Crown Colony: Grand Cayman
The Caymans are a British Crown colony, somewhat less formal than Bermuda, but a place where British and tropical island cultures comfortably co-exist, where a visitor can breakfast on ackee cod and green bananas and enjoy a proper English tea in late afternoon.
Swim with the fishes, repel a pirate invasion or go to Hell all these are possible on Grand Cayman–possible, that is, if you can tear yourself away from what people love most on this idyllic island: the turquoise waters, crystal clear and perfect for diving and snorkeling; the white sand beaches warmed by gentle breezes; the sheer beauty of Nature’s wonders.
This largest of the three islands (Little Cayman and Cayman Brac are the others) discovered by Columbus in 1503, Grand Cayman became popular with recreational divers back in the 1960s, thanks to the spectacular underwater gorges and brightly colored walls of live coral.
"Swim with the fishes, repel a pirate invasion or go to Hell all these are possible on Grand Cayman–possible, that is, if you can tear yourself away from what people love most on this idyllic island: the turquoise waters, crystal clear and perfect for diving and snorkeling; the white sand beaches warmed by gentle breezes; the sheer beauty of Nature’s wonders."
General tourism boomed in the 80s and bumped up again after the release of the1993 film, The Firm. . The scenes showing Tom Cruise on Grand Cayman’s splendid Seven-Mile Beach did more to attract visitors than any glossy brochure could. The movie also raised awareness of Grand Cayman’s status as the world’s fifth-largest financial center which is why the island so often shows up in popular novels, with some hero or villain moving large sums of money into offshore bank accounts.
The banking business and the thriving tourist trade account for the island’s air of prosperity (20% of the world’s mega-yachts are registered here), safety and general well-being. The streets of George Town, the capital, are lined with attractive office buildings and shops stocked with everything from the usual souvenirs to luxury items by Cartier to striking examples of fine art.
Grand Cayman has hotels and guesthouses for every budget; the finest properties are located on Seven-Mile Beach. The most luxurious of these is the $400 million, 144-acre Ritz-Carlton (345) 943-9000), which opened in 2004. With so many amenities and features, it fairly dazzles, from the moment of welcome in the stately lobby to the beautifully appointed guestrooms to the stunning 20,000-square-foot La Prairie Spa, the first and only one in the Caribbean. The resort has five restaurants, two by the renowned multi-Michelin-starred Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin. The tennis center was designed by Nick Bollettieri and the golf course, by Greg Norman. Rates for 2008 range widely according to season and accommodation from $249 for a gardenview guest room to $3,850 for a three-bedroom ocean-front suites.
The Westin Casuarina Resort and Spa
The Westin Casuarina Resort and Spa
The Westin Casuarina Resort and Spa (345-945-3800) has just about everything you’d want in a luxury hotel, including an attractive spa, a spacious beach (with a coral reef not far offshore), lots of beach "toys" and equipment, an exceptional Sunday brunch and the chain’s "heavenly beds." An 18-hole golf course is nearby and there is easy access to all of the island’s attractions. Rooms start at around $300 a night.
The Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort (345-949-0088) has had a $15 million makeover and now features 305 large renovated rooms and suites. The La Mer Spa has also been redesigned to include four oversize treatment rooms fitted with personal closets, a nice touch that allows total privacy while changing; a two-bed couples’ suite has a Jacuzzi. To retain more powder-white sand and provide on-site snorkeling, the resort has added reef balls–artificial reefs which are used to restore ailing coral reefs, attract sea life and create new fishing and diving sites. Rates, depending on season, run from $526 for a one-bedroom junior suite to $1,296 for a one-bedroom presidential suite.
For parents or grandparents traveling with children, there is a children’s program like no other called Ambassadors of the Environment and developed by renowned explorer and preservationist, Jean-Michel Cousteau. Youngsters have the opportunity to explore coral reefs and mangrove forests, woodlands and wetlands and to experience the Cayman Islands’ cultural heritage.
As Grand Cayman is considered one of the 10 best dive destinations in the world, and as more than 1,000 different species of animals and plants live on the shoreline, most visitors want to explore the gorgeous waters in some fashion. Certified divers will be delighted by the fact that Grand Cayman has a wall going down to extraordinary depths, with visibility between 100-200 feet.
For non-divers, there is also good news: many of the better reefs and several wrecks are found in water shallow enough to require only a mask, snorkel, and fins. The swimming is easy and the fish are generally friendly. Yet another option is "Snuba," which was invented in Grand Cayman, and which allows a person to snorkel with an oxygen tank and mouthpiece while on the surface of the ocean.
Swimming with the fishes stingrays, actually is a popular activity that draws thousands of visitors a year to Stingray City, the place where the graceful, undulating creatures hang out. Excursion boats provide the transportation, snorkels, masks, fins, lifejackets and a bit of commentary explaining the stingray encounter. The stingrays here are relatively "tame" in that they have become accustomed to the company of humans, which they associate with being fed. Excursion boats always bring along plenty of food; the relationship with humans and stingrays generally ends when the food is gone.
Guides say the rays like being touched; they certainly don’t seem to mind, as long as the touching is confined to "safe" spots like the wings. The top of a stingray feels like wet sandpaper; the bottom (where you should stay away), guides will explain, is like a Portobello mushroom. Though swimming with stingrays looks as if it might be scary, it isn’t, though the water may be a bit rough at times. In the shallows known as The Sandbar, another favorite encounter spot, the water is only a few feet deep and perhaps easier to navigate.
The waters of Grand Cayman can also be explored without donning a mask, without even getting wet on the air-conditioned Atlantis Submarine, which dives to depths between 65 to 100 feet. The 50-minute excursion takes passengers alongside the Cayman Wall, where they can view brightly colored fish and coral, turtles, stingrays and occasionally, a shark.
As Nature has been generous to Grand Cayman on land, as well as in the sea, there is more to admire and enjoy: the Butterfly Farm, a tropical garden teeming with butterflies from around the world; the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, with a 40-acre woodland preserve where almost half of the island’s plants grow (and where some of the rare blue iguanas live); the Mastic Deep Forest Trails, where you’ll see plants and animals not found anywhere else and perhaps pick a mango or guava right off the tree.
The Turtle Farm, now in a new home at Boatswain’s Beach, is one of the island’s top attractions. It’s home to thousands of Green Sea Turtles, also known as "Las Tortugas" or "Buffalo of the Sea." Kids of any age can hold a tiny green turtle, pet a 400-pound hawksbill turtle or watch the enormous adults swimming in the one-million-gallon breeding pond.
The farm also houses a couple of the blue iguana, which are indigenous to Grand Cayman. There are only between 10 and 25 of these magnificent creatures, which are indeed blue-skinned and scarlet-eyed and which may grow as large as five feet long.
(However, you may see some of the 15 larger-than-life artistic representations of the blue dragons scattered around the island, along the Blue Dragon Trail.)
Grand Cayman, like other Caribbean islands, has a long and colorful pirate history. This is best experienced during the annual Pirates Week (11 days, actually) in November, when two old-time ships loaded with brigands (but no Johnny Depp) "invade" George Town and re-live the days when Grand Cayman was a safe harbor for these bad boys. There’s eating and drinking, Heritage Day fireworks and singing and dancing till the wee hours.
When it’s time to let the folks back home know what a great time they’re missing, many visitors head for Hell. Locals might joke that it’s found at the end of the road paved with good intentions, but it’s really a small West Bay village named for a prehistoric plain of dark coral and limestone formations that’s eerie-looking, but not necessarily hellish. At the nearby souvenir shop where "postcards from Hell" are sold, the genial owner wears horns and loves to tell hell-related jokes. Mail your cards during the week, as the Hell post office is closed on Sunday. And if, in the future, someone tells you to go to Hell, say: "Thanks, I hear it’s lovely."
Several airlines service the Caymans; all except Continental require a connection, usually through Miami. The Continental (www.continental.com) direct flight to and from Owen Roberts Airport is available on Saturday; it takes about four hours.