Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

This place is Hell

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HELL, CAYMAN ISLANDS -- The road to Hell is paved with potholes.

That doesn't stop cruise ship passengers from descending on the hamlet in droves, or scare off souvenir seekers intent on dropping their Caymanian dollars on T-shirts, bumper stickers and hats, each item declaring that the owners have been to Hell and back.

As tourist attractions go, the slim stretch of road near the corner of Hell Road and Bonfire Avenue seems to have little to recommend it.

The blink-and-you'll-miss-it delights of Hell are well past Grand Cayman's famous Seven Mile Beach and clear around the west coast of the island. Narrow serpentine roads, their edges falling into gravel, mark the way.

Concrete houses closely grip the edges of the dusty main street. There is nothing to suggest a visitor is on the path to Hell.

If you're driving a rental car, many of them verging on vintage machines, you might have a devil of a time finding the place.

But people do get there, motivated by the chance to mail a postcard from Hell, take photographs in front of a huge red barn with Biblical quotations painted on the side, and clamber onto two viewing platforms that overlook the area's namesake geographic formation.

You can even pose with your face stuck into a wooden devil cutout. For some people, that's an irresistible offer.

Hell's claims to fame are odd black rock formations located behind the gift shops. They were likely evolved from the remnants of shells and coral. The unwelcoming rock spikes, which can't be climbed, look as though they've been scorched by fire. There is no vegetation in the blackened area.

That's just one explanation for the name.

The other comes from gift shop owner Carlton McDoom -- and yes, that's his real name -- who swears that a long-dead politician once visited the area and said: "My God, this must be what hell looks like."

McDoom, who has an unfriendly rivalry with the gift shop next door, says an alternate explanation has a distinguished visitor attempting to shoot a bird, missing and shouting: "This place is hell!"

Neither are particularly compelling stories, but McDoom is happy to share local lore. His family has owned property in Hell for generations. Save for the destruction of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, they've been happy in their little corner of Grand Cayman.

"This is a beautiful place," he says, "and I am always happy to show it to visitors."

And if you'd like to pick up a Hell key chain, thimble or decal, he'd be even happier.

While McDoom's family gift shop (located in the former post office) is a relatively sedate affair, the folks next door are housed in a giant barn painted, naturally, flame red.

"Welcome to Hell, the Devil's Hangout Gift Shop," reads one wall, with stylized flames that wouldn't be out of place on the hood of a vintage Camaro accentuating the words.

Around back, near where the chickens peck in the dirt, another hand-painted sign.

"Jesus died for all of us so give him your heart and go to Heaven," exhorts the message.

The Cayman Islands are a God-fearing place, and there's only so much Hell tomfoolery folks are going to find funny. Club Inferno and the Heaven straw market, both located by the gift shops, seem to have given up the ghost.

The western Caribbean Cayman islands are a British dependency. Brave visitors rent their own cars to get around and constantly remind themselves to drive on the left.

Encountering the first traffic circle or roundabout is a challenge, especially when it's raining, but made easier by the gentle-tempered Caymanian drivers.

While the islands are perhaps best known for their wealth of financial institutions (there are 279 banks), tourism is a mainstay. The main attraction is Seven Mile Beach, home to most of the exclusive resorts.

George Town, the capital, has evolved from a typically pretty Caribbean setting to a dollar-driven place that features Senor Frogs, the Hard Rock Cafe, and every other chain that attracts tourists from Mexico to Miami. Thousands of sunburned cruise ship passengers are regularly disgorged.

You might just be better off in Hell.

The last word doesn't go to the gift shop owners, though. Hell Road dead ends at The Lord's Church, a massive, foreboding white building. "The Cayman Islands belong to Jesus," trumpets the sign outside. They're not messing around.

The church doesn't sell postcards or baseball caps, but they'd be more than happy to save your mortal soul in Hell.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 14, 2009 E6

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