Shiver me timbers!

Written by: Catherine MacGillivray, Photography by: Ricardo Barcelo and Miguel Escalante

Being surrounded by men wearing eye patches and?brandishing cutlasses it seemed I was either on the?set of one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies or had?stepped back in time a couple hundred years.

This, however, was just part of the swashingbuckling fun enjoyed each year in the Cayman Islands during the Pirates Week festival.

Started as an off-season attraction in 1977, the extravaganza has now become a firm favourite with locals as well as visitors who fly in especially for the event. It’s a great excuse to dress up like Johnny Depp, star of the blockbuster films, and make new friends with some yo ho ho and a bottle of rum. Despite how this might sound, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s not all debauchery but, in fact, great fun that all the family can take part in.

The festival spans 11 days and includes a mock pirates’ landing, the Cayman Islands governor being taken “hostage”, a float parade, fireworks and street dances as well as heritage days around the districts.

The atmosphere is terrific; all the better if you put on your pirate costumes and really get into the spirit of the event. I didn’t, and felt a bit left out, making a mental note to sort out some old clothes and large hoop earrings for next year. All around me though, it seemed even the tiniest tot was learning to count out pieces of eight.

As well as the official events, many of the bars have their own Pirates Week themes, so don’t be surprised to see Captain Henry Morgan or Blackbeard serving you food or drinks. The Seattle Seafair pirates who visit each year are also fun to link up with. This lively group engages in charitable work while entertaining at the festival, singing ribald songs and inviting bar patrons to join in.

This year, the festival begins on Saturday, November 4 with a float parade on Little Cayman, the smallest of the three Cayman Islands, which is a good option for those seeking an early start to events or who want to enjoy the entertainment on a smaller, quieter scale.

The main focus of Pirates Week is on Grand Cayman, where there is a pre-Pirates Week happy hour on Thursday, November 9 at Breezes by the Bay bar followed by a kick-off party at The Wharf restaurant, to get everyone in the mood.A costume competition the following morning in downtown George Town encourages revellers to get dressed up, so be sure to take your camera along, as there are some colourful characters around.

The Friday night fireworks, which are part of the first-night celebrations, are spectacular. Most people congregate around George Town harbour but the view from anywhere along Seven Mile Beach is just as magnificent. You can pick almost any spot after dark and probably have it to yourself. Cayman has a low crime rate, so you can enjoy yourself without fear of being harassed; just don’t consume liquor and swim, as chances are there won’t be a lifeguard around to keep an eye on you.
For the free street dance afterwards, however, definitely head back into George Town where the harbour front is blocked off from traffic. Stages are set up so that local and guest acts can entertain with the latest Caribbean hits. Last year, Kes the Band, an offshoot from Imij & Co from Trinidad, was the headline artist for the street dances on the first Friday and Saturday of Pirates Week and soca diva Destra Garcia also delighted the crowds at the grand finale the following week.
This is also a great chance to sample some authentic Caymanian food as street vendors have their stalls set up with a variety of dishes on offer. Prices are reasonable at around CI$10 (US$12.50) for a good-sized helping. Try turtle stew, which is a popular local delicacy, or oxtail – both of which are served with rice and beans.
The highlight of the festival is the landing pageant, which this year is on Saturday, November 11 at 3 pm. A huge crowd gathers around George Town harbour to watch the pirates approach by sea and swarm ashore. Make sure you get there early, especially if driving as it can be hard to find a parking spot and you might end up having to leave the car a few streets away and walk.

Although pirates are not actually known to have invaded Cayman, their modern-day counterparts create a good impression of what it might have been like if they had. They even take the governor hostage to the thrill of the crowd. Last year, the Red Bull “Air Force” wowed onlookers as their parachutists plunged thousands of feet onto the dock, and the drinks company plans to bring them back again this year to perform some more breathtaking feats.

It’s fun to be amongst spectators around the harbour but you can get an even better view if you are lucky enough to get an invitation to one of the private parties hosted at Breezes by the Bay or Margaritaville, which have upstairs balconies overlooking the water.

The float parade follows the landing and this lends a real carnival atmosphere to the afternoon. Representing different districts and businesses, the floats are decorated with highly imaginative themes and the parade is accompanied by loud soca and reggae music. If you can’t get near the harbour by this time, don’t worry because the line winds its way through town to ensure everyone gets a good look.

Later on there is a free “teen-up” music event at the Craft Market, just two streets away from the downtown evening street dance. Run by the Leos Club, it takes place from 7 pm until midnight on each of the two Saturdays in the festival. There is no liquor served and security ensures that the youngsters have supervised fun while adults enjoy themselves nearby.

During the week, there are plenty of other events to keep pirates of all ages amused. This includes an art show, kids’ fun day, an underwater treasure hunt, fun run, sea swim and heritage days in each of the districts. Cayman Brac, the other of three islands, also stages Pirates Week events on November 24 and 25.
The culmination of the festival in Grand Cayman is on Saturday, November 18 when the pirates are put on trial and banished from the island. Hopefully, they’ll come back next year, though. I would recommend all other wannabe pirates do too•

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