A June 2002 trip
to Cayman Islands by Foxboro Marmot
Quote: The local newspaper headline from a survey of travel agents read: "Cayman Islands - Too American, too expensive." Two days later the paper was frantically backpedaling - but was it true? Not far off the mark if you ask us - but there are ways to save!
Everyone should visit Stingray City for a hands on encounter with wild, but gentle, stingrays. The water is only four feet deep, so there's no need for anything more than a mask and snorkel. Over time, stingrays have come to associate boats with food: when one stops, it's quickly swarmed by stingrays gliding silently around. People in the water attract the rays, nosing around for handouts, but food doesn't seem to be the whole story. The rays don't seem to mind being touched but appear to go out of their way to brush up against people's legs. Some even act like they enjoy being picked up. Get past their ominous looks - dark, three foot long diamond shapes flapping their way through the water - and have fun!
Geographically, the island isn't much more than a small, flat sand bar. There's no memorable view or distinctive scenery identified with Grand Cayman.
It's a British Commonwealth member, but unlike Bermuda, there is no British feel to the island. Overall the island has a generic, non-affiliated quality about it. In the absence of any other influence, some visitors may agree that Grand Cayman is indeed "too American."
Interestingly enough, the island will embark on a "branding" (read as: "advertising") campaign near the close of 2002 to "better position the Cayman Islands" for potential visitors. (God I hate this marketing-speak. It begs the question, "What do they plan to do for positioning, move them offshore Maui?") Given the reality of Grand Cayman, it's hard to see what can be done to develop a separate identity.
There's not a lot to see around the island, but if you've got more than two people in your group and don't like being limited, rent a car. They're inexpensive - which makes sense when you see the tiny, flimsy cars involved. We got a car seating 4 adults for under US per day. It wasn't all that comfortable but we weren't going far.
The hotel is across the street from the beach. Some people might like a beach adjacent to their hotel, but we preferred the separation. A screen of sea grape trees and other vegetation made it feel more isolated, more like a secluded Caribbean beach.
Alright, it isn't THAT secluded, a low building houses a small bar, restaurant and rest room, while Red Sails Sports rents jet skis, sea kayaks and snorkel equipment. Lounge chairs and towel service are available. On top of this, when cruise ships come to town, many bus their guests to this very spot on Seven Mile beach. You can be sharing the beach with a dozen other folks and a minute later three busloads of people are wandering onto the sand. They start leaving early though, most of them are heading back to their ship by 1 pm.
If you want seclusion, it's available. Oddly enough, none of these people ever leave their bus stop and the lounge chairs. Grab some towels and walk 10 minutes north along the shore to recapture the feeling of being on a secluded Caribbean beach.
The hotel itself is fine, the newest hotel on the island (as of June 2002), replacing an older Holiday Inn. Rooms are spacious, clean and everything still feels new. There's a pool on the back side that comes in handy when the afternoon sun on the beach gets too intense.
One drawback: limited dining choices. There's a breakfast buffet in the morning and dinner service at night. Lunch is served at the beachfront restaurant. Unfortunately, for those who prefer more options, there's only one restaurant (The Neptune) within reasonable walking distance.
Be aware that taxes and fees will inflate the price you pay for any room on Grand Cayman considerably - in my case they increased the room rate by almost 30%. Also, rates are considerably higher 'in season'.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on July 4, 2002
The first tank is 6 feet deep, about 30 feet across and contains a couple hundred turtles, all between 9 to 12 inches around. We're allowed to reach in and pick them up! Oh boy! (Hint: use two hands and get 'em by the sides.) OK... got one! Now what do we do with it? Well, we can take it out of the water and get a good close look, eye to eye; we can turn it around and look at the other end, or tilt it over to see the bottom; we can hold it under the water; we can watch it squirm and claw to escape; then we can let it go and catch another one! This is fun until we're on our fifth or sixth turtle, when it starts to get a bit redundant (except for Biff, who doesn't lose interest until his ninth).
There are a few more turtles in shallow holding tanks and a cage with two or three parrots and iguanas native to the Caymans we pass by on our way out. The exit takes us though the gift shop which is larger than the displays outside. Could that be all there is? Are we finished already?
Wait! There's more across the street! As we go in the attendant sternly warns us not to put our hands into these tanks and not to pick up any turtles here.
Good advice! A paved walkway goes between eight large circular tanks filled with murky water and big turtles - most are two feet long or more. According to a sign, there are 1200 turtles in each tank although we can only see a couple of dozen in the murk. When we see their mouths it's easy to understand why we keep our hands away from these guys. These nippers are sharp!
But under the blazing Caribbean sun, our interest in seeing the next tank of big turtles, and the next tank, and the tank after that, and the last couple of tanks, quickly wanes. Let's beat it out of here and relax in the shade with a cool drink at the Cracked Conch restaurant next door.
Better yet, let's forget about the Turtle Farm and go straight to the Cracked Conch. We won't be missing much and will save a few bucks to put toward the drinks!
Note: The Cayman Turtle farm suffered considerable damage from a hurricane not that long ago. It may have been a better experience before the hurricane and may improve as facilities are restored.
Member Rating 1 out of 5 on July 4, 2002
Eden Rock SCUBA, less than 5 minutes walk from the center of Georgetown, offers one of the lowest priced intro dives on the island at $75 US. We were concerned that conditions might be murky because of boat activity in Georgetown harbor, but once in the water you'd never know how close civilization is: the water's clear, the coral's colorful and fish are plentiful.
The classroom session, conducted at a picnic table overlooking the harbor, is straightforward and simple enough. Our instructor takes about a half-hour to step through a series of flip charts explaining the equipment and SCUBA principles, the most important being "Keep breathing!"
Then it's time to put the gear on (that air tank is REAL heavy) and get into the water to perform a few simple skills before going deeper. Not everyone is comfortable underwater. We had only three people in our class and one person decided this SCUBA thing just wasn't for her. Despite a good amount of personal attention from our instructor, she announced snorkeling was just fine.
It can be tough to get through the skill demonstration because it's conducted in shallow water close to shore where waves rock you back and forth. Other unsettling feelings: breathing out makes air bubbles cascade up right in front of your mask and the BCD (buoyancy compensating device, a vest that can be inflated from the air tanks) might ride tight against your chest preventing you from taking a full breath. Now the skills: (1) take your mouthpiece out and put it back, (2) take the mouthpiece out, drop it and recover it, (3) take out your mouthpiece, shift to an auxiliary one from the instructor's tank, then switch back to your own, and (4) let water into your mask, then clear it.
That's the hard part. The actual dive is easy!
At Eden Rock the intro dive reaches a depth of 40 feet. There are all kinds of tropical fish ranging from tiny blue things to larger, multi colored parrotfish, up to 4-foot long tarpon. Coral outcrops rise 20 feet from a white sand bottom, forming little canyons to pass through in some places. The clear water lets you peek into crevices too narrow to swim through and see what's hiding inside.
Periodically the instructor signals us to check our gauges to be sure we all have enough air in our tanks. Then we're off again, eventually reaching the surface about 40 minutes after the start of our adventure. As one person said, "I felt like I was in a National Geographic special!"
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on July 4, 2002
This provides a very convenient system, at least to Americans, as it avoids all transaction fees for converting currency. But it has a second effect that shows up, particularly at restaurants, where prices are always given in $ CI. As you peruse the menu, prices don't seem out of line with what you're used to seeing. It's only when the bill comes and you recall the 25% premium for Cayman dollars that you realize, yep, that was expensive.
One other thing: Most restaurants automatically add a 15% gratuity to the bill. If the service was great, you may want to add on another couple of dollars - but don't make the mistake of adding an 18% tip when the establishment has already taken 15%.