Creating an Eco-lodge for Divers on Grand Cayman: Arie Barendrecht Knows How to Do It.

(author’s note: I covered Cayman for Frommer’s last year and found many wonders that didn’t fit in a guidebook! Here’s one.)

Arie Barendrecht has agreed to talk to me about what it takes to run his popular dive lodge, the Cobalt Coast on Grand Cayman, as a Green Globe certified ecolodge.DSC_0873

We sit in the shady breezeway of the lodge, perched on the iron shore of West Bay as the sun glistens on the sea. The Dutch-born owner with the piercing blue eyes pats the large three-ringed binder on the table. “This is my green book,” he says. The over-stuffed binder is filled with receipts, documentation, calculations, and all his notes about what he’s done to, what we might call—go green. After all, he’s been on the cutting-edge of earth-friendly initiatives on the island for years. He started recycling, using non-disposables, cutting energy use, and saving water long before others ever uttered the words, sustainable travel.

Cobalt Coast Diver Lodge, Green Globe Certified

We just get chatting and he jumps up to bid a guest a safe trip home and help load luggage into a van. Arie’s really an old fashion hotelier who seems to have a calling for hospitality. But for years he’s also been figuring how to overcome any number of hurdles to make this place green. He’s had to become an expert in what might seem to be mundane trivia like how to combine the best non-phosphate laundry detergent with fabric softner, because he says, “You know conditioners and whiteners don’t mix.” He’s not one to give up easily. He’s found a powered detergent that seems to do the trick. Who would have guessed such little things would make a big impact.


After another break for Arie to greet new guests, he explains the complicated procedures of saving water by recycling and reusing every little drop, even drip water, and using it multiple times. He talks about changing incandescent bulbs at the inn with LEDs. This is not a cheap process; some cost as much as $13 a piece. Nor is he content to stick with the cold-feeling blue-light bulbs, now known to be missing the warm yellows of the light spectrum. The good ones are a bit more expensive, but he found them. On the bright side he says, the new bulbs last longer and he doesn’t have to walk around with the ladder as much as he used to. The light at the Cobalt Inn is warm and saturated, just like the sea and the overall feel of the place.

Changing light bulbs seems like a small step, but together, his small steps constitute a considerable lowering of energy use. Of course he is well aware that the shallow reefs of the Cayman Islands are particularly susceptible to the bleaching that comes with warmer water temperatures cause by climate change.

At times he does get discouraged about the problem of endless waste, but he usually DSC_0863finds a way to deal with it. Take for example paper recycling—there is none on the island, yet. He knows how much ink is in a phonebook and how toxic it can be, so he’s found a repurposing for old books and other paper by taking them to the local animal shelter where they are used again.

Recently the government of Grand Cayman recognized his efforts with a Governor’s Conservation Award. He and the staff of the inn sponsored an aluminum can recycling drive at the local Primary School. He describes working with the children and how motivated they get about the work. His example has inspired local gradeschoolers, as the award states, “to become lifelong stewards of the environment.”


I complain that the website doesn’t have any information about the award, and maybe it needs an update. But he’s a graceful European not given to boasting. He’s concerned with other things. Every detail of this cozy, ecoldge has been carefully planned, from the architectural design of the intimate 2-story structure with huge windows, to the imported Finish textiles that decorate the rooms.

Cobalt Coast Diver Lodge, Green Globe CertifiedAccommodations such as these with the upscale resort feel attract a wide range of clients and about a third of the guests are non-divers. As a Green Globe certified lodge, it is also a favorite of international travelers of the green persuasion.  I grill him on his many names given for the Cobalt Coast—an inn, a hotel an ecolodge, a resort, and tell him in my overconfident way, that he’s diluting his brand. I ask if he’s thought of settling on one description, but he gives me his knowing grin and shrugs. He cares little for such marketing nonsense. He knows what it takes to make it all come together in unconventional ways. After all, if he stuck to conventional ways he never would have tried, or succeeded, in passing the stringent certification standards required by Green Globe, something other have tried and failed to do. Arie wrote the book on green, or at least he put it together in a large green binder.



Taking on the Invasive Lionfish in the Waters off Grand Cayman

Photo by Elliott Jessup

Photo by Elliott Jessup


It’s not surprising to meet an unusual cast of characters at a diving lodge, especially an ecofriendly one, but as we chat that evening, occasionally looking up from computer screens, the three divers tell me they are spearing lionfish and emptying out the contents IMG_3805of their stomachs. The culling part makes sense, many divers are gleefully bringing up lionfish on the end of their spears, selling them to local restaurants, or filleting them on their own. They are beautiful but invasive fish, with no natural predators, feasting on indigenous reef fish and doing an untold amount of damage in the Caribbean. But tearing out their guts to take a look? I hadn’t heard that one before. When I ask why they tell me, “We need to know what they’re eating.” So, they’re curious about their food—and I wonder why.


Photo by Elliott Jessup

I discover that the team is from the California Academy of Sciences, and their research will reveal if the culling efforts by divers to clear the invaders from the reef is working. The team wants to know if the lions are feeding in shallow waters, or deeper down the reef walls. If the fish can easily change depth, they can avoid the culling efforts done in shallow waters. They want to know if the larger fish they see in deeper waters move up to shallow areas, or stay at lower depths and breed there.

Elliott Jessup the Diving Safety member of the team is the one who documents their IMG_3877underwater adventures, and has the wonderful title of “explorer.” His experience with deep water diving began when he trained in Egypt’s Red Sea. Now managing the highly specialized diving equipment—the closed circuit re-breathing units—he explains how they can plunge much lower than average recreational divers. They are collecting lionfish at depths ranging from 200 to 400 feet.

I ask the ichthyologist on the team Luiz Rocha, why he wants to know what the lions are eating. “We need to know the species of fish,” he tells me. The prey fish the invaders are going after will need some protection. Know what fish they are eating will also give them information about where they are feeding.

These science divers are also taking DNA samples of the fish back to the lab in California. Lionfish most likely arrived in the Caribbean after being released by private aquarium owners. DNA testing will show where the fish actually come from.

I’ve seen lionfish on the menus of Cayman’s finest eaters, and some chefs are joining in

Cobalt Coast Diver Lodge, Green Globe Certified

Cobalt Coast Diver Lodge, Green Globe Certified

the culling efforts, providing a market for what is said to be a fine light, white fish. But I’ve never tried it.

“We’re giving the fish to the lodge and they’re going to serve it tonight,” Elliott tells me. Indeed, lionfish turns out to be the catch of the day at dinner at the Cobalt Coast. I’ve never tried it before, but I’m willing to take a chance.

I order lionfish ceviche and it is spectacular; the perfect balance of texture and flavor.IMG_3866

In case you find some fresh lionfish on your travels, here is a cookbook created especially to turn lionfish into a culinary delicacy. Creating a demand for it may encourage more large-scale extraction of the fish, the strategy most likely to be effective at removing the unwelcome invader from the waters of the Caribbean. So eat up!


The Art of Recycling: Glass Blowing at Maho Bay Eco-Village, St. John, USVI

The tent village at Maho Bay is one of the best examples of green travel in the Caribbean. The wood-framed canvas tents surrounded by forest are breezy and light, and have no DSCN5478running water. Most refreshing is the lack of bottled water. We filled our big container with drinking water from a communal spigot everyday, and walked to the bathrooms and showers around the grounds. Recycling is always a problem, especially on an island and it was a relief not worry about where the constant stream of plastic water bottles (so prevalent at tourist destinations) would end up. But I hadn’t expected that glass recycling would be so much a part of what makes Maho Bay a prime example of sustainable travel. It was a main attraction most evenings, and certainly part of the entertainment.

As you know or can imagine, glass blowing is an art that requires many talents – from DSCN5378creativity to courage. Working with dangerous amounts of heat, fire and molten sand takes a certain kind of temperament. Blowing into a long metal tube at the exact moment when the glowing, undefined blob at the other end is the most pliable requires equals measures of faith and experience.  As we sat in the reflected glow of the furnace watching the glass blowers, I learned that knowing how to dance is also part of the skill set.

The movements of the three glassblowers were confined to a small radius from the stove’s door with its sporadic roar of flames when opened, to the low table holding the shaping tools across the concrete floor. DSCN5390A slight amount of wiggle room was available on either side. A sink and cooling oven formed the boundary on the back wall, and we, the spectators sat in front and watched. A molten chunk hung to the end of an impossibly long rod each time it was pulled out of the furnace. Getting it to the other side involved a choreography of stepping back, balancing and reeling around so that the chunk ended up 180 degrees from where it started. The process demanded a smooth, fluid movement, one able to convince the unformed glass to stay attached to the other end of the pole. Of course the young, agile women could not open and close the oven door, and so she must also avoid hitting her teammate, the door opener, with the dangerous, unwieldy thing. For his part, the door opener would twist slightly and step back following her lead, the long wand serving as a conductor’s baton. They waltzed around the floor that way for the better part of an evening. 

The third member of the team was actually a visiting artist sharing his expertise as a temporary Maho Bay resident. Most of the time he sat in an iron arm chair and rolled the DSCN5385pole along the arms, coaxing a design out of the chunk and instructing the young woman when to give it more air. A blowtorch also helped coax the molten sand into a desirable shape. For its part the piece of recycled art rose and fell, was fashioned and refashioned, expanded and contracted and transformed many times before it achieved its final form as a flower surrounded in its own vase. Video: Click here for a quick peek at the action.

By the way, the furnace is heated using recycled cooking oil.

Visiting the Eco-tents at Maho Bay

After hearing for so long about Maho Bay, I’m finally visiting the eco-tent camp during what seems to be its last couple of months. Opened in 1976 by Stanley Selengut, it has served since the first nails were hammered into the wooden boardwalks, tents and gathering areas, as an eco-lodge innovation that it is now a classic icon of sustainable travel. We didn’t venture far from camp our first day, instead we decided to get acquainted with the place. The northeastern storm had followed us down from New York, and Jason at activities, advised us that the swell it brought with it would affect conditions at Little Maho Bay more than Big Maho. Continue reading

Fighting for Wild Aruba

From the edge of the deck the sand travels away from the light in wavy peaks and shadows. Trunks of palms wrapped in spiral beads of light surround the deck. They sway and rustle in the wind. A few feet away the sand meets the darkness and radiates upward through a cloudless night sky. The leeward side of the Caribbean sea murmurs as melodies float from the bar at the other end of the deck. Large round posts support a thatched roof. They are wrapped with ties that secure decorative linen curtains. Huge garden pots sprout tropical greenery. No cell phones ring. Sounds of soft laughter on the wind are punctuated by clinking drinks returning to the glass tabletops.

A woman walks off the deck and down the wooden stairs into the sand making new patterns in the expanse of creamy grains. She moves closer to the water toward a DSC_0009secluded palapa where two people sit at a table dressed in tropical décor. The white linen curtains attached to these posts are pulled across the openings, creating a romantic enclosure. The secluded fantasy presents a dreamy scene where nature and civility, paradise and hospitality meet in harmonious accommodation. Continue reading