Vacation | Cayman Islands, Part 2 (More than Margaritas)

Hello again, blog friends. To anybody who read Part 1 of what I promised would be a two-part story about our adventure on Grand Cayman back in the spring, I apologize.

Somehow, half a year has gone by since I wrote that post. If anybody is still curious about what we did (besides drinking all of the margaritas in Margaritaville), here, at long last, is Part 2.

Cayman Spirits Co.
Our first outing away from our resort was to the Cayman Spirits Co., makers of “handcrafted artisanal rum.”

Cayman Spirits Co.
The tour of the distillery was short — about 30 minutes — and sweet — ending in a tasting room, where we got to sample all of the different varieties of rum that the company makes.

Cayman Spirits Co.

Jim thought the banana rum was the best, but (once again) he was wrong. The coconut was much better. Mmmm. We bought a bottle (along with a carton of pineapple juice to mix it with) to take back to our room, because man (and woman) cannot live on margaritas alone.

crosswalk

The Caymans are a British territory, which is a mixed blessing for American visitors like us. The good news is that everybody speaks English. The bad news is that everybody drives on the left side of the road.

taxi in George Town

We walked or took cabs everywhere we went, because neither one of us was brave enough to get behind the wheel ourselves.

Camana Bay shopping center

On our second day on the island, we went for a walk and wandered into a cute little shopping center called Camana Bay. Sadly, we couldn’t do much shopping because it was a Sunday, and virtually all of the stores in the Caymans are closed on Sundays.

ice cream shop window
Restaurants were open though, so we drowned our sorrows in ice cream.

wild chicken

And we had a good laugh at all the chickens strutting around the shopping center. I guess feral chickens are everywhere in the Caribbean (at least on all of the islands we’ve been to), but to a farmgirl from Wisconsin, they always seem a little out of place.

mosaic

In the middle of the shopping center, we discovered a five-story observation tower that had a stunning sea life mosaic all the way up one wall.

sealife mosaic

I think I took more photos of the mosaic on the walk up than I did of the view when we got to the top.

Camana Bay
I was utterly charmed by Camana Bay — until the next day, when we were talking to a local woman about it and she informed us (none too happily) that it was owned by a billionaire Styrofoam cup magnate from Michigan who, after he inherited his fortune from his father, denounced his American citizenship, moved to the Caymans (which is a tax-free country) and bought up a quarter of the island’s real estate.

Camana Bay
Camana Bay lost a little of its luster after that, in my mind, at least.

submarine tour Grand Cayman

On another day, we took an underwater submarine tour. (Sorry about the tilted horizon. I’d like to blame the margaritas for my shoddy photography, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t start drinking that day until well after the sub ride.)

Atlantis Submarines

Here’s the interior of the sub (at a more sober angle).

submarine tour Grand Cayman

Cards like this one were hanging in front of all of the portholes to help us identify the fish that lived in this part of the Caribbean.

 submarine tour
Unfortunately, this is mostly what I saw. A big blue window with some nondescript little floaties swimming by. Jim claims he saw a lot of the actual fish pictured on the card, but every time he tried to point one out to me, it had mysteriously disappeared by the time I was looking.

Breeze's Bistro

After our submarine ride, we walked around George Town and had lunch and drinks at an overpriced bar/restaurant, directly across from where the cruise ships come into port. (There’s no dock; the ships just anchor offshore, and tenders ferry the passengers back and forth.)

Breeze's Bistro

The bar had a very fun Caribbean vibe …

Breeze's Bistro

… and the view of the water and the downtown was amazing, which more than made up for the inflated prices.

Breeze's Bistro

The best part was that the waitresses were wearing T-shirts featuring Caymans’ sayings like the one pictured above. I should probably explain here that my husband’s family has always called him “Bobo” for some reason. (The bar had shirts for sale, but, sadly, only children’s sizes.)

George Town

In the Caymans, Bobo means “buddy” or “the object of one’s affection.”

Margaritaville
We spent the rest of that afternoon bar hopping and shopping in George Town.

souvenirs

Fortunately we remained (just) sober enough to refrain from buying any of the many, many, many kitschy souvenirs we saw (although it was touch and go for a while there).

blue iguana

Another outing took us to the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, where we saw one of the island’s beloved blue iguanas. (Can you see him in the photo above? He’s right in the center of the picture, but he’s pretty well camouflaged. We were almost on top of him before we noticed him.)

Invasive green iguanas are everywhere on the island, but the blues, which are native to the Caymans, are sadly few and far between. The botanic park operates a recovery program that is trying to bring the population back.

Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park

Our hike through the botanic park also took us past quite a few trees that looked like this. Apparently they got knocked over when Hurricane Ivan battered the island in 2004 and then just started growing upward again.

Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park

We also got to see this guy (which I really could have done without — I haaaaate snakes). Thankfully he just slithered around this pink post and then headed off into the forest. We were told there are three types of snakes on Grand Cayman, none of which are poisonous. But still. After we saw this guy, I kept staring at the ground in front of me because I was paranoid I was going to step on one of his brethren.

Pedro St. James National Historic Site

We also spent some time at the Pedro St. James National Historic Site, which is home to the oldest building on the Caymans. The three-story structure dates back to 1780, when it was built by Jamaican slaves for its British owner. Later, it hosted the first meeting of the elected parliament of the Cayman Islands and became known as the birthplace of democracy.

Pedro St. James National Historic Site

The building had many uses over the years and eventually fell into a state of disrepair and was abandoned. In the 1990s, it was bought by the government of the Cayman Islands and restored. If you’re into history, it’s an interesting site to explore.

Pedro St. James National Historic Site

The house was designed to take advantage of its coastal location, with a series of louvered shutters and doors that can be opened to bring cool winds in when the weather is nice and then closed to provide protection from storms.

Grand Cayman cafe
Here’s a cute little Caymanian cafe that we had lunch at one day. I loved the high ceilings and the bright colors, but the truth is we were only inside the restaurant long enough to snap a couple pictures and ask to get a table on the patio (because it was a beautiful, sunny, 85 degree day in the Caymans, and it was snowing back home).

Cemetery Beach
I took this photo one day when we were walking down Seven Mile Beach. The site of a cemetery there — on some of the island’s most valuable real estate — seemed odd to me, but we were told the ground further inland is a hard coral limestone that’s impossible to dig into, so graves are located seaside by necessity.

Cayman Islands currency

Here’s a picture of some Caymanian currency, just because I thought it was delightful.

Owen Roberts International Airport

This was our final stop on Grand Cayman: the Owen Roberts International Airport, which is the most insanely crowded airport I’ve ever been in. It was literally wall to wall people.

I have hundreds of other pictures, but I’ll stop here, before I lose the one or two readers who stuck with the post this far. (Your welcome.)

P.S. The Caymans are in the western part of the Caribbean and were not not hit by the hurricanes that devastated the islands in the eastern Caribbean earlier this fall. I heard they had some flooding and damage from a tropical storm this past week, but it sounds like it was relatively minor, so if you’re looking for a warm winter or spring vacation destination, the Caymans are open.

Vacation | Cayman Islands, Part 1 (Booze and Beaches)

 Margaritaville Resort Cayman Islands

Welcome to Lisa and Jim’s Caribbean Vacation 2017. This year’s adventure took us to Grand Cayman. Why Grand Cayman? Because I wanted to go to Cuba, and Jim wanted to go to The Bahamas. After 27 years of marriage, we’ve learned to compromise. Occasionally. Grudgingly. After we’ve been going eyeball to eyeball for six months and neither one of us is willing to blink and it finally becomes apparent that we are in danger of not going on a vacation at all.

Caribbean map

If you’re wondering where the Cayman Islands are, here is a detailed scientific map of the area that I photographed off the back of a T-shirt. See the big island south of the amputated bottom of Florida? That’s Cuba. And the little island south of Cuba? That’s Jamaica. The Caymans are south of Cuba and northwest of Jamaica, but as far as I can tell, they’re not actually on this map. The words are there, but the islands themselves appear to have been swallowed whole by the leaves of a gigantic mutant palm tree.

Grand Cayman
Once we finally agreed that we were going to the Caymans, I turned the chore of making reservations over to Jim. He decided we should stay at the new Margaritaville Resort in George Town. When I say “new,” I mean “so new that it was scheduled to open two weeks before we got there.” And “so new that parts of the resort weren’t even finished when we got there.” Like the elevator that went up to our room on the third floor …

Cayman Islands

… and four of the resort’s six restaurants. I gave Jim a hard time about it every time we had to walk up the stairs or heard a jackhammer outside our door, but truthfully, we both knew what we were getting into and I had (happily) agreed to it. Because of the construction, we were able to get a pretty great deal on our accommodations, which were on the island’s swanky Seven Mile Beach, in a brand new hotel that was absolutely beautiful. (And frankly, we didn’t consider having to climb three flights of stairs while on a fabulous Caribbean vacation to be much of a hardship — although judging by Trip Advisor comments, some of our fellow travelers didn’t share our point of view.)

Cayman Islands
This was the view from the balcony outside our room. The best part about staying in a resort that was not 100 percent complete was that it was only about 30 percent occupied while we there, so there were always empty beach chairs and unused umbrellas and we never had to wait in line for anything.

Grand Cayman
This was the grownups pool. The little straw-roofed hut in the background is the bar, which, yes, you could swim up to. (We’re willing to put up with jackhammers and no elevators when we’re on vacation, but a swim-up bar is non-negotiable.)

Margaritaville Resort
Behind the two pools there was a row of flowering bushes. And behind the bushes was the beach.

Grand Cayman
This was the bar in the lobby (photographed at approximately 10 a.m. — it got considerably busier as the day went on).

Margaritaville Beach Resort Grand Cayman
And this was the resort’s 5 o’Clock Somewhere Bar and Grill out by the grownups pool area. Between the two bars, there were bands playing every night of our stay.

Cayman Islands
I decided on Day 1 of vacation that I was going to drink my way through the resort’s margarita menu…

Margaritaville Beach Resort Cayman Islands
… which turned out to be much less of a challenge than I had anticipated.

Margaritaville Beach Resort Grand Cayman
This was my favorite: the Wildberry Tropical Fruit Margarita, frozen. Mmmm. The perfect beach drink.

Cayman Islands
Anyhoo, by the end of Day 2, I had not only reached my goal, but I had a new BFF: our Canadian bartender, who may or may not have been named Brian but who totally took my side in the Cuba vs. Bahamas argument. Thank you, Brian (or whatever your name was). I promise to think of you next year when I am smoking cigars in Havana.

Seven Mile Beach Grand Cayman
All of the beaches on Grand Cayman are public up to the high-water mark, including the stretches in front of the resorts, so you can go for a nice long walk along the shoreline. Here’s a heart-shaped piece of coral I found one day when I was out wandering.

Margaritaville Beach Resort Grand Cayman
Seven Mile Beach (which is actually only 5 1/2 miles long) is supposed to be one of the best beaches in the Caribbean.

Margaritaville Resort Grand Cayman
It was so pretty in the evening. The lights would come on on the palm trees as it started getting dark.

Seven Mile Beach
And the sunsets were just spectacular.

Seven Mile Beach
All of these photos were taken with my iPhone. I was kind of surprised how well they turned out.

Seven Mile Beach

Sigh…

Anyhoo, that’s it for Part 1 of The Cestkowskis’ Caribbean Vacation 2017 Edition, but I have a lot more left to share. So tune in tomorrow (or whenever I get around to writing again) for Part 2, in which Jim and I venture off campus and actually see something beyond bars and beaches.

Travel | A visit to Mackinac Island and the Eastern U.P.

Upper Michigan vacation

To celebrate our anniversary a couple weeks ago, my husband and I drove up to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for a short vacation. We spent two days on Mackinac Island and then another day at Sault Ste. Marie and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. If you’re planning a similar getaway, here are a few things we’d recommend.
Kitch-iti-kipi
On the drive up, we stopped off at Palms Book State Park, home of Kitch-iti-kipi, a spring 200 feet across and 40 feet deep. That structure that looks like somebody’s back porch in the photo above is actually a raft connected to a cable that visitors can pilot out to the springs and then back to shore.
raft

The raft has a big square hole in the middle of it that gives you a breathtaking view of the springs when you’re over top of them. The water has a green cast, but it’s incredibly clear. You can see all the way to the bottom, where old tree trunks are laying and the sand is constantly shifting and bubbling.

springsLots of fish swim by, too. The park was a few miles out of our way, but I’m so glad we took the time to stop. It was beautiful.
Upper Peninsula
Our next stop was the Mackinac Bridge, which is 5 miles long and connects the Upper Peninsula to the Lower at the Straights of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet.
Michigan
At the time it was built in the 1950s, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. These days it’s only the  fifth longest, but it’s still pretty impressive.
Michigan
The center lanes are open grating, which allows the air to flow through and makes the bridge more stable in high winds.
Mackinaw City

Once we crossed the bridge, we stopped for lunch in Mackinaw City. Pasties, of course. If you’ve ever been to the U.P., you know what a pasty is. If you haven’t: It’s a meat pie — and it’s pronounced with a short A. Pasties (the short A kind) came to the U.P. along with Cornish immigrants, who settled there to work in the copper mines in the 19th century.

Mackinac Island
After lunch, we hopped on a ferry to Mackinac Island. Ferries depart from both Mackinaw City (south of the bridge) and St. Ignace (north of the bridge). No cars are allowed on the island, so you basically drive to the dock and hand your keys and your bags to somebody from the ferry company. They’ll park your car and load your baggage onto the ferry for you. Three different ferry companies make runs out to the island. We went with Shepler’s. The ride cost us $26 per person, round trip, plus $15 a night to leave our car parked in a fenced-in area. The ferry ride took about 15 minutes.
Mackinac Island
We made our hotel reservations at the last minute, which severely limited our options. We could have stayed at the famous Grand Hotel (pictured above), where rooms (at least the ones on the upper floors with a balcony overlooking the water on a September weekend) cost almost $900 a night. We didn’t stay there. Jim kind of wanted to, but I told him the only way I was spending $900 a night on a hotel room was if it had a view of the Caribbean.
Mackinac Island
The only other hotel with vacancies on the weekend we wanted to go was The Murray. The Murray is right on Main Street — and it’s rooms were about $700 a night less than the Grand’s. We stayed there.
Mackinac Island
The Murray is a lovely old Victorian hotel with a lot of charm, a fudge shop conveniently located on the first floor and the loudest vintage wallpaper you’ve ever seen. My husband’s first words upon opening the door to our room: “I think Abe Lincoln slept here.”
Mackinac Island

The Victorian decor was mostly just for show. Our room was small but had all the modern amenities, including a lovely marble shower in the bathroom, which (I’m assuming) was added sometime after Lincoln’s stay. Here’s a view of the stairway going up to the second floor.Mackinac Island

On our first day on the island, we just walked around exploring and getting the lay of the land. I dragged Jim into a few cute little craft and gift stores. He dragged me into a few bars.

Mackinac Island
I had my first Moscow Mule on the island. (And my second.) (And my third.) Mmmm. I think it’s my new favorite drink. And not JUST because of the adorable copper mug it’s served in. It was $9 (at Millie’s on Main), but worth every penny.
Mackinac Island
We also checked out a few of the fudge shops. Mackinac Island has about 15 of them, making tons of different kinds of fudge. My favorite fudgey treat was the chocolate fudge ice cream cones we had at JoAnn’s Fudge. (Because fudge alone isn’t decadent enough.)
Mackinac Island
On our second day on the island, we were planning to take a carriage tour that was part of the package deal that came with our hotel room — but we couldn’t find our tickets. Jim remembered putting them in his pocket when we checked in, but the next morning they were gone. We went down to the front desk to ask if there was any way we could get replacements, and the clerk told us a good Samaritan had actually found two tickets laying on the ground, and, seeing “The Murray Hotel” printed on them, turned them in. How’s that for Michigan hospitality?
Mackinac Island

 Unfortunately, I think Jim may have regretted getting the tickets back, as he pretty quickly started complaining about riding downwind of the carriage’s exhaust system. (As someone who spent the first 18 years on her life on a dairy farm, I apparently lack my husband’s delicate sensibilities.)

Mackinac Island

After the carriage tour, we meandered through Fort Mackinac. The fort is a former British and American military outpost and is a state park today. It includes 14 buildings that have been restored and furnished to depict scenes from the 18th and 19th centuries (like the soldiers’ canteen, pictured above). The buildings are all well maintained, and we had a lot of fun poking around. Admission was $12 per person.

Mackinac Island

From the fort, we headed over to the Grand Hotel, to eat a late lunch (and to see what we were missing). If you want to walk in the door and look around, the Grand charges you $10 for a “self-guided tour.” And if it’s after 6:30 p.m., you have to be in a suit and tie or a dress to do so. Because we were there for the lunch buffet — $45 each — they let us in wearing casual attire and we got to look around “for free” afterward.
Mackinac Hotel
Honestly, the lunch buffet was delicious. Beyond delicious. And there was just table after table filled with food. Soooo muuuuuch food. Suffice it to say, we both made enough trips back to the buffet that we got our money’s worth, even without the self-guided tour thrown in.
Mackinac Island
The front porch at the Grand is impressive. It’s 660 feet long.
Mackinac Island
A set of red-carpeted stairs lead up to the front porch.
Mackinac Island
Everything at the Grand is luxe. Even the horse’s harnesses.
Grand Hotel
I snapped this picture as we were walking past one of the shops on the first floor of the Grand. I love that old black-and-white photo, and I love the fact that it was blown up and used as a mural. I think that’s my favorite part of traveling: stumbling upon random things, sometimes in the most unlikely places, that surprise you or inspire you or make you look at the world a little differently.
Mackinac Island
Once we were done nosing around at the Grand, we headed back to Lincoln’s bedroom to sleep off all the food we ate.
Ryba's
After an hour-long nap, we were ready for our next adventure: biking around the island. We saw a few serious bikers who brought their bikes with them on the ferry. Most people just rented them. We got our bikes from Ryba’s, which charged $6 an hour for a 1-speed, $7 an hour for a 3-speed or $8 an hour for a mountain bike.
Mackinac Island

 The road around the island is 8.2 miles long, and judging by the number of other bikes on the road, I think pretty much everybody makes the lap at least once. It’s a flat road with no traffic, and the scenery is beautiful. I’d definitely recommend it.

We ended the night getting a drink and watching the Tigers game at The Pink Pony, following in the footsteps of Alex McKnight. If you don’t know, Alex McKnight is a (fictional) private eye who lives in (the non-fictional) Paradise, Mich., and traverses the U.P. solving murder mysteries. My husband is a big fan of the series (written by Steve Hamilton). The Pink Pony was a lovely place, but I’m not sure it measured up to Jim’s expectations. It was storming while we were there, so the Tiger game kept cutting out. Plus there was no sign of Alex McKnight, and, to the best of my knowledge, no murders being committed.

Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan
We left the island the next morning and headed up to Sault Sainte Marie to look at the Soo Locks, which connect Lake Superior to the shallower Lake Huron (and beyond). You can watch from an observation tower as ships pass through the locks. Plus there’s a visitors’ center with lots of photos and exhibits. You can also take a Soo Locks Boat Tour. We didn’t take the tour, but one of the boats happened to be passing through the locks as we were watching from the observation tower.
Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan
We grabbed lunch at a little place in Sault Sainte Marie called The Antlers. The food was good, but I had the eerie feeling that I was being watched the entire time we were there.

After lunch we followed the Lake Superior coastline toward Whitefish Point. En route, we happened upon the Point Iroquois Lighthouse and decided to stop and take a look around. The lighthouse was manned by a keeper and assistant keeper, who lived onsite with their families, for many years. The buildings are maintained as a museum today. Admission is free; donations are accepted.

At Whitefish Point, we toured the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, which is filled with artifacts, paintings and photos of the ships that have gone down. Each exhibit tells a hauntingly sad story.

Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum
Among the exhibits: the bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald. The ship went down in Lake Superior during a storm in 1975. The bell was raised years later and brought to the museum. Divers who retrieved the bell left another one behind, one engraved with the names of the 29 crew members who went down with the ship.
Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum
There’s also a lighthouse on the Shipwreck Museum grounds, which offers an incredible view of the lake. Admission into the museum was $13 a person, plus an extra $5 each for a tour of the lighthouse.
Welcome to Paradise

After the museum, we had one last stop on our trip: Paradise. We scoped out the town doing a little detective work of our own to try to figure out where (the fictional) Alex’s (fictional) cabins and the (also fictional) Glasgow Inn were located. (Jim has some theories.) We listened to “A Cold Day in Paradise” (the first book in the series) during our drive. I’m not usually much of mystery reader/listener, but I got hooked — on both the books and the U.P. It’s beautiful up there — and there aren’t nearly as many murders in real life as there are in the Alex McKnight books.

Michigan getaway