Even dedicated divers are now taking longer surface intervals to explore Grand Cayman's unexpected terrestrial attractions.
Many visitors arriving in this Western Caribbean destination, famous for Stingray City, have never heard of Cayman's Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, located in Grand Cayman's North Side. This heritage attraction was officially opened on 27th February, 1994 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and named in her honour. The next milestone was reached in May 1997, when Hon. Thomas Jefferson, Minister for Tourism, Commerce & Transport, officially opened three new attractions there: the Visitors Centre, Floral Garden and Heritage Garden, representing the Park's second phase expansion programme.
The Visitors Centre is now the first stop on the tour of the Cayman Botanic Park, designed as a contemporary interpretation of Colonial Caribbean and Caymanian architecture, with wooden shuttered windows, wide veranda and brick courtyard with waterfall/fountain. The Centre is painted in Caribbean colours of green and pale coral and features a central reception area offering park information as well as a area for permanent and changing exhibits.
The second floor has a classroom for lectures and meetings. Other facilities include a gift shop stocked with gardening, horticulture and tropical flora-themed books and souvenirs; a snack bar/café set in a garden courtyard and a retail plant shop (plants can only be sold to residents.)
Nearby, the two-acre Heritage Garden recreates a resourceful Caymanian way of life known generations ago, long before this country came to enjoy the highest standard of living in the Caribbean. This attraction's main feature is the restored early 20th-century Rankin home, a traditional tiny three-room zinc-roofed Caymanian wooden cottage. Visitors are stunned when they learn that this structure once housed a family of 11 from infancy through adulthood. It was moved from its original location in the district of East End to the Park site in December 1995. The restoration features a porch, cook room with caboose, cistern, natural well, native coral stone fences and pathways lined with conch shells. Some of the original fixtures remain inside.
Planning the Heritage Garden involved years of research on existing old gardens in the Cayman Islands. National Trust and Botanic Park staff first had to identify and locate traditional plants and unearth information about their planting style, providing the design for the surrounding two acres.
When planning the Heritage Gardens, four elderly Caymanian ladies, considered authorities on the subject of traditional gardens, were invited to the Park to advise about plants commonly found in early gardens. Mrs. Essie Nixon, Mrs. Naomi Panton, Mrs. Phoebe Spence and the late Mrs. Ena Watler all made their contribution. As a result, visitors will discover a traditional Caymanian sand yard and garden with a variety of blooming plants including roses, orchids, hibiscus, crotons, lilies and cat bush. One area of the garden is dedicated to tea bushes and medicinal herbs. There is also a collection of traditional fruit trees, including mango, breadfruit, tamarind, plum, cherry, ackee and chella mella. The Heritage Garden also features an section traditionally known as "grounds," planted with "provisions" - vegetables including sweet potatoes, yams, cassava, okra, gungo peas, corn, plantains, bottlers and pumpkin.
The Heritage Garden adds an important historic and educational feature to the Botanic Park, demonstrating how early Caymanian settlers lived under austere conditions, depending heavily on their land for survival. In addition the Garden will serve as a valuable propagation source of traditional plants and trees which are rapidly disappearing as new ornamental varieties are imported, favoured by Cayman residents.
The Floral Garden is the Cayman Botanic Park's most ambitious project, a horticultural triumph on this very selectively fertile limestone island. Visitors stroll through a multicoloured mosaic of hundreds of species of tropical and sub tropical plants spread over approximately 2.5 acres. Flowering plants and shrubs, succulents and cacti are arranged by colour in nine distinct displays.
The entrance to the Floral Garden lures visitors into the Pink Garden's collection of rose and green Caladiums, Anderson Crepe Hibiscus, Codyline 'Morado" and exotic large bromeliads including Aechmea 'Victoria.' The path continues through gardens highlighting plants in Red, Orange, Yellow, White, Silver, Blue, Mauve and Purple. The centrepiece of the Floral Garden is an ornate white wooden gazebo atop a rise, overlooking ponds filled with water lilies and the nearby two-acre lake, a prime habitat for a variety of resident and migratory bird life. And a perfect wedding location! Visitors can relax in the shade of the gazebo and enjoy a view of a waterfall cascading off an elevated freshwater pond filled with water lilies. The pavilion also offers an excellent view of the lake.
Minister Jefferson, whose Ministry oversees the Botanic Park's development, said, "As a Caymanian I am very proud of our Park and what it represents. It is the second youngest botanical facility in the Caribbean - and it won the prestigious Islands magazine ecotourism award shortly after it opened in 1994. Within its 65 acres, you will find more than 40 per cent of the 674 species of plants native to our country as well as many kinds of native birds and other wildlife. And new discoveries surprise us regularly: from proof discovered a few years ago that crocodiles once inhabited our swamplands to last year's discovery of a species of orchid found for the first time anywhere in Cayman."
Lake Becomes New Natural Attraction
Another important attraction is the two-acre lake located near the southern end of the Botanic Park, just beyond the Floral Garden. Completed in August 1996, the area was originally part of the adjacent swamp. Decades of accumulated muck was removed from the site leaving a two-acre brackish water lake approximately 3.5 feet deep. The area has three small islands with native vegetation in the centre which provide an important habitat and breeding area for native birds that live near large bodies of water. The Lake has already become an active site for birdwatchers, attracting a fascinating range of bird life. Among species sighted have been Tricoloured Herons, Common Moorhen, Green Herons, Black-necked Stilts, American Coots, Blue-winged Teal, Cattle Egrets and rare West Indian Whistling Ducks.
On the southern edge of the lake, visitors see native wetland vegetation mingled with Caribbean plants. Eventually, the eastern portion of the lake, adjacent to the buttonwood swamp, will have a boardwalk where visitors can take leisurely strolls to the bird watching tower and lookout.
A Safe Home for the Endangered Grand Cayman Blue Iguana
In 1995 the Park became the home for the National Trust for the Cayman's Islands' endemic Grand Cayman Blue Iguana captive breeding program, now seven years old. Currently more than 40 pure-bred endemic Grand Cayman Blue Iguanas are housed in the captive breeding and rearing facility, which was jointly funded by the Zoological Society of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin (the Milwaukee Zoo) and the affiliated Foundation for Wildlife Conservation, also in Milwaukee. Field research on these rare iguanas has been funded for the last five years by the Friends of the National Zoo, as part of ongoing technical assistance from the US National Zoo in Washington, DC.
This endangered species, found only in Grand Cayman, is protected by Cayman law. (According to the Trust, only about 150 mature Blue Iguanas remain in the wild, found only in the dense interior of the eastern district of Grand Cayman.) Although this special research area is not open to visitors, the Park's Blue Iguana Habitat remains a popular attraction. The display enclosure was funded by the World Wide Fund for Nature/ UK and was completed in time for the official opening in February 1994. The habitat provides a natural home for an adult male blue iguana which can be seen by visitors. The best time to see the rare animal is mid-morning on sunny days, between 8:30 and 10:30 a.m.
"The Botanic Park is wonderful Cayman attraction for the whole family, and an important example of the Cayman Islands' commitment to the preservation of our terrestrial environment. The new additions to the Park will provide both residents and visitors with the opportunity to enjoy and better understand this country's diverse flora and fauna, which have played an important role in Caymanian culture," said Minister Jefferson: "The Botanic Park offers a perfect setting for relaxing and enjoying the tropical scenery of the Cayman Islands."
Located on Frank Sound Road in the district of North Side, the 65-acre Botanic Park is about a 45-minute drive from George Town, opens daily at 9:00 a.m. and closes promptly at 5:30 p.m. Visitors are advised to enter the park by 4:30 p.m. Admission fees are USI$6.00 for adults; $3.00 for children ages six to 12 and free for children under six.
The QE2 is the first botanic part in the Caribbean to be Green Globe certified.