By Mike DuBose, Debra DuBose, and Blake DuBose
Grand Cayman Island contains serene, relaxing beaches, with beautiful, crystal-clear water mimicking our favorite travel destination, Hawaii…but without the jet lag! Located south of Florida (and Cuba) in the Caribbean Sea, the Cayman Islands are just a short two-hour flight away from Atlanta, Georgia. Grand Cayman even operates on Eastern Standard Time, so there is no time difference at all between there and our home city of Columbia, SC!
The Cayman Islands are a territory of the United Kingdom, consisting of three islands: Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Little Cayman. Grand Cayman is the largest, both in terms of population and size, and it has about 50,000 permanent residents. George Town, the capital of the island group, is located in Grand Cayman, making it the economic and governmental center as well. Due to these factors, Grand Cayman is home to the most hotels, restaurants, and things to do out of the three islands, and it’s the most attractive to vacationers looking for fun and sun in a tropical climate! In addition to our recommendations, we also suggest going to www.visitgrandcayman.com and www.TripAdvisor.com to find more information on other Grand Cayman attractions.
Over two million people visit the Cayman Islands each year. Some stay in resorts, vacation rentals, or hotels; others just stop by while on a cruise. Of those who stay on the island, most arrive through Owen Roberts International Airport (airport abbreviation “GCM”), which is located in George Town on Grand Cayman.
You can also reach Grand Cayman by boat. Some very wealthy people charter yachts, but a more common way of reaching Grand Cayman is by cruise ships (several arrive each day in the early morning and depart around 5:00 PM). They typically dock at the port in George Town. We recommend planning a longer stay, however: you fail to see the full beauty of the islands on just a short, one-day day excursion!
When entering the Cayman Islands, you will need a valid passport, as they are a British territory, not part of the United States. When we visited, Customs moved quickly, and we were headed to our taxi in less than 30 minutes.
We stayed at the Marriott Beach Resort for a week and thoroughly enjoyed it. This resort is located on Grand Cayman’s famous Seven Mile Beach and is about a 15-minute, $20 taxi ride from the airport. We decided against renting a car because drivers use the opposite lanes from America, and locals told us that there were frequent automobile wrecks. Apart from transportation arranged by our tour guide, we used taxis and found them to be very reliable.
The official currency of the Cayman Islands is the Caymanian dollar, represented by the symbol “KYD.” However, all three islands accept US dollars (USD) as well. As of August 2017, the Caymanian dollar was worth about $1.22 American dollars. Because of this difference, you’ll want to pay attention to which currency is being used on menus, advertisements, and price tags. Noted travel guide company Frommer’s warns, “Be alert about which currency is being quoted at any given time. Hotels tend to quote their rates in U.S. dollars, while restaurants, nightclubs, and gift shops often quote their prices in Cayman Islands dollars.” Restaurants will also often add a 16% tip to your bill without asking, so be alert when dining out.
Frommer’s noted that the Cayman Islands are not the best option for travelers who are on a budget, cautioning, “Brace yourself for the high prices that resorts charge.” Steeper food, beverage, and lodging prices are due to a roughly 20% higher cost of living than in the United States. In fact, locals told us that a 1,600-square foot home there runs about $300,000 to $400,000! However, you may be able to save some money by traveling during the “off” season (mid-April to mid-December) rather than the “high” season (the remainder of the year, from mid-December to mid-April).
Crime is low in the Cayman Islands, and we felt safe the entire time. Guns are forbidden on the island, and locals told us that they rarely lock their doors. However, as in any situation where you will be in a tourist area, you should keep an eye on your belongings and follow general tips to minimize the likelihood of theft, such as storing your wallet somewhere other than your back pocket and leaving your valuables at home. When traveling to any international location, Grand Cayman included, it’s a smart idea to make a copy of your passport and keep it in a separate location in case your passport is lost or stolen. (See this blog for more tips on visiting international locations.)
Where to Stay
The vast majority of hotels and resorts on Grand Cayman are located in or near Seven Mile Beach, one of the island’s most popular tourist areas. Accommodations run the gamut from familiar chains like Marriott to boutique hotels to upscale resorts like the Ritz-Carlton. Most hotels have an American telephone number that you can dial to reach them from the US. Another option is using Airbnb, which is a worldwide rental agency for homes and apartments. Download the app to get the best rates.
For our stay on Grand Cayman, we selected the Marriott, which was less expensive and actually had higher TripAdvisor.com reviewer ratings than the Ritz-Carlton. While you’re there, though, it’s still worth a trip to the Ritz to see its beauty and luxury. It even has a 19,000-square foot penthouse with a private elevator!
Things to Do
Go to the beach: Many travelers come to the Cayman Islands to enjoy the warm weather of its tropical marine climate. Grand Cayman’s most famous beach is Seven Mile Beach, a crescent-shaped beach public beach that is often called one of the Caribbean’s most beautiful. Actually only 5.5 miles long, despite what its name may imply, this strip of white sand is located on the west side of the island. Within Seven Mile Beach, there are several smaller areas: West Bay Public Beach, which offers bathrooms and shaded beach cabanas; Cemetery Beach, a popular snorkeling area toward the north end of Seven Mile Beach; Public Beach, which features restrooms, showers, cabanas, and a children’s play area; and Governor's Beach, with a reef just a short swim from the shore that is known as one of the island’s top snorkeling spots.
Another popular Grand Cayman beach is Rum Point, a privately-owned, beautiful white sand beach on the north side of the island (about a 45-minute drive from George Town on the way to other tourist spots). This family-friendly beach has chairs, tiki hut bars, hammocks, small open-air restaurants, and some shade available, and it is a popular place for snorkeling and water sports. Food and drink are available for sale (outside food and drink are not allowed, however, since the spot is privately owned).
Some TripAdvisor.com reviewers loved Rum Point, but others said that the atmosphere had declined after it became a daily stop for cruise lines, so it’s probably not the best place for visitors who desire seclusion. However, this area is simply gorgeous, and we believe it’s worth the drive to see! Another recommended site to is Starfish Point. Go in the afternoon after the cruise ships passengers have left.
Shop, swim, and sip in George Town: The Cayman Islands’ capital is located on the west side of Grand Cayman, and nearly 600 banking and trust companies operate out of the area! There is a lot of money flowing through George Town, which is evident in its upscale stores like Tiffany and Versace, as well as more budget-friendly options. Many patrons are brought in by cruise ships that stop in the busy George Town Harbor. We found some good deals around 5:00 PM when the markets were closing and cruise visitors were headed back to their ships. Note that most stores are closed on Sunday.
Visitors who don’t enjoy shopping can take submarine tours of the harbor or glass-bottom boat tours; go snorkeling (the water is see-through, and many types of marine life are easily visible), scuba-diving, or parasailing; charter a boat tour; or visit local rum distilleries. George Town is also a center for nightlife, with many bars offering tropical cocktails to visitors and locals alike. There is even a branch of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville there!
See marine life up close at Stingray City: This attraction in Grand Cayman’s North Sound area allows visitors to swim with friendly southern stingrays (not the same type of stingray that killed actor Steve Irwin). The area consists of a string of sandbars where the water is shallow, ranging from about three feet deep to chest-high on an adult. In the past, fishermen often threw away the remnants left from cleaning fish in this area before heading to port. Stingrays were drawn to the food, and eventually came to recognize and swim toward the sounds of boats.
On our visit, we charted a private fishing tour, and the captain took us to Stingray City after most tourists had left. Mike watched in wonder as Blake and the ship’s first mate picked up and petted about twenty different stingrays! The captain of our vessel had even named some of the rays and could recognize them by their features.
There are several different companies offering excursions to Stingray City (which is located off part of Seven Mile Beach), but the format is generally the same: the tour employees will give a safety demonstration to visitors explaining how to properly interact with the stingrays; they will take participants out to the sandbars; and they will put some squid meat in the water to attract the stingrays, who are not afraid of humans and can be fed and touched. Some companies offer packages including the Stingray City experience as well as a tour of Cayman Turtle Farm, and/or a snorkeling excursion to see starfish and a coral “garden” (rates and package descriptions for one such operator are available at https://www.stingraycitycaymanislands.com). This is a very popular activity (ranked #1 on TripAdvisor.com, in fact), so if you plan to go, book your tickets in advance!
Take a sunset cruise on a catamaran: We booked a cruise outside of the Marriott to see a beautiful sunset and the shoreline. Before reserving, be sure to inquire about the size of the boat you will be taking. Make sure that it has an adequate sitting area!
Go deep-sea fishing: UnlikemostAmerican coasts,where you must travel two or more hours out in a boat to go deep-sea fishing, you can fish less than a mile offshore in the deep waters around Grand Cayman. We charted a private fishing boat from Cayman Offshore Adventures. The customer-driven owner, Captain Jacob McTaggart, was excellent and his crew was very knowledgeable and friendly! Mike caught a barracuda (which we threw back in, but the teeth on that fish were something to behold!), and Blake reeled in a 40-pound wahoo.
After we finished fishing for the day, the captain cleaned our catch and we gave half of it to him and his first mate. We took the remainder to the Marriott, where the chef cooked the fish to our liking for $25. It was a very tasty treat!
If you plan to go deep sea fishing, be sure to take over-the-counter Dramamine the previous night and the morning before going out. This will help fight any nausea caused by the rocking motion of the boat. If your motion sickness is severe, your physician can prescribe a more potent medication called scopolamine, which you apply as a patch to your skin.
Touch a turtle at Cayman Turtle Farm: As US News and World Report notes, “Christopher Columbus found so many turtles on the Cayman Islands that he named the area Las Tortugas.” However, Columbus’s visit was in 1503, before the islands saw increased human presence from fishermen and settlers. Over time, the once-bountiful turtles of the Cayman Islands eventually became so overfished that they were designated an endangered species.
One of the goals of Cayman Turtle Farm is to bring back the turtle population through breeding programs (in fact, they were the first facility ever to breed the Kemp’s Ridley turtle in captivity). The farm produces more than 1800 green sea turtles per year, some of which are released into the wild. Others are sold for meat, with the goal of encouraging humans not to catch and eat wild sea turtles. Visitors to the 23-acre farm, also called “Cayman Turtle Center,” can view the Green’s Breeding Pond, where turtles nest and lay eggs; hold yearling turtles in “touch tanks;” view predators like sharks and barracudas; and swim with young sea turtles in Turtle Lagoon. The center is home to a 500-pound, 9-foot-long saltwater crocodile named Smiley that does tricks for food (it is a hybrid of two species that is unable to be released into the wild). The site also features an aviary with tropical birds, a swimming pool, and a water park. See www.turtle.ky for options and rates.
Stop and smell the flowers at Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park:This nonprofit park, which is owned jointly by the government of the Cayman Islands and National Trust for the Cayman Islands, can be found on the North Side of Grand Cayman. Upon entering, visitors first see the Visitors Centre, where they can obtain information about the park. Next to the Visitors Centre is the Heritage Garden, which features plants historically grown on the island, as well as a restored early-1900s three-room Caymanian cottage where a family of 11 people once lived! There are also a wide variety of plants and flowers on display, including orchids, cacti, and succulents.
Two of the most intriguing features of the park are the Floral Colour Garden and the Blue Iguana Habitat. The Floral Colour Garden covers 2.5 acres, and visitors can move through a rainbow of colors, with pink, red, orange, yellow, white, silver, blue, mauve, and purple gardens filled with flowers in corresponding shades. Forty Grand Cayman Blue Iguanas (an endangered species) also live at the site, bred as part of a joint conservation effort between the Milwaukee Zoo and the affiliated Foundation for Wildlife Conservation. Check out the Blue Iguana Habitat on sunny days between 8:30 and 10:30 AM for the best chances of seeing a rare adult male blue iguana! Photos and additional details about the park can be found at www.botanic-park.ky.
Relive history at Pedro St. James National Historic Site: Pedro St. James (sometimes called “Pedro St. James Castle”) is the name of a three-story plantation house located on the southern side of Grand Cayman. Built for Englishman William Eden in 1780, it has stood the test of time as the Cayman Islands’ oldest existing building—no wonder, when you hear that its stone walls are 18 inches thick! Today, it is a popular venue for weddings and parties, as well as a historical monument with a visitors’ center, theater, artifact exhibits, a gift shop, and a café featuring local cuisine. See http://pedrostjames.ky/ for more details.
Experience Caymanian culture at the Cayman Islands National Museum: In the oldest public building in the Cayman Islands, located in George Town (across from the harbor), lies the Cayman Islands National Museum. It features both permanent exhibits (a Natural History Gallery and a Cultural History Gallery) and a “changing collection,” which varies in topic depending on the time of your visit. More information on the museum is available at http://www.museum.ky.
Walk the Mastic Trail: Running north to south through the center of Grand Cayman is a 2-mile-long trail managed by the National Trust for the Cayman Islands. It is located in the Mastic Reserve, the largest contiguous native dry forest on the island, so named for the yellow and black mastic trees that grow along the trail. Hiking along the trail, visitors may catch glimpses of colorful parrots, butterflies, lizards, and frogs. Check https://nationaltrust.org.ky/our-work/environmental/mastic-trail/ for reservation information.
Look for treasure in the Cayman Crystal Caves: Legend says that the Cayman Crystal Caves were once used by pirates as hideaways, and that there may be riches buried inside! Although you’re unlikely to actually find their hoards on a visit, if you go see these caves, which are located in a tropical forest on Grand Cayman’s North Side, you will see stalactites and stalagmites. These fascinating rock features were formed over millions of years as water dripped through the limestone ceiling. Reservations are required and can be made at https://caymancrystalcaves.com.
Send your friends a postcard from “Hell:” There’s some debate over what led the unique landscape in part of West Bay to be nicknamed “Hell,” but many people think that a minister once proclaimed that Hell must look just like it! The jagged black rock formations that make up this area were formed over 24 million years by salt and lime, and they cast a spooky feeling across an area roughly half the size of a football field. Visitors cannot walk on the formations, but viewing platforms have been set up nearby to look out over them.
Next to the formation, the mood is more jovial. Kitschy shops selling souvenirs have sprung up nearby, capitalizing on the area’s name and status as a tourist attraction. There is even a little red post office where visitors can send a postcard “from Hell!” It’s a very unique stop, but TripAdvisor.com reviewers said there’s not a lot to do there, so don’t expect to stay more than 20 minutes or so.
Where to Eat
Grand Cayman is known as the culinary capital of the Caribbean, with 200 world-class restaurants and wine bars. The following were the top-ranked Grand Cayman restaurants on TripAdvisor.com, based on reviews from thousands of visitors to the island:
We ate at Calypso, which was excellent. Another favorite of ours was the famous Mrs. Vintner’s private home (located in a rural area near our hotel), where she served a variety of good, home-cooked Caribbean meals for about $10-$15 per person. We also enjoyed eating at the Lobster Pot. If you go, be sure to ask for an end table near the dock, which sits over the ocean. The restaurant had the water lit up, and you could see all kinds of stingrays and fish swimming around waiting for someone to throw in some leftovers! The Marriott Veranda Restaurant had excellent food with different buffets nightly. Themes ranged from seafood to barbecue, and the food was great! Our fishing guide told us that most locals like the Camana Bay Restaurant, which has good entertainment on Friday nights. Regardless of your restaurant selections, be sure to make advanced reservations since many book up fast.
The bottom line: With beautiful white beaches and crystal clear water, weather that is warm when it’s cold at home, and plenty of interesting sights to see, Grand Cayman is a great place to visit! Visitors can enjoy fascinating natural wonders, as well as learn more about history and culture. We recommend it to anyone who is looking for relaxation in a beautiful tropical environment!
About the Authors: Together, we have logged more than 2 million flight miles over the world in the last 40 years. Our corporate and personal purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives” by sharing our knowledge, research, experiences, successes, and mistakes. You can e-mail us at [email protected].
Mike DuBose received his graduate degree from the University of South Carolina and is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. He has been in business since 1981 and is the owner of Research Associates, The Evaluation Group, Columbia Conference Center, and DuBose Fitness Center. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for a free copy of his book and additional business, travel, and personal articles, as well as health articles written with Dr. Surb Guram, MD.
Debra DuBose has been married to Mike for since 1971 and co-writes articles with him. She holds bachelors and graduate degrees from Winthrop University and Francis Marion University.
Blake DuBose graduated from Newberry College’s Schools of Business and Psychology and is president of DuBose Web Group (www.duboseweb.com).
Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose family of companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.
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