Visitors can swim with friendly stingrays at Grand Cayman's Stingray City.
It’s just 480 miles south of Miami, but Grand Cayman feels a million miles away. Though best known for palm-fringed beaches with sugar-soft sands, insiders know this British overseas territory is one of the largest financial centers in the world and a synonym for “offshore banking” in thriller novels like “The Firm.” That contrast makes the island a delightful contradiction. You can savor a gourmet meal with crystal and china just as easily as you can enjoy local fare on a picnic bench with paper napkins. Don’t be surprised to see a banker in a three-piece suit munching conch fritters next to visitors in shorts and flowered shirts. Grand Cayman has something for everyone, but with one common theme: relaxation.
DAY 1: Reset your inner clock in George Town, the capital and social hub of Grand Cayman. The Cayman Islands National Museum in the 150-year-old former courthouse (and ex-jail and ex-church) will introduce you to the island and share its seafaring history. (As late as the 1950s, the main export of the Caymans was still listed as “seamen.”) To see colorful homes with bright shutters and bougainvillea, grab a map at the National Trust for the Cayman Islands for a walking tour. Then fortify yourself at Corita’s Copper Kettle , a local brunch mainstay on nearby Edward Street. Try the complex but yummy Corita’s Special, a fritter heaped with ham, cheese, egg and jelly.
Next, it’s time for the beach. Head for nearby Seven Mile Beach (really 5-1/2 miles, but who’s counting?), a stunning and oft-photographed crescent of golden-white sand backed by hotels, condos and restaurants. Named “Best Beach in the Caribbean” by Caribbean Travel & Life magazine, it can be crowded near the resorts or when cruise ships are in port, but there’s always room to sprawl on a blanket, snorkel the gin-clear waters or zip around on a rental jet ski. Best of all, there are no peddlers—it’s illegal here.
Back in George Town, stop by the Tortuga Rum Co. shop to sample the rum cakes, but don’t stock up on extras yet—they’re sold at the airport, too. Next, mosey over to the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands to get information on local artists’ studios and galleries. One that shouldn’t be missed is the Guy Harvey Gallery; it’s easy to see why his fish artwork is coveted worldwide. Not just a great artist, his Guy Harvey’s Island Grill next door has to-die-for lobster bisque. Tuck in for the night at the über- luxe Ritz-Carlton on Seven Mile Beach.
DAY 2: To get around the island, it’s a good idea to rent a car, since public transportation is usually on “island time” and taxis are expensive. Your visit to Grand Cayman would be incomplete if you didn’t venture to Stingray City and Stingray Sandbar. Be sure to get there early to beat the cruise-ship crowds. While diving in 12 feet of water at Stingray City, or snorkeling or standing waist deep at the nearby sandbar, you’ll hand-feed throngs of docile stingrays and pet their velvety backs. When they want food, expect them to rub against your legs like affectionate kittens. To get there, you’ll need to book a tour boat, such as the glass-bottomed ones from Red Sail Sports that depart from nearby Rum Point. When you get back to Rum Point, stake out a hammock hung between casuarinas trees lining a shallow beach that is safe for kids.
The east end of Grand Cayman is uncrowded and pastoral, with meadows and cows rather than cruise ships and tourists. Check out Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, which provides a pleasant stroll through grounds landscaped with flowering trees and plants indigenous to the islands. The park is also a breeding area for the dragon-like blue iguanas being nursed back from near-extinction.
After lunch, if there’s a strong tradewind, head for the southern coastline. Here, eroded holes in sea caves called blowholes create spectacular 15-feet geysers when the surf is rough. Before turning back to George Town, stop at the Lighthouse Restaurant for sugar-dusted beignets and coffee, or linger over risotto and poached lobster … with beignets for dessert, of course.
Unlike many Caribbean islands, Grand Cayman has no casinos, but it does have plenty of bars where you can sit outside and enjoy the sound of the ocean. Best bet? My Bar at Sunset House just south of George Town is the perfect vantage point from which to watch the sunset. Order its famous Mudslide, but sip gently!
DAY 3: Start your day with warm scones or a traditional “bacon bap” (bacon sandwich) from Ye Olde English Bakery, a reminder of Crown colony days. Then head north to Boatswain’s Beach, a 23-acre marine theme park and turtle farm home to more than 14,000 endangered green sea turtles. In the Touch Tank, you can hold the yearling turtles; the full-sized parents, however, are a bit too big for that, weighing as much as 600 pounds. The park also includes a snorkel lagoon, Caribbean bird aviary and shark tank.
Ever wonder how many ways conch can be prepared? Find out at the Cracked Conch on the waterfront of nearby West Bay. Breaded, fried, fritters, chowder … mmmm!
It may come as a surprise in this paradise, but Hell isn’t far away. A jumble of rock formations a mile from Boatswain’s Beach has become a tourist attraction mainly because you can send cards postmarked from Hell. It’s fun for a quick stop. If you’re not waterlogged yet, Cemetery Reef at the north end of Seven Mile Beach provides great snorkeling among fleets of brightly colored parrot fish.
Squeeze in some shopping in George Town, where you can find jewelry made from Caymanite, a local semi-precious gemstone. Just south of George Town is Pure Art Gallery & Gifts, a charming gallery filled with local art and handcrafted gifts. If you know a stamp collector, pick up a few; Cayman postage stamps are avidly collected worldwide.
Tonight, splurge with dinner at Grand Old House on the water. The century-old plantation house is romantic (think twinkle lights on gazebos and live piano music) and features award-winning seafood cuisine. It’s the perfect end to your Cayman adventure.
The former editor of Sea Magazine, Chris Caswell admits to spending a lot more time in the islands than his position as charter editor of Yachting Magazine really requires.
This article has been adapted from the original, which was published by MSP Communications.