By Iris Stoner • Photos by Jim Gates
Discover all the natural wonders the Sister Islands have to offer.
The Sister Islands may not be able to compete in size when compared to Grand Cayman, but Cayman Brac and Little Cayman can certainly hold their own when it comes to offering a walk on the wild side.
Located about 80 miles northeast of what is, relatively speaking, the big city of Grand Cayman, both of these gems have plenty of natural attractions — many of which are under the auspices of the National Trust for the Cayman Islands.
Christina McTaggart Pineda, Executive Director of the National Trust, encourages visitors to take the time to include the Sister Islands on their itinerary when visiting Grand Cayman. “Cayman Brac and Little Cayman are so distinct from Grand Cayman that you cannot get a true understanding of the Cayman Islands, without experiencing the Sister Islands first hand,” says Pineda. As soon as you step off a plane or boat on one of these islands, you will almost immediately feel and see the difference.
The National Trust is tasked with preserving the natural environments and places of historical significance on all three islands. To help guide visitors and to help them explore all that the islands have to offer, there are representatives of the National Trust District Committees for Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, who run programmes and organise activities. The main office and visitor centre is located on Grand Cayman and is open Monday through Friday from 9 p.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 345-749-1121 or visit nationaltrust.org.ky.
Little Cayman, the smaller of these two islands, is about 11 square miles and is called home by approximately 170 residents. Although this island is small, it packs in a whole lot of nature. Before getting started on an exploration of the island, visitors can stop by the Little Cayman Trust House — a lovely Cayman-style cottage that is full of information on sightseeing, guided tours, native species and the variety of flora and fauna on the island.
Adjacent to the Booby Pond Nature Reserve, the Little Cayman Trust House features an observation deck where visitors can discover the inhabitants of the 203-acre pond through telescopes. The reserve is the only RAMSAR site (a designated wetland of international importance) in the Cayman Islands and is a breeding colony for the largest population red-footed boobies in the Western hemisphere. The site is home to approximately 20,000 boobies and 350 magnificent frigate birds.
The most spectacular time to observe the boobies is during their nesting season, which peaks in February. Here, visitors can observe the wonders of booby parenting. Usually, one booby will take turn with the other parent, while the other one flees the nest to hunt for food. Frigate birds present quite the challenge for boobies, as they are known to snatch their fresh-caught fish. The boobies, however, have developed an intelligent strategy to thwart the much stronger and larger frigates. At sunset, when they approach the reserve, the boobies band together, climb high in the sky and then, in groups, perform a high-speed, controlled free fall back to their nesting grounds. When the boobies win, they can feed their chicks and “spouse.” When the magnificent frigate birds win, they force the boobies to purge their fish contents from the crop into their gullets, so they can escape. The boobies are then forced to go back out in search of more food. Visitors of the reserve can take in this amazing display and marvel at this natural sporting event.
Migrant landbirds, herons, waders, shorebirds and terns also take up residency at the reserve during the winter season.
Overall, Little Cayman is home to up to 200 different species of birds. Because the reserve has remained largely untouched by human development, the population of plants and animals are able to flourish, including the endangered West Indian Whistling Duck.
The Salt Rocks Nature Trail is another National Trust site that is worth a visit. Since its inception in the 1840s, the trail has served as the footpath from Blossom Village to the Salt Rock dock. Along this path, you will find endemic and migrant landbirds, iguanas, butterflies and moths, and beautiful tropical plants like orchids. History buffs will also appreciate the remnants left behind by pirates in a phosphate mine during the early 18th century. Explanatory signposts describing the various plants and wildlife make it easy for visitors to undertake a self-guided tour. Helpful guide books are also available at the Trust House and at various resorts across the island.
Nearby the trail, is Preston Bay Boardwalk, which passes through the largest nesting site for Sister Island rock iguanas on Little Cayman. As the name suggests, the rock iguana is native only to Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, with approximately 2,000 of them living on Little Cayman. Visitors can arrange a group tour of the Preston Bay nesting site in advance with the National Trust.
The Little Cayman Trust House is located near the Booby Pond Nature Reserve and is open Monday through Friday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 345-749-1121 or visit nationaltrust.org.ky.
Five miles east of Little Cayman lies Cayman Brac. At about 15 square miles and with a population of less than 1,800, the island is slightly larger than its sister. As on Little Cayman, The National Trust on Cayman Brac does not have an official office or staff, but there are members of the District Committee who are available to provide assistance.
Nature guides unaffiliated with the National Trust offer visitors guided walks along the footpaths of the The Bluff — the island’s 140-foot-high limestone bluff.
The major National Trust site on the Brac is the 280-acre Parrot Reserve, located at the centre of the island. Home to the Cayman Brac Parrot, the reserve contains the smallest range of any Amazon parrot. For this natural reason, it’s nearly impossible for the endangered species to build up its population to a stable level, which is currently at 350 parrots.
There is nothing quite like the Cayman Brac Parrot. This beautifully coloured bird boasts iridescent green feathers on its body, a white eye ring, red cheeks, black ear patches, brilliant blue wing feathers, a distinctive white forehead and a maroon area on its abdomen. Visitors can keep a look out and listen for these birds while walking along the reserve’s nature trail, which is a 45-minute loop.
Other forest birds live on the reserve including the red-legged thrush, white-crowned pigeon and black-whiskered vireo. During the winter months, the migrant songbirds move in. From April to May, however, visitors of the reserve should also pay closer attention to the ground level, where they can stand by a 12-foot-high cactus and be treated to the sights of 15 different species of flowering orchids.
In addition to the reserve, all sorts of hiking trails crisscross the Brac, offering views of other exotic flowers and plants, reptile habitats and historical sites. From The Bluff, to ancient woodlands to tropical forests to the lighthouse, the hiking possibilities on Cayman Brac are virtually endless.
When exploring Cayman Brac, you are never kept wondering what the specific types of species you encounter are. Ceramic signs and ecology panels are set up along the beach walks, historical sites and woodland trails to educate visitors on the various types of plants and trees, such as the tropical cedar, endemic silver thatch palm — the national tree of the Cayman Islands — pepper cinnamon, orchids and cacti. White heritage signs also mark sites of cultural interest.
The Westerly Ponds, the Salt Water Pond and the Marshes Wetlands are also home to an incredible variety of bird species. In total, nearly 200 species of birds live on Cayman Brac, making it a birdwatchers paradise.
After you are finished looking outward and upward, you can explore the many caves of the island. In addition to The Bluff, budding spelunkers can find places to visit all along the Brac, including Rebecca’s Cave, Peter’s Cave, Bat Cave, Nani Cave and Great Cave.
For more information about the National Trust on Cayman Brac, visit nationaltrust.org.ky or call 345-749-1121.
VISIT THE SISTER ISLANDS WITH CAYMAN AIRWAYS
Together, Cayman Airways and Cayman Airways Express offer up to 10 flights a day between Grand Cayman and the Sister Islands. To book your flight, call 345-949-2311 or 1-800-4-CAYMAN, visit caymanairways.com, or contact your local agent.
WHERE TO STAY ON CAYMAN BRAC
Carib Sands Beach Resort
On the south shore of Cayman Brac, the Carib Sands Beach Resort sits on a reef-protected, white-sand beach. The resort also offers a freshwater pool, spacious accommodations, full kitchens, an outdoor bar and, of course, the requisite hammocks from which to enjoy the sea breeze.
Brac Caribbean Beach Village
Brac Reef Beach Resort
Le Soleil d’Or
WHERE TO STAY IN LITTLE CAYMAN
Southern Cross Club
Located near the Booby Pond Nature Reserve, the casually sophisticated Southern Cross Club offers 14 unique bungalows (including a honeymoon cottage) on the beach. Seven of the bungalows come with private outdoor showers and all come with unobstructed views of the crystal-clear waters of the South Hole Sound. Here, guests can enjoy a mix of international and Caribbean cuisine, while dining either indoors or outdoors.
Little Cayman Beach Resort
The Club at Little Cayman
Pirates Point Resort