Daily diving and lunch by the pool; rum cocktails and candlelit barbecues on a Friday night - life on Little Cayman is nothing if not laidback
Fans of Little Cayman make no bones about their feelings: Grand Cayman is a gateway to Little Cayman and nothing more. There are 150 residents, comprising eight Caymanian families and the rest from the US and beyond, and with just a handful of very small resorts, it has an air of barefoot exclusivity you won’t find anywhere else in the Caymans.
Little Cayman has only had electricity since 1990 and virtually all development on the island is limited to the southwestern tip, with a smattering of covetable beach houses fringing the island’s shoreline. Most provisions arrive from ‘the mainland’ (Grand Cayman) on a barge once a week. With little interference from the outside world, the island has one of the world’s most pristine marine eco-systems. There are no rivers or springs flowing into the sea, so the water is incredibly clear. The late Philippe Cousteau described his experience at Little Cayman’s Bloody Bay Wall as one of the greatest dives of his life.
It takes four minutes to get from the airport (comprising a shed, also housing the post office and the fire department, and a Band-Aid-sized runway) to the Southern Cross Club, the island’s oldest resort. When it first opened in 1958, the total population on Little Cayman was just 12. Originally a private club, it became a resort with the ambience of a private club in 1980 and has remained that way ever since. The current owner, Peter Hillenbrand, bought the place in 1996, giving it an overdue refurbishment a couple of years ago. The 12 guest rooms are in six pretty, pastel-coloured cottages right on the beach. People come here to dive, fish and lie in a hammock on the beach. The crowd is a mix of affluent, sociable honeymooners, divers and older groups of friends.
Even with a 25mph speed limit to protect the island’s 2,000-odd population of Grey Lesser Cayman Island Iguana (they tend to sprawl fearlessly in the middle of the road), driving round the island only takes about an hour. I’m astonished by the variety of plant life. Wild cotton and white lilies grow along the side of the road, the air is filled with clouds of butterflies and there are huge cactuses with bright red flowers, wild figs, rosemary, silver thatch palm, jasmine and red birch.
The island is very eco-conscious and the Booby Pond Reserve is home to the largest colony of red-footed boobies in the western hemisphere as well as the Little Cayman Research Centre, which is campaigning for 'Ocean Literacy for all Cayman Children' and holds eco weekends for Cayman high-school kids.
Very quickly, I fall into a daily routine of diving on the extraordinary Bloody Bay wall each morning. It starts quite close to the shore in relatively shallow water and then plunges a mile down into the abyss. The wall is lined with huge sponges and sea fans and there are vast clouds of fish, moving lazily like great fat Technicolor snowflakes. On every dive I see sea turtles, reef sharks and Nassau groupers and parrotfish. Close by is Jackson’s Bay, famous for its natural tunnels through the coral for divers to swim through. Then it's lunch by the pool, an afternoon nap, and a 15-minute kayak over to Owen Island, a small mangrove-covered cay across the water, or a cycle ride up the coast before dinner.
One night I go for dinner at Pirate’s Point, a resort on the other side of the airport, run by Texan chef Gladys B Howard. The food is delicious and it’s a sociable set up with an honesty bar and shared tables for dinner. The bar has an Aladdin’s Cave feel about it, with extraordinary, elaborate sculptures covering every surface and suspended on hooks across the ceiling. Gladys asks guests to collect things they find washed up on the beach (you would be amazed how much is deposited in the sea by passing cruise ships) and make a sculpture out of them. A lot of guests become obsessed, glueing things together and scouring the beach for extra materials. Each year, there is a prize of a two-week holiday back at the resort for the best sculpture.
The Friday-night social scene is a big deal on Little Cayman. Unless you’re working or dead, you are expected to turn up, at least to part of it. Like most evenings at the Southern Cross Club, things kick off with dark rum punch cocktails. There’s a party-like atmosphere as a pleasant mix of guests from neighbouring resorts and locals, including Sandra and Simon, the island’s married ‘police department’ from England, stop by to join in the fun. Drinks are followed by an informal candlelit barbecue down on the jetty. Along with a couple of other guests, we borrow the resort’s bikes and cycle up to the Little Cayman Beach Resort for a spot of Friday-night karaoke. The Friday-night marathon continues on to the Hungry Iguana, the island’s only nightclub, for a moonlight boogie. The informality feels a million miles from Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach and I’m thrilled that I came.
Virgin Atlantic flies from Heathrow to Miami from c£327. Onwards from Miami to Grand Cayman with Cayman Airways costs from c£200 return. Booking a package with a tour operator is a lot more cost effective.