There’s a very important tourist product missing on Grand Cayman. Often the thought of this missing component has crossed my mind and often some tourists will ask about it, however, it never really dawned on me with any significance until this past Easter weekend, when some local folks invited me for a drink at their campsite along Frank Sound Beach.
The tents were the usual canvas, ropes and pegs, surrounded by coolers full of beer and rum, a boom box blasting Freddy Fender and a Webster grill topped with burgers and chicken.
The best part of their temporary domain was the bar they had constructed under the shade of a bowed coconut tree. A dozen or so bamboo poles were split in half and fastened together with old rope of various colors. Both of these items (the bamboo and rope) are plentiful and free for the taking, washed up along the south shore coast.
Three heavy branches were placed vertically in the sand and the bamboo structure was tied onto these in a “V” shape. This was topped with some worm-eaten, dried turtle grass-crusted plywood, all held together with a few nails.
Six bar stools fashioned from a coconut tree trunk were buried in the sand deep enough for steadiness, and a pirate flag flew pompously on a palm frond.
“Genius,” I said. “Cayman needs more of this, some real true Robinson Crusoe class beach bars. Watering holes erected along the white sand, free of ‘Planning Board’ rules, regulations and bureaucracy.”
My local friends agreed with me, but one of them commented, “Try building something like this for the tourists in Grand Cayman and the planning inspectors, health inspectors and liquor licensing board would close you down before you even filled out a business license application.”
This kind of finger pointing may be irritating to those in charge of the various government departments, but it’s a fact: there are too many rules and just not enough rickety, ramshackle beach bars for our tourists.
To most of us locals, be we paper Caymanians or indigenous, such a concern may seem insignificant; however, to a tourist, a seedy, run-down beach bar holds as much island allure as sunshine and sand. I know, I’ve been in the tourist business for 40 years and I can tell you that such surf-side shacks are very popular in many other Caribbean destinations.
Bomba Shack, Tortola
Take, for example, Bomba Shack on Tortola BVI. At first glance, one would think it’s an adult entertainment center. Ladies’ panties and bras dangle from the roof and signs offer “free T-shirts if you remove your bathing attire.”
Mr. Bomba (it seems he has no first name) built the shack along Capoons Bay in 1976. Not having a lot of money for building supplies, he used driftwood, pieces of tin roofing that had been discarded, broken surf boards and anything else he was able to scrounge or happened to wash up on the beach.
The end result is a distinctly extensive, ever changing, collage of rubbish that somehow works. Despite its decrepit architecture, the Bomba Shack has survived every hurricane that has passed through BVI since the bar was first built. It’s a “gotta see-gotta do” part of the British Virgin Islands. Very few tourists holiday on Tortola without a stop at Bomba Shack – the flimsy structure is a cash cow. Such a jerry-built tourist draw would never be allowed on Grand Cayman, but on Tortola it’s a grubstaker … it is what it is.
Pete’s Pub, Bahamas
In the Abaco outer islands of the Bahamas, which has its share of rustic beach taverns, Pete’s Pub was recently voted the number one beach bar by Marina Life magazine, a publication that caters to the yachting lifestyle.
Pete’s Pub sits along the shore of Little Harbour, where it is bordered by the mighty Atlantic Ocean on one side and a shallow cove on the other. Like the breakers on the barrier reef, this place explodes with charm; it’s real, authentic and super laid back. Besides a variety of Bahamian beers and mixed drinks, Pete’s powerful rum concoction called the “Blaster” is the house specialty and at $8 a pop, it’s a winner.
Pete catches his own seafood. His triggerfish sandwiches are so fresh you can almost hear the fish screaming from the kitchen as they sizzle in the pan. No carpet or tile on the floor, strictly beach sand. No A/C, only trade winds. And, during my recent visit, no Internet-satellite radio playing American music – just Bahamian calypsos from Pete’s iPod. Pete’s logo says it all – “It’s where the elite dine in their bare feet.”
Nipper’s Grill, Bahamas
In this same chain of islands, Nippers Grill gained its fame with its Sunday wild pig roast. They would hunt a wild boar on the main island of Great Abaco on Saturday, and then overnight it would be cooked in an earth oven. In other words, a hole in the ground. An earth oven is a pit in the dirt used to trap heat and bake, smoke, or steam food with hot ember coals that are covered with palm fronds.
On Sunday, the boar would be sliced up and served with peas ‘n’ rice and rum. Happy, hungry, wealthy yachters would sail for days to get their share of the huge porker. The non-brasserie atmosphere and the tasty pig became so popular over the years the owners now import most of the pigs rather than hunt them to extinction. A pig cooked in the ground? Oh my, our health inspectors would have a cow at the thought.
Graham’s Place, Bay Islands
Graham Thompson left Cayman and purchased a small strip of land off the coast of Guanaja. He has since transformed that swatch of sand into a resort – Graham’s Place – that brings people from near and far, longing for a laid back atmosphere and great fishing.
The bar stretches out over the water, and throughout the property, guests will find repurposed or homemade items. Look for the repainted satellite dish that now functions as a cabana cover, or a conch shell shower head. The bar usually closes when the last person shuffles off to bed, and with no roads, there’s no fear of drunk drivers. Everyone just walks back to their room with a view of the sea.
Skid Row, Bay Islands
In this part of the world, Utila, in the Bay islands, is the capitol of shabby bars and the most popular of them all is a joint called Skid Row. Though it is not right on the beach, I cannot give enough praise to this little shack. On top of great food and super cheap drinks, the atmosphere here is always electric. Whoever designed and built this place must have been blind. It’s an interior decorator’s nightmare and it’s smoky, loud and fun. Most of the regular local patrons are shoeless, bikini-clad and some in need of a shower, yet mingled in the mix are happy, money spending tourists.
Don’t let the name “Skid Row” mislead you, its ranked number No. 1 on Utila by TripAdvisor, with a five-star rating and certificate of excellence to boot.
To be fair, there are a few laid-back watering holes on Grand Cayman. To stay out of trouble, I will not mention names, however when it comes to a true thrown-together, liquor-licensed, tourist-attracting shack – we do not have any. The formula could be the sand-in-your-toes factor, or hissing of the waves nearby, or the sunsets or the people you meet, whatever … we don’t have it, but we need it … so how about it?
Planning Department, give us a break.