airport and 3 miles from George Town.
Number of rooms: 343
Raves: New Hibiscus Spa offers top-notch mango-scented body massages and other treatments. The dinner-only Havana restaurant does a great job with Cuban/Caribbean cuisine. Westin's Heavenly Bed is well-named.
Rants: Views from the standard rooms of parking lot and main drag combined with dull room decor do not translate well.

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