Little Cayman

Arriving from Vancouver and Vegas to Grand Cayman made it feel like I was flying to a tiny, barely inhabited island, in the middle of nowhere. After a week there, its busyness surprised me, but I started to see the same people, recognize  all the main streets, and finished visiting every where there was to visit (some places, more than once). This made it seem smaller and smaller as time passed.

Then I flew to Little Cayman Island, which really is a tiny, barely inhabited island in the middle of nowhere, and it couldn’t really get much smaller  with time.

Little Cayman from the air

It has a resident population of 120 people, its about 12 miles long and one mile wide, and only 90 miles from Cuba. To get there, one takes a 35 minute flight in a 12 seater plane, with the luggage stowed away behind the last row of seats. Though there were only 9 passengers traveling, they still managed to forget one of my bags, which was a waterproof dive bag and carried my books and a volleyball called Wilson – three very important things when on a remote Caribbean island (ever seen Castaway?).

Out of the 120 residents, few are Caymanian, and the island blends a mix of ex-pats who refuse to live in colder climates. They host and run an expensive tourism industry, fueled by scuba diving, snorkeling, and most recently, kite surfing. Visitors stay at one of the resorts, enjoying hobie cats, kayaks and hammocks, and add a fluctuating 80 more to the population number.

the ultimate beach pad

Resorting isn’t really in my price range, and the only 2 couchsurfers on the island couldn’t host, but one dive master tipped me off on a fun fact – the bartender at Little Cayman Resort was Icelandic. I asked some questions, found him on facebook, had a mutual friend, and three days later, arrived in his skyloft to crash with Marieke, my host from Grand Cayman.

He was an excellent host, taking us on many adventures. The first was a kayak expedition to abandoned Owen Island, against fierce winds and white water waves. We walked the last 200m after capsizing, but made it back down wind in no time.

We learned how to Hobie cat sail. Well, we watched him hobie cat sail. We

Owen Island by Kayak

snorkeled. We played dodgeball. We biked to the end of the island. We tried to kitesurf, but failed when the wind calmed. I tried fire dancing.

Our biggest advneture was a 2 am mission to Owen Island on his friends boat, which we grounded twice in the shallow water. Or it may have been the excess wait in the boat (we were 8 in 5 seats). Or it may have been the pitch darkness, although there was an eerie glow from the full moon which made everything seem like a Pirates of the Caribbean scene. We tried (and failed) to light a bonfire of wet palms and bamboo, and almost used all our spare gas trying, but managed to avoid getting stranded.

Ingvar was working most days we were there, but it made no difference since we ended up at his bar every evening anyway to hang out. This was also where we had most of our meals, and met half of the Island since people came thru all day long. Some were iguana-walk tour guides, others were kitesurfers, the dodgeball guy and his dog, and even the airport arrivals guy who was better known as ‘ninja’ (he was an incredible fire dancer).

fire dancing by the failing bonfire

When we had to leave the island, we simply walked to the concrete strip of road they cal their ‘airport.’ Noone was there til 20 minutes before our flight departure, and he just showed up with our boarding cards and luggage tags and handed them out to us standing around. He knew who was who, didn’t care what we had packed, checked no ID and didn’t even have a security check for us to go through. It seemed too quick and easy (if only all air travel was that laid back), but, magically, they lost my bags again, somewhere between Little Cayman and Grand in that 45 minute window, on that tiny plane…

I stood in Georgetown trying to make my connecting flight to New York, and when they told me my bags would have to arrive a day later, I begged not to be sent to New York without them. I was wearing flipflops, shorts and a shirt, and had nothing else until getting back home to Iceland, where it was -15 degrees and snowing. They agreed that was tough, so delayed my flight by one day, upgraded me to business class, and let me have one last night in Grand Cayman. I could certainly think of worse places to be stuck…

Arctic Adventures

It’s amazing to think about the far-reaching effects of the tourism industry in Iceland. We’re a tiny country, 103, and only 306,000 people, but this year, around a half a million tourists came and scoured every corner of this country, seeing more in 1 week than most Icelanders see in a lifetime of living here. You notice this on Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main street where everyother person passes you speaking a different language, and also on highway 1, the ringroad around Iceland littered in rental cars and some serious campervans shipped over with Smyril’s car ferry from Europe.

Working with Ishestar riding tours and also at the Radisson Hotel in Reykjavik, I get a sneak peek into the lives and plans of some of these tourists, fulfilling life-time dreams of traveling in Iceland, riding horses over snow-topped mountains, icecaving in glaciers, and photographing active volcanoes. There’s a tour company called Arctic Adventures that specializes in all the most extreme types of sport tourism, including snowmobiling, 4x4ing, river rafting and white water kayaking. I went with some river guides and Arctic Adventure staff from Drumboddstadir down a class 2 river, experiencing Iceland as totally adrenaline-filled tourist and enjoying the feeling of taking a vacation in Iceland.

they use old American school buses to transport kayakers and kayaks to the top of the river

I was with Frikki, a doctor who river guides in the summer but also happens to be the chairman of the Reykjavik Hunting Association, so we were on our way to the east for the reindeer hunting trip. He knew all the staff at Drumbo, and we kayaked until nightfall, pulling our kayaks and canoe out of the water well after 10pm. We stopped in one gorge to do some cliff jumping, 5m into the glacial river in our dry suits that didn’t keep us so dry but did bob us like stuffed scarecrows back to the surface immediately. That night we ate chicken masala and tapped into a bottomless keg, exchanged shoulder massages and then went into the sauna together where swimming suits are banned. I discreetly wrapped myself in a towel, but tried very hard to remain casual as 3 naked men posed like Troy all around me.

The next day we drove north to Skagafjordur, where a glacier river called Jokulsa has a west and east arm both great for kayaking and river rafting. We joined a tourist group and took 2 rafts down the class 4 east river, and drifted through the intimidating rapids with names like the Green Room, which was more of a 4+class rapid. We made it through the 3 drops and boiling currents without flipping, but watched in horror as the second boat tipped on the first waterfall and everyone got sucked under and dragged out. Paddles went flying and the safety kayaks had to rescue all the stranded souls, but eventually we were all in good enough spirit to go cliffjumping again.

kayaking is a pretty colourful riversport

We stayed at the staff house again, grilled a few hamburgers, and crashed on the couch. The staff there were from Canada, England, Nepal, France and Guatemala, creating an international hostel vibe in this remodeled barn in the middle of farm country. We were a few kilometers away from Varmahlíð, and stopped at the natural hot pot Fossalaug on our way north. We continued roadtripping our way East, driving out from Skagafirdi to Akureyri through Olafsjordur and Hofsos, stopping in at Frikki’s uncle’s farm to have the best smoked arctic char I’ve ever tasted. We were invited in for coffee and cake, and got to peek into the private life of farming. We also visited his aunt, glimpsing into her arts and crafts life out of a remodeled warehouse where she harvests down feathers from eider ducks and turns them into the clothes as soft as clouds.

To get to Iceland and go on your own Arctic Adventure, its pretty easy to find cheap flights here.