Peter Hillenbrand was on the verge of becoming a marine biologist when the lure of a small Caribbean dive resort landed him on the white, soft, sandy beaches of Little Cayman.
Since the early 1980s, the East Indiana native had been coming to Little Cayman where his dad was a shareholder of the Southern Cross Club, but when the club went up for sale in the mid-1990s, he abandoned his plans to study to be a marine biologist and took up the task of running the dive and fishing resort instead.
“My father came here in 1973… He invested in the Southern Cross Club where there were 34 shareholders. They were Caymanian, American and British shareholders. That group of investors ran the Southern Cross Club and started the diving here on Little Cayman. Most of the dive sites on Bloody Bay Wall are named after Southern Cross Club investors or guests,” he says.
He first came to Little Cayman in 1981 and joined his dad as a shareholder in the club in 1988.
Recalling his first visits to Little Cayman, he says: “It was very pristine. There was no electricity. Scarce water. No air conditioning… I was 19 years old and thought I was in heaven.”
The Southern Cross Club started out as a fishing resort, but as diving grew in popularity and people caught on to the fact that Little Cayman had some of the best diving in the world, it became a fishing and diving resort.
“In 1995, the shareholders decided to sell. I was right in the middle of a career change. I was studying to become a marine biologist. I dropped the degree to buy the Southern Cross Club and moved down here to live my dream,” he says.
“I have been here since 5 May, 1995,” he adds.
He says he believes the little resort, which now boasts 13 beachside bungalows, becomes a little better every year and is exactly the kind of the resort the Caribbean needs.
It is small, friendly, laid back and quiet. Hammocks sway in the breeze on the beach under thatch huts, dive boats take divers out in the mornings and afternoons, and a swimming pool is conveniently located right next to the bar where guests can cool off after having a beer.
“More than 80 per cent of the people who stay here are repeat customers. People often hear about us through word of mouth,” says Hillenbrand.
Although he feels right at home on Little Cayman and his five siblings and parents visit regularly from Indiana, he does not spend all his time there. He makes frequent trips back to Indiana where he runs another business. “I spend maybe 25 per cent of my time there and the rest of my time here,” he says.
He also travels for fun, going to far flung places like Alaska, New Zealand and the South Pacific to dive, fly fish and explore, but always comes back to Little Cayman.
“This is the greatest community. Everyone gets along. It is safe. I am really lucky that the two places where I spend the majority of my time, here and [Batesville] Indiana, have such wonderful people and are places where people don’t have to lock their cars.
“Do I get island fever? I can get it if I spend more than six months here and I have not left the island. I feel the need sometimes to go to Grand Cayman to go to bars or see some live music and do something different,” he says.
A scar on Hillenbrand’s nose, and a nose guard on his sunglasses, are the only evidence now of a freak fireworks accident he suffered in March.
At a 100th birthday party for a regular visitor to the island, the Southern Cross Club owner was setting off fireworks during the celebrations. One exploded in his face, narrowly missing his eye and leaving him with facial injuries.
“It was one of those freak things… A firework went off in my face. It wasn’t supposed to go off,” says Hillenbrand, who adds that he was not a novice at letting off firework
s. “I’ve been working with fireworks since I was a teenager,” he says.
Swift medical attention and an emergency airlift off island followed and a little while later he was joking about it.
Just weeks after the accident, he served as auctioneer at the annual Easter Auction to raise funds for the Little Cayman District National Trust. There, he told the gathered bidders that his injuries had been sustained whilst saving the then soon-to-be royal bride Kate Middleton from a hammerhead shark in the local waters. He has since revised that tale to saving Kate’s sister Pippa.
It’s not inconceivable he might be rubbing shoulders with the Middleton sisters. After all, he’s met Kate’s uncle-in-law Edward several times in his capacity as chairman of the Central Caribbean Marine Institute of which Prince Edward is royal patron.
He and other supporters of the marine institute hung out with the prince again in Buckingham Palace four days after the royal wedding in April during a dinner for CCMI.
“We were in the music room next to where the reception for the royal wedding was held,” says Hillenbrand, who has been chairman of CCMI since 1998.
“I am proud of my association with CCMI. It is a very valuable resource for the Cayman Islands and the Caribbean in general. We are doing very good, very valuable work from the research to the education side. The Ocean Literacy programme supported by KPMG… can be exported to other places all around the world,” says Hillenbrand, who believes that it is important for children and adults alike to understand more about the ocean that surrounds them.
And if they’re not into understanding the ocean, at his “barefoot elegance” resort, they will certainly get a chance to at least relax in or beside the ocean and contemplate life in paradise.