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Grand Cayman is tiny in size but big in influence. For years the moneymen have beaten a path to the Caribbean island to invest their wealth free of taxes, and the discerning tourist has targeted it for its relaxing atmosphere and safety. Now golfers are taking an interest and exploring the islands’ three courses. Vic Robbie reports
THE rains came, slowly at first and then tumbling like a waterfall so that you could not see through the wall of water. The staff bustled about removing items from harm’s way and the tourists sat around with long faces, pondering what they might do to keep their children amused.
Even though this was officially the start of the hurricane season, we who had just arrived were lucky. This was merely the dying remnants of a tropical storm, which an hour’s flight north in Florida was causing any amount of mayhem. Within 15 minutes paradise was restored. The dark clouds scudded by, the turquoise waters sparkled again and the strong sun and islanders’ smiles lit up the morning.
We were in Hemingway country, or rather waters, where the great man came to fish for marlin in the spectacular sea by day and down margaritas by night.
Since then many of the rich and famous have come to Grand Cayman for a variety of reasons - whether to enjoy the ultimate relaxation the island has to offer, or check on their offshore investments or scuba dive down to the amazing coral reefs. Now some are even coming for golf.
We all have different ideas of paradise. For some it is a tropical island whose white sand beaches are rimmed by impossibly blue seas; where the temperatures rarely drop below 80 degrees; and in the evenings they can sit outside under the stars caressed by sea breezes. For others it might be somewhere that taxation almost doesn’t exist – no income tax, no capital gains tax, no estate and death duties.
The Cayman Islands actually tick all those boxes. Nestling in the Caribbean Sea just south of Cuba, the islands offer all the sun, sea and sand you would expect of a West Indian island, which for its tiny size still has an amazing influence on the world of money with US$1trillion deposited and booked through its banks.
No movie star, footballer or entrepreneur would be reckoned financially astute without having at least one of the 70,000 plus companies registered in this tax haven.
Yet the island is still British. Unlike many of its neighbours, it has not seen the need to seek independence from the mother country. British and no taxation? Surely not? It seems a contradiction of terms but it is true. While financiers flock to the islands to protect their fortunes so do immigrants to settle and work – as one Brit told me “It’s great to get my pay cheque and it’s all for me”.
Immigrants outnumber the natives and many work in the service industry. At the huge Ritz-Carlton Hotel for example there are 1,000 employees of more than 50 nationalities looking after the guests.
As an island, Grand Cayman has its bougainvillea, blue iguanas and coconut trees, but is not the prettiest in the West Indies. The shoreline is spectacular and dramatic but inland it is flat rising only 60 feet above sea level in one part of the island thus having no defence to the forces of nature.
With beauty there is always an element of danger and so it was three years ago when Hurricane Ivan roared through devastating much of the island and covering 90 percent of the land with sea water.
Although Ivan will not be welcome again, it is a pleasant friendly destination, and the richest country in the Caribbean has little poverty and even less crime. With the current exchange rates, you get a good bang for your US dollar or even Cayman dollar and you can still buy a three-bedroom home on a golf course with sea views for around £200,000.
Renowned as a centre of scuba diving, the crystal-clear waters are perfect for diving and snorkelling and there are many different ways tourists can explore the waters, teeming with a rich variety of sea life. You can learn to dive or the less adventurous can take a 40-seater submarine, the Atlantis, a hundred feet under the surface or feed the fish at Stingray City.
Apart from banking, the island’s livelihood comes from tourism and especially an endless procession of gigantic cruise ships that unload their human cargo on the capital of George Town to take advantage of the duty free bargains in gold, watches and diamonds in the cluster of shops around the port.
THE glorious Seven Mile Beach is the premier location on Grand Cayman and, as you might expect, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel with its Greg Norman designed Blue Tip golf course and Silver Rain Spa dominates it.
Known by the locals as ‘the sandcastle’, its size and presence on 144 acres means it cannot be ignored and as soon as you enter the imposing lobby the friendly and attentive staff let it be known that they intend to pamper you.
Built in the style of most Ritz-Carltons around the world, you know exactly what you are going to get. Apart from the golf and the spa, which is a must these days for any major hotel chain, it also has a Nick Bollettieri tennis centre where you can improve your game or simply play on a variety of courts, including grass.
Fine dining is always a mark of the Ritz-Carlton brand and it doesn’t get any better than here with five restaurants – including the Blue and the Periwinkle by famous New York chef Eric Ripert.
The Periwinkle is ideal for a snack or a meal after the golf on Blue Tip. It’s outdoor and by the water and I can recommend the pasta, which is just one of their specialities. At night they erect a large inflatable screen and show the latest movies watched by an audience reclining on loungers and sipping champagne under the stars.
Blue is the ultimate dining experience and if you want a special treat go for the Blue six-course menu – tuna foie gras, Maryland crab, seared yellowtail, sautéed cobia, red snapper and almond honey cake washed down with a combination of wines to complement each dish.
There are the usual collection of bars, including one down by the pool overlooking the sea where the bartenders mix a very good Caribbean rum punch or just about any cocktail you care to name.
And if you’re feeling flush there’s even a Tiffany’s in the hotel perfect for purchasing that little bit of bling.
To book call +1345 943 9000 or visit www.ritzcarlton.com
WITHIN an hour of that downpour, which would have closed any number of British courses, we were on the first tee with our appropriately named Jamaican caddie T, and despite the rains the course was in excellent shape and the greens hard and fast.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that this is only nine holes. Greg Norman had only 120 acres to play with and opted for a challenging championship nine holes rather than a mediocre 18.
It’s been nicknamed the ‘Caribbean monster’, which is perhaps not apparent from the first tee. True there is water on eight holes but the fairways look wide and forgiving and any undulations mere ripples.
Opened last October, it is still bedding in but this is no gentle resort course. The fairways have more run than you might imagine perhaps something to do with the fact that the course is built on a bed of pebbles and rocks which dry it out quickly, and the almost ever-present welcoming breeze is stronger than you think.
At 3,516 yards off the back tees, it is a test for anyone as Greg discovered when he played his creation at the official opening in January finding that his full-blooded drive off the first managed only a modest 230 yards into the prevailing wind and eventually dropping two shots to the par of 36 for the nine holes.
Steve Mazzei, Blue Tip’s director of operations, is used to guests underestimating the potency of the course and recalls: “We had a guy come to play recently and I asked him if he had plenty of balls. He said a sleeve of three would do him. Ten minutes later he was back in the shop, he’d driven all three into the water at the first.”
And he has known some golfers to lose around 40 balls over the 18 holes.
From the forward tees the course is a 2,650-yard stroll but off the back it is a slog especially the 601-yard seventh even though it is downwind. Here you need distance and accuracy because there’s water all down the right side and out of bounds left. The green is two-tiered and tricky.
The course’s signature hole is the shortest, the 157-yard ninth to an island green. Club selection is crucial here as you hit into a capricious wind, watched by sunbathing iguanas.
The course is open only to Ritz-Carlton guests and at the moment caters for about 30 rounds a day. Buggies are not compulsory if you want to walk the pancake flat course.
After 2pm you can dispense with caddies and under-16s can play for free if accompanied by an adult.
For hotel guests, club hire (Nike) can be arranged forthe duration of their stay and can be used to play the other courses, The Links at Safehaven and Britannia.
The Links at Safehaven
THE next morning I met up with the Canadian pro Sean Wilson, who had arrived only three weeks before via Turks & Caicos, and made up a four-ball with an athletic young man called Johnny, whom I was told was the best young player on the island and certainly played like it, and an expat former banker, Paul, who had settled here three years before and enjoyed the lifestyle so much he had no intention of returning to Blighty.
Suffering from a lingering bug, it was something of a relief to find that there was a gentle start with a 140-yard par-3 and no water in sight, although the course made up for it with water coming into play on 15 of the remaining holes. But from then on the course, 6,605 yards off the back tees, proved a sporting par 71 with the ocean breezes and narrow fairways demanding accurate shot-making to the large and undulating greens.
Emulating a true links is not easy but Safehaven, designed by Roy Case in 1994, does its best, encouraging the rough to grow long with heather-like grasses, making a home for numerous species of wild birds and exotic tropical flora. Trying to keep a course in these parts in tip-top condition can be a thankless task. When Hurricane Ivan came a calling three years ago the course was covered in six feet of sea water and its condition now is a tribute to the hard work of the staff in restoring it.
This is the locals’ course with 450 members paying around £1,000 a year but visitors are welcome to play and what they get for their money is the island’s only true 18-hole championship course with a collection of fine holes, namely the long par-4 third, the short ninth with almost an island green, the stunning and difficult 11th, a 235- yard par-3 over water and into the wind down to the North Sound, and the 545-yard 18th a classic finishing hole double-doglegging right around water.
Although flat, like the rest of the island, this was a tough round in the 90-degree heat. We were unable to use buggies on this visit and, as one islander observed, ‘you shouldn’t be hauling your clubs around a golf course in this heat’.
Contact: +1 345 949 5988 or 947 4155 or visit www. safehaven.ky
GRAND Cayman’s oldest course, laid down by Jack Nicklaus in 1985. And ingenious it is, too. As Jack explained: “This is the most versatile golf course I’ve ever designed – two different courses in 37 acres. It’s something you’ve got to see and play.”
Luckily my guide was the pro Dave Johnson, who hails from Orlando, Florida, where he worked with Arnie Palmer at Bay Hill but has no intention of leaving this particular corner of paradise. The concept was hard to grasp first thing in the morning and, initially, facing an array of fluttering flags it was confusing but once into the round you had to marvel at how well it was planned.
In essence there are two courses – the 2,942- yard nine-hole championship course, which incorporates an 18-hole 2,759-yard executive course with some of the championship holes cut in two. On Mondays and Wednesdays visitors have to play the Executive Course with its 15 par-3s.
With Dave expertly showing the way, it became an enjoyable test of our short game and even though the shortest hole is a mere 51 yards this is no pitch and putt. Every variation of a short hole is here with blind shots, tiny greens, long tracts of water, cavernous bunkers and wickedly sloping putting surfaces.
And perhaps the best of them is the 160-yard 10th on the Executive and the fifth on the Championship. A fitting signature hole it demands a precision tee shot over water with mangroves beckoning on the right and the wind whipping in from the North Sound.
When you play with the boss you can break the rules and, as we were the only golfers on the course, we mixed and matched playing some of the holes of the Championship course – the 529-yard fourth and the 496-yard ninth, which is a double dogleg over water with the green tucked in behind even more of the wet stuff.
An idyllic setting, the attractive clubhouse sits out over the water with a perfect view of the final green so it was fitting that Dave finished with a typical pro’s shot – an approach to within eighteen inches of the cup – a perfect example of how regularly playing the Executive Course hones your short game.
Contact: +1 345 745 4653 or visit www.britanniavillas.net/golf.aspx
For more information on the Cayman Islands, contact the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism on +44 (0)20 7491 7771 or visit www. caymanislands.co.uk