GRAND CAYMAN ISLAND – I knew I was going to like Deserene Miller, also known as Miss D or Lady D – when she picked me up at the Owen Roberts International Airport in George Town.
A tiny bundle of energy with an ever-present fedora perched jauntily on her head, Miss D had been assigned as my driver/guide for the four days I was on the island. After about 15 minutes, her job description had expanded to driver/guide/friend.
Over our four days together we did a lot of laughing and some serious sightseeing, taking in attractions from the Cayman Turtle Center to the Blue Iguana Habitat; from Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park to the National Museum.
I had been to Grand Cayman once before, but only as an afternoon port-of-call on a cruise ship. For my shore excursion, I had opted for a trip to Stingray City, where – donning fins and snorkel gear – I frolicked among large southern stingrays inhabiting a shallow sandbar. If I was willing to get close enough, I was told, I could leave with a stingray kiss imprinted on my palm or cheek.
While it was quite an experience, it didn’t leave me with much knowledge of Grand Cayman aside from the canoodling Chordate cuties.
This time it was an entirely different story. I learned a lot about the island, most notably that if you are looking for a hassle-free tropical getaway, this is it.
Grand Cayman is the largest of three islands that constitute the Caymans – along with Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. English is the official language; the U.S. dollar is accepted everywhere; the economy is strong; crime almost non-existent, and the Caymanians are among the friendliest people in the Caribbean.
Scenery may be on a smaller scale than many of the other islands – Grand Cayman lacks the rugged mountains of neighbor Jamaica or the prolific rainforests of Dominica – but its expansive Seven-Mile Beach is second to none.
Even more spectacular is what lies below the water’s surface. Known as a divers’ paradise, Grand Cayman has some of the best wall and drift dive sites in the world. Snorkelers have plenty of coves and reefs to explore, and even non-divers can experience the underwater splendor on an Atlantis Submarine Dive. They can watch schools of colorful fish and large turtles glide by their portals, while staying dry in the process.
Grand Cayman’s reputation for world-class diving may be its main claim to fame, but there’s a lot to do on land as well. If you want to combine the island’s largest land-based attraction with an educational and cultural experience, a visit to the Cayman Turtle Center is in order.
The Center was started in 1968 as a breeding and research facility for Green Sea Turtles and later, for the endangered Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles. Today, visitors can get a glimpse of newly hatched turtles in the nursery; hold the younger turtles and even swim with adult turtles in a lagoon setting.
While the prospect of up-close encounters with the turtles is appealing, the Center is not without controversy. Various animal rights groups claim it is overcrowded and that constant handling of the turtles can cause them stress. Nevertheless, it remains one of Grand Cayman’s most popular visitor attractions.
If animal activists feel that the sea turtles would fare better in their natural environment, the exact opposite holds true for the blue iguana, a species found nowhere else in the world but Grand Cayman.
The iguanas’ natural habitat – forests, mangroves and shrublands – have been deforested and developed to the point where the reptile has become endangered. The efforts of the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution, have resulted in a nature reserve where the iguanas can live and breed.
Open for public tours, the Habitat gives visitors a chance to see these striking creatures – ranging in color from blue/gray to turquoise – up close.
Adjacent to the Blue Iguana Habitat is the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park. Opened in 1994 by Her Majesty, the Queen, the park is a floral paradise – from a serene lake brimming with lily pads to displays of colorful tropical flowers (the orchid garden is spectacular) to one of the best examples of an intact mangrove swamp I’ve ever seen.
A highlight is the Floral Color Gardens, a series of gardens arranged by color – pink, red, orange, yellow, white, blue, purple and lavender – and with various design elements – grassy spaces, gazebos, arbors and trellises – to better showcase the exotic blooms.
Grand Cayman’s capital, George Town, is compact, its buildings painted in rainbow sherbet colors and housing the typical array of shops designed to lure cruise passengers. Unless you’re specifically in the market for perfume, jewelry or cameras, bypass the shops and head for the lovely colonial building (the oldest public building on the island) across from the harbor that is home to the National Museum.
While small, the museum has a number of interesting artifacts and exhibits educating visitors on all aspects of the islands – from sea turtle migrations to the fact that, unlike the rest of the Caribbean, no people lived here before the European colonization.
While Grand Cayman doesn’t have the long-standing tradition of classic French cuisine tempered by Caribbean influences that Martinique or St. Barts do, its food scene has blossomed in recent years.
Two of the current hot spots are Brasserie and Blue Cilantro. The former is a great place to go for a 3-course lunch in sophisticated surroundings (opt for the fresh catch of the day from the restaurant’s own fishing boat). The latter, whose decor is reminiscent of a Manhattan bistro, is a good choice for Sunday brunch (a bounteous selection that includes such dishes as roasted pumpkin bisque, King crab legs with red pepper remoulade and BBQ pork ribs).
You may wish to go more “island-y” for dinner, especially when you can combine the freshest of seafood with stunning sunsets. Some of the best spots for this include the Lobster Pot, Morgan’s Seafood Restaurant and the Cracked Conch.
Save one evening for a sunset sail with Red Sails Sports. I spent my last night skimming over the water with the wind in my hair, sipping a rum punch and watching cloud formations in the shapes of a rabbit and a dragon chase each other across the sky.
If that wasn’t enough to make me want to schedule a return trip, the dazzling sunset and the blanket of stars that came out immediately afterward surely were.
IF YOU GO TO GRAND CAYMAN
Where to Stay: The Westin Grand Cayman. Located on Seven Mile Beach, this resort has it all: spacious guest rooms and suites with private balconies; lush landscaping with a free-form pool and two hot tubs; dining options ranging from the Beach House and Tortuga Grill to Ferdinand’s fine dining; the lobby Catboat Bar, and the Hibiscus Spa with its wide menu of treatments. westingrandcayman.com
Where to Shop: If you’re looking for something a bit different from the usual cruise ship emporiums near the harbor, check out the trendy shops of Camana Bay. In addition, this waterfront village offers a dozen restaurants and bars; Farmers and Artisans Markets; dancing fountains, gardens and sculptures, and a year-round schedule of festivals and events. camanabay.com
(Patti Nickell is a Lexington, Ky.-based travel and food writer. Reach her at [email protected].)
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