Round Up

Here’s a bit of a round up of my travels – what I liked, what I didn’t, what worked well, what I’d do differently next time and just other general bits and pieces.

London

London in late June (early summer) is light.  It’s light at around 3.30/4.00am in the morning until around 10pm at night.  I found this a little difficult to get used to, especially coming from winter in Australia.  My advice if you like your sleep, make sure your windows are closed, blinds pulled down and perhaps invest in some earplugs and an eye mask.

Find a Waitrose, M&S or local fruit stall to stock up on fresh fruit.  Pret a Manger is a great cheap place to find breakfast or a sandwich and they are everywhere.

The underground was really easy to use.  I would suggest getting an Oyster card before you arrive in London.

I would definitely stay at the Rydges Hotel Kensington again.  It wasn’t really walking distance to all the action, but it was a few underground stops away and there was definitely enough in the area to not need to be.  It was close to the underground, supermarkets, plenty of restaurants etc.  I ate at the Hotel restaurant, the Jam Cupboard and was really impressed with the meal.  And of course, Kensington Palace and Hyde Park were just down the road.

There are people out late on the streets, but a lot of stuff doesn’t open til later in the morning.  So use it to sleep in or explore the streets while its quiet or go for a walk through Hyde Park.

Grand Cayman Island

The Caribbean Ocean is stunning.  However, it is very salty.  It played havoc with my hair, hats and clothes.  My suggestions would be to travel with a small container of hair treatment or at least wash your hair after every beach visit.  Rinse anything that you wear into or around the water so that the salt doesn’t ruin it.  Don’t pack overly good clothes.  Make sure it’s beach friendly, because truly that is where you will spend half of your time.  I reckon I didn’t use 1/4 of the clothes I packed for this very reason.

Sunscreen is a MUST.  I can’t stress this enough.  Even coming from Australia, the sun was so bitey.  Please be careful or you will end up very, very burnt.  And make sure you drink enough water.  Dehydration can happen rapidly.

Take an underwater camera, disposable or otherwise.  Schools of fish, stingrays and starfish can all be found in stunning clear water less than 1/2 meter deep.  So even if you aren’t into snorkelling or scuba diving, you can be assured to see sealife somewhere!

This is the place for water sports.  And because the waters are so calm and warm, it’s the best place to give them a try for the first time too.  Snorkeling, stand up paddle boarding, kayaking, scuba diving – just give it a bash.

Despite the fact that Cayman is not huge, it is not really that easy to get from one part of the island to the other.  A lot of the attractions are spread across different parts of the island.  My advice would be to either hire a car, or if you want to hit up numerous attractions pick up a tour.  Generally the tours visit the same locations, so choose between what you will see on the tour and what you can get to by local bus or taxi easily.

I would definitely stay along 7-Mile beach again.  A self-contained room, like what you’ll find at Sunshine Suites is perfect.  That way you can prepare the majority of your meals and then just splash out on the odd one.  There are some great value buffet meals around – like XQ’s and the Marriott’s Buckaneer’s feast.  But don’t forget to try some local specialties.

New York

If you are happy with a not so close up snapshot of the Statue of Liberty, just catch the free Staten Island Ferry.  If you want a better close up, I would suggest taking one of the paid ferries, which travel closer to the statue.  Of course, if you actually want to access Ellis Island and climb the statue, then that’s another option again.

The museums are huge.  Central Park is huge.  A lot of the time, you will need to decide whether you have time to dedicate a whole day or whether you want to fit more into your day.  I chose to do a little of each thing, rather than one or two things, but that’s just me.

New York is an easy city to walk around.  I walked most places, but I found that cabs were affordable and used them on occasions such as late at night or for further trips.  Bring good walking shoes.

New York is a noisy city.  Earplugs did not work for me.  Get yourself good and tired during the day and then have a few glasses of wine before bed, perhaps go to bed with the TV on snooze and hopefully that will give you a few good hours before daylight.

I found it easy to eat relatively healthy in New York.  There are plenty of shops such as Pret a Manger, Fresh & Co, Hale & Hearty where you can get fresh salads, sandwiches and fruit and they are open all day serving breakfast through to dinners.

New York is literally the city that never sleeps, but the city doesn’t sleep in either, so if you are into getting out there and seeing all the sights you can stuff into your visit, plan on some long, long days.  There are people out on the streets until late at night, and you can dine at any time of the day.

I wouldn’t stay here any less than 4 nights next time.  I stayed at the Affinia Manhattan in Midtown, across the road from Madison Square Gardens and a 10-15 minute walk from Times Square.  I felt this was a perfect location.  The hotel, whilst old, had been recently renovated.  The rooms were large and funky, if not still showing some signs of age.  Niles Restaurant had great meals and hotel guests were entitled to a 20% discount on dining in.  There were a load of restaurants around the area in any case.

Seattle

I stayed in Belltown and I don’t reckon I could have chosen a better place.  Walking distance to the Space Needle/EMP, Pike Place Market, the shopping district and the waterfront, loads and loads of restaurants and bars to choose from – what more could you want.  Seattle is an easy city to walk around, and its such a pretty place, there’s no reason you wouldn’t want to.

Get out and visit Mt Rainier – it’s worth it.  I chose Mt Rainier over Yosemite, as Mt Rainier is only a 2hour trip each way.  I chose Evergreen Escapes and although I probably paid a little more, the service and quality of the day was well and truly worth it.

Things don’t get going that early in the morning, so go for a walk around the markets, sleep in or do breakfast somewhere nice.

I wouldn’t stay here any less than 4 nights next time.  And I would definitely stay at the Ace Hotel again (I had a private room, but you can book otherwise).  The free breakfast was awesome.  The place smelt so clean and fresh and the staff were awesome.  The bed was the most comfortable I stayed in the whole time I was away.  FYI – Ace also have a hotel in New York.

San Francisco

San Francisco is not really an easy city to walk around.  A lot of the streets are actually at a 45 degree angle.  Obviously if that’s what you’re into, then go for it.

There are homeless people everywhere, as with all cities, but I didn’t feel threatened anywhere else.   I didn’t do my research thoroughly enough and ended up on the edge of Tenderloin (well I knew there were homeless people around, but just not quite the extent).  In saying that, Macys, Saks Fifth Avenue, the Hilton and the Westin were all about two blocks away and they weren’t immune either.  I probably would have felt more comfortable staying in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, seeing as that’s where I spent most of my time. There’s loads of restaurants here and most of the tourist attractions are here or leave from here.  Because I didn’t feel safe here by myself, I would suggest the city sightseeing buses or guided tours with hotel pickup/dropoff.

I chose to stay at the Best Western Hotel California.   The vegan restaurant at the hotel, Millenium was fabulous.  Don’t let the fact that its vegan put you off – the meals are so hearty that you probably won’t even notice.  But I wouldn’t stay here again.

If you want to go to Alcatraz, book in advance if possible.

Pack warm.  Even in ‘summer’.  July (summer) is the foggiest month.  I would say it was more akin to winter in Perth.

Singapore

Let’s face it, I don’t think there’s many parts of Singapore that you could go wrong for accommodation.  But that said, I like indulging in everything that Singapore has to offer.  The only thing that would determine my accommodation is this – if you want to relax by the water, have kids or want to indulge in water sports – head to Sentosa.  If you are keen for shopping – stay on Orchard Road.  If you are into luxury – head to Marina Bay.  If you like Museums and great food, perhaps head for Chinatown or the Raffles area.  If you want a quieter, greener area, try around Cuscaden Road.  Keep in mind, nowhere on the island is more than a 10-20 minute taxi ride and Singapore’s MRT system is fantastic.  So you really can’t go wrong.

There is always something new to do in Singapore.  Keep an eye out on www.yoursingapore.com, www.timeoutsingapore.com or even just make sure you pick up the tourist brochures at the airport like Where and you will find out all you need to know about where to go and what to do.  I can recommend any tours by Tour East (www.toureast.net), especially the Night Safari with dinner, which I find to be the best value.

Singapore is not just about tourist attractions though, so if like me, you had no idea how much history Singapore had particularly in relation to World War II, make sure you check out Fort Siloso (on Sentosa), Changi Prison & Chapel, Fort Canning or the Old Ford Factory for starters.

Culture vultures will not want to miss the Chinatown Heritage Museum and the Peranakan Museum.  There are also numerous walking tours through Chinatown and Little India.  And for art lovers – you must stop by SAM or the Art Science Museum.  But sometimes, the best thing about Singapore is that even if you just stroll around the streets, you will get a really good picture of the country, its food and its people.  And don’t be afraid to try anything here – the food is amazing.

Again, things don’t get going until around 10/11am in the morning, so use the time to enjoy brunch, sleep in or just explore the streets or Botanic Gardens while it’s quiet.

Hotel 1929’s terrace rooms are the best.  That said, I would only chose one of these if I were by myself or with a boyfriend etc, simply because the rooms are on the small side and the toilet is situated in with the shower, surrounded by glass.  The hotel itself is in a great location, the staff were amazing.  Free wifi, good coffee, free breakfast, free cookies and drinks.  Well worth the price, which was much less than a lot of the other big name hotels

Don’t bother with a transfer here, just grab a cab from outside the airport.

Overall

Whilst there’s lots of conjecture over what works and what doesn’t when trying to combat jet lag, what worked for me was a) following the time clock of the city I arrived in (ie. even if you are tired, make yourself go out for dinner or even just sit on a city sightseeing bus and go to sleep when the sun goes down) and b) try Jet Ease (or No Jet Lag), they may be called something different in your country, but I found this homeopathic remedy to work a treat.

Book transfers.  I know you can catch taxis, but I prefer to know that I don’t have to bothered thinking about where I’m going and how I’m going to get there after a long flight.

I booked a lot of tickets on line which saved time queuing up.

When you are budgeting, make sure you include for tipping – I found this added incredibly to my bills in Cayman and the US.

Everyone will tell you this – but don’t over pack.  You won’t use it all.  And if there’s something  you need while you are there, if you need it bad enough, you can buy it.

Buy a second battery for your camera.  I take lots of photos and the best investment I made was in a second battery.  I find there are lots of days where I spend all day snapping away and not having to worry that I’m running out of battery is a relief.  Obviously make sure you have lots of spare cards if you are also this way inclined.

My best flights were with Emirates, Jet Blue and Singapore Airlines.  I was surprised that you had to buy food on the six hour Virgin flight from New York to Seattle.

Order a low fat meal for the flight home!

Any questions?  Please drop me a line and I’ll be more than happy to share my point of view!

Little Flight to the Big Apple

Day 18:  Grand Cayman Island / New York

Today it’s time to say goodbye to great friends.  I’ve had the trip of a lifetime.  I’ve seen and done so many things outside my comfort zone.  For the girl who doesn’t like the ocean, iguanas, turtles, stingrays or sand, many days have certainly been a challenge, but I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.  And it’s all been made possible by wonderful friends.

We will definitely be meeting up again somewhere in their continuous journey, but we still can’t decide where for now – the possibilities are endless.  It’s hard to believe that the next couple of weeks will not involve iguana counting or stopping for chickens to cross the road.  The days and hours will certainly rev up a few notches from Cayman time.  But I’m sure there’ll be a whole new set of challenges.

Like overcoming nerves. I’m not sure why but I’ve got an incredible set of nerves today, sitting like an open pit in the bottom of my stomach.

So I hop onto my JetBlue flight and head to the US of A.  A country I definitely have never, ever wanted to visit.  Though I have to say, I am actually just a teensy bit excited…just a little.  First stop is New York!  The Big Apple.  A place that everyone seems to enjoy and everyone promises I will just love.  So let’s see…

Despite my nerves the flight is fine apart from the middle aged couple seated next to me who have a penchant for snogging for just about the whole flight.  Gross.  It’s actually quite a cheery flight.  Once we are all seated the hostess makes us sing.  “When I say Jet, you say Blue”, “Jet”, “Blue”, for about ten minutes.  And then, when the plane lands everyone claps – why is this?  The flight wasn’t bumpy.  What’s going on?  Was there something going on during the flight (apart from snogging) that I didn’t know about?  I think it may be a call to past times when flying was a new thing and you were so glad that your plane actually got up into the sky and then landed that it rather was worth a round of applause.

And a special note to the customs officer in the UK who scared me half to death with tales of needing a printed day to day itinerary to prove I should be let in to the US – I was only asked my purpose of visit.  No need for the reams of paper I packed into my hand luggage.  You sir, are just a Meany!

Leaving JFK airport is not a spectacular ride.  But when you start to head into Manhattan, the sky is awash with millions of twinkling lights.  You can see the Empire State and Chrysler buildings glistening against the skyline and it all looks very magical.  But the lights here are nothing to what you see driving down Seventh Avenue through Times Square – whoa!  Neon billboards scream their messages to you, there are signs for every Broadway show in town and there are people out everywhere.

Finally, I arrive at my newly renovated hotel, and it looks pretty swanky.  Given all the people outside, I really should go out into the streets and have a look around, but I have a bit of a headache and I am so tired that I decide to dine in a the hotel downstairs, which was a mistake in itself, because I am seated next to a family of tone deaf people (a mother, father and what sounds like 20 young kids, though it’s only 3), who start to regail stories of growing up and which older sibling changed which young siblings dirty nappies, who broke what bones and who was sick everywhere.  My head is now thumping twice as bad, so I leave the rest of my meal and head to my room to go straight to bed.

Sightseeing can wait till tomorrow.

DAILY IGUANA COUNT: 1 (in the mouth of a dog)

Standing Up in Cayman

Day 17:  Grand Cayman Islands

This mornings news runs a story about a plane crash at San Francisco International Airport.  Two dead, no idea of the cause.  It’s causing all kinds of delays to flights though, with the earliest flights to SFO likely to be Wednesday.  I’m not due to fly to San Fran until next Sunday, so fingers crossed it’s all cleared within the next week.

One of the first experiences on my list of things to do in Cayman was to learn stand up paddle boarding.  For the uninitiated, stand up paddle boarding, or SUP’ing, is basically where you get a big board like a flat surfboard and a paddle, and you paddle along over the water using your pole.  And that’s exactly where I’m off to today.  I’ve booked a 1hr private lesson so that I get the best chance at not looking like an idiot on my board. I’m due to meet Jonny at 11.30. He’s late. I’m not sure whether I’m standing in the wrong spot or whether he’s just not coming. Fifteen minutes later and just as I’m about to give up, he arrives apologizing for his lateness and explaining that it was due to Wimbledon. He’s quite good looking so I forgive him.

SUPing in Cayman
SUPing in Cayman

He pulls the boards and paddles from the back of the truck and we head down to the sand. After running through the basics (if only I had a $1 for every time I have been told to keep eyes up over the last year, yes I’m looking at you Mel) its time to brave the waters. Its actually easier to get on the board and stand up than I thought it would be, forget the fact Jonny’s holding the board steady. We run through a few paddles and how to turn and I’m doing it!

It takes a lot of work in your lower legs to keep yourself steady on the board and a lot of upper body work to get and keep yourself moving. But I am definitely having much less trouble than I thought I would. Gliding over the waves you get a totally different view of the ocean and I particularly love the fact that theres a nice thick board between me and whatever is down there. I manage to fall off only twice, yay for me, and I get to try two different boards. His board, which is narrower is actually easier to handle.

The hour is over so quickly but I’ve really enjoyed SUPing and will have to look into doing it more once I get home. I’m proud to say I nailed it.  Jonny said so.

There’s one last thing I’ve got to do here and that’s to head to the Resort restaurant, the Sunshine Grill, and try their special – tres tacos.   Sunshine Grill has the reputation of preparing the best tacos on the island, so I’ve just gotta find out!  One of my favourite things at home is taco night at Mum and Dad’s when Lola is over for the school holidays, so I need to know how these ones compare.  The tacos are soft tacos, one filled with mahi-mahi (fish), one with shrimp and the other with Cuban chicken.  They are really yummy, especially the shrimp one, that’s my favourite.  But I’m glad to say that given our basic tacos back home are hard shelled, I can safely say that these ones pose no threat to taco night at home, simply because they are different.  They will be another great thing I remember about Cayman.

Tres Tacos
Tres Tacos

For the last night in Cayman, we head to Sunset House for dinner.  I get to see my last Caribbean sunset and it’s all very lovely until it starts to rain, quite hard.  Luckily we have finished our meal just as it gets to heavy, so we head home, stopping by Legendz for a last drink together.  I can’t quite believe two weeks has gone by already.

The last goodbye
The last goodbye

DAILY IGUANA COUNT:  7

The Other Side of Cayman

Day 16:  Grand Cayman Islands

My last weekend on the island already and Katie and Yoshi have a big day of sightseeing on the other side of Cayman, namely Bodden Town (Pirate Caves), Cayman Kai (Starfish and Rum Points) and the East End (Wreck of the Ten Sails and Library Beach).  We pack picnic snacks and wine into the car, grab fresh towels, snorkel gear and all the cameras we can carry and off we go.

Pirate Cave

Driving through Bodden Town, we come to the Pirate Caves, a tourist attraction on the main road.  The building itself is being renovated, but we are still able to tour the animal sanctuary and pirate caves behind.  Cayman has a fascination with pirates.

Look closely - can you see the nooses hanging from the front of the house
Look closely – can you see the nooses hanging from the front of the house

By the mid to late 1600’s, the English had established themselves in Jamaica and begun treating the Cayman Islands as natural appendages of the larger territory.  Apart from small settlements on Grand Cayman and Little Cayman, most of the three islands were left untouched, which was ideal for pirates.  In addition Cayman lay astride the route of treasure galleons returning to Spain, laden with gold and silver from the New World.  This promise of capturing Spanish treasure ships on their way home from the Caribbean soon attracted the attention of a motley crowd of buccaneers, pirates and freebooters.  The ‘Golden Age’ of piracy spanned from the 1650s to the 1730s and Cayman’s most notorious pirate was Edward Teach, otherwise known as Blackbeard, who frequented the area from 1713 to his death in 1718.

Welcome to the Pirate Caves
Welcome to the Pirate Caves
Sew...what else is there to do in this cave while it's raining out?
Sew…what else is there to do in this cave while it’s raining out?

Some of the biggest names in buccaneering circles, including Lowther, Lowe, Morgan and Blackbeard, prowled the coasts of the Cayman Islands.  According to ‘A History of the Cayman Islands’, the abundance of fresh water, turtle meat and wood made Cayman an ideal landing spot.  Furthermore, the Islands offered pirate captains the possibility of finding crews to man captured vessels and a quiet location away from the authorities where pirates could hide their loot and careen and repair their vessels.  This pirate’s haven only lasted for about 110 years; by the 1730s, the scourge of the buccaneers had been largely tamed, if not discouraged by the growing population.

And that's for scaring me with iguanas!
And that’s for scaring me with iguanas!

Starfish Point

Starfish point is an amazing spot to visit.  You can see starfish right in the shallows of the water.  They are much larger than I thought they would be, a bright fiery red/orange in colour.  We counted about 4 starfish in our short visit.  There’s a signboard posted with ten fun facts about starfish – like starfish eat with their stomachs inside-out!

Yoshi checking out a starfish
Yoshi checking out a starfish

Rum Point

www.Caymanislands.ky describes Rum Point as a picturesque spot on the north side of Cayman, which “has something for everyone’s Caribbean beach vacation.  While younger children have the advantage of playing in the clear and shallow waters, adults have access to the top Caribbean watersport operators and a beach bars providing some of the best food and drinks on the island.

Rum Point Beach offers changing rooms, showers, huts, hammocks, volleyball nets and more. Not to mention the shallow and clear waters of Rum Point Beach make it the ideal beach for swimming in the Caribbean and offers the finest of snorkelling, ensuring that Rum Point is not only a fun and beautiful, but a convenient beach.”

No frowning mon!
No frowning mon!

Half way between Starfish and Rum Points is Kaibo, where we were going to go for the beach BBQ last week, before the weather changed our minds.  After kind naturedly berating the waitress for the weather which stopped our plans, and being only too aware of the unreasonable demands a lot of tourists place on hospitality industry professionals, we sit down to grab some drinks – is 11.20am too early for rum?  No, of course not.  However, we wash it down with fish goujons and poutiness (fries with gravy and cheese on them).

Banana Rum by the Beach
Banana Rum by the Beach

Driving along the coast, we pass boxed homes of turquoise, watermelon, sky blue, pale lime and lemon.  The verandahs house rows of chairs set for daily chats with neighbours and watching the sun go down.  Chickens still meander across the road, but in combination with scurrying crabs.  The waters are crystal clear and sparkle in the sun like diamonds.  It has a quieter vibe than Seven Mile Beach, more relaxed.

Wreck of the Ten Sails

I first read about the wreck of the ten sails at the National Museum last week.  So it was great to be able to go and see this memorial site for myself.  So what happened and how did ten sails get wrecked?

This historic shipwreck occurred off the East End of Grand Cayman in February 1794.

In a tragic case of crossed signals, ten ships that were part of a convoy on its way from Jamaica to the United States and Britain were wrecked on the surrounding reef.  The warning issued from the Cordelia to the other ships was misinterpreted as a call to follow more closely, and one by one nine more ships crashed into the reef.

Local residents braved the stormy waters and successfully rescued all of the ships’ crew and passengers.

Hard to see from the shore...
Hard to see from the shore…
...so here's a close up of what really happened
…so here’s a close up of what really happened

Library Beach

Pulling off the road, we discover Library Beach and it looks like the perfect spot to break out our little picnic.  Sand crabs and playing pop up in the sand nearby, you can hear their little claws clicking away.

Plonked on the Beach
Plonked on the Beach

Heading home past the blowholes, we are all flagging.  It’s been a long day, but it’s so different from the 7-Mile/West Bay side of the island, that you really can’t visit Cayman without seeing this part of it as well.

DAILY IGUANA COUNT:  13

Dolphins and Buckaneers

Day 15:  Grand Cayman Islands

Katie and I start the day with a nice walk around the golf course.  Nice walk until, like a scene out of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, Katie gets swooped by some rather aggressive little black birds, fired up by mating season.  Checking to make sure there’s no blood, we continue on our way, instinctively ducking whenever we see one.  I’m told that normally the iguanas flock to this golf course, but it’s early in the morning and not yet warm, so I am safe.

I can’t tell you how excited I am about our plans for today.  Katie has organised for us to visit Dolphin Cove to play with the dolphins.  And upon arrival, it’s clear we have been spoilt a treat – we score the ultimate dolphin package (itself worth USD$159), with video and photos included for the grand price of absolutely NOTHING!  I haven’t mentioned til now, but Katie has managed to score me discounts and free admissions to almost everything I have done on this island.  I have been truly spoilt and cannot thank her enough.  These things don’t happen to me in real life, and they are making my trip extra special because I am getting to experience so many new things – it’s absolutely amazing.  Though Katie rubs it off as just being perks of the hospitality industry, I can’t tell her how much it means to me.

In any case, the ultimate dolphin package means that we get to play with the dolphins – lots.  We are pecked on the cheek and get to kiss them back, we ride on their fins, dance with them and get a toepush ride from them.  Our new friends for the morning are Reggae and Luna.  They are such delightful creatures, all soft and velvety and this is truly an experience to remember.

Hitching a ride with the dolphins - or at least hitching my bikini bottoms up so there's no nasty surprises for the other spectators....
Hitching a ride with the dolphins – or at least hitching my bikini bottoms up so there’s no nasty surprises for the other spectators….

Driving along the highway, we feel like nothing can stop us.  Oh wait, I don’t think that’s euphoria anymore – actually nothing can stop us, except the handbrake, because unfortunately the car’s brakes seem to give up the ghost, and the traffic ahead is looming.  Thank goodness Katie pulls on the handbrake before the inevitable.  A kindly gentleman helps us push the vehicle to a parking space and we decide not to let this little mishap ruin our plans for the day and continue on to our lunch venue via local bus.

We arrive at Bread and Chocolate, which is a highly recommended Vegan restaurant in Georgetown.  The food here is amazing.  My portabello mushroom sandwich is so tasty – I just can’t understand why anyone would need meat with each meal if there’s mushrooms involved!  We decide to share desert so that we can both taste the peanut butter cups and caramel brownie – but the waitress, whom Katie has befriended previously, delivers us a serve each under the pretext it’s too hard to halve.  Oh goodness, we have been chowing down on Reece’s choc peanut butter cups, but these ones are in a whole nother realm.  I’m really glad we had the chance to dine here!

But we need to leave room for tonight’s Buccaneer’s Feast at Solana on the Beach at the Marriott Hotel.  Seeing as we missed out on the Kaibo beach BBQ due to the weather, and Culture Shock (a local culture and food evening) which we were going to be attending tonight being cancelled – this makes up for both – a buffet by the sea with live entertainment.

Ceviche and scallops
Ceviche and scallops

We are greeted by Katie’s friend Marc who proceeds to spoil us with the best table overlooking the water.  The spread features a salad bar, pasta bar (where you can choose your own pasta to be made fresh in front of you), a ceviche station – which also has the most amazing scallops and two types of ceviche (mahi-mahi and shrimp), hot dishes like roast beef, sautéed vegetables, plaintain mash, ribs and the like and of course – always the star of a buffet show – a dessert bar (think mini fruit tarts, smores, rum cake, chocolate brownie mousse…..).  The strawberry margueritas are going down an absolute treat.  And we pay barely nothing for this stunning evening, served with a shot of complimentary rum on the side.

Katie and Margeuritas
Katie and Margeuritas

There is a fire eater, who stuns the crowd with fire limbo display as well as fire blowing.  There’s live Caribbean music accompanied by the obligatory backing track.  There’s face painting (Katie wouldn’t let me get a moustache painted on though) and balloon shapes for the kids (little and big).

Oooooh
Oooooh

Of course the best part of the night for me aside from dining with my friends and yet another thing to tick of the list for this trip is the Caribbean sunset which is priceless.

The best things in life are free
The best things in life are free

DAILY IGUANA COUNT:  13

CayMangrove

Day 14:  Grand Cayman Islands

Today is a nice clear day – I’ve been waiting for another one of these!  It’s a good thing because I’m off kayaking again today, this time through mangrove country.

Mangrove Kayak

We paddle into the mangrove forest to discover the world under the mangrove canopy.  We glide through the waters looking for wildlife – we see a couple of different types of crabs, a barracuda and jellyfish, not to mention the iguanas in the mangrove trees.  The tour is run by Cayman Sea Elements and our guide is very knowledgeable and environmentally aware and we learn so many interesting facts – well most of us do, because the three boys in the family kayaking with me, could not seem any less interested and in the end, the guide encourages them to go off kayaking around the waters.

One of the interesting things the guide points out, is a sample of a seaplant named Mermaids Wineglass.  In the 1930s–1950s, Joachim Hammerling conducted experiments using Mermaids Wineglass (or whatever it’s more scientific name is) to demonstrate that genetic information is contained in the nucleus.  This was the first demonstration that genes are encoded by DNA in eukaryotes (organisms whose cells contain complex structures enclosed within membranes).

Unfortunately my underwater disposable camera takes one photo and decides it has had enough.  I’m sure the shot reader says 6, but clearly it meant to say 1.  Damn it.

So…..here’s a photo of an iguana instead….

Eeee-guana
Eeee-guana

Katie finishes up early today and we spend the afternoon down at the beach.  We head to Calico Jacks, but unfortunately it seems the passengers from the two cruise ships currently in port are thinking of the same thing.  There’s masses of people, packed into and around the bar, all across the beach chairs and packed into the ocean.  Then hour by hour, the shuttle busses herd up their passengers and pack them off back to the ship, leaving behind a trail of rubbish devastation.  Empty plastic cocktail cups, plastic water bottles and Styrofoam junk food containers litter the sand, but finally it’s quiet.

Three cocktails later, we head back to the hotel, and decide to stop by the bottle shop, where the shopkeeper asks us if we are interested in a wine tasting – three half glass testers in about a minute’s time period.  Katie buys a bottle of wine, just so we can get out of there.  We may only have about 300m to go to get to our hotel room, but it’s a really loooong 300m.

Now where’s my wine glass…

DAILY IGUANA COUNT:  34

Parasailing and Ponies

Day 13:  Grand Cayman Islands

Today is parasail day – another challenge I wanted to set for myself on this trip.  So you can imagine my horror, when I switch on the TV and the news is carrying a story about a parasail incident in Florida.  Two teenage girls had ended up in a critical condition when their parasail detached from its boat, and carried them over the beach where they hit powerlines, crashed into cars and finally a condominium building.

I know these things happen, but I am praying to God that my sail today is cancelled.  It is windy outside, but will it be enough?

I keep the news to myself, but when Katie rings to tell me the sail is cancelled due to the weather – I can’t contain my relief.  They are likely to sail tomorrow, but I am really gonna have to have a rethink about this one.

So what to do today now?

How about explore Georgetown?  Ok let’s do it.  Flagging down a local bus, off I head to browse around Georgetown.  Only Georgetown is really just a gaggle of tourist shops.  They are all filled with either expensive watches and jewellery, or printed tourist t-shirts, hats and tacky souvenirs.  And the place is deserted, because – you guessed it – there’s no cruise ships in town today.  It’s really quite underwhelming.  I wanted locally made jewellery or something different, but I wasn’t going to find it in Georgetown.  Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I turned around and headed for home.

Slow day in Georgetown
Slow day in Georgetown

After lunch at Rackums, which I might add was interrupted by an iguana that was keen to get way too close to my table, and a quick dip in the hotel pool, which I had to myself, I had the afternoon to relax before the special evening I have planned.  Of course, I stayed away from any news reports on the TV, so there was no chance that I would be scared off by some freak horse riding accident.

Sunset Horseride

Arriving at Pampered Ponies via transport from the hotel, I’m quietly wondering what’s in store for me.  I can’t remember the last time I went horse riding, but it must be a long, long, long time ago.  A family of four has arrived before me, and would you believe – my faith in the existence of good looking long haired men is restored.  The guy is very cute.  And very like a young Eddie Vedder, with an A-mazing smile.  Too bad he’s probably about (at least?) 17 years too young.  And with his Mum and Dad.  But very friendly and chatty.

A-hem, anyway, back to the horses.  We are all paired up with the horse that matches us best and before too long, we are heading off along the beach.  The horses meander between the sand and the waves as we pass by little shanty huts along the seaside.  Coconuts wash up on the shore and you can feel the occasional flick of the horses tail.  The setting briefly changes to mangrove, then back to sea, and small stingrays dart away from the shoreline as we approach.

Jack and Me in the Sea
Jack and Me in the Sea

We lead the horses into the ocean and the guides take photos of us in the water, before we turn around and head back along the sand to the stables.  Unfortunately there is no sunset to the sunset ride, but the ride is memorable in any case.  What a beautiful way to end the day.

DAILY IGUANA COUNT:  3

The Art of Cayman

Day 12:  Grand Cayman Islands

Well, it’s another windy, overcast day in Cayman.  But at least today, that means perfect weather to hit up the National Gallery.  Given the cooler break in weather, I decide to walk, ignoring the light rain.  Then the slightly heavier rain, then the quite heavy continuous rain.  Several people stop to offer me a lift, which I politely decline.  I am a little soaked when I finally arrive at the Gallery, but luckily I am the only visitor so no one notices.

National Gallery of the Cayman Islands

This gallery was established in 1996 but has only been in its current home since 2012.  It features works from local and international artists.  The current exhibition is entitled Art of Assemblage, which is basically contemporary works created from found objects and recycled materials.  And the artworks are amazing.

Bits of fish
Bits of fish
The Ivanator
The Ivanator

The Ivanator, pictured above, was a striking tribute to the artist’s experience of Hurrican Ivan.  The blurb next to the piece reads “We retreated from the downstairs to the washroom when the French doors blew out into the courtyard early Sunday morning.  The next twelve hours were spent huddled together in a small space protected by a mattress as the door, while the storm raged outside.  Ivan seemed like a robot in the way that it systematically attacked the trees, roof and house.  Ivan created a wide variety of debris, both natural and man-made.  The head of my robot came from the top of my roof where I had warm air vents; I thought it represented the spiral of Ivan on the weather channel”.

Once again, Cayman surprised me.  I really didn’t expect to see such an awesome exhibition here.  I need to stop being so surprised.

Stopping off for lunch at Camana Bay, I found myself a salad called The Lola.  Of course, given that’s the name of my gorgeous niece back home, how could I resist!  And oh goodness, it was one of the best salads I’ve ever eaten in my life.

The Lola
The Lola

A quiet afternoon was in store for me though.  I kind of thought that the attractions on the island would be a little closer together, which they aren’t really, so unless you pay $50 to get there, and $50 to get back, the Botanic Gardens are out of bounds.  I have tried to book parasailing for tomorrow, but the weather is looking shaky, and the booking can’t be confirmed.  It’s still raining quite continuously outside, which kind of makes swimming not so much fun either.  But I did come here to try and relax, so a nice snooze on the couch is in order.  Can you believe that Katie actually has guests today complaining about the weather, as if she can do something to fix it!

Before arriving on Cayman, I was very keen to attend the Caribbean Beach BBQ at Kaibo.  And that was due to be our destination for tonight, but the weather is just not appetizing at all.  A beach BBQ with the rain and the wind, and given that it’s a 45 minute drive away from Seven Mile Beach – it just doesn’t make sense.  Instead, and joined by one of Katie and Yoshi’s new friends, we head to the complex next door and enjoy a fantastic meal of sushi and sashimi at Yoshi’s.  This is much better.

Cosy dinner at Yoshi's - well away from the wind and the rain
Cosy dinner at Yoshi’s – well away from the wind and the rain

I wonder what tomorrow will hold in store….

P.S.  If you’re wondering about the frequent 0 iguana count, it’s because they don’t like the rain or cooler weather.

DAILY IGUANA COUNT:  0

A Day of Constitution

Day 11:  Grand Cayman Island

Today is Constitution Day in Grand Cayman.

Cayman received its first written constitution in 1959, the same year in which Cayman ceased to be a dependency of Jamaica.  In 1962, following Jamaica’s independence from England, Cayman chose to remain as a Crown Colony.  In 1972, a new constitution was introduced under which Cayman would be governed by a Legislative Assembly, Executive Council and a Governor. In this same year, Cayman introduced its own currency.  In 1973, the Bahamas became independent, and Cayman’s banking industry took off.

Again the weather today is not great, but it makes any sightseeing difficult because lots of things are closed due to the public holiday.  I was thinking a visit to the National Gallery would be perfect for today, but its closed also.  Rather than sit on the couch cloaked in boredom, I decide to head to the shops to pick up some groceries and spend the day cooking up a storm.

The best thing about Constitution Day is the fireworks display hosted at Camana Bay.  So we head down to the bay for a few drinks at West Indies and some dinner at the Waterfront Diner, stopping to climb the Observation Tower for a view of the bay and surrounds.   The tower, whilst not many stories high, is decorated with a stunning continuous floor to ceiling mural of sea life.

Observation tower mural
Observation tower mural
Observing the Bay
Observing the Bay

Despite being unable to book a table, we were able to walk right in and be seated.  The diner is quite a funky little setting, rustic tables and chairs but with a modern feel.  The menu displays quite homestyle sort of cooking, comfort food, with lots of choice.  We start off with a flat bread of prosciutto, cheese and basil – really nice and of course, like just about all food here, salty.  Yoshi goes for chicken and waffles with gravy, Katie a maple salmon salad, and I decide to try a meatloaf with vegies and mashed potato.

Ready to eat
Ready to eat

The food is so good.  The servings are on the rather large side meaning we leave the restaurant absolutely full and ready to sleep.  We don’t even contemplate hanging around for the fireworks, heading back to the apartment, instead opting to take in the view of the fireworks from our third floor balcony.

The sky lit up over Camana Bay
The sky lit up over Camana Bay

It’s a very short show and we have quite a good view from here, so the option of staying in was a good one.  I think we are all asleep about 10 minutes later.

IGUANA COUNT:  0

Pedro

Day 10:  Grand Cayman Islands

Again this morning is blowing a gale.  I haven’t mentioned yet that I am in Cayman during hurricane season, which runs from June through November each year.  And although Cayman has been fortunate enough to escape the wrath of most of these wind demons, it was unlucky with Ivan.

Hurricane Ivan devastated the island of Cayman in September 2004, as it tore across the Caribbean.  It wreaked havoc with the islands infrastructure, leaving the inhabitants without electricity and water for months.  Trees were uprooted and homes blown apart.  A storm surge left over a quarter of the islands buildings uninhabitable and 85% damages in some way.  Luckily there were only two lives lost.

Today Yoshi drives me around to the Savannah and South Sound parts of the island to explore what’s there.  First stop of the day – Pedro St James.

Pedro St James

Englishman William Eden created this three level ‘castle’ back in around 1780 in the part of the island known as Savannah.  Pedro St James is known as the “Birthplace of Democracy in the Cayman Islands”, being it was the venue for the 5 December 1831 meeting where it was decided to form the first elected parliament.  It was also the site of another important milestone, when on 3 May 1835, Robert Thompson, sent from the Governor of Jamaica, held court at Pedro St. James to issue the proclamation ending slavery in the British Empire.

Pedro St James
Pedro St James
Where it all began
Where it all began

Our guide walks us through a photo exhibition, voicing the history of the building, in his lilting Caymanian accent.  He leads us to a theatre, which is decorated with Pedro St James props, including replicas of parts of the house. for an audio visual presentation on the island on Cayman and Pedro’s place in history on the island.  Thunder and lightning start the show, followed by rain. Hang on – it’s raining in here!  What the?  Fine sprays of mist sprinkle rain on me as I sit in the front row wondering what’s about to happen next.  The whole presentation is so well done, and to be honest, it was certainly not something I was expecting.  But the story has been bought to life, and now, as the doors swing open to reveal sunlight, we make our way to the real Pedro.

Pedro also houses exhibitions on the history of Cayman and a tribute to Hurricane Ivan.

In 1994, the home was restored to its former glory, or as close as it could be done from past descriptions, and old articles and photos, and now sits monument to its place in Caymans history, overlooking the ocean and blooming Flamboyant trees.

Sunday

It has struck me how many churches are located on this island of 50,000 people.  Driving through the streets on this Sunday morning, congregations meet and chatter outside their places of worship and church bands practice their marching out in the hot sun.

The churches cover all denominations – Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Jehovahs Witness, Presbyterian – and there are new churches in various states of construction continuing to add to the numbers.  I tried to find out how many churches there were in Cayman – but it was near on impossible.  One website said ‘too many’.  Cayman Online lists 16.  ECayman lists 71, including Dial-A-Prayer.

Flip Flop Tree

Along the beach in South Sound, you can find the flip flop tree (and yes it has its own facebook page).  It’s a tree covered with – yep you guessed it – flip flops.  I wish I had remembered to bring a pair of my own to nail to the tree.  The first shoes were nailed to the tree in the dead of night in May 2008 by a couple who wanted to highlight the amount of garbage that washes up on Cayman’s shore and the importance of recycling.  Over a four hour stretch, the couple collected 333 shoes that had washed up on the shoreline.  And not wanting to just add to Georgetown’s growing landfill problem, they decided that they wanted to spread the message about the importance of recycling, and so finding the perfect tree, which was already dead, they got out their trusty drill and stuck the shoes all over it.

Flip flop tree
Flip flop tree

Brunch

XQ’s hosts an all-you-can eat brunch from 12-3pm today and that is where we are heading next.  For just US$40, you can eat your way through freshly made pizzas, pastas and omeletes, choose from circulating platters of ribs, calamari, lasagne, chips, chicken pies, chicken goujons and steak, drink beer, wine, mimosas, caesars and more, and then finish off with a taste plate of key lime pie and rum cake.  Although I don’t really like the concept of all you can eat – XQ’s have done this really well.  When choosing your omelete or pasta, you can select your own ingredients, type of sauce, whether to add cheese or not and its all cooked in front of you.  The pizza is also freshly made according to your wishes and then delivered to your table.  And the rest of the food is dished out by circulating waitresses, which means no queues of people breathing over bainmaries, or children fingering food and then putting it back.  The food all tasted so good.  This would have to be one of the best all you can eats I’ve ever been to.

DAILY IGUANA COUNT:  0