For anyone like me who is not a fan of cold weather, when wintertime hits, it’s time to find summer somewhere else. This November, I did exactly that when I made my first journey to the Cayman Islands, solo.Shelley Seale – http://www.shelleyseale.com/
I’ve traveled throughout the Caribbean quite a bit, but had never visited the Caymans before. I’ve found that Caribbean islands all share a few commonalities: soft sand beaches, impossibly turquoise water, endless sunshine and that uniquely island easy-living vibe. Yet at the same time, each nation is very different in terms of its culture, personality, history and feel.
Cayman consists of three separate islands: Grand Cayman, the main island and by far the largest; Cayman Brac, and Little Cayman. They were discovered in 1503 when Christopher Columbus was making his fourth and final voyage to the New World and winds blew his ship off-course. He bestowed the name “Las Tortugas” because of the many turtles residing there. A few years later people began calling them “Caimans” because of the also plentiful crocodiles, and they’ve been known as the Caymans ever since. The earliest settlers, in 1658, were deserters from the British Army in Jamaica. The Cayman Islands are still a British territory today.
I landed at 4 pm, grabbed my rental car (remembering to drive on the left side of the road!), and by 5 pm was lounging on my condo balcony overlooking the stunning Seven Mile Beach. Ahh….this is the life!
Seven Mile Beach
Seven Mile Beach has been regularly named as one of the best beaches in the Caribbean – indeed, the world. An idyllic stretch of powdery coral-colored sand and blue water that looks as if it’s been Photoshopped, this waterfront is entirely open to the public – which means it’s possible to walk the full length of it. The coastline is dotted with resorts, restaurants, beach bars and watersports.
I chose to stay at Coral Stone Club, a small condominium complex of 37 privately-owned condos, most of which rent out as private vacation rentals. I really prefer staying in a true home like this, rather than a hotel. Not only does it give you more room to spread out, a full kitchen to cook in if you wish, and often other amenities – it also feels more like living in the place than you do in a hotel room. My condo was a three-bedroom (so would have been perfect if I’d brought the whole family, or several friends), and the entire property has been recently remodeled.
The best part was the location, right on (and overlooking) Seven Mile Beach. My living room and bedroom looked right out over the complex pool and the ocean, with private balconies, and all I had to do was walk downstairs and about 40 feet to be at the water. Pure bliss.
Snorkeling and diving
Of course, one of the main things most people choose to do on a tropical vacation like this is to partake in the ocean setting to enjoy some water sports. Cayman is particularly known for its incredible snorkeling and diving. The horseshoe-shaped Grand Cayman Island allows for an expanse of shallow waters filled with incredible living coral reefs – but just beyond, underwater cliffs drop off to a staggering 6,000 feet into the second-deepest ocean trench on the planet. Many divers are drawn to the cliff diving, descending deeper alongside these underwater walls; while others are fascinated by the many shipwrecks that dot these waters and make for incredible dive sites.
Snorkeling is just as good, too – in fact, some of the shipwrecks (such as the Kittiwake, which is accessible from shore) are accessible to both scuba divers and snorkelers. Another very popular snorkel site in Cayman is Stingray City, a large sandbar where about 50 of the gentle rays have made their home. They live peacefully and are so used to humans in the area (first fishermen who fed them, and now tourists) that they are almost tame. They’ll brush right up against you, and the sandbar is so shallow that you can actually stand up, even though you’re hundreds of miles from shore.
I went out there with Red Sail Sports, on their catamaran. The 45-minute ride out to the sandbar was beautiful, skimming across the blue water and getting a great view of the Seven Mile Beach and the island coastline as we left it. Arriving at Stingray City and donning snorkel gear, I could already see the dark gray shapes of the rays swimming gracefully along the sandy bottom, off the edge of the boat.
I got in the shallow, warm water and the as the rays slid past, you could reach out a hand and softly touch their velvety backs. There were dozens of them, the group that the Red Sail crew said always lived in the area, and they were definitely gentle and used to people. They even took photos so that you could leave with a memento of your sting ray encounter, and the photographer was very skilled.
It was an amazing experience, though the only drawback was the sheer number of boats and people in the water at the same time. Most of the boats came from the cruise ships in port, carrying day tour passengers. Now, I’m not one of those tourists who wants to go have an experience and then complain that too many other people are having the same experience; but at the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder if the volume was stressful for the creatures or the sandbar.
Afterwards, the crew motored a little farther out to a coral reef past the sandbar, so that we could snorkel amongst the reef formations and plentiful fish, eels, octopus and other sea life that lived there. In this spot, there was only one other boat, and it was a peaceful, engaging experience.
Once the Red Sail cat headed back toward the marina, the crew hoisted the sails for a slow journey back, and opened the bar for beer and tropical cocktails. Truly an afternoon in paradise!
Boating the bioluminescent bay
There is another, completely different water experience to be had on Grand Cayman. It is home to one of only a few bioluminescent bays in the world. All ocean waters have the microscopic plankton, but there are only a very few places where they are found in such massive numbers that their bioluminescent glowing can be seen.
I opted to go with George’s Watersports, run by (who else?) George, who grew up in the Caymans. Their bio-bay tour was a night snorkel — you have to take a night tour, because in the dark is the only time you can see the glowing plankton. Think of them like underwater fireflies, the crew said.
I had been in a bio-bay before, in Puerto Rico, seeing the phenomenon only from above water in the boat. As the water is stirred (by the boat or an oar, for example), you can see the glowing. But getting into the water with it was a whole different experience, and the luminescence looked completely different underwater. As you pedaled your legs or moved your hands and arms in front of your face, you could see the glow of millions of little plankton, that themselves cannot be seen by the naked eye. It was magical, like tons of tiny stars were shooting out of my fingers.
If you aren’t keen on snorkeling or getting into the water like this, then a kayak tour is the way to go. Cayman Kayaks runs night tours, providing both a peaceful night paddle as well as a very close-up way to view and interact with the bio-luminescence. As you paddle and swish your oars in the water, the bay glows around it and the craft.
Cayman Turtle Centre
This is a delightful and informative place for all ages. Cayman’s largest land-based tourist attraction, founded in 1968, has a mission of helping to preserve and protect the green sea turtles that the island got its name from (and are endangered), as well as other sea turtles like the Ridley and Loggerheads. They do this by caring for the turtles, breeding them in captivity, running a hatchery for the eggs and releasing them back into the wild. So far, the Turtle Centre has released more than 30,000 baby turtles.
The park is spread out over several acres, and the biggest attraction is the turtle pond (especially at the feeding times that occur several times throughout the day). But there’s also so much more to the Centre than that – there are other animals such as the Cayman Parrot, sharks, barracudas, a crocodile named Smiley, and more. A large snorkeling area allows guests to snorkel with some of the turtles, while a separate pool and playground area is a big hit with the kids.
I got a private tour from Benny, who is a Cayman native and has worked at the Turtle Centre for 33 years. He knew so much about all the turtles and other animals there; he even has a baby turtle named after him!
There is so much to explore in the Cayman Islands, that in five days there I barely scratched the surface. The gorgeous Caribbean gem is a place where you can do as much in the way of recreational activities, dining and shopping as you want; or simply take advantage of being in paradise to let go and relax.