Grand Cayman may be the epi-centre of the Caribbean’s off-shore banking industry, but it’s the islands beautiful beaches, coral reefs and gorgeous diving sites that draw most people to this underwater paradise.
As our ship dropped her anchor into the pretty turquoise waters of Grand Cayman’s West Bay, the bright Caribbean sun began peaking through the early morning clouds. After a day at sea cruising from Tampa to the Western Caribbean aboard Holland America Line’s Veendam, we had finally arrived in our first port of call and we were anxious to get ashore.
The largest of the Cayman Islands, Grand Cayman is famous for its crystal-clear waters, beautiful beaches, amazing marine life, and fabulous diving and snorkeling. It’s also one of the most relaxing ports in the Caribbean because there’s virtually none of the annoying panhandling, petty crime or aggressive street vendors found in a few of the larger islands like Jamaica.
The downside is that the Caymans haven’t been blessed with any of the gorgeous mountains, lush valleys and beautiful rivers found on most Caribbean islands. In fact, the islands are relatively flat, dusty and colourless except for the daily intrigue that takes place in the 500 or so private banks located in the capital of George Town.
There’s still a few interesting things to see on the island including turtle farms, botanic gardens, and the village of Hell where tourists line up at the tiny post office to get their letters and cards postmarked from Hell. But most of the island’s beauty can be found on or below the water, which is incredibly pristine because there are virtually no rivers or streams to darken the coastal waters with soil run-off.
As a result, most of the cruise ship excursions involve activities like snorkeling off a reef, scuba diving to one of several old wrecked ships, getting a close up look at the local marine life from the comfort of a mini-submarine, or just lying on the sand at Seven Mile Beach. There’s also a wonderful underwater option called “Snuba Diving,” which involves walking on the ocean bottom some 15 ft below the surface in divers helmets connected to an air hose. Snuba is a great way for people comfortable with snorkeling, but not yet certified for scuba diving, to explore the undersea world.
And then there’s one of my favourite excursions of all time, the “Stingray City Boat and Snorkel Tour” – which I’ve now done twice. This excursion, which you can buy on the ship or privately right at the dock, takes you to a shallow sandbar inside the reef in North Sound where you get in the water with guides and help them feed the stingrays. As you walk in about four to five feet of water, the friendly stingrays swim by, gently brushing up against anyone who offers to feed them. The tour concludes with some time for snorkeling at a nearby section of the reef.
However, if you want to skip the stingrays, there are lots of great places for snorkeling that are much closer to where the ship’s tenders drop passengers in George Town. For example, it’s around a $8 taxi drive (per person) out to Seven Mile Beach or Harrison’s Cove. But if you don’t want to stray far from downtown, you can just walk a few minutes south to Paradise Restaurant where there’s snorkel gear for rent and plenty of colourful fish swimming nearby. After just a few minutes in the water, we had already spotted a turtle, a stingray, some parrot fish, and several large tarpon.
After an hour of snorkeling, we changed into our shorts and walked into town for lunch on the waterfront terrace at Guy Harvey’s. The restaurant provides a beautiful view of the southern end of West Bay where the cruise ships anchor, and it serves some of the best curried Mahi Mahi in Cayman.
Guy Harvey’s is also right next to some of the best retail stores in George Town, so we concluded our afternoon by strolling along the waterfront in search of some bargain-priced jewelry, rum cake and souvenirs. We found some great items, but our favourite was an adorable silver stingray necklace, which we felt summed up what our day in Grand Cayman had been all about: discovering the fabulous marine life and spectacular beauty offered by this underworld jewel of the Caribbean.