Honduras and its Bay Islands are only a short flight away and offer a wealth of natural beauty, including lush tropical forests, mountains and a wide variety of exotic animals and birds. Honduras is fast becoming a popular vacation spot for those interested in an eco-friendly trip, and properties in certain places like Roatan are finding more and more buyers outside the country looking for island getaways at relatively inexpensive prices.
One person who fell in love with Honduras and its people is Graham Thompson. Originally from Grand Cayman, Thompson travelled to the Bay Islands many years ago and it reminded him so much of his youth in the Cayman Islands that he wanted to purchase a cay off Guanaja. As there was nothing available, he bought a water lot and dredged the bottom to create a sand spit of about four acres.
When his “neighbour” who owned an eight-acre cay put his land up for sale, Thompson jumped at the chance to purchase it and began clearing it to build a house.
Unfortunately Hurricane Mitch had other plans for him, and in 1998 the monster storm destroyed everything he had built thus far. Undeterred, he started on a new house and decided to relocate to his private cay full-time.
After living there for a while, he built another house for his two sons and their families to stay when they came to visit. Although Thompson had never had any intention of creating a resort, people began to ask if they could rent his family’s residence when they weren’t there. This is how Graham’s Place was born. Visitors enjoyed their time on the cay so much that they told their friends, who in turn wanted to book a vacation there. The growing demand for accommodation led Thompson to build four villas and five private rooms on the beach, followed by a 16-room hotel a few years later.
My family moved to Grand Cayman in August 1975, and my parents became friends with many Caymanians, including Graham Thompson. When Lynne Firth, my parents and I decided to take a trip to Graham’s Place on the 1 July Constitution Day long weekend, they were eager to see their old friend after 20 years.
Two airlines fly round-trip from Grand Cayman to La Ceiba: Cayman Airways and Aerolineas Sosa. Which airline you choose will largely depend on price, days you want to fly and the times of any connecting flights you may have in La Ceiba. We chose to fly with Sosa, as at the time we booked, Cayman Airways was not offering a Friday to Monday itinerary. The Sosa jet is smaller but very comfortable and perfectly adequate for the one hour flight. As we flew into La Ceiba, we could see acres of pineapple fields, the city’s main export.
When we arrived in La Ceiba, we had a beautiful view of the nearby mountains and lots of lush vegetation. Of course, immediately afterwards was the line-up for Immigration, but it was all located in a modern, air-conditioned building. Expect to spend about an hour in this line when you go.
We also realised how important it was to hang onto our luggage tickets. Most airports will allow you to just grab your bag off the carousel and go without checking your tags. In La Ceiba, they will not allow you to take your luggage without proof that it’s yours.
We then had to queue to put our bags through a large x-ray machine, and finally we were cleared to check in for our next flight to Guanaja.
Tips: If you decide to stay in La Ceiba before moving on, you’ll find a wealth of activities here to enjoy. La Ceiba is a tourist hotspot, offering nightlife, parks and natural reserves. The most popular park is Pico Bonito National Park and the Cangrejal River offers great river rafting. Just take the usual precautions that one should when visiting a foreign country.
You can also get a daily ferry from the La Ceiba port to Utila and Roatan. The trip is just over an hour one-way, and costs approximately US$25 per adult.
There are a few ways to get to Guanaja, but most choose Lanhsa or Aerolinas Sosa airlines from La Ceiba. There is no ferry direct from La Ceiba port as the island is just a bit too far away, but you can charter a private boat, or even a private plane if you wish.
The planes are propeller-driven, with about nine seats in them, so I eyed the cabin of our Lanhsa craft with trepidation when I considered my rather robust frame. As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. I managed to squeeze myself in, and was even invited by the pilot to sit in the co-pilot’s seat. I kept my knees away from the controls so we wouldn’t all perish.
We landed in Guanaja about 30 minutes later, despite the fact that I was sure we were heading straight for the electricity poles in our path to the runway.
Guanaja is often referred to as the Venice of Honduras, as the majority of the population resides in houses on stilts over the water. There is very little in the way of roads on Guanaja, and the preferred method of travel is definitely by boat.
Much like Roatan, a high percentage of those who live in Guanaja are directly related to Caymanians, so if you think the accent sounds familiar, now you know why.
The landing strip and nearby building from which travellers arrive and depart are reminiscent of Little Cayman – simple facilities, but with a twist. Instead of taxis waiting to pick up passengers, there are boats at a dock.
Thompson and his right hand man, Jorge, were there to greet us and with a grab of the bags from the plane, we were ready to board the boat to Graham’s Place.
The boat pulled out and headed towards open water where we had an amazing view of all the structures on stilts as we passed by them on our way to the Graham’s Place private cay.
Tips: Actually, the tips for both Guanaja and La Ceiba airport definitely include … tips! Although the local currency is the lempira, the US dollar is accepted everywhere. Have a goodly number of small bills at your disposal for assistance with your luggage and anything else. You’ll just want to make sure that you’re handing it to the right people.
There are many waterfalls to visit on Guanaja. Whether you’re staying there or at Graham’s Place, you’ll have an opportunity to explore them. Wear good sneakers or hiking boots.
Anyone who grew up in the Cayman Islands will feel waves of nostalgia washing over them as they walk around Graham’s Place. The buildings are a kaleidoscope of colours, with a bar and restaurant deck out over the water, hammocks hanging from trees, and cabanas and outdoor showers fashioned from everyday items, plants and shells. One of the most curious structures is the large, multicoloured cabana that at first glance may look like the remnants of a carousel, but it is actually an old satellite dish that Thompson took, painted, and converted into a cabana. Apparently the acoustics are so good underneath it that people only have to whisper to be heard.
My parents were given a bungalow and Lynne and I shared a room in the main hotel. There are no numbers on the rooms and dwellings, just unique pictures of fish. Hanging off your key ring is a wooden, glossy version of that same fish, and it’s about the same size as the creature it represents, so it’s quite difficult to misplace. One of the first warnings we were given when we arrived was to keep our keys hidden if we were wandering the property when Tom and Jerry came to visit in the morning. Turns out that Tom and Jerry are the wild pelicans that Thompson has tamed to the point that they fly in to be fed after the sun comes up. They follow him around, and know exactly where the fish are kept, so if anyone heads in that direction, they’ll turn to find a pelican at their heels.
There are four bungalows in a row; individual buildings with front decks, swing seats and steps that take you right to the beach. The main hotel has 16 rooms over three floors with waterfront balconies, and the house that was originally built for Thompson’s family has four rooms downstairs and two upstairs. Again, all look out on the beach. There is no bad view to be had, no matter where you stay.
Thompson built cabanas and seats that sit in the sea, and on the odd afternoon, we would indulge in tropical drinks under one of them, enjoying the view of the hills of Guanaja just a short boat ride away.
Lynne took a kayak out for a while, and I attempted to stand-up paddleboard for the first time in my life. I’d seen all the pictures of others doing it; how difficult could it be? Well, my sizeable legs shook like a newborn foal’s, but even with my basic athletic skills, I still managed to go out, turn around and come back to shore. The sea around the cay is perfect for this kind of activity, and when the wind picks up, kite surfers flock to the area to take advantage of the ideal conditions. In fact, when we were there for the weekend, there was a group of kite surfers ready to take to the waves the minute the weather was ready.
Graham’s Place hosts international visitors that pursue other sports as well. The bonefish, permit and tarpon are plentiful around the cay, bringing fishing enthusiasts from all over the world to spend a few days there. Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures in Montana is just one of the web sites that promotes Graham’s Place as an excellent fishing destination, not just for the reef fish, but for big game as well. Fishermen have said it is the only place they know of in the world where one can fish for permit at night.
After a day of fishing, there’s nothing better than sitting on the restaurant deck or at the bar and ordering a cold beverage and a hot meal. I have to say that I really didn’t know what to expect when it came to the menu at Graham’s Place, but it turns out that it would rival any casual dining establishment in the Cayman Islands, and even features treats like lobster thermidor. I think that dish, taking into account the local exchange rate, came in at about US$17. I nearly had lobster thermidor every night once I’d done the maths.
Thompson loves his animals, so beyond his pet pelicans, we saw parrots, macaws and an agouti scampering across the ground. Lynne, Mum and I also took a wander along the short nature trail that winds through the latter half of the cay. Again, we heard and saw wildlife as we went, and ventured to take a narrow “bridge” out from the cay, over the water, to a rocky outcrop that gave an excellent view of Graham’s Place from a different vantage point and a kite surfing kite above the trees. We guessed that finally the wind was strong enough for the group to get out there.
One of the biggest draws of Graham’s Place is Graham himself. He is the very definition of the word “character” with his exaggerated features, hearty laugh and seemingly boundless energy. He was up later than any of us, and as we emerged, bleary-eyed, in the morning, he was already up, feeding Tom and Jerry and working on his next project. Although he’s obviously had assistance, it is nothing less than extraordinary that this man in his 70s has built, and continues to build, most of the structures on the cay.
He’s never happier than when he converts something useless into something functional or even artistic. There’s the satellite dish I mentioned earlier, and the outdoor shower that pours water through a beautiful helmet conch. The lights that guide visitors back to their rooms are made of PVC pipe that’s been cut into lengths and drilled with holes to allow the bulb to shine through; and the paving stones are fashioned from thin slices of black pipe that washed ashore.
Thompson filled the slices with concrete and stamped tropical shapes in each one. The imagination and creativity you constantly see about you is just one of the reasons that Graham’s Place is so special.
When asked how he came to create Graham’s Place, he says: “I came to Guanaja in 1981 for a friend’s wedding and at that time I was asked to represent Lanhsa airlines in Cayman, so I did. I ended up flying quite often to Guanaja and I wanted to buy a cay, but none were for sale, so the government sold me a water lot.
“I dredged that and turned it into my own four-acre island in 1986, then 10 years later, this cay was for sale so I bought it. I began to clean it up, and built my own home on it. Once more, people came to visit, I built a three-room house for my kids and to rent out. Then more and more tourists came, so I built the four bungalows and the 16-room hotel. We officially started with tourists in 1994.”
As far as my parents were concerned, Thompson hadn’t changed a jot in 20 years, and although I hadn’t remembered him from my youth, I felt I knew him pretty well by the time we left three days later.
When we returned to Grand Cayman, we told everyone where we had been for the weekend. It turns out that Graham’s Place isn’t that much of a well-kept secret. Many Caymanians and residents have either been there already, or have heard of it and want to go.
For those of you who remember the simpler days in the Cayman Islands, like going to the old Rum Point, or hanging out at the legendary Holiday Inn, Graham’s Place is a place for you. We enjoyed our time there, and I look forward to returning there soon.
Anyone who grew up in the Cayman Islands will feel waves of nostalgia washing over them as they walk around Graham’s Place in Honduras.