There was a time before the Ritz, the Old Holiday Inn and our international fame as a tax-haven that the Cayman Islands were labelled as “The Islands Time Forgot”.
I can attest to that. Back in the early 70s when an opportunity came up to visit Cayman I dropped into a Miami based travel agency looking for ticket information and any pamphlets they may have on the islands. The agent had nothing. Not one single brochure, no hotel rates, no maps. This was way before Internet days; the agent had no clue how to get to the Caymans. An island unfamiliar to a travel agent, yes this was music to my ears. He suggested I go to the airport and check around. This took me to LACSA (Costa Rica’s National Airline) airline and there at the ticket counter was a plastic box with brochures titled “The Islands Time Forgot”. I liked the sound of that so I bought a ticket.
Well it goes without saying that the Islands Time Forgot epithet no longer makes sense, considering that we are mentioned in nearly every other Hollywood film that wrongly labels our islands as the place to hide from Uncle Sam and the IRS.
Having said that, there is still a forgotten island in our small archipelago, Owen Island, a tiny speck of paradise rarely mentioned in international travel articles or local Staycation promotions. In my opinion that’s a good thing. Owen Islands has all the ingredients of a classic south sea “motu” (Cay or islet): coconut trees, powdery white sand, seabirds and best of all no humans – most of the time.
The casually sophisticated Southern Cross Club is the gateway to Owen Island. This twelve room fish and dive resort, established 1958, is Little Cayman’s oldest and most celebrated resort. The majority of their guests are repeat customers who often describe Southern Cross Club’s environment as Barefoot Luxury – definitely my kind of place.
From the resort it’s an easy snorkel or kayak trip to Owen Island. My choice of travel today was via mask and fins. On my short journey I see numerous conch (a rare sight on the big island) and now and then a bar-jack skirts in my path. Soon here I am on this deserted island affixed in an inland sea known as South Hole Sound. With flippers still attached I gracelessly walk to dry land looking like some drenched zombie in a horror film. The beach is blinding white and the lagoon shimmers in the sunlight, a lagoon so clear it would seem invisible if it were not for the dive boats anchored in the distance.
There is a sign under a coconut tree, it reads “Private Property – Visitors Welcome – Please Keep This Island Clean”
How charming is that, don’t you just love it? The moment is special; besides soldier crabs and gulls I am the only breathing entity on our fourth island. It may sound a bit ingenuous but to me few pleasures are so great as making believe I’m Robinson Crusoe, on Owen Island I can experience this fantasy.
It is believed that the island was named after Richard Owen, a surveyor from the HMS Blossom which visited in 1831, not after aviator Owen Roberts as so often mistaken. Today the island is owned by the Palmer and Cumber family, the majority belonging to John Palmer.
Mr. Palmer, a geologist by trade, is a walking, talking archive of Little Cayman history. He recalls back in the 50s when a group of avid fishermen from the US pitched tents on Little Cayman’s beach spending their days bone fishing and their nights swatting mosquitos.
In spite of the remoteness and the blood sucking nuisances that mix of lawyers, businessmen and the CEO for Sears & Roebuck fell in love with the place and later built a small fishing lodge out of plywood. Termites quickly took care of that first construction and since then the Southern Cross Club has gone through several transformations, from a camp style, rustic retreat to an award winning top rated diving and fishing resort that has TripAdvisor needing more space on its excellence bar.
Back on Owen Island I’m feeling the lazy vibes, so I stretch out in the aquatic playground, a lagoon that looks more like an artist’s palette filled with shades of water—azure, turquoise and teal. I could use a cold brew about now, but there’s no bar, hotel or traffic on this slice of utopia. Owen island is probably the only fragment of Cayman land that hasn’t changed since my first visit forty some years ago. I journey to the south end of the island where I manage to retrieve a coconut which quenches my thirst for the moment.
As the reef blusters and shakes its white mane I again descend into the warm water to explore. I chase beautiful fish amongst the cavers and crevices while several good size barracudas look at me with boredom. As I frolic through the coral gardens I think of how lucky I am to be here, seventy miles from the stress filled roundabouts of Grand Cayman and how blessed we all are to have such a gem as Little Cayman and her offspring Owen Island.
Additional good news is that the two families who own the island have no interest in development, they like the isle just the way it is. Can you imagine if this was crown land? I fright at the thought. Some may think my vagabond viewpoint is strange, well bliss is in the heart of the beholder and to me the solitude of Owen Island is pure delight. I hear voices, it’s a flotilla of kayaks filled with jollity teenagers heading in my direction, time to go.
Peter Hillenbrand, the owner of the Southern Cross Club, has elevated the resort to five star category yet keeping the tranquil ambiance of what the resort has always been known for. Visiting divers know that Little Cayman’s marine ecosystem is a priority for Peter, and by the way, so is great food. Chef Anu’s lionfish tacos for lunch and Indian buffet for dinner make me aware of my dietary problems; my problem is that I simply don’t have the strength to turn down good food.
The morning of my departure a group of enthusiastic divers exchange photographs during breakfast. Their laptop hard drives were overloaded with images of lobsters, angel fish, groupers and rays.
“Here’s one my favourites” declares the diver sitting across from me. I inspect the well photographed image.
“Oh that’s an old-wife, one of my favourites also” I added.
All heads turned in my direction and I was sternly corrected. “No, that’s a Balistes Vetula, a queen trigger, one of the most beautiful fish in the sea” explains the diver.”
I decided to “eat-crow” rather than explain that Old Wife is the local name for a Queen Trigger. And it’s best that I not mention to these zealous marine conservationists that I ate one for dinner just a few nights ago.