Iguanas, Schnitzels And Disco Distilleries: The Cayman Islands Beyond The Beach

Cayman in the News 3 April 2019
GRAND CAYMAN, CAYMAN ISLANDS - Alberto Estevanovich is cradling a meter-long iguana at the Blue Iguana Habitat at Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park.There are signs all over warning folks that the iguanas may bite, but Escovitch has been working with these endangered animals for 10 years and isn@t too worried about a creature that@s pretty much wrapped around his neck.

GRAND CAYMAN, CAYMAN ISLANDS - Alberto Estevanovich is cradling a meter-long iguana at the Blue Iguana Habitat at Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park.

There are signs all over warning folks that the iguanas may bite, but Escovitch has been working with these endangered animals for 10 years and isn’t too worried about a creature that's pretty much wrapped around his neck.

“Hey, bobo,” he says to a particularly scary-looking animal as he reaches down to pick it up and show it off to park visitors.

He explains this particular creature is called His Royal Highness Prince Peter, and that he prefers to be called by his full name.

Estevanovich worked in the food and beverage business at Grand Cayman hotels for years but jumped at the chance to work at the Blue Iguana Habitat once he found out about their mission to conserve the critters, which are found only on Grand Cayman. There are other iguanas in the Cayman Islands and elsewhere in the Caribbean, but not Blue Iguanas, which are darkly coloured when it’s cool so they can absorb more heat but turn blue in the hot afternoon sun.

“They’re my family,” he said. “I love them. On Christmas and Easter we give them special fruits. We do.”

The 74-year-old Estevanovicth said working outside with the iguanas keeps him young. “It’s a lot better than working in an office,” he said. “And the iguanas don’t talk back.”

He’s having fun with his visitors, but Estevanovicth's love for his charges burns hot and clear. The Blue Iguana Recovery Program on Grand Cayman began in 2001 with less than 25 animals. After nearly two decades of caring for the animals, raising them up in captivity and then setting them free in designated, protected zones on the island, they can now boast 1,000 of them in the wild; enough to take from “critically endangered” to simply “endangered.”

It’s a wonderful story, and Estevanovitch tells it with a great deal of love and affection. I’d already fallen in love with the botanic park on a super-quiet, hot morning in late March, and his stories and commitment simply deepen my feelings.

The park was dedicated by none other than Queen Elizabeth II herself. Her son, Prince Charles, came a couple days before my visit and had a look for himself, praising authorities for their conservation work.

I had perhaps 90 minutes to explore prior to my Blue Iguana experience, but I could’ve spent hours traipsing about the park, which is packed with everything from spiky succulents to orchids to a small forest of tropical plants bursting with every colour of the rainbow; brilliantly shaded heliconia, fiery red hibiscus and small, purple/red plants that looked like they had tiny pineapples for fruit. There’s also a small pond with wild ducks paddling about, a lovely interpretive centre and gift shop and a small Caymanian home that shows what life was like on the island prior to the arrival of mass tourism.

It’s a terrific place for nature enthusiasts, and a truly remarkable one for anyone interested in animals and conservation.

I already had lunch arranged that day at The Lighthouse, a well-known spot on the south coast of Grand Cayman that serves good pizza and a lovely conch chowder in rich tomato broth and has a fine patio on a pier that’s surrounded by that famous blue/green Cayman Islands water. On the way back to my hotel on Seven Mile Beach I spotted a colourful, roadside shack called The Czech Inn Grill in Bodden Town and pulled over.

It’s one of those funky spots you often see in the Caribbean, with kitschy signs and posters nailed to the ceiling (including one for the Saskatchewan Roughriders) and scribbled messages of love on the wall. In this case, there’s a twist. The owner hails from the Czech Republic, a worker told me. You’ll find a good deal of hockey memorabilia hanging about, including photos of Czech players, old skates and mini-sticks from the likes of Montreal Canadiens’ goalie Carey Price and other stars. You’ll also find a quirky menu that includes Jamaican jerk chicken and Czech soups and schnitzel; a menu you likely won't find at other restaurants on the island.

I didn’t have time to try anything, but a woman sitting on a bar stool at the counter told me she’s from Texas, where folks aren’t impressed easily, and that The Czech Inn potato salad was the best she’d ever had.

“It’s very creamy and mustard-y,” she said.

Later that afternoon I managed a sunset cruise with the folks at Red Sail Sports, where one of the ship’s workers is from Maple, Ontario. They do a great job with a fine sailboat, which glided along the calm waters off Seven Mile Beach from 5 to 7 p.m. as passengers nibbled on chicken wings and sipped local and imported beers and rum drinks and swayed to the sounds of Bob Marley.

Earlier in my visit I had another trip with Red Sail Sports, this one a visit to the famous Stingray City attraction; a sand bar that’s maybe a half-hour from shore and features hundreds of stingrays.

We were given a talk about how to handle the creatures (I prefer not to handle wild animals, figuring that I probably wouldn’t like it if some critter bigger than me picked me up off the sidewalk and started taking selfies with his buddies) and also learned a bit about their habits. It seems the females are quite large – as much as a meter across – while the males are perhaps one-third their size. A joke about the size and insignificance of the male species generated a rather large laugh from the women on the boat, and fair enough.

We stood on the sandbar and swam about for perhaps 45 minutes while the creatures swam all around us. Even without touching them I found it a very cool experience. Later we shifted over to a nearby reef, where we were able to swim with small, colourful fish and admire what looked to be a thriving reef, with waving, rounded purple-shaded plants I forgot to ask the name of.

I also took advantage of the free masks and snorkels at my hotel, the fabulous Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa, and did a brief snorkel visit to the reef near the hotel. They also have free stand-up paddleboards, which I also used. The water off Seven Mile Beach is almost always calm, so it’s a great place for water sports.

The Cayman Islands Tourism folks also had me try a couple of land-based tours; a Flavour Tour of some very nice restaurants in the stylish Camna Bay region and a visit to Cayman Distillery.

The Flavour Tour is a tasty way to explore some of the great food on the Cayman Islands. We visited four places within a short walk of each other and tried a variety of terrific dishes, each paired with a cocktail or specially selected glass of wine. At Waterfront Urban Diner, which is run by a fellow from Red Deer, Alberta, we try a lovely pumpkin soup paired with a lychee martini. Around the corner at Abacus, we have a wonderfully rich dish of Cayman Brac goat served with local veggies (they’re growing a lot more of their own produce on the island these days), paired with 689 Napa Valley red wine. At Mizu, we have a lovely Vietnamese curry dish with chicken, ginger and lemongrass in a beautiful interior space. All the food is local except for the rice, we’re told. Dessert is at Gelato and Company, where we skip the cocktails and concentrate instead on the lovely gelato flavours, including local fresh fruit varieties.

We also had a stop at the wonderful West Indies Wine Company, where you can sample wines from around the world.


Speaking of cocktails, one of the truly unique experiences in the Cayman Islands is a visit and tour at the Cayman Spirits Co. in Georgetown. It’s a funky spot you reach by driving through a modest neighbourhood near the airport, but once you’re inside you know you’ve arrived at some place where folks march (or dance) to a different drummer.

The folks at Cayman Spirits use sugar cane to make a variety of great spirits, including vodka, gin and, naturally, rum. Their Seven Fathoms Rum is placed in barrels under the sea so the rum is swooshed and swished around in bourbon barrels using the gentle waves of the ocean, and that’s pretty cool. The resulting rum is quite smooth and very tasty.

They take visitors on a tour of the back room, where the distillation magic happens. But the real attraction here is the tasting part, which is accompanied by thunderous rock and roll (mostly) music to help set the tone.

Before they pour the various spirits, well-seasoned workers at the distillery describe the process and then turn up the stereo to a series of tunes that match the coming attraction. For the Spiced Rum, which they say requires a lot of love and attention, they crank up Barry White. When we taste the dark rum we get a blast of “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones.

It’s a fun concept that puts visitors into party mode and sets the tone for the tasting, which is informative but decidedly casual.

Call it what you like, but I like the sound of “Disco Day at the Distillery.”


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