Sinbad shook his red mane, snorted the way horses do and hot-hoofed it into the warm waters of the Caribbean – with me aboard his bare back. Deeper and deeper over the white sands, scattering crabs and the odd stingray we waded, rider and steed parting the waves. Then, almost imperceptibly, his gait changed. He was no long walking. He was swimming. What an exquisite experience: cool spray under a hot sun and cloudless sky, a chorus of rustling palms along the deserted shoreline. Just me, with a rope rein in one hand, waves lapping up to my waist and a huge smile on my face.
Sinbad had just put a new slant on the adage that you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. He was proving you can take a horse to water – and make it swim. It helps when the horse is as docile and well-behaved as a Blackpool donkey. Aged 20 and standing, or paddling, at 14.3 hands this was an Arabian/Persian pussycat with empathy and a laid-back Caribbean attitude.
We were in Grand Cayman. It was a Sunday morning. And we were in horse chill heaven.
I have a history of horse thrill hell. My first – and I vowed last – venture into the equine world was an African safari when our party of mainly novices was mock-charged by an angry elephant protecting a family of young. It was terrifying. Our horses, mine was 20 hands of former racehorse, bolted. Two women were thrown. I adopted the completely wrong approach, leaning over his neck to hang on grimly with the net result that he raced even faster. While I somehow managed to stay on, one rider suffered cuts, bruises and concussion. She still has a 24-hour memory block. I don’t, so was as nervous as a kitten as I hitched myself onto Sinbad’s back.
I horse-whispered my fears into his soft velvety ear and he seemed to understand. ‘You don’t want to be on Jeronimo,’ threw our leader over her shoulder as her horse pranced and rolled his eyes. No, I didn’t. Sinbad and I got on so well in the water I was tempted to take him snorkelling. But they didn’t have a mask that would fit my new friend.
The Cayman Islands are a dream for divers. Serious scuba fans and snorkellers alike can explore the deep, swimming with turtles, stingray, eels and tropical fish of neon yellow, electric blues and shimmering lilac that dart around coral reefs, sponges and sea fans.
One experienced diver on our trip rated the sites on Grand Cayman and its delightful and unspoiled sister island of Little Cayman – including a deliberately sunk shipwreck – seven out of 10, with very good visibility, excellent safety, organisation and equipment.
The best way to see stingrays up close and very personal is by boat trip to Stingray City, which sounds more like a Vegas gambling joint than a sandbar.
Skipper Adam powered our twin-engine cruiser Cayman Elusion, not to be confused with her sister vessel Cayman Evasion (maybe a reference to the generous tax status), to the North Sound. ‘To kiss a stingray guarantees 15 years good luck,’ promised First Mate Arthur.
Excuse me, didn’t that wildlife guru Steve Irwin die after he was pierced in the chest by a stingray barb while filming an underwater documentary titled Ocean’s Deadliest? Well, yes. But it’s very rare. Just don’t tread on them. They only release their toxic barb when threatened, assured Arthur.
Our cruiser bobbed at anchor as we gingerly lowered ourselves off the stern into waters seething with stingray awaiting a squid feast. They flapped gracefully around our legs in anticipation. For 14 years Arthur has worked with them here, the only area in the world where they are protected.
‘They are all my girlfriends,’ he grinned. ‘And the good thing is they don’t get jealous. Pucker up and give me a kiss,’ he encouraged Bella, a grandmother weighing around 200lbs. He tickled Frisbee, born without a barb, and we all received a stingray massage as they undulated over chests, under spines and across thighs. They felt like solid jelly, warm and soft, their doleful pale amber eyes as unblinking as a snake’s. They sucked up our offerings of calamari like hungry Hoovers, emitting a squeaky thank you.
We needed feeding too, so headed off past Starfish Point, with Frisky the bottlenose dolphin in our wake, to Rum Point for a beach lunch of blackened mahi mahi fish and conch fritters with jerk mayo. A 16oz ground beef burger stuffed with jalapenos, topped with bacon and cheddar plus fries was rightly named the Rum Point Challenge. I didn’t rise to it.
I needed to squeeze myself into a kayak for a fascinating paddle among the mangroves, spotting green iguana, pale anemones, little blue heron, tree crabs and upside down jellyfish.
The mangrove roots serve as a nursery to juvenile fish – tarpon, barracuda, snapper – as well as acting as a buffer to absorb the energy of storms and hurricanes.
Our guide was Danielle Bouchard, a retired Canadian teacher happy to escape the rat race to become a passionate environmentalist. She led us up iguana alley and along channel so narrow we had to abandon our paddles to haul ourselves along, hands grasping tangled mangrove branches.
It was cool and shaded under this dense canopy, sunlight dappling the surface of waters clear enough to spot a sea hare. This strange mollusc can reproduce without any help from another slug like creature. It boasts male and female genitalia, the male sex organ between the eyes and mouth, the female orifice along its side. Such sexual contortion certainly beats Internet dating.
With its more conventional sex life the fantastic blue iguana faced extinction and is still desperately endangered. A recovery programme has been set up to save Grand Cayman’s biggest native land animal and these prehistoric looking reptiles are now in the dedicated care of Alberto Estevanovich, 69, a former hotelier from Serbia who shows visitors around the reserve.
‘I love the wild, nature and animals. This is what keeps me alive. Iguanas are beautiful. They know me and bob their heads when they hear my voice. They behave very good, unlike some hotel guests,’ said Alberto, who knows his charges by name and boasted about the birth of twins like a proud grandfather
He nurtures them from egg to adolescence before introducing them to the reserve and botanic park. ‘And then we release them into the wild after making sure they are big, strong and healthy enough, with a microchip to map their movements. There are 800 out there now.’
They were almost outnumbered by equally colourful pirates during our stay, which coincided with Pirates Week, an annual festival of fireworks, feasting, music, street dancing, a parade, races, underwater treasure hunt (I failed to find any as was mesmerised by iridescent marine life) and an ear-blasting re-enactment of swashbuckling pirates sailing into George Town harbour to capture the Governor.
It’s all good family fun, so pack your best bandana and party.
Gill Martin stayed at the Westin Hotel: The Westin, Grand Cayman. Caribtours (020 7751 0660: www.caribtours.co.uk) offers 7 nights from £1,978 per person, based on 2 adults sharing an Island View Room on Room Only. Includes return scheduled flights and private transfers. And at Little Cayman Beach Resort:www.littlecayman.com.
Flights between Grand Cayman and Little Cayman: Cayman Airways Express www.caymanairways.com. For Spirit of the West beach rides visit: www.seahorses.ky. For boat excursion to Stingray City: aymanluxurycharters.com. For mangrove tour visit: www.caymanseaelements.com. Blue Iguana Recovery Programme and Botanic Park: www.blueiguana.ky. For Pirates Week visit: www.piratesweekfestival.
[photo credits: Cayman Islands Department of Tourism; Gill Martin]