Sunday, July 27, 2008

Cayman Brac 1999 - A focalplane travelogue

[Note: This travelogue has been re-formatted within the blog to facilitate better searches and commentaries. The original travelogue can still be found here]

In December 1999 we spent a restful week’s vacation on the small island of Cayman Brac, one of the two sister islands to Grand Cayman, located in the western Caribbean, 350 miles from Miami on the southern side of Cuba.

Cayman Brac was selected after much research. Grand Cayman, it seemed, has been over-developed and would not offer the peace and quiet we were seeking. Cayman Brac, we were warned, had no night life, no hustle and bustle and very few shops. Sounded like just what we wanted!

Frangipani

The good news is that paradise is relatively accessible from Houston. Cayman Airways has three flights a week to Grand Cayman with a connecting flight on to Cayman Brac. Both flights are Boeing 737 jets as Cayman Brac has an all weather strip, unlike neighboring Little Cayman which can only take light aircraft on its grass runway.

Leaving Houston in a rainstorm, we arrived at Grand Cayman early in the evening. The connecting flight landed in Cayman Brac very late that same evening. We picked up a rental jeep and drove down narrow roads to our bed and breakfast destination, all the time remembering to “keep left” in this remnant enclave of the British Empire.

The Lagoon

The following morning we set out to explore the island. Geologically, the Brac is an uplifted coral limestone island located along a major ocean floor fault. The Cayman Trench to the south is very, very deep (down to 25,000 feet). But the uplift is not uniform as the Brac has also been tilted, the eastern end being higher than the western end. The result of this uplift is that Cayman Brac is virtually devoid of white sand beaches and as such does not qualify as a typical tropical island, the sort that Robinson Crusoe inhabited. There are very few places where he could have seen Man Friday’s footprints.

The Bluff is the highest point on the island. The view along the south coast gives a good indication of the geological forces at work, not only to uplift the island but also to erode it down again.

The Bluff

The color of the ocean changes dramatically to a dark blue green hue within only a few hundred meters from the shore, indicating that the Cayman Trough is indeed right next to the island. Most of the first part of the week we were on the island strong rolling waves crashed against the rocks, making access to the water quite difficult.

This view of the Bluff is from the north coast, at Long Beach. The cliff is showing significant evidence of erosion with large blocks that have fallen to form small islands. No white sand beach here either!

Long Beach

It took us two or three days to get used to the pace on the island as well as to find our way around. Despite there being only a few roads, we were not able to work out exactly where the best places might be for swimming, snorkeling and generally relaxing. Conflicting information from some of the locals didn’t help. We don’t think anyone was trying to mislead us, though, as all the locals we met were very friendly.

We did discover one feature, though. The sunsets were magnificent! The West End of the island offers some excellent viewpoints and we set up tripods several evenings to capture the mood of the setting sun. Cross currents in the foreground created interesting interference patterns with large diamond shaped crests and troughs.

Sunset

Cayman Brac offers several tourist attractions. Diving and snorkeling are the most popular. Wildlife is probably the second most important attraction. The Brac culture comes a close third. There isn’t much else to do but relax, read, take photos and generally chill out. We were well equipped to snorkel but for several days could not find a calm place to enter the water! We had disposable underwater cameras and these proved to be satisfactory though the clarity of the water was not what we had expected, no doubt due to the agitated state of the ocean.

The north coast has no beach, instead the shore is rocky. But several jetties have been built and small harbors have been blasted out of the limestone. We spent a lot of time watching the ocean and the birds at Creek Jetty. Beautifully patterned crabs would scurry away as we approached, to re-emerge after a while and go about their business.

Red Crab

Egrets and herons are common on Cayman Brac. This one was fishing in the rock pools at Creek.

White Egret

Overhead we would occasionally see a magnificent frigate bird riding the thermals. Much later we saw one stealing food from other birds. Apparently the frigate bird does not like to work too hard but prefers to force other birds to drop their catch of fish which the frigate bird then picks up and eats before it falls into the ocean. Given the time of year we did not see the famous red mating pouch.

Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens)

Cayman Brac is beginning to show signs of joining Grand Cayman in a massive redevelopment. Perhaps in ten years time this travelog will have historical value because change is undoubtedly on its way. Much of the development is at the West End, near the airport and the lagoon where the hotels and condos are located. The north coast contains most of the habitation, though, including the administrative center at Stake Bay. A few new shops have appeared, and as a result some of the older stores have closed down.


The abandoned E. A. Carter & Co. store, located just west of Creek, is a typical example of the older style of building on the island. But perhaps more interesting than the architecture is the signage which reads “Dry Goods, Hats, Shoes, Medicines, Provisions, Haberdashery, etc.” Examples of many of the items sold in such a place are now exhibited at the island’s impressive museum in Stake Bay - a “must-see” and an opportunity to meet some of the older locals who are more than happy to share information on what it is like to live on the Brac.

Old Store

West End Baptist Church

West End has a number of older buildings still intact, despite the growing signs of development. The old Baptist Church is located across the road from the sub post office.

West End Post Office

While we were on the island numerous shrubs containing a beautiful yellow trumpet flower decided it was time to bloom en masse. These were particularly prominent in the cow pastures around the airport.

Several days into our stay we were still having difficulty finding a good restaurant for an evening meal. The local grocery stores seemed to have very little fresh food in stock as a result of the rough weather - most everything is delivered by barge from Georgetown. We decided to give the Dominoes Pizza franchise some business. The plan was to go to the West End and watch the sun go down, then buy the pizza and some beer and go to Stake Bay pier and eat the pizza during the afterglow.

Yellow Flowers

Cayman Pink Sunset 2

The sunset was good but the afterglow was even better.

Cayman Pink Sunset 1

With binoculars, Little Cayman could be seen on the horizon as a few trees on a sand bar.

We collected the pizza and went next door to the liquor store. It had closed at 6:00 p.m.! Should have planned better, 24 hour supermarkets do not exist in paradise!

But the pizza tasted good anyway, washed down with cola while sitting on the jetty in the company of a pair of crabcatchers - more commonly known as night herons.

Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron (Nyctanassa violacea)

The next morning we returned to the jetty and the weather was still rough, but by this time we had worked up a way to safely get across the rocks and into deeper water without getting spiked by a sea urchin spine or two!

North Coast

Once away from the dock the water cleared up and deepened significantly, even on the north side of the island. Channels of sand sweep out to the “wall”, as the underwater cliff is known to divers the world over. Corals and fish were in profusion. Nurse sharks were seen out in the deeper water and lots of small rays and flat fish hugged the sandy bottoms of the channels.

Green Fins

We were gaining healthy appetites with all the swimming, hiking and relaxing! Finally we found what we were looking for, the Captain’s Table Restaurant at the Brac Village Caribbean Resort. Good food with very friendly service from Jamaican waitress Dannet and her American associate Annie. We chose to eat out on the deck every evening for the rest of our stay - this day time photo that shows how few people were on the island in early December. The peak season doesn’t start until December 15.

The Captain's Table

The Brac Caribbean Village Resort, to which the Captain’s Table is attached, is one of the better places to stay on the island. It is located on a good white sand beach adjacent to the lagoon. This is the only good anchorage on the island and is where all the diving boats are based. The lagoon is a classic back reef area between the barrier reef and the island. A deep channel has been blasted through at the western end and it is here that all the dive boats enter and exit. Piers extend out into the lagoon from where it is possible to swim and snorkel or just sit and watch the world go slowly by.

The Lagoon

The resorts offer beautiful views of the ocean from condominium self-catering units. We had noticed that a number of our fellow travelers were hauling large sealed coolers from Houston and it became apparent that for self-catering holidays this is the way to enjoy good food at a reasonable cost. Make no mistake, Cayman Brac is expensive when it comes to eating out or buying anything that has managed to make the crossing from Georgetown!


A second brackish swamp lagoon exists between the airport and the strip of sand containing the resorts. This swamp is good for a variety of wildlife including egrets and herons. A tricolored heron was found nearby, concealed in the lush tropical growth.

Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor)

For our last evening we spent sundown at the lagoon before eating one last meal at the Captain’s Table. A beautiful golden sunset gave us a lasting impression of the island - warm, glowing, friendly and restful.

Cayman Sunset