Grand Cayman: Dream Big
From world-class diving to luxury shopping, Grand Cayman is a 76-square-mile tropical wonderland with something for everyone.
Grand Cayman is a grand contradiction, a tropical idyll combined with an international banking haven. Even the name itself is somewhat paradoxical; the island is only 22 miles long and eight miles across at its widest point, with the highest natural point reaching only 60 feet above sea level. It’s one of the Western Caribbean’s most popular cruise destinations, thanks to its thriving economy and beautiful natural surroundings. Here, you can sip frozen refreshments next to Gucci-clad bankers crunching numbers and lobster shells; open an offshore bank account and pet a stingray on the same day; and spot a rare blue iguana on the way to Hell and back. It’s a place like no other.
Taxis are available at the tender pier, but George Town, the capital of Grand Cayman, can easily be explored by foot. From the terminals, walk north along Harbour Drive, the city’s colorful waterfront promenade, and plunge into a sea of shops, luxury boutiques, and first-rate restaurants, all clustered within a few-block radius. Caymanians enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean region. A hassle-free ambiance pervades, and there’s not a street vendor in sight.
It’s easy to see how the island got its Brand Cayman nickname. The Cayman Islands is the world’s fifth-largest financial center, and 40 of the top 50 banks hold licenses here. There’s no sales tax and duty-free shopping is plentiful by the port, where savvy shoppers will find crystal, china, perfume, cosmetics, linens, and scores of fine jewelry and watches at terrific prices. The Cayman Craft Market is a great spot to pick up local souvenirs such as handmade wood carvings, Cayman birdhouses, crocheted items, hot sauces, rum cakes, and jams.
While most of Grand Cayman’s attractions are on or around the water, historic George Town is full of quaint colonial buildings, and there are a handful of historically significant sights worth exploring. Town Clock, Heroes Square, and the Parliament Buildings are all located near the tender docks. The Elmslie Memorial United Church, Town Hall, and the Cayman Islands Public Library all bear the structural signature of Captain Ray Brazley Bodden, a prominent local naval architect who designed the roofs to resemble the hulls of inverted ships.
Facing Harbour Drive, the Cayman Islands National Museum operates in one of Cayman’s few remaining 19th-century buildings. Over time, the charming white structure overlooking Hog Sty Bay has served as a town jail, a parliamentary center, a hall for Sunday worship and civic dances, and the first formal courthouse of the Cayman Islands. It now houses a collection of more than 4,000 artifacts ranging from tiny coins to a 14-foot-long catamaran. The museum opens every morning with the trumpet of a conch horn.
The exact origins of the nearby Fort George are unknown, but the remains can be explored at the corner of Harbour Drive and Fort Street. The British built the structure out of local coral rock and limestone as a defense against attacks by Spanish marauders. The base of the oval fort once measured 57 feet by 38 feet, with eight embrasures for cannons along the walls and a mahogany gate facing the landward side. Time took its toll on the fortification, but the remains are now protected by the National Trust for the Cayman Islands.
Grand Cayman’s glorious Seven Mile Beach begins just north of George Town—a short drive from the cruise terminals. It is one of the best stretches of sand in the Caribbean, but the name exaggerates the truth a bit. The beach is actually only five-and-a-half miles long. However, the misnomer is easily forgivable. Placid water in varying translucent shades of aquamarine laps at the dazzling shore, which is graced by tall casuarina trees offering shaded respite from the tropical sun.
The beach hosts an abundance of activities and natural splendors. The calm, shallow waters make it perfect for families; small children can spend the day splashing at the water’s edge. Active adults can choose from a wide array of water sports, including kayaking, parasailing, and jet-skiing, while tranquility-seekers can enjoy a leisurely lunch under the gently swaying palm trees at one of the surrounding resorts or just lounge on the sand.
Yes, Seven Mile Beach is nothing short of heavenly—but it’s only a few miles from Hell. The northern region known as the West Bay is where to find Hell, a spiky rock formation where the darkened shards of limestone and dolomite could be the set of Dante’s Inferno.
At sunset, the light reflecting off water in the natural pools resembles a burning hellfire. Pick up a cheeky postcard at the Devil’s Hangout gift shop and mail it from the local post office, where the postmark reads “Hell, Grand Cayman.”
The northern tip of the West Bay district is a little less developed than its beachy neighbor. The area offers ample opportunities for 4×4 adventures and other active outdoor pursuits. The region also has an abundance of themed attractions, such as Boatswain Beach and the fascinating Cayman Turtle Centre—the only green sea turtle farm of its kind in the world. The turtle is an integral part of the Cayman Island’s culture and history. Depictions of turtles decorate the official flag, seal, and currency. When Christopher Columbus first came upon the islands in 1503, he dubbed the islands Las Tortugas due to the incredible number of turtles in the surrounding waters.
The turtle population dwindled over the centuries, but the numbers are now on the rise thanks to the efforts of the Cayman Turtle Centre. The facility has hundreds of green and hawksbill sea turtles ranging from newly hatched yearlings to giant breeding elders that weigh in at more than 1,600 pounds.
At the nearby Tortuga Rum Cake Factory, guests can watch the baking process and sample a variety of rum cake flavors. This factory produces the majority of the souvenir rum cakes for sale throughout the shopping district in George Town.
In the West Bay area, both Dolphin Cove and Dolphin Discovery invite visitors to frolic with dolphins. However, a different water creature is the highlight of Grand Cayman’s single most well-known attraction: Stingray City. Located in the shallow waters of the northwest corner of the North Sound, Stingray City is a naturally occurring seaquarium set just inside a channel that passes through the island’s surrounding barrier reef. As many as two dozen stingrays gather in the calm, clear waters that are rarely more than four feet deep. Snorkelers and nonswimmers alike can touch and hand-feed gentle Atlantic southern stingrays, which local guides have given punchy names like Martha Ray, Ray Charles, and Sugar Ray.
The North Sound is also the most celebrated of the island’s many snorkel and dive sites. The shallow 35-square-mile reef-protected lagoon provides some of the best underwater conditions in the world. The island is comprised of a porous limestone, so there are no natural rivers or streams draining into the sea. The clear waters make it easy to spot tarpon, glittery silversides, French angelfish, and other swirling schools of fish.
Grand Cayman is recognized as the birthplace of recreational diving in the Caribbean. It’s one of the world’s top destinations for diving, complete with about 250 different sites—from shore and wreck dives to steep, deep dives along walls adorned with coral and sponges. Popular spots include the underwater paradise of Cheeseburger Reef and the Cali and the Balboa shipwrecks.
Non-divers can experience the wonder below the surface by power snorkeling, Snuba diving, or Sea Trek helmet diving. For a completely dry view of the underwater world, try the Atlantis submarine, which descends to depths of 100 feet.
Back on land, the North Sound Club is the only 18-hole championship golf course on the Cayman Islands. The course offers challenging fairways with native mahogany trees, coconut palms, tropical birds, and sunbathing iguanas of all sizes. The par-71 course is set against the North Sound, making for both interesting play and panoramic vistas of the sea.
Pedro St. James, on the southern coast east of George Town, also offers stellar views from its perch at Pedro Point. When the former great house was constructed in 1780, it was the Caymanian equivalent of a European villa: a three-story structure accented by sweeping verandas, large, shuttered windows, and a roof of imported slate. Locals still refer to it as Pedro Castle. The property is best known as the birthplace of democracy on the Cayman Islands because in 1831 it was the meeting site where the decision was made to form the first elected parliament. In 1996, the National Historic Site completed an $8 million restoration of the seven-acre grounds, which includes carefully manicured gardens leading to a dramatic viewpoint atop Pedro Bluff.
Continuing east along the island’s southern coast leads to Bodden Town, the original capital of the Cayman Islands. In an old roadside cemetery, gravestones are said to mark the remains of real pirates, and legend has it that treasures still lie buried in the natural limestone caves below the southern part of town.
The two-and-a-half-acre family-friendly enclave is home to the Pirate’s Caves attraction, where stalactites shimmer with an exquisite range of colors. In the sand-floor gift shop, a pet cockatoo welcomes visitors who come to wonder at the pirate paraphernalia and the exotic birds and souvenirs.
At the island’s appropriately named East End, a stone monument of Queen Elizabeth II marks the entrance to the queen’s namesake botanical park. Nearly 65 woodland acres and botanical displays frame a restored Caymanian farmhouse complete with original furnishings. In the Floral Color Garden, blossoms grouped by hues run the full spectrum of the rainbow from soft red to deep violet.
However, bright blue is the color to keep an eye out for here—in the form of a bright blue iguana, of course. Grand Cayman’s largest native land animal was once extremely close to extinction, but thanks to the conservation efforts of the Blue Iguana Recovery Program, almost 300 blue iguanas now roam free in Grand Cayman’s protected nature reserves.
Visit Cayman Turtle Centre, home to more than 11,000 green sea turtles. Swim with yearlings in the lagoon. Enjoy lunch at Schooners Bar and Grill, then continue to the town of Hell to see a unique rock formation said to be over 2 million years old.
Board the Atlantis submarine for a 40-minute underwater voyage where you’ll be enveloped in a rainbow of tropical fish at a depth of 100 feet. It’s a photo op like no other.
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