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Grand Cayman Glitz

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Photo: Catherine Ledner

"Moving here was great, because everyone was in the same boat," Mel remembers. "Nobody had their immediate family, so everyone was friendly. And I was doubling what I was making, and that’s before the tax advantages." In general, the rule for off-islanders is to make the most of their time here by working hard and playing hard and staying single, and then cashing in their savings and experience back home for a house and car, a better job, and perhaps a higher caliber of spouse than they might have rated before they left home—although these days, Mel says, more and more people are showing up on the island with spouses in tow.

Both Jill and Mel agree that accountants are the most likely to leave Cayman after their initial two years are up. Lawyers are the most likely to settle here for good. Deciding to stay means getting a residency permit, which means holding down a job deemed essential to the business of the island and owning property. Mel bought a house and got married last year.

"Conversations are about where we’ve bought land, where we’re going to buy land, what we’ve built, what we’re going to be building," she says cheerfully. "It might be boring, but it beats talking to some arrogant Credit Suisse trader who keeps forgetting your name."

Despite its allure as a world-class destination for hedge-fund managers and an ever-changing population of some 25,000 ambitious and sun-crazed young lawyers, bankers, accountants, number-crunchers, compliance officers, fund administrators, and other servants of the global financial system, Cayman is still a small-town Caribbean island, with all the pleasures and evils of any other small town. At lunchtime, especially on the weekends, Caymanians can be heard yearning after the boutiques of Miami—or succumbing to the temptations of Marl Road. " ’Marl Road’ is our term for gossip," explains Cayman news anchorwoman Cindy Arie, a stunning blonde with a goofy sense of humor who also appears in advertisements for the island’s water company. "It’s the local term for the fill that you use to fix a pothole," she explains. "People drink, have affairs, and practice water sports, especially on Sunday, when you can’t work."

Both of Arie’s parents are native Caymanians, which doesn’t make life as a single girl on the island any easier, even if the men are rich and available. "The men here feel like they’re on top of the world. They’re away from their families and they’re making lots of money," she sighs, picking at her Caesar salad. "It’s like a constant midlife crisis. It’s not easy."

In his pink shirt, gold bracelet, gold chain, and bald head, Desmond Seales is a local legend, an editor and investigative journalist whose latest project is Caribbean Net News. Among the achievements of his checkered and highly enterprising career, he sold company kits, including seals, and started the Nor’wester, one of many publications that have at one time or another fallen under his sway. In addition to his publishing ventures, Seales started the Tape Club, the island’s first video-rental business, and claims to have brought television to Cayman. He arrived on the island in 1968, when there were only 9,000 residents here, after getting booted out of the Bahamas and spending some time in Miami.

Over the years, he says, he has developed a grudging admiration for the pioneers who built a tiny Caribbean island into a financial powerhouse. "Bill Walker came here with his one little briefcase, one white shirt," he says. "He took advantage of an opportunity."

As Cayman got richer, Seales says, the easy social and occasionally romantic mixing that initially went on between the lawyers and bankers and Caymanians was replaced by a series of hermetically sealed enclosures built to serve financial-industry professionals, who corrupted the island’s politicians while keeping poor immigrants from other Caribbean countries out.

"What are you going to create here?A country for lawyers and bankers?" Seales asks, his voice rising in editorial outrage. "This is becoming like one of the Gulf States in the Middle East, where you have fifteen thousand citizens and a million servants."

Almost 40 years after the Cayman financial industry was born, Seales sees the same families still in power—and a history of local political influence being brought to bear on development projects. The financial industry may be free of pressure from island interests, but corruption in real estate is endemic, he says; that’s how the Caymanians get their piece of the pie.

As the rewards in the travel sector increase, he predicts, so will the level of corruption and self-dealing on the island. "Downtown looks like crap," he says, pointing out that a politically connected family owns the lucrative contract to bring cruise-ship trade to the island, and is unlikely to give up that privilege anytime soon. When I ask him whether Cayman will succeed as a luxury resort, however, he nods. Then, in a lilting Caribbean accent accompanied by a wicked smile, he echoes what the Ritz-Carlton’s Jean Cohen said to me on the deck of the Sunset House.

"A woman told me a long time ago why she liked Cayman," he says, laughing. "She said, ’It’s just like the brochure.’ "

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