Saturday, 13 July 2013

Steve & Vic went to the Caribbean, Part 3: Best of IBM

Best of IBM is a wonderful elite event celebrating the top 500 performing IBM employees world wide, across all business units. This year the reward for those top employees and their partners was an all expenses paid trip to the Cayman Islands. IBM had the Ritz-Carlton at Seven Mile Beach (the fanciest resort on Grand Cayman) booked out for 1 week and the honorees split into 2 groups called wave 1 and wave 2, each wave stayed for 3 nights / 4 days and were wowed with wonderful food, drink, activities and entertainment. We were there for wave 2. To fly to the Cayman Islands we flew Auckland - San Francisco, California; then San Francisco - Houston, Texas; Houston - Grand Cayman.

Day 1 - we landed at George Town, Grand Cayman, the airport is tiny and reminded me of Langkawi, Malaysia both the wave of humidity and heat that hit us as we stepped out of the plane and the setting, coconut palms, flowering trees and airport staff casually standing around watching us traipse off the plane.
We were greeted and ushered into buses - most of our flight was heading to the Ritz-Carlton as well. On arrival we were offered drinks and escorted to our room by a greeter, it was a 10 minute walk so she got to point out loads of stuff on the way. We were wow'd by our room, it was awesome! after we settled in for a bit we headed down to the reception hall to check in with the event, get our name tags and goodies - a cool beach bag, underwater camera, sun block, after sun gel, chapsticks and various chocolate goodies to name a few.
Our first meal event was a pool side buffet dinner and welcome function where we commenced what I will call our week of small-talk and enjoyed our first taste of Caybrew the local beer and my first pretty drink - the event cocktail. It was hot and we didn't know anyone but met a lovely German couple, some Australians and joined a very cosmopolitan table from India, the Philippine's, the USA and a Canadian.
This was also the start of our 2 weeks of excessive food. Yum, yum, yum.

yummy lunch
Gluten Free food - this is meant to be my gluten free blog and the food is well worth a mention. The Ritz-Carlton did a wonderful job of labelling everything food and drinks. Every meal I had a load of options to select from that were gluten free, usually 1 dessert as well. Breakfast was great with fruit and eggs - the other meals lacked leafy greens, everything was delicious but I was craving salad and beans by the time we left - there was a GF fish dish every lunch and dinner which I loved.
To the left is my lunch day 2. Breakfast and Lunch were served in a giant marque with air conditioning and tens of wait staff.

Day 2 - After a leisurely breakfast we attended the first of two "business sessions" these were held in a large conference style room, also used for wedding receptions, beautifully decorated. These business sessions were 2 hours long were more of a show than a business session, full of music and action packed, they were filmed by giant cameras and if (like me) you watched the show there were tens of staff directing, producing, securing and filming the event.
At this first business session we were treated to a local Cayman calypso band,  an inspirational speech by Daria Musk - a singer who is an internet sensation, who not only told us her story but gave a performance with her Google Plus Hangout group all connected to the event in real time.
We also had a keynote from Alastair Fothergill, Executive Producer for the BBC Planet series - the ones narrated by David Attenborough - Frozen Planet, Blue Planet, Planet Earth, Life in the Freezer and Nature. He told us about a few of the many challenges his team faced filming these shows - enormous challenges with fascinating stories behind them.
the camera operators
After the business session we finally got to explore the resort and discovered where to buy coffee with our new Australian friends, bought and sent some postcards (that arrived post our arriving home) and went for our first swim. Our chosen activity was postponed due to wind so we got a whole afternoon on the beach and in the wonderfully warm water.
Our dinner Day 2 was at a local restaurant, we had to select the restaurant months beforehand and think we chose well with Hemmingways. Our table was on their deck beachside, I had local lobster - stronger than crayfish in flavour - and we enjoyed a yummy Californian Rose.
Our assigned Ritz-Carlton staff member for dinner was Soren from Transylvania, he was a wealth of information about both his hime town and the Caymans, and how he was selected for the Ritz-Carlton. After our taxi returned us to the resort we watched what became our new holiday hobby - NBA finals series, Heat vs Spurs - in the main bar with cocktails. Yum.
Steve Martin

Day 3 - the biggest day by far with a business session, swimming and snorkelling and a ball. The morning business session this time had a different local band, followed by Ginni Rometty, Chairman and CEO of IBM, 13th most powerful woman in the world. Ginni's speech was awesome and a direct contrast to most of her direct reports who used their 10 minute slot to push a corporate message (boring for the partners) and read auto-ques. Sadly we didn't get to meet her in person, she flew out immediately after her slot.
Ginni got Daria back on stage for an encore performance before introducing the  big surprise, Steve Martin. His routine is a standup / blue grass gig, his band were incredibly talented and the butt of his jokes. They played for about an hour and really were a treat.
Swimming with Stingrays - another benefit of the Best of IBM was to select an activity - we chose swimming with stingrays which turned out to be a 3+ hour catamaran sail out to a natural sand bar where the Caribbean stingrays hang out followed by sailing out to a reef and snorkelling. Our guides were awesome and told us the stingrays felt like a wet portobello mushroom which turned out to be quite accurate. Ours was one of many cat's out at the reef where over 100 stingrays reside. The guide companies name them and feed them and encourage them to be "people" friendly. I was amazed at how strong the large males were as they pushed against our legs. I was kinda freaked by the whole thing but Steve seemed to enjoy himself a lot more.  We are yet to get our photos developed.
Snorkelling - one of our primary goals of the trip was to snorkel as much as possible. The water as described in our last post was warm, buoyant and clear. What surprised us was the coral - it was colourless, nothing like Great Barrier at all. The fish were colourful and abundant, my snorkelling buddy (Steve) was painful, kept following fish and swimming away out of my sight. It was still windy out there so I found 30 minutes was exhausting in the waves but so pleased we went and equally pleased we took our own snorkelling gear over.
bbq's at the beach, lobster yum
The Ball - if everything else hadn't been amazing enough the ball was the icing on the cake. It was amazing, no expense spared, an awesome night of entertainment, wonderful food and fabulous wine - topped off with a fireworks display to rival the Wellington ones at guy fawkes. Held out on the beach we shed our shoes - so women like me walked around with their full length dresses hitched up. The sand is so soft it didn't matter. There was an LA covers band who had a hundred or more people up dancing to their 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s music. We sat with a group of new people more Australians, a Swedish couple and an English woman. The food was divine and watching the many bbq's cook the steak and lobster was cool too. Since we're not into choreographed dancing to Thriller we took a wander and discovered the entertainment included two local astronomers who enabled us to see Saturn through their highly powered telescopes - very cool! By midnight we felt like pumpkins exhausted from our day so took our wines up to our balcony and watched the night continue until the humidity got to us and forced us into the air conditioning in our lovely room.
the 3 kiwi's in our glad rags
some idea of the crowd
Day 4 and final thoughts - day 4 was pack down day for the IBM event, breakfast in the marquee and goodbyes. There was one other kiwi at the event, Yvonne, who works for the event management part of IBM so had been there all week and was staying in an apartment in the residences part of the hotel. We borrowed her laundry facilities to wash all of our clothes, her apartment was huge with a full kitchen and we sat out on the garden patio in the loungers reading our books while our washing finished which made a nice change.
Final thoughts wise, it was a wonderful holiday. We didn't "do" everything, there was a wall with Steve's name on it as an honouree where he could have been photographed beside, there were interviews we could have participated in, we could have been uploading our photos to the app and there were other meet and greet opportunities - but this week of small talk was tiring enough. In essence we enjoyed the IBM hospitality in a fantastic location with wonderful food and drink and used the rest of our time as though we were on a holiday alone.
We spent the rest of our final day in the water and sunbathing, we ordered nachos and cocktails to our beach chairs and enjoyed the wonderful service there before relocating to the bar when it rained (tropical rain) for about 2 minutes. That evening we ate out on another courtyard at the resort and enjoyed sitting outside for dinner again. It really is a special and spectacular location the Ritz-Carlton, we loved it there and really appreciate how spoiled we were by the event.

Next chapter is all about our cruise experience. We left Grand Cayman at 7am on day 5 and flew to San Juan via Miami to join our cruise, an adventure in itself. Below are some photos from that trip including the Bahamas as we flew over them from the plane. Beautiful.

Bahamas from the air
Miami Dade Airport stopover

Caribbean Sea from the air

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