Boasts British Style, Eco-Fun
The harbor area of downtown Georgetown boasts fresh paint, newly rebuilt structures and a world of shopping and dining for cruise passengers.*
By Susan J. Young
If your cruise ship has a call at Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands this year, you will discover a refreshed, revitalized island – one that’s better than ever from a tourism perspective.
One reason? Located in the western Caribbean some 480 miles south of Miami and 180 miles northwest of Jamaica, Grand Cayman has roared back from a 2005 bout with Hurricane Ivan.
That devastating Category Five storm passed within 30 miles of the island. It delivered a punishing wall of water and winds in excess of 180 mph and gusts up to 200 mph. Getting the island back in shape required a massive rebuilding effort.
But the final result is stunning. For instance, the Grand Cayman Turtle Farm is now cocooned within a new 23-acre Boatswain's complex (shown above*).
Today, Grand Cayman simply sparkles.
Sun and Waves
Not surprisingly, many cruisers headed to Grand Cayman opt for a water-focused excursion. Beach activities, snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing, and even riding on an Atlantis submarine are popular excursions for cruisers.
For example, Carnival offers a Cayman Parasail (for great aerial island views) and Beach Escape for $87 per person; a Cayman Shore Snorkel at $32 per person; or a Beginner’s Scuba Diving excursion for $122 per person.
One of the most unusual new options is a Sea Spi Tour, priced at $87 per person. You can select a single Sea Spi or one for two people.
You lie face down and view through the clear bottom of your craft. You glide undetected viewing colorful fish, and possibly stingrays, sea turtles and other marine life.
One of the “must do” experiences in Grand Cayman, though, is a visit to Stingray City (shown at left*).
It’s a spot of water that’s visited by both scuba divers and snorkelers alike.
Visible offshore from Rum Point, Stingray City was so named a decade ago when fishermen came to the shallower waters of North Sound to clean their fish.
To the stingrays, this was a gourmet feast. The rays hung around the fishermen’s boats inhaling the discarded pieces of fish. A few brave divers got into the water and began to hand-feed them.
Before long, the marine creatures became tame. Today, they know a tasty meal means you just have to be nice to the tourists.
After boarding a yacht, you’re taken to an offshore sandbar. Guides lead you into three to eight feet of water. Here you swim, snorkel and pet the stingrays as well as watch the guides feed them. Their favorite food is squid.
Most cruise lines offer this in various options. Carnival, for example, offers a two-and-one-half hour Stingray City Tour as a stand-alone choice for $48 per person.
Or, you may combine the Stingray City experience with several island tours($65 to $75 per person); with a Rum Point beach visit ($55 per person); or with Snuba ($101 per person); no scuba experience is needed for the latter.
In Snuba, you walk along the ocean floor with weights holding you down. You simply breathe through a helmet with pumped-in air.
Or, there are many beaches (see one at right*) that you might visit on your own.
One word of caution. Ask about the fare before getting into the cab. Grand Cayman’s prices are generally fixed, and bargaining isn’t a way of life here as it is on other Caribbean isles.
By asking about cost up front, you might save yourself hassle at the end of the cab ride. Also, if you’re taking a cab out to a remote spot, be sure you can get back.
One popular beach option is Seven Mile Beach for crystal white sand and gentle waters. Rum Point beach, near Stingray City, is further, but a bit more off-the-beaten path.
We actually viewed some swimming areas just off the main drag in downtown George Town. So if you’re in the mood for a water dip, the island has close-in and far-out options.
Island Highlight Tour
Many first-time visitors to Grand Cayman, particularly those not choosing sun or surf, will take an around-island tour. In reality, this is more a half-island tour – just to the western part of the island.
But it’s a good opportunity to get beyond George Town, the Cayman Islands capital city, to see the sights. Carnival’s two-hour Grand Cayman Island Tour is priced at $47 per person.
Leaving George Town and heading north, the drive skirts Seven Mile Beach. You’ll pass the massive Ritz-Carlson resort complex, with the condos on the beach side, a large over-the-road-walkway, and the hotel looming on the left hand side. This area is home to many pampering hotels and condos.
You’ll also have the opportunity to view gingerbread-like homes with British Colonial styling and the Governor’s residence. On the latter, usually the mini-bus simply pulls over for a brief photo stop (passengers do not get out, they simply shoot a photo out the window.)
This tour feature three main stops. The order varies depending on your mini-bus. The tour companies try to assure that only a few mini-buses are at the same attractions at the same time.
Cayman Turtle Farm
The Cayman Turtle Farm at Boatswain’s Beach (345-949-3894 or www.boatswainsbeach.ky), North West Point Road, West Bay, is the highlight of the around-island tour.
When I visited the turtle farm in the past, it was a rather tired, run-down marine facility that had tanks with turtles. But that older, peeling facility was washed away by Hurricane Ivan.
Today the turtle farm is cocooned within a 23-acre marine and resort facility with new features, including a 1.3 million gallon salt-water lagoon, a large aviary and, coming soon, a dolphin show.
Also on site are a research and educational facility that focuses on the conservation of sea turtles, and a 3,500-square-foot gift shop. We felt the gifts and souvenirs offered in this facility were a cut above normal tourism fare.
On the island tour, your visit to this complex is limited to the Cayman Turtle Farm, which houses 11,000 Green Sea Turtles. The breeding pond is shown at left.*
A local tour guide gives a quick introduction to the turtle facility in about 15 minutes. It’s quick but informative.
The lumbering giants – some weigh as much as 600 pounds, others just a few ounces -- are incredible to view. As they crack the surface of the water seeking air, you’ll see their heads bobbing up and down in the water.
Visitors peruse multiple types of tanks with different ages of turtles. The breeding facility is shown at right.*
You might stroke the back of a turtle in a “touch pool.”
Or, have your photo taken holding a junior turtle (one to two years of age).
You simply take a photo with your own camera; there’s no need to pay anyone at the facility for the “privilege” as at some attractions.
While the majority of the turtles raised at this turtle farm are raised for their meat, the theory behind this is that it eliminates consumption of wild animals.
In addition, the facility is one of the few that does breed and release farmed turtles into the wild, thus helping the species survive; reportedly the released turtles have good survival rates.
The turtle farm also has several rare blue iguanas you might view; the Cayman Blue Iguana is one of the rarest iguanas in the world and found only on Grand Cayman.
Also on display is a local caiman. A caiman, also called a cayman (the name for which the isles are named), is a type of alligator.
Tortuga Rum Company Tastings
What would a Grand Cayman tour be like without a Tortuga Rum Company (345-949-6322 or www.tortugarums.com) stop for tastings?! We don’t know and don’t want to find out.
We usually hate these factory tours, but this one had local color and a lot of tasty attributes.
Incidentally, the name Tortuga was derived from the original name of the Cayman Islands – Las Tortugas meaning “The Turtles.”
Founded in 1984, Tortuga Rum Company is owned by husband and wife team Robert and Carlene Hamaty, who started the firm while employed by Cayman Airways. Today, Tortuga Rum Company is the largest duty-free liquor business in the Cayman Islands.
The Hamatys started the company with two blended rums, Tortuga Gold and Tortuga Light. Tortuga Rum is a combination of Jamaican Rum and Barbados Rum specially blended for the Cayman Islands. But today, there are a host of flavored rums as well.
Visitors enter a small gift shop with Caribbean specialty foods including hot sauces, coffees and spices. The shop is shown at left.*
Crafts for sale included shell jewelry, crocheted items, wood carvings and jewelry.
Off to one side is the rum-and-cake-tasting area. It’s a bit of a cattle car in anteing up for your tastings, but worth the effort.
You may freely sample 10 different rum blends including Light, Dark, Spice and Banana. We were partial to the Coconut, Mango and Vanilla.
In addition, the store nicely sets out sheet cakes of its famed Tortuga Rum Cake. In addition to the original cake flavor, the shop offers tastings of its chocolate, key lime and banana varieties.
The main baking facility on Grand Cayman (not at this stop) produces between 5,000 and 6,000 Tortuga Rum Cakes each day in three sizes: the 33-oz. large size, the 16-oz. medium size and the 4-oz. mini. The cakes are baked, hand-glazed with five-year-old premium rum, and then vacuum-sealed.
You just help yourself to the cakes. Store workers freely pour the rum samples. Just ask for what you want to taste.
Even if you don’t buy the rum or cake here, it’s good to taste so you know what you like or don’t. You’ll have plenty of opportunities elsewhere to buy.
For example, we bought our rum and cake at the cruise terminal in George Town just before getting back on the ship. Prices were comparable to those at the factory shop.
Editor's Note: if you buy at the pier entrance, they will note your ship, cabin number and name. The cruise line will hold the bottles and return them to you on the ship, usually the evening prior to disembarkation. Cruise lines generally do not permit you to carry on the rum and consume it during your cruise.
What did we buy? A large bottle of Tortuga Rum – Coconut Flavored for $9 U.S and one small original cake for $4.95.
A Village Named Hell
Yes, our Carnival Freedom shore excursion took us to Hell, a village in the West Bay district of Grand Cayman. Here iron shore formations – a high-lying reef of limestone fringes with numerous imbedded marine fossils -- were formed 1.5 million years ago.
A bacteria has attacked the dead coral (limestone) and turned it black. The jagged structures jut upward from the ground, revealing a surreal ebony landscape.
In early morning, with the mist rising from this surreal landscape, it also resembles the underworld, according to local residents.
Our guide, George Seymour, remarked that his mother used to say “if you don’t behave I’m going to send you to Hell,” scaring him immensely given the eerie look of the rocks.
There are several viewing platforms from which to peruse the formations and a forest of mangroves just beyond.
While the rest of the stop is definitely "touristy," our 15-minute-visit was a fun diversion. Another journalist on a similar tour told me he could have stayed just a bit longer here.
The fire-engine-red post office opened at this spot in 1962 to accommodate requests from travelers who wish to send post cards home to their so-called friends and families.
The gift shop featured a costumed Satan (such as at left*) shooting the breeze with guests and asking the stereotypic questions: “How the ‘h…’ are you?!”
We had more time left on our tour, so the driver motored around a bit more, showing us a few residential neighborhoods.
In addition, one highlight was a quick stop along the road to view a massive rock formation.
This was home to more than 20 large iguanas who were happily basking in the sun.
Some were the rare Cayman Blue Iguanas like the one shown at right.*
Walking Around George Town
Then our mini-bus headed back to George Town, the Cayman Islands’ capital city, with a population of about 25,000. Here you’ll find many government buildings; just walk a street or two back from Church Street/Harbour Street and you’ll see the business areas of downtown.
This is also a financial town of more than 600 banks – many with just a room to signify their presence, and their ability to secure “offshore accounts” -- and a tourist town of an incredible number of shops and restaurants.
Interesting, one of the major banks just outside town was one of the few buildings to sustain little or no damage. That just happens to be the bank of Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Now, says George, the joke is that when the next hurricane comes, “we’re all heading for the Queen’s bank as she needs to protect her money and look what happened (little damage) the last time.”
All jokes aside, though, George Town itself has rebuilt in a big way. The vibrant downtown area including the tourist drag -- Church Street and Harbour Drive -- boasts new or rebuilt shops and restaurants.
So some folks on our tour headed for the ship, but others opted for a few hours in town shopping or dining out. It was an easy walk back to the cruise pier.
If your ship anchors outside of the George Town harbor, though, your tour bus may take you back to a different dock across the island. You might still opt to walk around George Town for an hour or so, but leave plenty of time for a taxi to take you back to the dock. Don’t wait until the last minute when hundreds of other cruisers are thinking the same thing.
Jewelry lovers will find much to entice them on Grand Cayman, with such international shops as Diamonds International, Colombian Emeralds International, Tanzanite International, Diamonds Direct and so on.
You might also shop for perfumes, home furnishings, designer clothes, cigars, sunglasses, and Waterford crystal and china. The Cayman Craft Market offers locally made wood and leather products, thatch and straw goods, and local art creations.
It’s fun just to window shop as well. One historic highlight just a block or so back from the harbor area is the historic Grand Cayman Post Office, built in the 1930s. It features some 2,000 outside boxes and is still in use today.
Many cruisers enjoy kicking back with a glass, mug of brew or a margarita at one of the George Town waterfront restaurants; many boast second floor open-air balconies with great sea views. Along Harbour Avenue/Church Street, you’ll find the usual names including Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville.
At the Hard Rock Café (345-945-2020 or www.hardrockcafe.com), 43 S. Church St., a pristine pink 1960 Cadillac hangs in the dining room.
Other artifacts at Hard Rock Café include Elton John’s trademark glasses; a decorative belt with turquoise beads owned and worn by Jimi Hendrix around 1968; a pair of black suede gloves from Madonna; and a denim hat signed and donated by John Lennon.
I’ve been to Grand Cayman multiple times. But on this visit, the place absolutely looked the best I’ve seen it.
If you’re weary of what you may find at other Caribbean ports -- overly aggressive street vendors following you for blocks -- no worries, you won’t find them here. Yes, shop keepers beckon you inside and hand out brochures but it's not nearly what we experienced in many other ports.
You will find a British atmosphere with American influences; friendly locals; freshly painted or newly built buildings (many in attractive Colonial or Caribbean styling), and a welcoming atmosphere for visitors.
For More Information
For more information on the lovely beaches (such as the one at right*), attractions and eco-diversions of the Cayman Islands, visit www.caymanislands.ky
*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.