I see 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 the north is the capital George Town. where cruise ships dock beside souvenir shops, and banks and diamond shops seek greater sums from customers.
We set out for the stingray from Camana Bay, which has a clutch of shops and restaurants in US-mall style buildings. Further north is Rum Point, where locals park their yachts near the beach and friends paddle out to drink and chat on deck. Nearer shore, families stand in the sea and gossip, while on the beach tourists eat at the American-style burger restaurant.
Just up the coast, a local has opened up some caves with staggering quantities of stalactites and stalagmites in sharp, wavy and blobby shapes. Our tour is largely of the guide’s imagination; he shows us a “fish” here, and a “ghost” there and he’s even stuck a pair of sunglasses on a head-shaped stalagmite. On the way out, we pass a tree with a rich brown-crimson bark that has strips hanging off it. “We call this the tourist tree,” says our guide. “Because it has red, peeling skin.”
I’ve already learned it bears the gorgeous name of Gumbo Limbo (or Red Birch) at the nearby Botanic Gardens, where orchids grow on trees, their roots hanging free like dreadlocks, and flowers burst from branches in vivid reds, pinks and purple.
Across the island, palm trees dominate and the coconut trees also embellish the beaches on Little Cayman, 90km west of the main island. We fly there in a tiny propeller plane that lands on a runway beside a road; no fence between them and three cars driving by: “That’s busy around here,” says a local.
Five minutes away in the Southern Cross Club resort , I'm ticking off all the paradise clichés: wafting in a hammock beneath coconut palms, on a pale sandy beach dotted with conch shells. There are just 14 cabins in the resort and the beach is almost empty. And if you want sand to yourself, it is just a short walk away; or you can kayak out to nearby Owen Island.
I ask a member of staff about how to hire a kayak. “You just get one from the beach and go,” he says. “There is a life-jacket if you like. If it gets too rough just bale out – the sea is not deep, you can walk. And it’s best if you go with someone.”
No questions about proficiency – I should have known; only the day before we had been on those horses, riding bareback in the sea. No helmets or queries about whether we’d ridden before. It’s that fantastic combination of freedom to explore – geography and your own boundaries – in a safe but liberating way. If you fall off the horse – and one of our party did while we trotted to shore – you just land in the sea and the horses hang around, unable to gallop off through the deep blue. Mine was even spooked by another horse at one stage and reared up but it just felt swell. Again, my mind was away from danger and onto the privilege of being on the back of a horse swimming in the Caribbean; gently swaying with my legs floating free or tucking up against its soft, warm belly.
And those sharks we encounter while snorkelling on Little Cayman are not people eaters; they even bear the benevolent name of nurse sharks. Another example of safe exhilaration albeit with the potential of mild mishaps – which bring their own stories to tell.
It’s been a week of sea and animals, including road-kill while cycling on Grand Cayman where squashed iguanas look horrendous – their tough skin tends to stay intact so their innards come out of the front – I’m just saying. Back on the veranda of my cabin in the Southern Cross Club, various creatures with shells on their backs saunter past the bottom of the steps. And lizards trip down coconut palm trunks while the turquoise sea swooshes a few metres away.
One of the Caribbean’s greatest gifts to we dwellers of northern climes is warm sea and I barely got out of it all week. I kayaked to that deserted island where we picked conch shells and old, sculptural coral from the sand; we took a submarine down 100ft across sloping coral (Grand Cayman sits on a mountain) to the edge of the 7,686m deep Cayman Trench; we rode those swimming ponies; chased shark and cuddled stingray. With Cayman’s generally relaxed attitude to exploring, its warm water and rich wildlife you’re floating and free – physically and psychologically.
Emma Cullinan was a guest of the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism
Grand Cayman naturally has great seafood, from conch (from those pink/white/orange lustrous shells) to wahoo, snapper, lobster and mahi-mahi, although it can be disconcerting facing these on a menu after snorkelling and seeing them chilling in the deep
Good fish (and meat) restaurants include Catch, Blue Cilantro, Bacaro and Grand Old House
Sunday brunch is big on Grand Cayman, with all the swanky hotels pitching in with sumptuous spreads and champagne on top
British Airways from Heathrow (one stop in Nassau or New York). It partners with Aer Lingus from Ireland
American Airlines from London (one stop in Miami)
Where to stay
Kimpton Seafire Resort and Spa, seafireresortandspa.com, from US$379 (€324) pppn based on two sharing, room only
Southern Cross Club (Little Cayman), southerncrossclub.com, from US$180 (€154) pppn, full board. It also has inclusive diving packages
Airbnb has just launched in the Caymans
Atlantis Submarine, caymanislandsubmarines.com, US$114 (€97.50)
Cayman Crystal Caves, caymancrystalcaves.com, US$40, under 12s US$30 (€25)
Cayman Luxury Charters (to swim with stingray), caymanluxurycharters.com, US $1,400 (€1,197) for four hours (can host about eight people) or go on a scheduled boat such as with Red Sail Sports (redsailcayman.com), from $80 (€68) adults and $40 (€34) children
Spirit of the West (horse riding), seahorses.ky, US$125 (€106) each in a group ride; US$150 (€128) each for a private ride (couples or small groups)
Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, botanic-park.ky, adults: KYD$10 (€10.43), children (six-12): KYD$5 (€5.21), under-fives free
Snorkelling: various companies, including Red Sail Sports and Southern Cross Club (see above)