I’m recently back from a pre-Christmas trip to Grand Cayman, which was a lovely respite from the D.C. cold (we were on the first direct flight from Washington to George Town), and a nice getaway before the stress of the holiday season. It was my first visit to the island, and despite the locals’ complaints about the “Christmas winds” I found the island’s beaches just dandy, thanks. Even a tiny tan is enough for now.
Admittedly, I didn’t know much about the history of Grand Cayman before I left, and even after digging through some books I came up a bit short. So I was glad to uncover several places on the island off the main drag along Seven Mile Beach (with its many rum shops and tourist traps), which offered up a bit of authentic Cayman culture. Here are a few highlights:
For the past five years, painter and entrepreneur Chris Christian has been inviting travelers to get closer to Cayman culture with Cayman Traditional Arts, a series of demonstrations, workshops, and events which highlight the island’s history. Christian, a Cayman native, explains that grew up on the island “learning about George Washington,” but not about his own past. Since returning home from college, he’s worked to promote the island’s food, games, and crafts to both its residents and its visitors, and to “create a sustainable lifestyle for its artists.” He began by creating an artist collective, which works with local craftspeople to harvest and prepare the fronds from the silver palm, the island’s national tree, for use in traditional baskets and ropes. As the project has grown, he recently acquired and restored a traditional “wattle and daub” house built in 1917, where I visited him, and where he currently hosts groups from the Ritz-Carlton, among other properties.
The site itself is in the West Bay, and I got a mini-tour of the activities that he offers there. Christian explained how the thatch from the silver palm is twisted into strands, and then braided together with a rope machine. I then took a spin, so to speak, on the machine, and made a length by twisting the three spindles together simultaneously. Even my mini-tour made for a fantastic morning: I sampled fritters from the fish fry stand and learned to make paintbrushes from palm fronds. Christian takes his programs into schools and churches, helping to teach the island’s children about their history, and he also hosts art programs and exhibitions of their artwork in hotels throughout the island. Our visit was the highlight of my trip, and I encourage anyone to reach out to Christian to plan a visit if you’re heading to Grand Cayman.
Pedro St. James is the island’s Philadelphia and Gettysburg rolled into one; albeit in the form of a single building. The “Castle,” as its known to the locals, has 18-inch-thick stone walls and was built in 1780, and was originally owned by an Englishman who had a plantation on the property. In the 1830s it was the site where the island established its parlimentary government and announced the proclamation which freed the slaves. In ensuing years, fires and hurricanes destroyed the home, and it changed hands many times, at one point serving as a popular tourist attraction as a pirate’s “castle.” Thankfully, the building was bought and named a National Historic Site by the Cayman government in 1991, and a $8 million restoration rebuilt it to its original grandeur. Today you can take in an interactive show about the island’s history, then walk along the castle’s wide porches, feeling the breezes off the Caribbean. Some of the guides at the site are ancestors of the original owners, and are more than happy to share stories from the past (and show you the 19th Century recliner, pictured).
One of the most highly recommended spots during our trip turned out to be very close to our hotel. Vivine’s Kitchen is actually a house, and the food is served on plastic tables that overlook the Carribbean from a concrete terrace. Order from behind the half door that looks into the kitchen itself and no matter what’s on the menu, you won’t be disappointed. We sampled the mahi-mahi Cayman style (a sauce that includes onions, tomatoes, and peppers) and curried chicken, both of which were served with rice and beans and sweet plantains (and were fantastic). The conch stew, turtle soup, and fried fish all come highly recommended as well. Located on the East End of the island, it’s an oasis along the only road, and it only takes cash. But as a great, and cheap, local bite on an island known for catering to those partaking in its offshore banking, it was a delightful find.
Photos: Janelle Nanos
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