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The Cayman Islands Are the New Crown Jewel of the Caribbean

The Cayman Islands Are the New Crown Jewel of the Caribbean

The Cayman Islands, long known primarily as a tax haven, are emerging as the latest laid-back but luxurious escape thanks to a new wave of development that, more than a decade after Hurricane Ivan, includes extraordinary and distinct resorts.

When you land on Grand Cayman nothing is how you would expect of this British territory famed as a tax haven and bastion of international banking. Beautiful beaches, yes, but what else? On departing the airport you are greeted by something entirely unexpected: a sense of familiarity. The streets of George Town could belong to a South Florida suburb, save for the fact that the drivers sat on their vehicles’ right-hand sides.

Marc Langevin, general manager at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman speaks of the devastation of hurricane Ivan. A Frenchman by birth, Langevin serves as general manager of the first true luxury resort on Seven Mile Beach, the island’s most popular strip of coastline. The 8,000-square-foot Grand Cayman Penthouse is a three-bedroom rooftop complex that includes a screening room, a chef’s kitchen, and a breathtaking wraparound terrace with a 180-degree vista of blindingly blue water. Though Ivan flattened or flooded most of the community’s buildings, its force was creative as well as destructive.

The landmark situated several miles north of the Ritz-Carlton, is the first new luxury property to appear on the island in more than a decade. The Kimpton Seafire Resort & Spa represents an architectural departure for Grand Cayman but also stands as the vanguard of a new wave of upscale development transforming this destination into an epicenter of laid-back luxury.

In the lobby you are surrounded by the sea, which sparkles in all directions like an art installation. Walls of glass allow the scenery to provide the primary decoration, while handwoven rope accents and a blue catboat—a traditional Caymanian fishing vessel— is suspended from the ceiling of the library alluded to the island’s history.

The Presidential Suite here has, immense floor-to-ceiling windows opened to a terrace, where the sapphire water creates the illusion of being aboard an ocean liner. Dart developers explained the scope of the undertaking as there was an existing hotel in this site originally, so they were going to build on that foundation, but as it sat behind the coastal road they didn’t want this, but because the road was so close to the beach, all the amenities would be behind the hotel, so they decided to demolish the existing structure.

The decision was a costly one but, in the end, worthwhile. The developers diverted the coastal road to the other side of the property, creating a footpath along the beachfront. This unfettered access played into architect Scott Lee’s vision for the design. If you go to any hotel in the Cayman Islands, the arrival experience is at sea level, so where you walk in, you really can’t see anything, the idea was to elevate reception from zero to 24 feet above sea level. You get this commanding view not only of our property but down to the white sea water and off to the horizon.

Lee and his associates rendered a series of spaces that flow seamlessly, blending sea and sunlight. The 8,500-square-foot spa, for example, though located below the lobby level, is flooded with natural light. A breezeway from the reception area leads to Ave, the Seafire’s primary restaurant, which, under the direction of the resort’s executive chef, Massimo De Francesca, combines imported and locally sourced ingredients to create a menu that captures the island’s multicultural personality. The interior offers casual seating areas around the bar, while the seats at the counter of the open kitchen belong to Avecita, a restaurant within the restaurant specializing in tapas and pintxos. Beside the main building and the pool complex stand three beach-facing bungalows and the residential tower, which houses 62 condominiums ranging in price from $1 million to $8 million.

The phenomenon that gives the new resort its name. A seafire, is a brilliant flash of green that, under the right conditions, appears at the moment the sun hits the horizon on the Caribbean Sea off Seven Mile Beach.

Grand Cayman’s sister islands, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, attract more diving enthusiasts than seekers of well-appointed accommodations. However, a recently established boutique resort on the latter persuades many to leave behind the comforts of the Ritz-Carlton and Kimpton Seafire to immerse themselves in a different ambience.

Cayman Brac’s massive limestone bluff, which rises 140-plus feet above sea level, lends the island the appearance of a floating fortress—a characteristic that, along with its caves and springs, made it a favorite rest stop for pirates, who quenched their thirst with fresh water and feasted on turtles and iguanas. Le Soleil d’Or, situated on a rustic beachfront, offers guests the absolute privacy enjoyed by castaways but without the deprivations. Essentially a farm with a boutique resort and spa attached, this relaxing destination specializes in farm-to-table cuisine of exceptional quality.

Once you arrive at reception, you note the property’s un-Caribbean appearance. A whitewashed edifice with a tiled roof, balustrades, and magenta plumes of bougainvillea, the hotel might have been transplanted from the Costa Brava in Spain. An expansive white cottage with a swimming pool and a secluded beach along with Mango Restaurant, where I got my first taste of the establishment’s raison d’être: the farm. Practically everything the resort serves is culled from 20 acres on the precipice that looms above Le Soleil d’Or’s main building.

The stone-bordered beds of fragrant citrus, spiny pineapple, burgeoning melons, and sundry esoteric plants suggests not a farm but a manicured botanical garden in which everything is as orderly as well as edible. Even the chicken coop is pleasing to the eye, devoid of the blemishes usually associated with such facilities.

The farm yields liquid bounty as well where you can try a specialty cocktail. One on the list comes in a small sherry glass containing a dark liquid topped with foam, a sprinkle of brown dust, and a wedge of dried coconut. The portion is small, but the flavors are profound—chocolate, brown spices, and hot pepper. Everything is from the farm.

The farm at Le Soleil d’Or reinforces the resilience of the Caymanian people, when you think have through the centuries transformed these expanses of limestone, sand, and mangrove swamps into vibrant and colorful havens. No indigenous cultures were displaced to make this possible; indeed, the islands seemed a triptych of blank canvases for continual creation and re-creation.