Bring The Kids To The Caymans

By Julie Hatfield

On some maps, the tiny island of Cayman Brac looks like a speck of dust. On others, the 13-mile by one-mile mixture of coral and limestone in the middle of the Caribbean Sea doesn’t even rate so much as a mere pinprick. But families who know it exists -- such as the David Wylie’s of Princeton, New Jersey -- have deliberately chosen to bring their four children, aged 10 to 14, here because they know what pleasures “the Brac” has in store for them.

David Wylie first came to Brac because he, as a huge percentage of visitors to the Caymans, is a SCUBA diver, and loves to explore the Brac’s underwater sites such as the 330-foot MV Capt. Keith Tibbetts, a Russian frigate intentionally sunk here in 1996. He thinks his 12-year-old son Scott will be a diver with him when Scott turns 14, the minimum age for SCUBA, but on this trip, he wants to explore Brac above sea level and do it together with his wife Donna and his other children Alayna Auerbach, 14, Kelly Wylie, 10 and Steven Auerbach, 10. On one day they explored the caves of the Brac, some of which provided safe shelter for residents during the devastating 1932 storm. “Have you seen Rebecca’s Cave?” asks Kelly Wylie, 10, who is still wide-eyed after her visit there when she explains that Rebecca was a little “Braca” girl who died in the storm and whose tomb rests in the cave.

“We’re going to do things together that we’d never do at home,” says David Wylie, who on one night took the kids out to the dock at the pretty Cayman Brac Reef Resort (www.bracreef.com) which trains spotlights into the water where they saw five-foot tarpon fish and massive eagle rays. When they looked up to the sky, the family saw more than they could ever see in New Jersey; both Ursa Major and the Southern Cross, among other stars, are easily visible in the Caymans, and on the Brac, not so many land lights obscure the show in the sky. The next morning he woke several of the children up to drive out to the 140-foot “brac,” the Gaelic word for “bluff,” to see the sun rise over the easternmost part of the Caymans, and then walk the bluff to see brown booby birds nesting. They also hiked through the Brac’s parrot reserve, home to the beautiful Cayman Brac parrot. Rates at the Cayman Brac Reef Resort are $206 to $484 per person for three nights, breakfast (a full buffet) and dinner included. For kids who are movie-starved, the resort shows movies several nights a week on its outdoor wood screen (nobody in the Caymans wants to go indoors until the last possible minute.)

Are the kids bored during a whole week without their computers and high tech games? “Not a chance,” says Donna Wylie, mother of Alayna, 14, and Steven Auerbach, 10. “For one thing,” she said, “Alayna brought lots of books, and she goes out to the beach to read for hours. I don’t worry about letting any of the children out alone here because the islands are so safe.”

“Safe” is an understatement on an island where, when we picked up our rental car, the agent told us we could “just leave it with the keys in the ignition at the airport when you leave.”

We took a delightful turn through all three of the Cayman Islands (in January, when the temperatures here hover around 82 degrees) to see what kinds of things families can do together in what some people call the “divers’ islands” or, in the case of Grand Cayman, simply the “cruise ship stopover.” After a seven-minute flight from Brac to Little Cayman, we discovered that this 10-mile by one-mile island, with 100 permanent residents, is even sweeter than Cayman Brac and just as charming for children and their parents. Where else in the world will you see road signs that tell you that “Iguanas Have the Right of Way”? When we visited the tiny Little Cayman Museum, two of these dragon-like creatures meandered up to see if we had any treats for them and they posed for pictures. More booby birds, this time the red-footed one, are found in the Booby Pond Nature Reserve, one of the largest nature reserves in the Western hemisphere and a preserved wetland with free viewing machines and platforms over the water. The Little Cayman police do not own guns, there are three children in the school this year, and life is so casual that every Wednesday at 5 p.m. anyone on the island, from workers to tourists of every age including children, meets on the tarmac of the airport to play baseball, interrupted every so often by the arrival of the Cayman Airways 18-seater planes dropping off tourists and Camanians. When that happens, everyone picks up their bases and carries them off to the side of the field to wait until 18 more people get on the plane and depart, at which time the baseball game resumes until dark.

Little Cayman is home to the Central Caribbean Marine Institute, which since opening in 2005, sponsors coral reef research and two-week camp sessions of both coral reef studies and beginning SCUBA instruction for visiting tourists and locals aged 12 through 18.

On Little Cayman we stayed at the sweet Little Cayman Beach Resort (www.LittleCayman.com) which, as most of the resorts here, has its own dive center connected to the resort. All three of the Caymans are said to have the best diving in the world (the first being the Red Sea) and Little Cayman, in particular, has Bloody Bay Wall, known for its gorgeous coral underwater gardens. The dive boat, and the dock, and the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, are steps away from the guest rooms and the dining room and the pool. Room rates are $133 to $243 per night.

After four days on the “sister” islands, we took the 45-minute flight to Grand Cayman, which is 480 miles south of Miami and 90 miles south of Cuba. These islands are also minutes away from Jamaica and Honduras, which brings an enormous ethnic mix of people here to work and live. There were no natives when Christopher Columbus discovered the islands in 1503, and thus every Camanian is from somewhere else. The discernible mix of cultures, with no discernible racial disharmony, is something worthwhile for U.S. children to observe. The saying goes that 20 percent of Camanians are white, 20 percent are black, and 60 percent “aren’t quite sure.” Nor do they seem to care.

We had chosen, much to our good fortune, to stay at the Reef Resort on Grand Cayman (www.thereef.com.ky), miles away from the tourist-clogged George Town center, which on an average day when six or seven cruise ships have entered the harbor, can be filled with 30,000 or more day trippers. The East End, where Reef Resort sits in tranquil, unspoiled countryside offering every one of its guests a room steps away from the swimming pools and ocean, is miles away from T-shirt shops, Hard Rock Cafes and rum cake hawkers. But it’s closer to some of the sites that families with children would want to see, such as the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Garden and Iguana Sanctuary, home of the most endangered iguana in the world, the blue iguana, which can be found only on Grand Cayman. Two years ago there were between 10 and 25 blue iguanas left in the world. Since then, biologist Fred Burton has stepped in with the Blue Iguana Recovery Project, mating the iguanas and leading people through the park on blue iguana safari’s to show that now there are around 200 of the strangely beautiful creatures. Every time a family books a blue iguana package, Reef Resort does its part for conservation by donating $25 to the project. Rates at the resort are $185 to $325 per night.

On the lovely drive between Reef Resort and George Town, we met Keith Harrigill of Tucson, Arizona, with his children Ginger Llivina, 6, and Graham Llivina, 9. Harrigill had honeymooned in Grand Cayman with his wife Elena Llivina, and he said he wanted to bring the children back to see how beautiful it is. They were examining the famous blowholes, in which the ocean water shoots many feet into the sky through the rock formations on the beach here. Graham Llivina said, “There’s a lot to do here. We went to Stingray City (where in waist-deep water families can feed the gentle stingrays and feel their soft underbellies as they glide around their legs) and Pirate’s Cave where they made us swab the deck and walk the plank.” They can also take a submarine ride, go horseback riding on the beach with a guide, and see almost as much as the SCUBA divers can by strapping on a space-like helmet and taking a guided walk along the bottom of the sea with a company called Sea Trek (www.seatrekcayman.com).

If Graham is a skateboarder or aspiring surfer he no doubt discovered that Grand Cayman boasts the second largest outdoor skate park in the world (which wasn’t there on his dad’s honeymoon). Black Pearl Skate and Surf Park can produce artificial waves up to 11 feet high.

Reef Resort has two large swimming pools and several other connected smaller pools and hot tubs, and we watched the littlest toddlers spending hours together splashing in the tiny pools, which they probably thought were their own private swimming holes.

Another unique feature of Reef Resort is its “hurricane guarantee,” a generous promise that if hurricane force winds directly hit The Reef while one is a guest, they will offer a free replacement stay for the same duration as the one originally booked, regardless of how many days were affected by hurricane force winds. People may be putting off Cayman vacations because of Hurricane Ivan, the Category 5 storm that hit Grand Cayman in 2004, but the island has re-built so quickly and so well that it is hard to see any damage today, besides which, the Caymans are not on the usual path for hurricanes, and previous to 2004, had been hurricane-free for more than 70 years. For the most part down here, the hurricane season is often one of the calmest and most tranquil of the year.

For more information, go to www.caymanislands.ky.

Julie Hatfield is an award-winning travel writer who was fashion editor of The Boston Globe for 22 years and continues to write travel and a philanthropy column for The Globe. She lives in Duxbury, Mass., with her husband, is the mother of three, stepmother of two, and grandmother of one.

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