July 15, 2024

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SHARP Travel Guide: Grand Cayman Island

6 min read

The Queen looks happier on Caymanian dollars than Canadian. And no wonder. It’s 28 degrees and 100% humidity throughout winter. As far as we frostbitten Canadians can recall, lying here beneath The Ritz-Carlton’s shaded oceanside beach recliners is like floating happily in a sack of amniotic fluid. Welcome to Grand Cayman Island.

Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman Island.
Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman Island.

Part One: Voted Best Beach of… Something

Half-asleep, I overhear our PR host report that Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach was voted one of Planet Earth’s Top Ten beaches … Who votes for these things? Other beaches?

Anyway, if your partner, aging parents, or kids love a powdery white beach aside an endless, green-bottomed bathtub, they won’t leave the campus of the Grand Cayman Ritz-Carlton Resort. Our visit here is comped by Exclusive Resorts, an upscale vacation club with perfectly curated and well stocked private accommodations on the resort. You can pay extra for spa services and golf, both of which I loathe. So we’re saving money, here, contentedly basting beneath umbrellas.

But beach people are a bit like stamp collectors or bagel lovers. Yes, I concur: New York and Montreal bagels are better than other bagels — but they’re bagels. Who cares? When I awake fully refreshed and well brined from the lambent, amniotic Caribbean and it’s still only mid-afternoon on the first of a four-day stay, I crave stimulus.

Let’s explore. You’re welcome to remain on the beach, snooze and float — this is a judgment-free article — or join me.

Commune With Stingrays

Captain Eric’s a cool, ninth generation Caymanian and knows the ocean at least as well as you know your commute to work. Back in the 1950s, Eric’s father and uncles — professional fishers — would clean their catches two miles out from the beach to avoid mosquitoes. Here, they could complete the night’s work standing in the warm 5-foot shallows, the fish guts and heads slowly sinking to the seabed.

Southern Stingray off Grand Cayman Island.
Southern Stingray off the coast of Grand Cayman Island.

 Stingrays have an incredible sense of smell. “They were shy at first,” but the rays would coast warily towards the fishermen cleaning the catch, scoop the discarded bits and flap away. “But they’re curious, too.” Soon the stingrays would linger. Soon after, they’d eat out of Eric’s dad’s hand. Before long, they were hugging the fishers.

Honest. The stingrays hugged us too.

“They’re clever. They recognize my boat and know I have the best fish.” Other boats-for-hire nearby are dropping crab into the sea but Captain Eric’s shelling out the good stuff. Within a minute of arriving at this five-foot shelf, we’re surrounded by a school of small and large rays.

Dive with the stingrays off of Grand Cayman Island.
Dive with the stingrays off the coast of Grand Cayman Island.

“The females are the big ones.” Eric teaches me how to feed one. I name her Rayanne. She takes a fish from my hand, then swims closer, hovering at my chest. Eric instructs further. I raise my arms from beneath, flanking Rayanne’s tubal body between her wings, raising her to just below surface, and we ‘hug’. It’s beautiful, unmitigated interspecies joy. Weeks later, I’m still a bit overwhelmed just thinking of the experience.

An hour later, we’re snorkelling over a coral reef, observing neon bright schools of fish. An ancient turtle coasts by, almost outdoing the experience of communion with the rays.

Cycling on Grand Cayman Island

Our island trip, being planned by others, didn’t include a car unless we were on one of their outings to destinations like a distillery or Camana Bay shopping district. You could a drop few dollars and rent a utilitarian, public Bixie-esque bicycle but my Exclusive Concierge arranged for one to be delivered to our villa.

He didn’t pay for it though. So, I learned why the Queen smiles more on their money than ours. She’s worth 60¢ more per dollar! A $40 half-day bike rental cost $70! But I like cycling and, as you know, don’t care much for bagels, stamps or beaches.

Blue bicycle on grand cayman island

The island vibes are chill, and good thing given the heat. Cars will slow for you if you’re on a trunk road. You need the major roads for getting between worthy destinations; there’s often no choice. But those destinations, oh!

Grand Cayman is boomerang shaped and not all the roads are straight. If you’re not careful, you could end up riding/driving/walking the wrong way. Our wing of the boomerang, a western peninsula, is well built up with hotels and neighbourhoods, though there is a traffic-free nature preserve at its tip. After an hour’s lazy ride, I’m at Barker’s National Park.

Its wide, well maintained dirt road is bereft but for an off-roadin’ group lesson for overheated Americans on ATVs. The laid back instructors salute my mad dog’s approach to the midday sun as I roll past their lesson in reversing. Surreal.

This preserve, only a few square kilometres of unkempt forest, is eerily reminiscent of Toronto’s Leslie Street Spit (a narrow landfilled stretch of public road into Lake Ontario flanked by trees and birds) only way hotter. By now, the water I brought is soup. Bring more and explore. Or, if you’re on a short itinerary, as we are, return to the Exclusive Resorts compound. Total distance: 32km.

Cab Into George Town

George Town, Cayman Islands
View of the harbour from George Town, Grand Cayman Islands.

If cycling sounds too wet and sticky, get a taxi into George Town. Much of it’s been blown around or down by hurricanes, a particularly nasty one being Ivan in 2004. So the architecture isn’t historically significant, even if the actual history is. Still, what’s rebuilt in the central harbour retains Caribbean charm amid the predictably awful tourist tat. While you’re in the area, maybe get a beer in one of the many seaside nautically themed bars. Don’t be shocked if the servers aren’t locals.

A capital city, George Town has a few interesting government buildings. The modernist House of Parliament looks an unfinished metallic ziggurat. Sadly, when I wanted a tour, the doors were locked (their metal sun-facing handles, wrapped in fluffy oversized loofahs, prevented burns to unwelcome visitors’ hands).

Hog Sty Bay on Maritime Heritage Trail
Maritime Heritage Trail, George Town, Grand Cayman Island.

Less attractive and bigger, loom the Canadian banks. The most prominent corporate logos in central George Town aren’t Señor Frog’s or Nike, but CIBC and RBC. Sadly, I’d already withdrawn cash from some intermediary financial parasite and paid the usurious processing fee.

National Gallery of the Grand Cayman Islands.
National Gallery of the Grand Cayman Islands.

On the edge of George Town, a small building-cum-education centre displays local artists’ works and examples of traditional crafts. The National Gallery of the Cayman Islands is free and worth a visit. Much of the art focuses on island life over the past century, from skillful black and white ink illustrations of the seaside colonial dwellings to richly coloured folk art of island life — many of the same bright neon hues we’ve just seen in shoals on the coral reef.

Up on the second floor, look for the colossal piranha sculpture composed entirely of discarded bits of machinery and garbage. It’s cool and selfie-worthy but also thought-provoking; emblematic of the pristinely clean aesthetic the island proffers, while still lacking any basic recycling program. Any great vacation spot is a work in progress.

NB: If you like the bright Caribbean folk art, with ocean blues and greens radiant as 1980s athletic gear, don’t miss the in-house gallery in the Ritz Carlton. Access to the gallery’s painting and sculpture is free to view. If you’re purchasing, it’s not cheap but is truly charming. Much like the rest of Grand Cayman.

OK, now back to the beach, which is free.


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