A re­lax­ing haven

Chas­ing sharks, cud­dling stingray, rid­ing bare­back in the warm sea, the Caribbean is­lands of­fer an ex­hil­a­rat­ing es­cape, writes Emma Cul­li­nan

The Irish Times Magazine - - TRAVEL -

Isee a shark ahead of me in the wa­ter and swim to­wards it. And that is some­thing I never thought I’d write. Mike, our snorkelling guide, had warned us that sharks may be lurk­ing in hol­lows and sandy strips be­tween the co­ral. “Be ex­cited if you spot one,” he said, and he meant it in a good way. And I was. By then I had seen fish in colours from black to bright blues and yel­lows, some sported mixed psy­che­delic shades and oth­ers had par­al­lel and road- map stripes. A lob­ster lounged lan­guidly on the sea bed and a tur­tle pad­dled non­cha­lantly be­low me. Mike gen­tly framed long, barely- there, ghostly jelly fish with his hands to show us. “Not sting­ing ones,” he said when we sur­faced.

So by the time a shark tor­pe­doed by, I was en­tranced. My fears had floated away as I fo­cused on sea life. The crea­tures had no in­ter­est in me, which re­sulted in my ego dis­ap­pear­ing up to the ocean’s sur­face some­where. And so I fol­lowed the shark but it sped off.

By this stage, shim­my­ing hor­i­zon­tally through the Caribbean Sea with fins on my feet in Bloody Bay, off the north edge of Lit­tle Cay­man is­land, I was used to hang­ing out with an­i­mals in the sea. On the first day of our week- long trip to the Cay­man Is­lands, I was pressed to em­brace a stingray on a sand­bank off Grand Cay­man’s north side. An­ton, our guide, hugged the fish with an alarm­ing name, although he’s given them more harm­less han­dles. “This one’s Vinny,” he said, and he spoke fondly of Fris­bee ( ab­sent that day), so named be­cause she has no tail or ven­omous barb hang­ing off her rear end. “The oth­ers look af­ter her,” he as­sured us. An­ton has got to know who’s who in his 13 years jump­ing ship and feed­ing baby squid to the flat, grey, squar­ish crea­tures, which are up to about a me­tre wide. They suck up the food from flat hands, with thumbs tucked out of the way, and mas­ti­cate at their leisure.

The up- close en­coun­ters with stingray be­gan when a fish­er­man used to stop here and gut his catch. The lo­cal stingray, with their keen sense of smell, were soon hoover­ing up the in­nards be­fore, later on, lit­er­ally eat­ing out of his hand. The tours he be­gan have turned into waves of peo­ple sail­ing out to the sand bank, armed with food, and hordes hop into the wa­ter to be ca­ressed by the great flat fish. Luck­ily for us, the boats grad­u­ally all dis­ap­peared into a squall, leav­ing us alone with the rays and An­ton, who gave us a touch­ing les­son in their anatomy; get­ting us to feel the fe­males’ rough skin ( for the lads to get pur­chase on them when mak­ing more stingray), the vel­vety smooth edges of their bod­ies and the barb at­tached to their tails. They rarely use them, he said, be­cause they take a year to grow back. He’s seen one sting in 13 years. “The re­cov­ery pe­riod is hor­ren­dous,” he said. I de­cline a fishy hug – which in­volves stretch­ing your arms out while the ray swims at you and stops with its face up against your chest – but grad­u­ally I got used to these rel­a­tives of sharks brushing their bod­ies against my legs.

The fol­low­ing day I’m rid­ing a horse bare­back into the briny un­til it swims – snort­ing sea­wa­ter out of its nos­trils.

The Cay­mans, per­haps most fa­mous for be­ing a tax haven, com­prise three is­lands: Grand Cay­man, Cay­man Brac and Lit­tle Cay­man. Cay­man is a Bri­tish Pro­tec­torate with an Amer­i­can vibe: it is Eng­lish- speak­ing and tourism from the US is high. In­ter­na­tional flights land on Grand Cay­man, where up- star ho­tels are con­cen­trated on Seven Mile Beach, and in­clude the Ritz Carl­ton, Westin and the Kimp­ton Seafire Re­sort and Spa, which com­prises tow­ers of high- ceilinged, mod­ern rooms – with tick- box lux­ury in­clud­ing enor­mous beds, Frette linen, walk- in show­ers, free- stand­ing baths, sea views and bal­conies – set around swim­ming pools be­side a sandy beach.

Along the coast from Seven Mile Beach, West Bay is more tra­di­tional Caribbean, with small, sim­ple homes, while to t he north i s t he cap­i­tal Ge­orge Town. where cruise ships dock be­side sou­venir

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