So, when I saw that the Cayman Cookout was offering a trip to Cayman Brac on a Dassault Falcon 7X jet, owned by none other than Terry Peabody, founder of Craggy Range Vineyards, it was time to smash the piggy bank. He and celebrity chef Eric Ripert would accompany 12 lucky guests on a sojourn to Cayman Brac. There, we would feast upon culinary delights created by the staff at Le Soleil D’Or, paired with Craggy Range wines, followed by a return flight home.
When I saw that the Cayman Cookout was offering a trip to Cayman Brac on a Dassault Falcon 7X jet, owned by none other than Terry Peabody, founder of Craggy Range Vineyards, it was time to smash the piggy bank.
Le Soleil D’Or is a boutique upscale property on the sister island, recently recognized by Condé Nast Traveler as a top resort in the Caribbean. It has won rave reviews for its farm-to-table dining.
After handing over ready money for two tickets for me and my friend, Lynne Firth, I spent the next four months leading up to the event second-guessing my decision. One of the bathrooms in my house needed a significant overhaul, and the dentist and I were scheduled to become seriously reacquainted in 2017. What kind of impulsive idiot had I been, possibly choosing private jet travel over a gleaming set of chompers?
Let’s fly away
On the morning of Jan. 12, I woke up with a great sense of anticipation. What would I wear? What do jetsetters look like? Were my teeth worthy of such bounty?
Rather than drive directly to the Island Air airfield, we opted to go to The Ritz-Carlton and leave our car there so we could be transported with the other guests. I was going to milk this for all it was worth.
Everyone took a seat in the hotel lobby lounge, waiting for the good word. At 10:30 a.m. the announcement came. Time to head to the airport.
There was a line of gleaming Audi sedans and SUVs waiting to take us. I immediately began to feel like a VIP. The convoy set off for Island Air – we were on our way!
When you ready yourself to fly by private jet for the first time, you realize that it is not just about appreciating your sleek method of travel; the additional perks aren’t bad either. That jostling, elbowing, rising anger you feel as you negotiate commercial airports is very pleasantly absent. It is an altogether civilized experience, almost spa-like in comparison. There were no security lines, no removal of shoes and no relinquishing that two-liter bottle of mouthwash you forgot to pack in your checked-in luggage. It was a ziplock-free zone. The pilot simply made a quick announcement, and then we headed out across the tarmac, dwarfed by a sea of parked jets.
The interior was all I’d imagined and more: luxurious light brown leather seats with wood paneling in an expansive cabin that didn’t require anyone to crouch down as they entered it. It was completely unlike entering a passageway in an Egyptian pyramid.
Lynne had already made her way to the back of the plane. Good friend that I am, I promptly forgot she existed and plopped myself down in one of the front seats. When Eric Ripert took the seat opposite me, I knew I’d hit the jackpot. Chef Ripert before me, Terry Peabody to the right of me. Lynne? Lynne, who?
While I reveled in my surroundings, the copilot came out to give us the safety briefing; then it was finally time to go.
We made our way up the runway, turned around and roared along the black top with a power I had never previously experienced. We felt every ounce of the jet’s three engines’ potential in those seconds, as one minute we were on the ground, and the next we were soaring into the sky.
Heading to Cayman Brac
As the crow (or Falcon) flies, Cayman Brac’s Gerrard Smith International Airport would ordinarily be a 20-minute hop in such a plane, but in order to give the passengers a real taste of the experience, the pilot chose to take the long way there, heading towards Cuba for a while before dipping south again towards the sister island.
The LED screens that were keeping us informed of our location and time to destination changed their program to run a short video, covering the history of Craggy Range Vineyards. It spoke of how American Terry Peabody and his wife made a commitment in the early ’90s to create a family legacy that would continue for generations. Their love of fine wine took them on a journey to countries around the globe before they finally found some untouched land in New Zealand that had great potential. The rest, as they say, is history.
The lady to my 2 o’clock, a bubbly personality by the name of Tricia Cohen, was regaling Chef Ripert and Terry with stories of her past culinary expeditions. She and her husband had traveled to the far corners of Europe to sample strange and wonderful dishes. They had not shied away from the pig’s brains of this world.
Determined to contribute to the conversation, I waited for my moment and blurted out, “I went to Iceland last year. Has anyone here tried fermented shark?” Everyone visibly winced, followed by Terry stating that he had heard it “smells terrible.” Contribution accomplished.
The jet turned towards Cayman Brac and five minutes later, we were landing on the only one of the three Cayman Islands with any elevation to speak of. The “bluff” that runs down the center of the island culminates in a 140-foot craggy peak at the east end of the island.
As we alighted, there were photographers there to greet us. They took pictures as we were swiftly escorted to a waiting air-conditioned coach.
Angel Robledo, mixologist at Le Soleil D’Or and winner of the Cayman Culinary Society’s 2016 Bartender of the Year award, welcomed everyone to Cayman Brac. Once we had taken our seats, we were whisked away to our first stop – a quick look at Le Soleil D’Or’s waterfront property: Beach Soleil.
Le Soleil D’Or
The great thing about Cayman Brac is that nowhere is very far from anywhere else. In mere minutes, we were pulling up to a bar and pool area with a view of the sparkling sea. Angel brought us to the bar, said a few words, and then we were all to go back to the coach. A few savvy guests managed to grab the cocktail being proffered by staff members. Not only did Lynne and I not reach for one, but in my efforts to take a picture of a server with a tray of drinks, I threw her off balance and a beverage went flying to the floor. Ah, the Wheaton magic continues.
When the door closed on the coach, Chef Ripert offered me a sip of his drink. How could I resist? Guess that fermented shark conversation, brief as it was, hadn’t caused permanent damage to our budding friendship.
The drink was delicious. It also occurred to me that we were all dreadfully keen to get a cocktail down our throats at 11 o’clock in the morning.
The next stop was the resort’s organic Farm Soleil atop the bluff. I had heard about the farm, yet it was significantly larger than I had expected. For some reason, I had visions of a small plot that one or two people could tend; a herb here, a pepper there. No gardener am I.
In reality, it covered an expansive piece of land – about 20 acres – producing all kinds of fresh vegetables, fruits and seasonings. Again, a drink was awaiting each one of us, and this time we did not miss our chance. We scooped up a Spicy Farm – a heady mix of starfruit-infused rum, kale, wild cherry, ginger, cayenne pepper, cloves and honey. Who needed coffee when a drink like this, with just a slight kick from the cayenne pepper, was on the menu? Angel uses fresh ingredients in her drinks which makes them burst with flavor. I could get used to this.
A quick tour of the farm later, Angel invited us to make our way down the steps to the restaurant. As she moonlights as a rock climber, I should have known that what might be a simple saunter downstairs for her would be a workout for me. The “steps” were cut out of the wall of the bluff with hand rails to guide us down. It was a natural, organic way to create a staircase and was visually delightful. I was just wearing the wrong shoes for the job. As the song might have gone, these boots weren’t made for walkin’.
Other ladies had sensibly chosen flat sandals for the occasion and were flying down with not a care in the world, but I had to make a statement. I held up those behind me as I carefully descended. Note to self: practical footwear is always a good idea.
Lunch is served
We reached the restaurant at ground level, and as we walked into the parlor outside the kitchen, a spread of oysters, breads, bottles of wine and other delectable comestibles awaited us.
In the center of the dining room I espied a round table, heavy with charcuterie platters including pork rillette, country pâté, smoked garlic sausage and homemade mozzarella cheese alongside a large disc of smoked salmon that had my name on it. We were in for a feast.
Joining our party were some guests of the resort and those interested in sharing a lunch with Eric Ripert and Terry Peabody. A group took a tour of the kitchen, courtesy of Chef Pascal Beric, while others picked up their second glass of Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc.
After my glass of wine and a few oysters topped with caviar, I made a beeline for Angel’s table of hand-labeled bottles. She appeared to be a one-woman apothecary, having created liqueurs and mixers from scratch, courtesy of Farm Soleil.
“Try my homemade ginger beer,” she said, offering me a glass. It was fantastic. I love ginger beer, and this was arguably the best I had ever tasted. Just to be sure it wasn’t a fluke, I tried a sample of her sorrel ginger beer as well. Nope; not a fluke. The lady is an alchemist.
After that, I had to order one of the signature cocktails on the list – the Mezcal Mule. Simply constructed with Mezcal, the homemade ginger beer and lime, served ice cold in a copper mug, I could tell it would cure whatever ailed me.
Everyone was called to lunch. Terry and Chef Ripert held court on what resembled the head table at a wedding, while we, the bridesmaids, took seats at a six-top close by. Diners were encouraged to help themselves to the bounty on the center table as more wine was poured. The 2012 Craggy Range Chardonnay from the Kidnapper’s Vineyard, Hawke’s Bay; 2013 Craggy Range Pinot Noir from the Te Muna Road vineyard in Martinborough; and the “Aroha” Pinot Noir and “Sophia” Merlot Cabernet from the Te Muna Road and Gimblett Gravels vineyards, respectively, were ours for the asking. This lunch was a wine lover’s dream.
I started chatting with Sandra Becker seated to my right and discovered that she worked for Indagare Travel, Inc., an elite travel agency that created bespoke itineraries for people the likes of whom probably had bumper stickers on their Ferrari informing drivers behind them that their “other car is a private jet.”
Sandra had worked in media sales for Gourmet and Wine Spectator magazine. She ordered wine with a confidence I could only hope to emulate.
She and the company’s editor, Amelia Osborne Scott, who was also at our table, had the tiresome job of traveling the world in style to discover new resorts and unique experiences to subsequently offer Indagare’s clients. Man, what a gig.
“This trip couldn’t have come at a better time,” Sandra confided. “We’ve been having snowstorms in New York … I was Vitamin D-depleted.”
Our next course was table-served – lamb merguez sausage, jambon blanc and maple glazed bacon with pommes paille and tomato confit with herbs and grilled romaine salad. I had to come back to this place, even if I had to (gasp) fly commercial!
For those who had space, the dessert buffet was calling. I made a respectable effort of eating a macaron, mixed berry tart and cannoli. After all, one must leave the gun and take the cannoli.
Earlier in the lunch, Chef Ripert said a few words, praising the staff and Chef Beric at Le Soleil D’Or, which were greeted with a “hear, hear!” from his audience. Terry spoke briefly about his wines, and Janet Pouchot, Americas Business Manager for Craggy Range, went into greater depth about the company and its vineyards.
The coach took us back to the airport with only a brief stop so Chef Ripert could jump out and take a quick picture of an Iguana Crossing sign.
We got back on the plane and this time there would be no drawn-out route to take. We were heading directly to Grand Cayman and don’t spare the horses!
In those final 15 minutes, I wanted to drink in the last spoonfuls of the experience.
I chatted with Terry about his jet and the fact that this was the first time such an option had been available on the Cayman Cookout schedule.
Turns out that the Falcon 7X jet is about as long range a private jet as one would want. Terry and his wife have taken it everywhere, logging “about 400 hours a year” traveling from one city to the next. The journey from New Zealand to Grand Cayman had them stopping in multiple exotic locales; a milk run of the best kind.
The rear of the plane, which on the day we traveled featured two bench seats that could comfortably accommodate six passengers, while designed to convert to a king-sized bed. Who would have thought that first-class cabin seats could suddenly seem so very “last season”?
Terry was clearly impressed with the Cayman Cookout, saying, “The Cookout has become world famous. It’s inspirational, what you achieve and do here.”
We descended out of the clear blue, on a perfect day, to approach the Owen Roberts International Airport runway. At least those Audis would be there to take us back – we could hang on to our VIP status a little longer.
I may have lingered on those steps from the plane to the tarmac just for a moment. Would I ever have an opportunity like this again? This jet was one that even many private jet owners dreamed of having.
We waved goodbye to our host and made our way to the cars. By the time we were pulling up to The Ritz-Carlton, I resolved to return to Le Soleil D’Or, visit New Zealand and buy my own private jet. It may have been the Mezcal Mule talking, but a gal’s got to have her bucket list.