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is a small, safe tropical haven of beauty, peace, good food, serious diving and fun activities.
By Joann Biondi
W hen first-time guests check in to Pirates Point Resort and ask for their room keys, owner Gladys Howard gives her standard reply: “Room keys? We don’t need no stinking room keys. This is Little Cayman Island.”
With a resident population of about 120, Howard is right. Little Cayman is a small, safe, tropical haven where the worries of the modern world are left far behind.
Barely ten miles long by one mile wide, it has a one-room bank (open only on Wednesdays), one grocery store, a schoolteacher who flies in five days a week from nearby Cayman Brac to teach two local children, and a tiny cemetery with about two dozen conch shell-encrusted tombstones.
Seventy-four miles northeast of Grand Cayman, which is a one-hour flight from Miami, Little Cayman is also an oasis of natural beauty. It has long stretches of sandy beaches, breathtaking blue lagoons, wild orchids and papaya trees, 2,000 rock iguanas (that can get to be six-feet long), and a 200-acre bird sanctuary that serves as home to 20,000 red-footed boobies. And just a few yards from shore are some of the best scuba diving sites on earth, marked by stunning coral gardens, deep and winding ravines, and the world-famous Bloody Bay Wall.
When Gladys Howard moved here from Texas 15 years ago, the island had only 12 people, three phone lines, and no electricity. Nobody thought I was serious about running a resort,” she said. “Nor did they think I would last for long.”
A Cordon Bleu-trained chef who studied with Julia Child, James Beard, Jacque Pepin, and Lucy Lo, Howard owned a gourmet catering service and cooking school in Tyler, Texas, for 20 years. She also had her own cooking show on television, called Potpourri, and published a cookbook on Texas cuisine. At the age of 55, she decided to chuck it all, purchase a rundown property on Little Cayman, and indulge in another one of her passions scuba diving.
“The first year I lived here, I went diving every day and never answered the phone,” she said. “But then I realized I had to get busy.”
Getting busy meant remodeling the rooms, adding a freshwater swimming pool, installing an industrial kitchen, and hiring a staff of ten that includes six scuba instructors. In her spare time, she also chaired the Little Cayman National Trust, which oversaw the creation of bylaws forbidding chain hotels or franchise restaurants from ever being built on the island.
Today, Pirates Point has a stellar reputation, and is the most popular of the ten hotels now on the island. Last year, Gourmet magazine gave it honorable mention in its “Rooms at the Top” issue, and before that it made its way into The 100 Best Resorts of the Caribbean guidebook. The hotel has a 90-percent occupancy rate, and although Howard never advertises, rooms are usually booked a year in advance. And while most of the guests are avid scuba divers, non-divers come as well, just to soak in the friendly ambiance.
“I want my guests to feel as if they are visiting my home, not a hotel,” said Howard. “I want them to get behind the bar and mix themselves a drink whenever they feel like it.”
Sprawled out over seven oceanfront acres, the resort consists of four octagonal cottages that contain ten guest rooms, a central pavilion that houses the dining room, bar and gift shop, an Olympic-size pool, coral rock fish pond, its own dive boat and dock. Although they have rustic and simple exteriors, the resort’s spacious guestrooms have romantic interiors with wrap-around verandas, louvered windows, tropical wicker furniture, and Caymanian artwork. A four-foot-long pet iguana named Handbag wanders around the property as four resident cats pay him no mind. Since there are no televisions, in-room phones, or Internet hook-ups, Pirates Point forces guests to disconnect from their lives back home, and most who stay here are supremely happy because of it.
Served family style with linen table cloths and crystal glassware, the dining here is superb. Howard, with help from two chefs, offers three meals a day, and prepares everything from scratch. Fresh produce and other supplies are flown in via charter plane twice a week. A blend of old-fashioned Texas cuisine with a hint of international flair, Howard’s house specialties include: conch ceviche, tropical gazpacho, green papaya salad, Texas turkey chili, tequila cactus relish, frittatas, sweet-and-sour dolphin, marbled tea eggs, garlic lamb, sweet potato pone, ratatouille, vegetable couscous, Cayman-style fish, and desserts to die for coconut pecan pie, chocolate chip kisses, red cherry pudding, and Texas praline cookies. Not long ago Howard published Cookin’ in Little Cayman, a cookbook of her recipes, that she now sells in her gift shop.
“The food, the wine, and the atmosphere here are terrific,” raved Sienna O’Connell. O’Connell, whose family owns the Charles Krug Winery in Napa Valley, California, has vacationed at Pirates Point with her husband John six times, and already has her next stay reserved.
To call the atmosphere at Pirates Point mellow is an understatement. Dress is Hawaiian shirt casual even at dinner, and it feels as if you’ve dropped in on one of those rare family reunions where everyone gets along and truly likes each other. Howard, of course, sets the tone. Charging around in cutoff shorts, a tank top, and purple toenail polish, she is a dynamo of a woman. Along with leading Sunday morning walking tours through the island’s Salt Rocks Trail, and organizing twice a day scuba trips, she oversees costume contests, joke nights,birthday parties, and raft races. Late in the afternoon it is not uncommon to spot her do a cannonball dive into the pool cradling a blow-up plastic shark in her arms.
“I came to Little Cayman for the peace and solitude of the place, and fortunately it’s still here,” she said. “It’s hard for me to go back to civilization. When I get on a plane and look down at Miami, I want to turn around and come right back. I plan on staying on Little Cayman forever. I’m going to set up a rocking chair, gaze out at the beauty of the sea, and just rock on in to eternity.”