|Scuba diving on the Cayman Islands|
The Cayman Islands (Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac) are among the smallest islands in the Caribbean. Yet what they lack in size, they make up for in beauty, spectacular sea adventure and world-renowned scuba diving.
If you’re not a diver, no worries. There’s still plenty to capture your attention… and, yes, a piece of your wallet. On our recent trip to Grand Cayman (locals pronounce it cayMAN, like “Hey, man!”), we found it easier to just accept the high prices as a reality of traveling to an island largely sustained by imports.
Scuba Diving & Water Sports in the Caymans
Grand Cayman’s scuba diving easily lived up to its reputation. Many certified divers come to dive, and to do nothing else, often choosing to stay at one of several all-inclusive dive resorts. If you plan to dive multiple days, ask about price breaks for diving with the same company. And book your dives in advance, especially during high season. (If you’ve got your own gear, leave your scuba gloves at home as diving with them is illegal in the Caymans, leaving you subject to a hefty fine.)
If you’re thinking about getting certified, forgo the swimming pool training back home and get certified here. Several reputable dive companies with highly experienced divers will help you get certified in 3-5 days. With an average water temperature of 80F (26C), Grand Cayman sure beats most other chilly bodies of water. Full PADI certification costs US$400-$550, which is competitive with US mainland prices. If you’re not sure if diving is for you, you can try a Cayman Island resort-course dive, where a certified instructor takes you through a training session and a guided dive right off shore, which can be far less stressful for a beginner. The general topography of Grand Cayman with reefs, sandbars, and coral beds right off shore make this experience well worth it.
As an advanced diver, I can attest to magic bestowed on Grand Cayman’s crystal clear, underwater world. The highlight was seeing a 200-300lb Goliath Grouper in Tapan Alley along the North Wall. But the real magic was in the typical sea life that boasts hundreds of species, including Hammerheads, sea turtles, sting rays, and barracudas. Check this out for yourself on a two-tank Cayman Islands dive.
|Next stop? Paradise|
The general Cayman pace is slow, and the ‘art of doing nothing’ is a daily pastime. Yet there’s enough action to keep non-divers busy. Since my traveling companion was a non-diver, we were keen on finding activities to meet both of our interests. Conveniently, most dive boats will leave in the morning and have you back in time for lunch, allowing time to experience much more together both above and below sea level.
Surrounded by water, you can hire just about any water activity from shore: wave runners, kayaks, parasailing, water skiing, glass-bottom boat tours and underwater submarine tours. And there seems to be an endless choice of sunset sails and dinner cruises.
Grand Cayman & Georgetown
As the most developed island in the chain, Grand Cayman hosts one to five cruise ships a day off the main town – Georgetown. Here you’ll find a concentration of specialty shops and restaurants — the likes of Hard Rock Café and Senor Frogs — not far from resort hotels. You’ll also find a large number of tourists, so if you’re not one for crowds, we suggest visiting this area on a day when there are two or less ships in port. There’s a convenient website you can check to see what ships are in port to determine the days that should be the least /most crowded.
Adjacent to Georgetown is Grand Cayman’s famous 7-mile beach, where you can relax, soak up the sun and take advantage of several water-sport activities. Be warned: areas in front of hotels can be overcrowded on busy cruise-ship days, so choose your time wisely. If you want to enjoy a bit more seclusion, head away from central Georgetown.
If you’re not staying at a hotel, explore the magic of 7-mile beach by planting yourself at Calico Jacks, which is a restaurant bar near the public beach park with covered picnic tables. Here you get a sweeping view of the 7 miles and can rent beach chairs and water activities.
While a rental car is not necessary since a slew of taxi and tour companies are clamoring for your business, we found having one made it easier to take off on a whim. But be prepared to drive on the left since the Caymans remain a British Crown Colony. It’s also worth noting, Grand Cayman’s limited roads contribute to a daily rush hour, which is only compounded when cruise ships are docked, so midday sojourns are better than early morning or evening.
As you head away from Georgetown, you’ll get a more “local” feel. If you head east you can take the long way around the island where you’ll discover remote beaches as well as more evidence of Hurricane Ivan that devastated the island in 2004. If you keep driving around the East End, you’ll eventually stumble upon Rum Point with a fine white beach and picture-perfect turquoise sea. Rum Point embodies the “fun-in-the-sun” spirit with FREE use of hammocks supported by palm trees and FREE beach chairs (but you’ll be asked not to bring in outside food and beverage since they prefer you purchase from their restaurant). When you order make sure to try the signature Mudslide — but only if you’re really ready for the hammock or the passenger seat.
Head west from Georgetown and you’ll likely end up in West Bay. This is mostly rock and coral seafront but a great place for diving and snorkeling. Divetech Scuba rents both scuba and snorkel gear at Macacuba restaurant so it’s a perfect location to combine fun for the divers and non-divers in your group. And, if you’d prefer not to get in the water to watch sea life, nearby is the popular Turtle Farm (link) where you can feed and touch turtles of all ages. On the way out, stop through Hell (yes, Hell) named for the unique rock formations that take on the appearance of a fiery blaze during sunset.
One “must see” for any visitor is a trip –- or two — to Stingray City. This is a true ocean park where you can frolic and feed some of the ocean’s most spectacular creatures. Far more famous (or infamous) now as the creature that led Steve Irwin to meet his fate, the stingray is actually quite serene. The hundreds or so that call the Stingray City sandbar home are well accustomed to humans – hundreds of them daily. We opted out of a large tour boat and decided on the Stingray City waverunner tour, which combines the power of high speed with the sights of Stingray City and snorkel. We discovered this was more value (standard waverunner rental is US$75/30 minutes; Stingray City tour is US$105) and pleasurable (max of six people as opposed to some tour boats that pack on 125). In fact, we enjoyed this tour so much we went back later in the week for a private two-hour tour that included snorkeling for lobsters and another visit to Rum Point. If you like speed and wave jumping, you’ll get it all here.
Oh, a word of caution — don’t forget your sunscreen and apply it often. The sun is powerful and the frequent water dips can wash away your much-needed layer. Despite our attempts at keeping 30SPF on at all times, we suffered the missed patches and hand prints that made the prolonged sun exposure ridiculously evident.
Earing & Drinking in the Cayman Islands
|Roland’s Gardens – Chef Roland in the Kitchen|
When the day is done and it’s time to refuel, there are scores of great restaurants that will satisfy any appetite with some of the freshest fish –- grouper, mahi mahi, wahoo, sea bass and lobster are popular favorites. As we warned earlier, expect moderate to high prices. For good local Caribbean fare, look for the one of many roadside BBQs, where jerk chicken and ribs can fill you up without emptying your pocketbook. There’s a popular one at the northernmost end of 7-mile beach, where West Bay Road meets Northwest Point Road. Out at Morgan’s Harbor on the West Bay there are a few nice waterfront restaurants, including Calypso Grill and Fisherman’s Reef. We found the farther you get away from Georgetown, the more pleasant the dining atmosphere.
One place where both local and in-the-know travelers revel is Roland’s Garden. Chef Roland, a native German, came to the island in 1983 and has owned several restaurants. In 2003 he opened his gardens and has created an intimate, open-air space that provides for a unique experience. Be warned, a menu is hard to come by because Roland relies on the availability of fresh produce, fish and meats to prepare each meal. It’s his choice although he did accommodate my “no meat” request. The food is consistently great (the couple beside us had been coming on their annual jaunts for years) and Roland’s full-service interaction (he cooks, serves and adds his spicy tongue to the night’s event). The cost? Hard to say – Roland wants you to pay what you think is fair. It seems $45-65 per person was the going rate. It’s also BYOB, so come stocked as there are no nearby stores. Any liquor store on the way out of town can accommodate your tastes.