The Cayman Islands are a popular vacation site in beautiful Caribbean waters tucked away south of Cuba and west of Jamaica. Grand Cayman is the largest of the three Cayman Islands and an excellent place to visit. Sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1503 and named Las Tortugas for the abundance of turtles in the islands’ waters, the name quickly changed to Caimanas or Caymanes for its native alligator population. The waters of the Cayman Islands have always been the strong suit, providing economic security for the country – first through fishing and then through tourism as people all over the world flock to swim and dive in the warm, clear waters. The United Kingdom took possession of the Cayman Islands in the 1670 Treaty of Madrid, and George Town was established as the capital. Today the islands have local governmental control although the Queen of England is still technically the Head of State.
My wife and I recently visited Grand Cayman Island with two other friends with the primary purpose to get in some good scuba diving. We stayed at the lovely Sunset House: Grand Cayman’s Hotel for Divers by Divers. The dive shop is mere steps from the guest rooms, and we enjoyed two tank dives every morning and opted for a couple of one tank dives in the afternoon, too. There’s a great restaurant and bar a few more steps away where we ate most of our meals, but the two best meals we had were at Le Vele and Lobster Pot, both in George Town. The Italian menu at Le Vele is divine. We enjoyed tender lamb shank, perfectly cooked risotto, fresh fish and gourmet pizza amongst the four of us. The Lobster Pot’s seafood was also fresh and well-prepared. The one day we didn’t dive we explored the town and capped our day with the most incredible rum distillery tour at Cayman Spirits Co.
Here are important things to know before visiting Grand Caymans:
- SCUBA DIVING AND SNORKELING
By far the highlight of the Cayman Islands is the diving and snorkeling. The water was a warm 80-82 degrees even in early spring and even as deep as 100 feet. We were never cold, diving only in our bathing suits and scuba gear, and it is so nice to not have to wrestle on a wet suit. The visibility is a remarkable 90-125 feet! Grand Cayman’s dive spots have very little current, and with good buoyancy control, it’s possible to hover in one spot watching schools of fish indefinitely without having to move a muscle.
Grand Cayman offers innumerable reef dives with snappers, barracuda, turtles, stingrays, parrot fish, spotted drums, green eels and brittle stars everywhere. There are fields and fields of garden eels, too. A can’t-miss opportunity is diving the famous Kittiwake Shipwreck. It has a fascinating history and is conveniently located in shallow waters near the shore, so it’s accessible for scuba diving, snorkeling and free diving.
Another classic adventure is to visit Stingray City. There are two main areas for this. One spot is where divers kneel on the ocean floor at a depth of 12-17 feet while five, ten or even more stingrays playfully circle about the group. The other is a sandbar that is shallow enough to simply stand in 3-18 inches of water as the rays wind in around feet and ankles. These sites appeared hundreds of years ago when the fisherman would come in with their haul and stop at the sandbars to gut their fish. The stingrays appreciated the ready-to-eat meals and learned to associate those sites and boats with feeding time.
Anytime is a good time to visit the Caribbean. The Cayman Islands weather consistently has highs in the high 80s lows even in January and February are rarely below 65 degrees Fahrenheit. As previously mentioned, the water temperature is consistently warm. Their northeast trade winds blow December to April, and the rainy season is from April/May to November. (Hotel prices do tend to drop between March and June.)
It’s important to note that most businesses and even some tours are closed on Sundays. Also, some tours only operate one day a week. Book directly through a tour company like Cayman Crystal Caves, Stingray City or Cayman Kayaks or use a service like Trip Advisor or Viator. Definitely book in advance!
- CRUISE SHIP DAYS
Grand Cayman is a popular stop for cruise ships; they almost exclusively dock just offshore from George Town and 7 Mile Beach. On cruise ship days, the stores, beaches, restaurants and tours are packed. Also, the shops keep a close eye on cruise ship schedules and will often close their business down in the middle of the day when they know the ships are leaving. Cruise ship schedules can be found on the internet.
An important thing to plan for is that Grand Cayman is very expensive. I travel frequently to places such as Mexico and the Philippines where a beer is one to two dollars. On Grand Cayman, however, a beer is 8-10 dollars and even a single lunch meal often runs around 15-20 dollars.
The Cayman Islands do have their own currency, but every place we stopped at on our most recent trip readily accepted US dollars as well. Currently one US dollar is equivalent to 84 cents. Most merchants, including some taxis, also accept major credit cards.
Speaking of taxis, they are expensive – generally $12-16 for a 2-mile ride. Some hotels offer shuttles to shopping areas and/or tourist attractions. When booking a tour more than a mile from the hotel, be sure to ask if transportation is provided, and if not, how much a taxi will cost. From our hotel near George Town they estimated a $300 taxi ride to see the Crystal Caves only 19 miles away.
There is a bus system and friends of mine have used it with no problems. Bus maps and estimated time intervals are available online. It may be handy to print out the route map before hailing one. We had difficulty getting a bus on our last visit.
Grand Cayman is a small island – only 76 square miles or 122 square kilometers. The roads and traffic are all reasonable, so renting a car is another option if planning to travel away from the hotel. Just remember they drive on the LEFT side of the road.
- WIDE VARIETY OF LAND ACTIVITIES
While the water is certainly the star of the Cayman Islands, there are many land activities as well. Check out the Blue Iguana, also known as the Grand Cayman Ground Iguana at the gorgeous Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Gardens. For the most hilarious tour on the island, go to Cayman Spirits Co. for the rum tasting and distillery tour. Tours are available for the Crystal Caves, Pedro St James Castle, Underground Pirates Caves and Bioluminescence Kayaking. The Cayman Turtle Center is a popular spot to swim with turtles and sometimes even hold baby turtles. Choose from two tour options. For a unique experience, try the Flavor Tour of Camana Bay which is available every Wednesday evening featuring farm-to-table dining at four Camana Bay restaurants. Go to Hell and back during the trip and even send a postcard from Hell.
Grand Cayman is definitely worth the trip. Enjoy its warm water and thriving marine life year-round. It’s high up on our Best Dive Spots list, and one we’ll surely return to many times over the years.