Going deep in the Caymans

For The Financial Post

 GRAND CAYMAN ­ On my first morning in the Cayman Islands I was down at the dive shop bright and early. I had my swimsuit and my dive card, everything else I could charge to my room at the Hyatt. An hour later, I made the jump into the clear blue water.
 Suddenly, everything was different. I entered the secret world beneath the waves and was surrounded by bright fantastic coral. Schools of luminous purple fish paraded past, lonely silver fish with black eyes hung above the bottom. Blue and orange fish colored like gaudy parrots (and called parrot fish) munched noisily on the coral reef.
 You don't dive alone. Fellow divers were fellow refugees from winter and stress. Sarah and Wade were fleeing the bond markets of New York. Jane, also from New York, said she loves Toronto and comes up "whenever you have a big bankruptcy ­ so have another one real soon and I'll see you there."
 I didn't make any promises.
 Geoff was a Kiwi by way of the London financial markets; his wife and son were back at the hotel. He would make 26 dives in his week on Grand Cayman. Doug, my buddy on the first dive, is head of security at New York's World Trade Centre.
CAYMANS The author explores a reef among the breathtakingly complex coral of the Cayman Islands.

 Dive businesses are run by the warm weather equivalents of ski bums. The guys at Red Sail Sports are smart, friendly and were reassuringly watchful when I said it had been more than a year since I was underwater.
 That evening I looked in on the active night life of the Caymans ­ again underwater. A whole different fish population comes out for the night shift. Shrimps scurry along the bottom; in the little caves of the coral a retreating lobster waves his tentacles in protest and backs out of my beam of light.
 The most memorable sight was a large moray eel. This poor ugly animal is a vision of the soul of all your enemies come together in one place ­ a narrow head with large strong dangerous jaws, enlarging into a thick, sleek tube of a body with ribbon fins top and bottom. He can slither through the watery underworld with speed and menace, but that night this one was protruding about a metre from his home in a rusty wreck, waiting for something nice to get too close. We kept our distance.
 The next day I found something else I wouldn't do at home: I went to the hotel spa for a full body massage followed by a facial. Fay targeted the knots in my back that took me a whole winter to develop and less than an hour under her magic fingers to lose. Fay is one of those gifted people who "has the touch." She's not listed as a major reason to go to the Caymans, but she should be.
 There were more dives, all different. On one, we went deep, 30 metres down "the wall." I stared down and down and down mesmerized by the 1,830-metre trench in front of me. On another dive, in about four metres of water, there are tame stingrays to play with and feed.
 A lot of fish follow the stingray feeding, getting what scraps they can. As soon as I had a piece of squid vacuumed off my palm by a stingray, 18 inches of yellowtail snapper lunged at my hand and swallowed my index finger up to the second knuckle. He immediately spat it out, leaving it still attached with just a small circle of cuts and some scratches as a souvenir. It's eat or be eaten down there, and I made a note to look for snapper on the menu that night.
 You can eat well in the Caymans. Prices are high, as you'd expect in a place with more banks than restaurants, but the quality is good. Rum Point Restaurant, a ferry ride across North Sound from Seven Mile Beach, looks like a place that Ernest Hemingway might have visited. "Hemingway's" is the Hyatt's up-market beach restaurant that you might have seen in the movie The Firm. There was no snapper the night I was there, I settled for a most excellent stuffed grouper.
 Four days in the Caymans didn't make me an expert on the place, I just enjoyed the warm cocoon. The cure for winter was complete. I came home happier and more relaxed than when I left, and I knew once again that the world is not a cold and grey place.

If you go

 Cayman Airways, Delta and American Airlines have frequent flights from several U.S. gateways to Grand Cayman. There will be charters direct from Toronto from November to April.
 Rooms at the Hyatt Regency on Seven Mile Beach begin at about US$200. Be sure to ask about value-added specials that can include a free night. For reservations and spa appointments call Hyatt at (800) 233-1234 or the hotel directly at (345) 949-1234.
 It's not usually necessary to reserve diving more than a day in advance, but if you want to, or for info about certification courses, call Red Sail Sports at (800) 255-6425.

Page maintained by Johnny Lucas, Travel@JohnnyLucas.com . © J.P.Lucas. Created: September1, 1998