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November 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 33, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Sunset House, Grand Cayman

happy 60th birthday, but you’re really showing your age

from the November, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

The beloved Sunset House on Grand Cayman is currently celebrating its 60th year in business. When I had the chance to go for six nights in August, I expected to understand why so many divers love it. After a week there, I'm still baffled.

The Sea RayThe shock started as soon as a friendly staffer helped my buddy and me wrangle our bags to a secondfloor oceanview room. The difference between the website photos and the actual room was a shock: I expected basic, but this bordered on shabby. Harsh and dim lighting, two double beds with no bedcover, old particleboard furniture, and no pictures on the walls. The miniscule bath featured an ancient showerhead, and a cheap outdoor chair was the room's only seating. Our tiny, pitted balcony with rugged table and chair was no place to linger over cocktails at sunset.

Look, I've experienced some really basic Caribbean resorts, but next to Sunset House, they're downright swanky. And surprisingly, for a dive resort, there are no hooks in the bathroom or on the porch for hanging wet stuff. Everything was clean and worked, but it was hard to get over the feeling of staying in a beige, low-ceilinged cell. I knew the TV preferences of the person staying in the next room. I could see daylight through the front door. And it was certainly hard not to notice that Sunset House lies directly under the airport's flight path. If you're looking for some R&R with your diving, it's hard to find it in the rooms.

But its dive operation works well enough. Staff were young, efficient and personable. My buddy and I stuck with Christian, a Singapore native who had worked at dive resorts worldwide, because he's an enthusiastic naturalist like us. At Oro Verde, which Christian described as "a wreck of a wreck," it was easy to meander around and become disoriented -- storms have tossed and turned the hull until it's mostly debris, sheaves of metal resting on each other, with few recognizable parts, lying at 60 feet. But those dull slabs of metal make great homes for lobsters, octopus, eels and little critters, and I enjoyed puttering and poking around the debris. Christian told us the tale of the former cargo ship that hauled bananas between Jamaica and Grand Cayman -- legend has it that a soon-to-retire captain wished to pad his nest egg with a shipment of Jamaica's more profitable crop, pot. The crew mutinied when he refused to share, and the ship went down during the ruckus off of Seven Mile Beach and got its' "green gold" moniker. Oro Verde's funniest feature is bicycle carcasses tossed next to the wreck -- because low-salaried divemasters typically had to get to work by bike, their mates take their bikes after they depart the island and place them here in their honor.

Every diver was assigned a storage locker, big enough to hold two divers' gear, and lock near the dock. Before every two-tank morning dive at 8 a.m. (afternoon dives are offered to the U.S.S. Kittiwake wreck or Stingray City), I gathered my gear and schlepped it to the dock. If asked, staff would help carry it down, but it took a special request. Each boat, named for a ray (Eagle Ray, Stingray and so forth), has tanks on the sides in boots; a central table holds cameras and other delicate gear. There's decent shade from a central awning, a rudimentary marine head just below, and deck showers. Between dives, staff offers sliced oranges. Boats officially hold up to 18 divers, but I found mine jam-packed with just 10 aboard. I can't imagine the cheek-tojowl situation of gearing up when the boat is full.

The briefings were fun and introduced me to a Sunset House tradition: Crew arrange beach towels and weights to create a 3-D representation of the dive site instead of the usual whiteboard drawing or verbal description. Afterwards, I entered the water via a giant stride off the transom, and after the dive, came back up a ladder at the stern. Though no one requested help with doffing gear back aboard, crew said they were happy to help anyone who needed it.

Another Sunset House custom seemed more problematic. Halfway through a dive, the guide always brought our group back to underneath the boat, pointed upward to indicate it, then left the buddy teams to guide themselves back. Not a problem for experienced navigators, but I saw some newer divers go off and lose the boat.

One Cayman Islands rule I found irksome was no solo diving anywhere. With the easy shore diving at hand, it was frustrating not to be able to hop in without a buddy. And if you've bristled while reading Undercurrent's recent "Rude Divers" articles about resorts that enforce dive time limits, you won't like Sunset House's maximum of 60 minutes for boat dives, including safety stop. I came on board with 1100-1500 psi dive after dive. Apparently, the time limit is to keep the morning schedule on track, but as an experienced diver, I just didn't like it.

But I particularly enjoyed each 60 minutes spent at the deep, craggy dive sites on Grand Cayman's northwest corner -- there's something sublime about knowing the Cayman Trench dropped five miles below me. Sentinel Rock was particularly dramatic: pinnacles covered in deepwater gorgonians jutted up from the wall's edge. Just south was a swimthru at 95 feet. I finned through, even though I was skating on the edge of my EAN profile, but the dramatic view as I exited the arch, framed against the rich blue of the drop-off, was worth it.

Cayman Islands MapThe deeper site of Round Rock West, offered craggy deep profile coral formations at the top of the wall, 75 feet deep. The site's namesake sits outside of the swimthru's exit -- as I lazily spiraled around the round rock, I admired the abundance of yellowtail snappers, horse-eye jacks and the occasional grouper going about their business, as well as a beautiful eagle ray swimming slowly by, its black and white reticulations contrasting against the blue. I enjoyed many sightings of hawksbill turtles, both shallow and deep -- seems like Cayman's turtle conservation is working well.

The water was impressively warm in mid-August, between 81 and 84 degrees. I was overdressed in my 5-mil suit, and after a day, doffed it for a polyolefin suit. Visibility ranged from 40 to 90 feet. But Grand Cayman is a popular cruise ship destination, so when there were two or three in the area, their generators and engines disturbed the underwater Zen at Sunset House and near George Town.

Many shallow sites offered drama without the heavy nitrogen load. La Mesa boasted a healthy, large and current-swept table above 60 feet of coral and sponges, with a big school of schoolmaster and mahogany snappers, and white and striped grunts. At an interesting cut in the side of the table, I peeked in to see crustaceans in its hollows. The Devil's Grotto never gets deeper than 50 feet and boasts beautifully framed swim-thrus; one sported 30 tarpon hanging out in a casual cluster. Although the eponymous grotto failed to live up to its billing -- it was once red but now is more brown -- the site's other nooks featured charming marine life to ponder. Less pretty was the behavior of some divers, especially an outof- control British teenager who darted in and out of the single file of divers weaving its way carefully through the grottos, kicking up sand and riling tempers.

That brings me to the biggest downside at Sunset House: There are a lot of newbies, with the behaviors common to inexperienced divers. I saw them running out of air, having no clue where the boat was, jumping the queue for the ladder, kicking up the bottom and harassing the fish (including trying to grab a lionfish!). You have to learn by doing, but that doesn't mean I wanted to spend my dives surrounded by the antics of divers learning the ropes. Of course, I was once a new diver, and I'm sure experienced divers thought the same of me. If you're a new diver, you'll find the diving quite agreeable here, and you'll have lots of company.

My Underwhelming Room at Sunset HouseFortunately, Sunset House has a great setup for shore diving. I entered the water with a jump off the cement dock or descended one of two ladders. Natural navigation was easy because of the distinctive topography (hardpan in the shallows, coral starting around 30 feet), and some man-made additions. Just north of the entry was a highlyphotographed mermaid statue called Amphitrite, cheesy but quite pretty. Heading toward deeper water, I encountered a small barge covered with big sponges at 60 feet. Beyond that, the wall descends into the abyss. I enjoyed those dives, especially not being on the 60-minute clock.

I can't report many sightings of weird and wonderful creatures -- no seahorses, pipefish or pipehorses, no frogfish -- but I loved the variety of hamlets. In addition to more common ones like barred, butter and tan, I saw black, shy and bicolor hamlets. Robust tiger grouper and mutton snapper, along with turtles, showed up on at least half my dives. But alas, there was more brown (and some red) algae than I thought was right.

Service at the resort's restaurant, Sea Harvest, varied widely. Breakfast, included in most room packages, was limited. Tables were set with bowls of Kellogg's cereal packets. I went for eggs, offered either fried, scrambled, or in several omelet variations, but toast was cheap supermarket bread with butter and packets of Smucker's jams. There were no other pastries available, the thin coffee was disappointing to this caffeine addict, and juice was canned orange or grapefruit. The fruit plate was an extra charge. Sure, the food was sufficiently nourishing, but the experience lacked pleasure.

Lunch and dinner offerings were more satisfying and far broader, with pastas, fish, steak and, my favorite, an extensive Indian menu. I enjoyed murg tikka, marinated chicken breast on a skewer with mint chutney, and lamb rogan josh, a slow-cooked curry with ginger, chili and saffron, and I appreciated that I could order those meals either hot or less spicy. The bar, a big, open-sided thatch-roofed cabana named My Bar, seems to be a locals hangout; it was packed on the weekend, and I enjoyed its sunset view.

Rating for Sunset House in Grand CaymanWe frequently ate dinner elsewhere, finding very good but always expensive meals. Blue by Eric Ripert at the Ritz Carlton was transcendent, but it cost us $100-plus per person and $40 on the taxi. Chalk it up to Grand Cayman's offshore banking and big luxury resorts -- which is why it would only help Sunset House with business if they gave their accommodations a badly needed upgrade.

For an afternoon dive with the stingrays, personable staffer Mel drove my buddy and me across the island to where Sunset House keeps a 50-foot boat that holds 30 divers, helmed by Captain Reid. After a 30-minute cruise to Stingray Alley, a couple of large female Southern stingrays, alerted by the engines, awaited us. Mel fed the rays artfully from a container filled with squid. The dive was essentially one long safety stop with a circus of rays, who wrapped their silky abdomens around me, looking for handouts. They were capable of inflicting a good hickey, but it didn't really hurt. Sometimes it looked like we were wearing rays like sombreros! It's a one-note joke, but it was a hoot, especially because there were only four of us on this dive; I'd be hesitant to do it with more than six.

So I'll admit to not understanding why Grand Cayman and Sunset House are so popular among the dive crowd. For the money (about $260 per day per person), it's not bad, but it's not great, either, especially when you're at a tired, aged resort with bleak rooms and a disappointing breakfast. It's cheaper in Mexico, and in Bonaire, you pay the same for nicer rooms and more flexible shore diving. The diving here was pretty good, but no better than most places in the Caribbean. Celebrating its 60th birthday, Sunset House may have sentimental value, but Cayman's value is less than its other Caribbean counterparts.

-- A.E.L.

Our Undercover Diver's Bio: "I'm something of a fuss-budget diver, but it's based on diving all over the Indonesia, the Pacific, the Caribbean, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. This trip marked my 3,250th dive. I live part of the year in Bonaire, a favorite dive spot; my last trip prior to Cayman was the month before to Lembeh and Siladen."

Divers CompassDivers Compass: Grand Cayman is easy to fly into, with American, JetBlue, Southwest and Delta flying from U.S. cities, and British Airways from London . . . An ocean-view room, double occupancy, cost $262 per person per day, and included daily two-tank dives, unlimited shore diving, airport transfers and breakfast . . . To celebrate its 60th anniversary, Sunset House has a seven-night dive package, with the above options plus a glass of bubbly and an anniversary T-shirt, starting at $1,435, double occupancy, through December 21 . . . Sunset Divers also reintroduced a three-tank North Wall Safari on Ocean Spirit every Wednesday on demand, with lunch included . . . Full rental gear and Nitrox are offered . . . Drinks at My Bar were, in Cayman dollars, $4 to $6 for beers, $8.50 for wine, and $7-$8 for rum drinks . . . One Cayman dollar is always worth 80 cents U.S., so add 20 percent to prices . . . Most dinners on Grand Cayman cost around USD$50 per person, without drinks . . . Website - www.sunsethouse.com

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