14 Ways to Dive into The Cayman Islands
While the Cayman Islands is known first and foremost as a premier diving destination, going below the waves just scratches the surface of a visit to these three islands, located about an hour's flight from Miami.
A visit here can be as active (or inactive) as you want -- whether it's a week of diving or a week of chilling out on the beach. There aren't many all-inclusive resorts here -- and the reasoning is simple: This isn't an island destination where you land, are whisked away to your resort and spend a week on a crowded beach or in a buffet line drinking watered-down cocktails.
Instead of all-inclusive, think of the Cayman Islands as all-encompassing. So let's dive in ...
1. It's an easy getaway.
First things first, let's get situated. The three islands that make up the Cayman Islands -- Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman -- are in the Western Caribbean, south of Cuba and northwest of Jamaica. Unlike many other upscale islands that require a hop, skip and a jump to get there, nonstop flights are available to Grand Cayman from several U.S. cities, including New York, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston and Detroit. You can pack your bags in the morning and be on Seven Mile Beach in the afternoon.
2. The 'three sisters' have different personalities.
Most visitors land on Grand Cayman, as the name implies, the largest of the three islands, and inter-island flights are available to get to the other two sister islands. Each island offers a unique experience -- from the outgoing Grand Cayman to the adventure-seeking Cayman Brac to the shy, secluded Little Cayman. If you don't get to all three, you're missing out.
3. Get to know the Grande Dame.
Cosmopolitan Grand Cayman has got it going on -- from the famed Seven Mile Beach and newly opened Cayman Crystal Caves to unique shops like Balaclava jewellers to duty-free shopping on brands like Versace and Gucci. This is the heart and hub of the three islands -- the big sister if you will -- where you find the high-end resorts and top restaurants. In addition, Grand Cayman hosts many popular activities and festivals, including the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame ceremony in September and Cayman Cookout every January.
4. Call your bluff.
A 30-minute plane ride from Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac -- a Gaelic word meaning "bluff" -- is aptly named after its dramatic 153-foot cliff rising above the blue Caribbean water. With a population of less than 2,000 people, nature is the big draw for island-hoppers. Activities here include hiking up the bluff, fishing, spelunking in spots such as Skull Cave or Peter's Cave, searching the mangrove forests for exotic birds -- and of course, diving in the clear, warm waters.
5. Go off the grid.
Electricity only came to Little Cayman in 1990, and most provisions arrive from Grand Cayman only once a week. That should give you an idea of how undeveloped and natural this island of less than 200 residents is. This is the place to go to escape. Visitors here tend to be honeymooners seeking privacy or divers headed to one of the more than 50 diving spots surrounding the island. Wouldn't it be nice to disappear for a few days?
6. It's a foodie favorite.
Bring your appetite as well as your swimsuit. The Cayman Islands is known as the culinary capital of the Caribbean with more than 225 restaurants serving up sea-to-table fare that draws in foodies. Case in point: The Brasserie restaurant in George Town has its own boat and garden to get the freshest food on the plate.
No matter where you go, our recommendation is to try the conch -- any way you can get it -- particularly conch fritters or marinated conch. Wahoo ceviche and heavy cake also come recommended, accompanied by a cocktail with Seven Fathoms Rum.
While traditional Caymanian dishes that feature coconut, cassava and other local treats are on the menu, the islands are such a melting pot that it's easy to find international cuisine as well. On Grand Cayman, local fave Casa 43 serves Mexican cuisine, while Luca offers Italian food and The Bistro serves (you guessed it) French dishes.
7. Find out 'Who You Fa'.
This common greeting about your family and background can open up a world of conversation in the Cayman Islands -- where locals may claim a heritage that mixes British, Scottish, Welsh, Cuban, Jamaican and other Caribbean cultures. Throw in the ex-pats attracted by the world-class diving, warm weather and safe communities and it's easy to feel welcome here.
This is a British overseas territory (you'll be driving on the left-hand side of the road) -- but you'll find events that celebrate many different cultures -- whether it's the colorful Batabano carnival in May or an homage to the early pirate settlers (Pirates Week is Nov. 10-20).
8. The sunsets are worth waiting for.
Picture this: A relaxing dinner in a beachfront setting with the gentle surf providing white noise. Pair that with a sunset and it's easy to forget life back home.
One local favorite for catching the sunset is Macabuca in West Bay. Over the Edge, on Grand Cayman's north side, offers a casual atmosphere where swimsuits and cover-ups are allowed, and patrons literally eat on a deck on the water. You might want to order a Cayman Sunset cocktail (light rum, grenadine, pina colada mix and pineapple juice) while you enjoy the view. Find yourself out and about? Catch the green flash (that moment when the sun disappears into the horizon) on the west side of Grand Cayman during the sunset.
9. Catch rays of a different kind.
This isn't your average city break. Swim with and feed friendly stingrays at Stingray City in Grand Cayman, one of the island's top attractions. A year-round draw for divers, there is also an area called Sandbar where folks can snorkel or stand in about four feet of water. Looking like Mother Nature's version of the Starship Enterprise, the stingrays swoop around snorkelers and divers, inviting humans to rub their soft underbellies.
The islands' wild side isn't just underwater. The endangered Grand Cayman blue iguana has been the focus of a government program to restore the island's population from a handful to several hundred on a 200-acre reserve in the island's interior. Visit the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park for a guided safari, and maybe you'll catch a glimpse of a few of these guys posing for your Instagram feed.
Bird-lovers can head to the Booby Pond Reserve in Little Cayman to see the Western Hemisphere's largest colony of red-footed boobies or go to Cayman Brac, which is home to a 180-acre parrot reserve for the endangered Brac Parrot.
10. Dive beneath the surface.
Located at the top of an underwater mountain rising 6 miles from the ocean floor, the Cayman Islands is famous for its sheer walls and drop-offs at its 365 moored dive sites. Little Cayman's Bloody Bay Marine Park was touted by Jacques Cousteau as the best diving area in the world. Known for an abundance of sea turtles, divers are also treated to tarpon and silversides filling the caverns and tunnels as well as Nassau grouper, eagle rays and moray eels swimming among the colorful sponges and coral reefs. Be sure to try a night dive when the colors are even more vivid under the beam of your dive light.
This isn't just a destination for expert divers -- the Cayman Islands is one of the best places in the world to learn to dive thanks to the warm water, calm conditions and abundance of professional dive operators.
11. Explore a shipwreck.
Why walk through a mess hall, hospital station and propulsion rooms when you can swim through them? Divers can roam all five levels of the Kittiwake off the coast of Seven Mile Beach. They can also check out the M/V Captain Keith Tibbetts, the only divable Soviet naval ship in the Western Hemisphere.
It's also possible to go under the sea -- without getting wet. Atlantis submarine tours offer groups of people (48 passengers, to be exact) the chance to see marine life up close and personal in the daytime or at night.
12. Go to Hell and back.
The next time someone tells you to go to hell, you can say you've already been there. Hell is a group of black limestone formations in Grand Cayman's West Bay -- and a popular spot to post your Facebook and Instagram updates, send a postcard for the Hell-themed post office and or get a souvenir at the gift shop. (My friend went to Hell and all I got was this lousy T-shirt, anyone?)
13. Feel the beat.
There's no shortage of watering holes and nightclubs on Grand Cayman, so you can keep going once the sun has gone down. While American music can be found, it's the Caribbean beat (soca, reggae, calypso) that gets the vacation moving. The majority of nightlife is in the Seven Mile Beach area, while West Bay and George Town also have a few bars. Cayman Cabana is a fun Saturday night spot in George Town -- come for dinner and stay for the DJ. The Eastern districts of the island offer more laid-back island vibes.
14. You can stay high-end or low-key.
Pick and choose how luxe you want your trip to be here. Active divers can choose from resorts that range from modest like Pirates Point or Cobalt Coast Dive Resort to the more upscale such as Little Cayman Beach Resort and Compass Point. Vacationers can choose from intimate boutique hotels like Caribbean Club on Grand Cayman or Le Soleil d'Or on Cayman Brac or luxury resorts such as The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, The Westin Grand Cayman Seven Mile Beach Resort & Spa and Kimpton's new Seafire Resort + Spa (opening November). In addition, high-end condos such as Beachcomber offer great value for families, small groups of couples or girlfriend getaways.
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