Vail Daily travel story: On-and-off the beaten path in the Caymans
the feeling of silky smooth sand between your toes as you walk from your beach chair to the 85-degree salt water is the Holy Grail of beach vacations.
Tropical destinations offer it all over the world, from the Maldives to Bali to the Florida Keys. But the accessibility and remoteness of the Cayman Islands provide a wonderful destination option for those looking for a quick beach escape this fall.
From Denver, it took roughly seven hours in the air, with a two-hour layover in Charlotte, to get to Grand Cayman. And when you land at the unassuming airport and step out into the humid air, you immediately hear the sounds of live steel drums in the terminal — a pleasant way to spend time in a long line for customs and immigration.
Renting a car is the way to go because you can explore the island and find some gorgeous secret spots where tourists aren’t commonly seen. Being that it’s a British territory, you drive on the left side of the road, and there are signs everywhere reminding you to “stay on the left,” and “look right.”
If you can follow these simple rules of the road, then you can safely drive yourself away from Seven Mile Beach, where the majority of the island’s resorts are clustered. Not that Seven Mile Beach is a place you must get away from — its white, silky sand and warm turquoise water is pure heaven — but you have to explore away from it if you want to find the tiny bit of true local culture that exists in Grand Cayman.
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Still, it was hard to find those authentic local spots. Even when you ask local people to reveal their secrets, they seem to always steer you toward something expensive and touristy. I guess that’s what most of the wealthy Britons and Americans who travel to Grand Cayman truly want — the high-end stuff — but I also like to get off the beaten path a bit when I travel.
The best find on the entire island in terms of beaches was without a doubt Smith Cove. It’s just a couple of minutes by car from the tacky strip of souvenir shops swarming with cruise ship passengers in George Town — or about 10-15 minutes from Seven Mile Beach — but it feels like it’s a million miles away. On a tiny island such as Grand Cayman where the tourism industry dominates, this beach feels like it could be set on a private island in the middle of the Caribbean.
Smith Cove’s rocky shoreline provides a scenic landscape on an otherwise flat tropical island, and the snorkeling around the beautiful coral reef that hugs this cove is spectacular. The only other people we saw at this beach were locals, most of whom came there to snorkel.
I saw beautiful sea life, nothing overly exotic or rare, but just a consistent stream of colorful fish and stingrays. I could have stayed out there all day, but a thunderstorm drove me out of the water.
As my friend Danielle and I waited for the rain to pass — a rain shower in Grand Cayman never seems to last more than an hour — we headed over to the Grand Old House, a fine dining waterfront restaurant next to Smith Cove. We snacked on delicious conch ceviche and conch fritters, sipped some Champagne and before we knew it, the storm cleared and we were back on the beach.
Adventures in food and sea
Conch was one of the local items we wanted to eat, as well as turtle stew, oxtail and Caymanian fish dishes. We settled for conch at the fine dining place, but sought out the dives for the other dishes. Unfortunately we never did find turtle stew — apparently it’s something most restaurants make on Fridays and we had other plans.
We did find minced fish at Vivine’s Kitchen on the East End — a restaurant set on the patio of Miss Vivine’s home that overlooks the water — which had hints of garlic, vinegar, hot peppers and citrus. We ordered it with some fried mahi, which had a nice and light batter and great flavor. This place had a less touristy feel, and a couple of local people had suggested it, although we also saw it in a Fodor’s travel book, which proved the point that it’s hard to find anything on Grand Cayman that doesn’t cater to tourists in one way or another.
The East End was very quiet – just a couple of timeshare condominium places set on the beach. The snorkeling in front of the Morritt’s Resort was lovely — the reef came right up to the beach and you didn’t have to swim far at all to see beautiful coral and fish. The East End in mid-August truly did feel like offseason — I think we saw two or three couples on the beach and that was it. The sand wasn’t as fine as on Seven Mile Beach, and the water was rocky and had a lot of seaweed in it, but these were minor complaints.
Another not-to-miss excursion in Grand Cayman is Stingray City, but hitting it at the right time is crucial. You can guarantee this by booking a trip on the Six Senses Eco Tour. It’s a relaxed day aboard a cozy tri hull 30-foot pontoon boat, and the best part is that the company’s owner Paul Deegan keeps the trips small. We went on a Monday and there were just a dozen people on the boat, making the trip feel more like a day out on the water with friends rather than a tourist excursion.
He hit all of the spots that non scuba-divers would want to see on a boat trip — Starfish Point where you swim along a sandbar scattered with starfish, mangrove wetland forests in the environmental protection zone, the Coral Barrier Reef for snorkeling and Rum Point for lunch. The best part of the day is Stingray City, where you swim with stingrays and the more adventurous can even pet and hold them. Deegan manages to pull into this popular sandbar when few, if any, other boats are there.
Stingray City can be overrun with tourists, with as many as 2,000 people there at times. I think I counted 15 people — just three others on a private boat in addition to the dozen on our trip — which equated to about two stingrays per person.
Up in West Bay, just north of Seven Mile Beach, we found another local dining spot called Liberty’s. This place was a true dive, and the food was pretty good. I had oxtail, served as a hearty stew with all the bones and all the fat, accompanied by tasty black beans and rice and fried sweet plantains.
After seeking out the few local food spots we could find, we did like most visitors to Grand Cayman do and ate out in the more popular, and often really nice, places the rest of the time. Ragazzi and Agua were delicious, as were the indulgent Sunday brunch at Luca and the high-quality dishes at the Sunshine Grill, but the meal of the trip was without a doubt at Blue, the Eric Ripert restaurant in the Ritz Carlton.
It was five courses of pure decadence, accompanied by impeccable service. The food was inventive and it all came out looking like artwork on a plate, with the flavors to back it up.
The highlights were the tuna foie gras, grilled octopus with green olives and black garlic, ravioli filled with shellfish and soy butter sauce, and a beautifully crispy striped bass.
Blue is expensive, but our conclusion after the meal — thankfully — was that it was well worth it.
That was kind of the overall feeling about Grand Cayman — everything was expensive, but the quality made it all worth it. But as someone who thrives on soaking up local culture and adventure while traveling, I’d have to say that there just isn’t much of it on Grand Cayman aside from water activities.
Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects manager for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-777-3125.