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