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by Linda Strait

After a glorious, laid-back, rustic week in Little Cayman, I've gotten back in touch with the art of relaxing. Little Cayman is the closest I've ever come to a "Swiss Family Robinson" experience, with a gourmet cook thrown in.

The island is only 10 square miles, with about 50 permanent residents. Diving and fishing are the main draws. However, snorkeling, kayaking, bike riding, reading no-brain fiction and lying in a hammock under an open-air, thatched-roof shelter rated pretty high on my list.

There are opportunities for privacy, as nothing is crowded on the island. The camaraderie and friendliness of fellow guests and residents was exceptional.

The island is accessible by Island Air from Grand Cayman (75 miles southwest). The planes are nice, with oversized windows and plenty of photo opportunities as you fly in low.

The airport in Little Cayman is a treat the runway is a gravel strip. Airplanes have the right of way, followed by iguanas. Cars, bicycles, and pedestrians are jumped together as third on the priority list. The small building also houses the post office and fire station. It ties with the only grocery store as the hub of activity.

Caymanians are supportive of their wildlife and its natural habitat. The 200-acre Booby Pond reserve is one of the region's most important wetland sites. It has an increasing population of red-footed boobies, West Indian whistling-ducks, and the aggressive frigate. The visitors center is also the community library/bookstore.

The charming place where I stayed was Pirates Point, run by Gladys Howard from Tyler, Texas. Gladys is a gourmet cook who has studied with Julia Child, James Beardi and Lucy Lo.

As a guest, you feel like you are back at camp. Meals are announced by a large dinner bell. Accommodations are clean, comfortable and without phones or television. The proper dress is T-shirt and shorts. Shoes are optional.

Meals are an event, whether it's lunch outdoors around the picnic tables or breakfast and dinner in the dining room with linens and wine.

Guests gather before and after meals in the lobby, where stories are told, games are played, and friendships are made.

Bicycles are provided; dive packages, and tarpon and bonefishing arrangements are available.

A couple of nights in Grand Cayman at the end of the trip was an easing back into reality, with its heavy traffic and American resorts in a paradise setting.

I was amazed and impressed by the friendliness of everyone we came into contact with. An exceptional cab driver was Charles Bothwell, a third generation Caymanian. On the way to the turtle farm, he threw in a side trip to Hell. (It is so named because of the volcanic rocks that appear out of nowhere. There is a post office where you can send postcards from Hell.)

He explained that his Irish grandfather was a sailor who was shipwrecked and decided to stay. His father made his living by raising and selling a few cattle throughout the year and doing odd jobs. As a boy, life was much simpler, needs were fewer, and electricity was not readily available until about the last 35 years. Seven Mile Beach was without hotels.

Hyatt, Westin, Ritz Carlton and many others have changed the landscape considerably (rumor had it that Michael Jordan was staying at the Hyatt while we were there). Drastic changes in a short time for a beautiful island with limited space.

(Linda Strait is president of House of Travel Inc., a full-service travel agency in Springfield.)

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