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Caribbean: Cayman Islands - To Hell and Back

So you think you've been to hell and back while travelling with the kids? Well, you may have, especially if you've taken the gang to the Cayman Islands. There, Hell is a place on the north end of Grand Cayman with its own post office and T-shirt shops. You can mail back family vacation cards postmarked "Hell"; the kids can put their faces into cardboard cutouts of the Devil. But not before touring the rare outcropping of jagged blackened rock which caused a local official to declare, "This place looks like Hell!" Our kids were itching to clamber down off the wooden walkway and climb out onto the limestone formations. Especially as they watched local schoolkids leaping from peak to peak.

But there are many other things on Grand Cayman Island that are closer to Paradise. If you're looking for family amusement parks with water slides, kiddie-theme restaurants, and a slew of kids' clubs offering activities so you can party the night away, then this vacation spot is not for you. But if you appreciate one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean, see-through turquoise waters teeming with fish, and being able to tour by day and sleep at night without being hassled, then these three quiet islands, about 1 1/2 hours flight from Miami, are ideal. In fact, when asked about their absolutely favorite place on earth so far, our kids will often put the Caymans at the top.

Of course, this safe and civilized destination, still a British colony, does not come cheap. Their dollar is actually worth more than the U.S. bill which makes it really tough for Canadians. But by renting a beachside condominium for a week, asking hotel staff where they buy their groceries, and taking the local bus instead of taxis, we were able to cut costs. Besides, the kids were so exhausted after hours of snorkelling, we didn't really need active nightlife or other amusements. One night we did hire a babysitter, an island woman who came equipped with storybooks and knitting. But most evenings we were in bed early so that we could be on the beach by the time "our" sea turtle arrived for breakfast.

Cayman was originally named Las Tortugas (The Turtles) by Christopher Columbus. Although the name has disappeared, the turtles haven't. The most popular tourist attraction on the island is the Turtle Farm, the only green-sea-turtle nursery of its kind in the world. Kids will be fascinated by the tanks holding day-old hatchlings and those containing 600 pound monsters that can live to be 100. Some of the turtles can be picked up gingerly and examined, although forget eating turtle meat in the farm's café afterward. My kids would not touch any kind of fish on any menu on Grand Cayman. It might have been the very creature they'd been swimming with that day. Every October, yearlings are marked and released into the ocean.

Life in these three islands hasn't always been so tranquil. In the early days, the caves provided a perfect hideout for famous pirates such as Blackbeard and Sir Henry Morgan. Today, these cutthroat figures come to life again as the whole citizenry dresses up as pirates, storms the capital of George Town and arrests the governor. From October 25 to November 3, there's costume competition, parades, fireworks, underwater treasure hunts and general mayhem for a week as wenches, eye-patched rogues and their offspring take over the streets. Then after ten days of frolic, the islands return to their usual state of civilized calm. There may be animated pirates on display at the Treasure Museum and a somewhat underground pirate's cave in Bodden Town. But more typical of the islanders' attitude to ruffians is a scene we witnessed at the airport upon arrival. A tourist coiffed in shoulder-length dreadlocks was being offered a choice-either cut off the hair or board the next plane home.

Families shouldn't miss two other major sea-linked attractions - the Atlantis Submarine reef dive past sponges, corals, eels and schools of fish, and Stingray City. Kids as young as four can swim in life jackets above the rays while divers pat the tame creatures and feed them squid. The Caymans are known as a diving world hot spot but the snorkelling is just as spectacular. We were swimming with so many colorful fish just yards offshore, we finally gave in and bought a book with pictures identifying the sea creatures and coral. Kids should know that some of the coral can sting even if brushed and there are some creatures such as tiny thimble jellyfish that can cause discomfort if trapped down the front of a bathing suit. But that was the height of our troubles while alternating between a tropical Heaven and an intriguing Hell.

Accommodation: We stayed at the Christopher Columbus condominiums for about $300 U.S. per night for five people. Other family-friendly properties with kitchens include London House and Silver Sands. The Holiday Inn offers one of the nicest stretches of the Seven Mile beach; kids stay free and will enjoy the fabulous breakfast buffet and ice cream parlor. At the other end of the budget is the Hyatt Regency Grand Cayman with its lush landscaping and Camp Hyatt kids' program. Check Canadian Holidays tour book for economical packages. To receive an information packet, call (416) 485-1550.





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