Blue, green or rock: My guest travel writer, Mark Nicholls meets the colourful iguanas of the Cayman Islands
Cycling around the tiny island of Little Cayman, the warning sign looming out of the roadside undergrowth ahead of me caught me somewhat by surprise: Iguana – Drive Slowly.
But sure enough half a mile or so along the road, where incidentally there was barely any traffic, the long reptilian tale of a rock iguana was sliding away just off the tarmac.
The tiny sister of Cayman Brac and Grand Cayman, Little Cayman is a fabulous retreat and my favourite of the three.
Sheltered by the offshore reef where the waves crash and break, the beach is of fine white sand and lined with leaning coconut palms.
There were three main attractions which caught my eye: one is simply to lie back on the beach, cool off in the sea every so often and relax; head out sea fishing for wahoo or mahi-mahi (and the chef will cook your catch for supper); or dive.
Of course, any combination is acceptable.
Having settled at the Southern Cross Club on Little Cayman with its shoreline bungalows pastel Caribbean shades of pinks, yellows and greens and a motto of barefoot luxury, I picked option three.
Stepping from my sea-facing abode, I boarded the morning dive boat to the Bloody Bay Wall – regarded as one of the world’s top dive sites – with locations such as Eagle Ray Round-up or Mixing Bowl offering access to the stunningly beautiful reef life where you will see grouper fish, stingray, giant lobster, clown fish, cow fish and turtle as well as reef plantation and sea cucumbers.
The reef has channels and gullies to swim through and an outer wall to explore which then drops 6000 feet into the deep dark blue.
And when I returned, I did what one should do on Little Cayman, picked option one and did absolutely nothing – and it was fantastic. I left option two out of the equation. I was relaxing so someone else could catch my supper!
The three islands, situated due south of Cuba and just above Jamaica, are linked by a fleet of small aircraft; Little Cayman is a 10-minute hop from Cayman Brac, which itself is 40-50 minutes flying time from Grand Cayman.
Discovered by Christopher Columbus in May 1503, Cayman Brac is more rugged with few beaches, but with diving and bird and wildlife. At the westernmost point near the lighthouse, there are spectacular views out over the 140-foot cliff thrusting vertically from the ocean floor.
The hidden caves which can be explored double as emergency hurricane shelters and are reminders of how the elements can impact on this Caribbean retreat. The islands suffered badly in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan struck, with 85% of all buildings damaged but only two deaths.
Grand Cayman, the premier islands in the British Overseas Territory, is a financial centre and has all that a visitor wants: stunning beaches; excellent dive sites; great bars, restaurants and hotels serving excellent sea food; and wildlife in the form of stingray and iguanas.
The famous Seven Mile Beach is lined with hotels and resorts but enticing dive sites lie just offshore, notably the wreck of submarine rescue ship USS Kittiwake launched in 1945. After leaving service in 1994 it was eventually towed to Grand Cayman and sunk in January 2011 as one of the island many and varied dive sites.
Scuba divers can work their way around the vessel, venture inside into the engine room and explore the various decks.
Dive captain Christian Fisher, from Divetech, told me: “In dive terms, the Kittiwake is a real crowd pleaser. I dive it 2-3 times a week and have done for three years and it is great so see how it changes with more growth and sea life on it. I just love being able to dive on a ship which has so much history.”
However, for those who want to experience the deep without the weight of a scuba tank on their back there are submarine tours from the harbour of the capital Georgetown, which take you down 100 feet below the surface.
Stingrays, common in the sea around the Cayman Islands, are a safe and impressive attraction and the perfect place to see them is out on the sandy reef of Stingray City. After taking the catamaran out for half an hour or so, you can slip into the warm, waist-deep water and lure the large stingrays with small morsels of fish, stroking their giant wings or feeding them.
For a birds-eye view a helicopter flight offers a stunning perspective, soaring over the harbour at Georgetown with half a dozen cruise ships docked offshore, heading out to Stingray City or following the outline of the Kittiwake submerged in about 60 feet of water.
While Little Cayman treasures its rock iguana, Grand Cayman nurtures the rare blue iguana that a decade ago was almost extinct with only 10-25 left in the wild.
Hosted within the picturesque Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme has helped repopulate the island with the species. With 850 released into the wild, the programme will be suspended when that figure reaches 1,000 as the blue iguanas are left to fend for themselves. There are plans for a sanctuary where they will be protected from predators such as dogs and not face competition for territory from the more common and dominant green iguana.
Maintaining the ecological balance of their islands, while having to contend with the fiercest of elements of the hurricane season, is important to Caymanians. This, however, is achieved to perfection. The Cayman Islands offers an inviting blend of beaches and diving, wildlife, sumptuous seafood and luxurious relaxation, barefoot or otherwise.
Accommodation: Mark Nicholls stayed at the Southern Cross Club on Little Cayman where packages include diving and fishing (www.southerncrossclub.com). He also stayed at the Alexander Hotel on Cayman Brac (www.alexanderhotelcayman.com) and The Westin Grand Cayman Seven Mile Beach resort & Spa (www.westingrandcayman.com)
Flights: British Airways flies direct to Grand Cayman via The Bahamas but there are also flights to the island and Cayman Brac direct from Miami.
Cayman Island Department of Tourism: www.caymanislands.co.uk
Blue Iguana recovery Programme: www.blueiguana.ky