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Building a Tradition in the Cayman Islands

Updated: Feb 16, 2022

Before our 2010 honeymoon, Christine and I had taken just two trip together: the first was an April vacation in Clearwater Beach in Florida, the other a pre-wedding celebration in Las Vegas, sort of a hybrid bachelor/bachelorette party I suppose. Looking back on those two trips reminds me that she and I hadn’t yet quite grown into a fully-formed collective personality. Neither of those trips thematically reflected who we were to eventually become. We’d both traveled abroad independently when we were younger, but had yet to adopt those individual pieces into who we were together.

Our honeymoon to the Cayman Islands was the first true building block of the structure that would become our holy temple of travel.

The Caymans are tropical; they’re exotic; they’re a British territory, so they’re international as well. On this trip, we stayed at the Marriott resort on the iconic Seven Mile Beach, a stretch of sugar-white sand and mouthwash-blue ocean, a real life screensaver. We spent every day on this crescent of sand, decompressing from our wedding and all the effort that had led up to it. Often, we’d retreat to our room for a break from the sun but would return in the evenings, the steamy air beginning to relent, the sky softening from an intense bright blue glare to something softer and pastel. Back home in New England, I never go in the ocean. That biting cold sting of the water is just not for me. But here, in the Caymans, I swam all day, again and again, and particularly enjoyed those late-afternoon dips, the beach quieter and more expansive and remote. The cruise ship guests had retreated back to their boats, their jet ski rentals returned and stored away for tomorrow.

Christine took a photo of me standing in the sand and looking out at the water with my arms folded across my chest. We’re the only two here, and I’m in awe at the beauty of it all. Later, Christine’s grandmother would see this picture and ask, “What, does he think he owns the beach?” That night, we ordered a pizza from a place down the street and brought it back here, to the beach, and ate on lounge chairs watching the sun set, like we did every single night, this blazing display of nature’s fireworks, our skin sticky with dried salt.

We ate at a restaurant directly across the road from us called Coconut Joe’s Bar & Grill on several different nights. I kept going back for the Jerk chicken wings. We both liked that it was an outdoor restaurant and, though it was across the street and not directly on the beach, was built around a massive tree, the ground an uneven tangle of roots, its canopy of shade providing relief from the tropical July sky. I love casual dining, drinks in plastic cups, napkins blowing off the table with the breeze, paint peeling, T-shirts and flip flops everywhere. This place felt like vacation.

One night, though, we flipped the script and ate at Hemingway’s for a more upscale treat. We figured, being our honeymoon, we deserved one such special night. Hemingway’s was just a block down the beach from the Marriott Resort and sat out on an expansive back deck on the sand. We were one of only two parties out here, a hurricane candle on a white tablecloth table, waiters in white shirts and black bow ties. A complete one-eighty from Coconut Joe’s, but we settled into the night and watched the waves and the sunset, our skin browned and stiff. We had another after-dinner drink and desserts, then stepped onto the cool sand and walked the beach back to our hotel, the sky dark now and starry, the foam of the rolling waves almost glowing in the moonlight.

One morning we boarded a chartered boat so I could do some snorkeling in the reefs, then visited Stingray City—a vast sandbar far from land where the stingrays came to feed, so used to being hand-fed here that they saddled right up to us, their rubbery wings slapping against our bodies. Some were huge and intimidating, the size of kiddie pools, but they couldn’t have been more docile.

Despite that adventure, the real treat of the week just might have been our evenings back at the hotel, after a long and leisurely day at the beach, or snorkeling, or walking downtown, or kissing stingrays. At night, our bodies weary, heads clear and properly de-stressed, we settled into a corner of the lobby near the bar, near the music, and we ordered drinks and dumped a couple hundred Bananagrams letter tiles onto the table. Christine's sister down the Cape owned the game, and we'd liked it the one or two times we’d played it at her house. Christine bought one for us—perfect size for travel: a small, yellow canvas bag, smaller than a purse—and we played it every single night in the Caymans.

And this is where the true traditions began: exotic locales with a Bananagrams bag in our luggage. I think because we’d played so often on our honeymoon, the game became associated with tropical vacations and leisurely locales. Later, we’d play nightly games in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, on St. Lucia, in Belize, Tulum, and in Hawaii. As an outlier, we even played it on a trip up to Newfoundland. Not so much in Europe, though. The vibe’s different there.

In a few weeks we’ll head out to California to visit my brother and his family. Staying near Carlsbad Beach. Probably hitting some breweries. Sitting by the fire pit in his backyard. Before we leave, we’ll double-check to make sure we have bathing suits, sunscreen, a couple beach towels. Then one of us will ask, “Did you pack Bananagrams?” Because, of course, it’s tradition.

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