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Monday, October 19, 2020

Here’s How To Turn COVID Quarantine Into An Epicurean Retreat

This year has been a washout out for foodies. Not only have restaurants— or at least the sit-down kind— taken a hit, but those who like to experience food in a variety of cultural settings have had their ankles bound and their tongues tied by travel restrictions and border closures.

I am no exception.

So when the government of the Cayman Islands, where I call home, relaxed its outbound travel restrictions, I could no longer be contained. I took the next flight to a nearby island and spent nine days combining work with pleasure.

But there was a catch.

Cayman’s strict COVID-19 regulations require that travellers quarantine at one of three approved hotels for two weeks upon return— at the traveller’s expense.

“If I am going to spend the money, I am going to turn this experience into an epicurean retreat,” I contemplate out loud, marvelling at my ingenuity. I carefully review the amenities offered by each establishment, and for me it is a no-brainer.

I am a regular diner at Palm Heights, a glamorous boutique hotel on Grand Cayman’s pristine Seven Mile Beach. Tillies, one of the two on-site restaurants, boasts the trendiest, most out-of-the-box culinary offering of any hotel on-island and management is willing to provide me with a retreat-esque ‘culinary quarantine experience’ at an added cost.

As someone who makes her living writing and talking about food, I am sold. A week’s vacation has suddenly turned into three.

After a week and a half escape, I begin part two of my vacation.

The blues are bluer, the greens are greener and the whites are whiter at Palm Heights. It is no wonder that founder and creative director, Gabriella Khalil dropped a brilliant primrose into the mix.

I make my way through the ‘COVID-entrance’ of the hotel and ascend to the top floor behind a masked and gloved guide who exudes a vibe that is half camp counsellor, half concierge. I’m sure she feels that she must somehow embrace both personas, given the circumstances.

I put down my bags.

Knock-knock. A masked server stands her guard from six feet away as she drops off a smorgasbord of lunchtime pleasures. From almond cheese to aromatic radishes and cucumbers in a light pecan sauce, colourful plant-based treasures adorn three recycled paper boxes. Resident chef and educator, Dr Aris LaTham, otherwise known as the father of gourmet ethical raw foods cuisine, is the culinarian behind this buffet.

I make my way out to my private patio, and watch “freedom lovers” on the beach, while sipping Slovenian organic wine from paper-thin glass.

This isn’t so bad.

Gerardo Gonzalez, the Food and Culture Manager, who runs a once-a-week natural wine-lovers club at Palm Heights’ Paradise Pizza, is eager for my feedback.

The phone rings. “What do you think of the wine?” 

“Not bad at all,” I smile as the crowd below joins Whitney Houston in the chorus of “I wanna dance with somebody.”

A DJ is in the hot sun spinning eighties and nineties tunes that light up my heart and my soul. And I’m not alone. Billie Jean gains the approval of a line of bobbing heads concealed under white umbrellas in the sand.

The aquamarine, cerulean and azure blues of the ocean merge into each other as if to the beat of the vibrations. I am in my very own nightclub on one of the most beautiful beaches in the whole world— and it’s noon on a sunny day. But unlike the others, I am the anonymous inhabitant of a penthouse behind the palm trees, discreetly playing voyeur as the activities continue down below.

I return to the quiet comfort of what some quarantiners have likened to solitary confinement, but what I perceive as a slice of heaven in a beautiful suite where all of my gastronomic fancies are being met.

Speaking of slice, another knock at my door reveals a bowl of oranges, lemons and grapefruit for my tub with instructions on how to experience the benefits of an ‘at home’ citrus soak. I remove a container of guavas and mangos, now in season, from my fridge and pour a glass of wine to enjoy with my bath.

The wooded browns and neutral tones of my bathroom are in a direct juxtaposition to the sensory highs of the vibrant montage beyond my veranda. Orange and mandarin toiletries from Aesop tingle in the air and incense sticks float in a vase of orange oil beside my sleek soaking tub. I vow to infuse my being with the atmosphere that permeates every nook of this space.

Day 1. Check.

Every morning, four little containers arrive at my door. One holds freshly picked turmeric, finely chopped. The other two carry basil and ginger. Some days, I receive a fresh lime. Rooms are provided with tea infusers made of glass, cork and leather and I find joy and peace in knowing that this organic mélange was made from scratch by me.

In the mornings to come, I will select gluten free pancakes with fresh berries, cornmeal waffles with home made syrup, plantain porridge (my personal favourite), and lunches and dinners that bring unexpected pleasures such as a chicken soup with avocado and yucca, sweet potato empanadas or the most exquisitely fresh and succulent red snapper, deboned to perfection. Tillies executive chef Jake Brodsky, has gone to great lengths to put a unique twist on in-season, locally grown delights and the product is delicious.

More fruit and salt-infused spa experiences await me. I have never been more relaxed.

I eat. I soak. I write.

As Cayman relaxes its border controls in the months to come, visitors will still be required to quarantine for variable lengths of time upon arrival. After all, the three-island archipelago isn’t one of the only COVID-free countries in the world for nothing.

I cannot think of a better COVID-pivot than to turn a mandatory safety measure into an epicurean retreat.

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