Grand Cayman Gradually Rebounds From Ivan's Wrath

January 14, 2005
From the vantage point of our tender as we slip away from our cruise ship en route to Grand Cayman's George Town, it would appear that the effects of Hurricane Ivan -- the Category Four hurricane that pounded this island in September -- are but a memory. After all, five mega ships are anchored in the harbor on this mid-January day. Even from here you can see that the waterfront is literally crawling with cruise passengers visiting duty-free boutiques. People are ordering jerk chicken Caesar salads and rum punches at Breezes by the Bay.

The signs of prosperity are, however, somewhat deceiving. Just beyond the main part of the city, trees that line Grand Cayman's famous Seven Mile Beach are stripped bare of foliage -- it looks like winter back home in the Northeast. Green fencing surrounding tennis courts has collapsed inward, making it impossible to play. There are randomly scattered pockets of debris, from a tilted, concrete-floored bus stop to bent pieces of metal. Plenty of buildings are without roofs, windows -- sometimes walls.

Grand Cayman had taken such a hit from the devastating 36-hour storm that began on September 11, 2004 that cruise ships halted visits for more than two months. They were allowed to trickle back in, gradually, beginning in November, with the island regaining its normal port-of-call status (four to six ships a day) in mid-December. And that meant life here was at last beginning to return to normalcy.

"When cruise ships began returning to Grand Cayman," says Rita Mae Bush, a taxi driver and tour leader, "it brought a sense of hope." Overall, passengers visiting Grand Cayman on a day-long port of call will find much that's open. This includes its Seven Mile Beach (though some of the hotels lining the stretch are closed), the Butterfly Farm, the dubious town of Hell, the turtle farm, Stingray City, and snorkeling and scuba diving expeditions. Restaurants have reopened, both in town (the aforementioned Breezes, the harbor-front Paradise, and the fabulous Bacchus) and out (the gorgeous Grand Old House near Smith Cove, for one, and on the seven mile stretch there's Mezza, Canton and the Wharf). Two of our favorite out-of-the-way cafes -- Calypso Grill and Papagallo -- sustained major damage. They plan to reopen in the next month or two.

In some cases, there have been improvements. Rum Point, one of the island's beaches, actually benefited from Ivan, and is bigger than ever (so, too, is the seven-mile stretch in front of the Westin Casuarina).

Beyond that? Folks here have been moved by the generosity of cruise visitors. Some passengers are treating a call at Grand Cayman as more than an opportunity to kick back and see some turtles. One woman on Jewel of the Seas, an elementary school teacher, brought along donated school supplies. And on many shop counters you'll see a paper-covered can where you can drop a few coins (and receive a gold "Cayman recovery" ribbon); the money goes to those who need to rebuild their lives here.

But just the fact that people are coming means the most, as many of the folks here rely on tourism -- especially during the high season -- for sustenance.