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Grand Cayman Overview
Imagine the stereotypical cruise port -- one with white-sand beaches, a plethora of duty-free shops selling jewels and liquor, and de rigueur water activities like snorkeling and scuba -- and Grand Cayman will likely come to mind. The cliche might just be based on the destination, with its lovely Seven Mile Beach, George Town's retail center and plenty of sites for diving, snorkeling and other water sports. Grand Cayman also celebrates marine life at Stingray City and the Cayman Turtle Farm, and even offers a twist on island paradise with the town of Hell (THE place from which to send the quintessential kitschy postcard).
Yet the cliche does have a negative side -- the crowds. It's not unusual to find five mega-ships docked in the harbor at the same time, which makes the tendering process slower than usual and the downtown streets jam-packed. (Building a cruise pier at which ships could berth is oft discussed, but it's never gone beyond the "pre-planning" stage.) The constant influx of cruise passengers keeps the waterfront restaurants bustling, so lunch in port is never a cheap affair. A stroll along the beach quickly turns into an obstacle course of sunbathing tourists, sandy children and water sports vendors.
Visitors have two choices -- embrace the crowds and touristy places with a laid-back island mindset, or escape them. Secluded beaches, like Cayman Kai or Rum Point, are a cab ride away, and even Seven Mile Beach has its less crowded spots. A mall at Governors Square offers designer clothes, housewares and even a healthy cafe for a refreshing change from pareos, shell necklaces and overpriced seafood. And the seemingly endless stretches of sea never feel too congested when you're swimming peacefully above coral formations.
And, like any Caribbean island worth its salt and sand, Grand Cayman has weathered a few hurricanes -- most recently Hurricane Paloma in November 2008. With a solid infrastructure in place, the island survived the storm and easily bounced back to its jaunty self. After all, if Grand Cayman didn't offer its 1.6 million cruise visitors the beaches, shops, restaurants and attractions they've come to expect, the cliche wouldn't hold. And where would Grand Cayman be then?
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Other Western Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Belize City • Costa Maya • Cozumel • Falmouth • Galveston • Grand Cayman • Havana • Houston • Montego Bay • New Orleans • Ocho Rios • Playa del Carmen (Calica) • Progreso • Roatan • Santiago de Cuba • Tampa
A "Cayman Mama" consists of Caribbean fruit juices and both gold and coconut rum. Try it at the Cracked Conch by the Sea (just past the Turtle Farm in West Bay; open from 11:00 a.m.).
The Caymans are known for being the jewelry capital of the Caribbean, with watches and diamonds among the most popular purchases. For a cheaper buy, Tortuga Rum Company (S. Church Street and various other locations) makes incredible rum cakes. You can sample the different flavors before buying.
English, the British version, is the official language.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Local currency is the Cayman Island Dollar; visit XE.com for current rates. U.S. dollars are also accepted throughout the island. The Cayman Islands are an international banking center, so finding a financial institution is not difficult. There are ATM's throughout downtown George Town.
Where You're Docked
All ships are currently required to anchor in the harbor and tender passengers on to the island. Ships tender passengers to one of two George Town docks (North or South), both of which are right in downtown George Town.
George Town, where there's a cluster of shops, restaurants and museums, is within walking distance of the dock.
On Foot: You'll be dropped a few steps from town, where you can easily walk to numerous shops and restaurants.
By Taxi: Cabs without meters are available at the dock. Rates are fixed and posted, but be sure to confirm the fare before the driver takes off. New cabs have meters. Most cabs are actually van-sized, and drivers may require a four-passenger minimum before they'll take you anywhere.
By Bus: You can hail minibuses that shuttle passengers along the main routes. To hail one, respond with a wave when the driver toots his horn. The bus depot is next to the library (across from the Hero's Square Fountain). There are stops next to popular attractions like Dolphin Discovery and Hell, but you may be taking the "scenic" ride when using the public bus (a good way to see the island).
By Car: Cico Avis offers one-day specials to cruise passengers and runs a courtesy shuttle between the port and the rental office (345-949-2468). Out at Seven Mile Beach, Andy's Rent A Car (345-949-8111) has good Internet discounts. Americans are required to purchase inexpensive driving permits, but you can buy them at the rental office. Remember, Grand Cayman is a British overseas territory, so drive on the left.
Watch Out For
Be cautious as you walk along Harbour Drive and Church Street, which only have sidewalks on one side of the street at some places. And, just as drivers need to heed left-side driving rules, pedestrians should stay alert for cars.
The top attraction on the island is Stingray City, a sandbar off North Sound where a population of rays once congregated to eat the leftover bits that fishermen threw overboard and now hang out to be fed squid by tourists. Visitors have the unusual opportunity to hop in the shallow water with the habituated creatures, feel their velvety skin and pose for photos. Guides accompany you.
The eclectic shopping in George Town includes handcrafted jewelry, antiques, salvaged coins and old maps -- as well as the expected duty-free buys. Cardinal Avenue is the main shopping street. On it, you'll find Caymania Duty Free, one of the island's best-known duty free shops for perfumes, cosmetics and gemstones. Kirk Freeport is another terrific duty-free choice, with Swiss watches, fine china and crystal. The Jewelry Center offers designer baubles. At the Galleria Plaza (West Bay Road), a number of shops sell duty-free stuff.
Scuba-diving and snorkeling are some of the Cayman Islands' main attractions. The Cayman Wall is a world-renowned dive site. Snorkelers flock to Devil's Grotto, south of Eden Rock, and also can check out the wreck of a 1940's schooner called the Cali just steps from the port. The shipwreck is also the most popular spot to "snuba" (a hybrid of snorkeling and scuba-diving, with air coming through long hoses connected to tanks at the surface, rather than tanks strapped to your back). Snorkeling right off the beach at some spots (near the Marriott at Seven Mile Beach, for example) is super easy and accessible. The island abounds with dive and snorkeling trip operators, such as Ocean Frontiers (800-348-6096) and Divers Down (345-945-1611).
The Cayman Turtle Farm is home to 16,000 turtles. It's a unique breeding ground and research center for five species of green sea turtles. Learn about conservation efforts, see hatchlings feed and perhaps be lucky enough to participate in baby turtle releases. The surrounding park has nature trails and bird- and shark-viewing opportunities. (Northwest Point Road, West Bay)
Been There, Done That
Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park consists of 65 acres of everything from nature walks and natural wetlands to colorful floral gardens. It's located in the North Side district. (Daily from 9 a.m.)
Located in West Bay across from the Turtle Farm, Dolphin Discovery provides a chance to swim and play with the clever marine mammals in a large pool. The dolphins will shake hands with you, steal kisses, hug you and tow you speedily through the water like you're water-skiing. There are educational components to the program, too. The dolphin program is run by the same company that has centers in Tortola and throughout Mexico.
The Pedro St. James "Castle" is considered the birthplace of democracy in the Cayman Islands. In 1831, residents met there to elect the Cayman's first legislative assembly. The great house itself, circa 1780, is the island's oldest stone structure. It has lovely grounds that are ideal for strolling. Check out the panoramic view from the Great Pedro Bluff. (Daily from 9 a.m.)
A shopping mall at Governors Square (West Bay Road) features a collection of single-story shops, laid out courtyard-style. A substantial department store is stocked with designer clothes, housewares and a cafe specializing in homemade smoothies and other healthy fare.
The town of Hell is centered on a field of crusty, black, razor-sharp rocks that look like the surface of, well, hell. It's admittedly a tourist trap with nothing to do but buy a few souvenirs and mail a postcard that's postmarked "Hell."
Best Beach Overall: Often named one of the best beaches in the Caribbean, Seven Mile Beach offers everything from beachfront bars to rows of umbrella-shaded lounge chairs and water sports. Among the placid and clear waters, you can find fine snorkel spots right off the beach -- the artificial reef in front of the Marriott is a particularly good one. Stretching 5.5 miles (not seven), the beach is public, so you can walk the length of it.
Best Secluded Beach: Most cruise passengers head to the beaches on the western part of the island. For seclusion, head northeast of George Town to Cayman Kai, Rum Point or Smith Cove. The drive will take 30-40 minutes, but the exclusion is worth it. There are beachside amenities available, including restaurants, beach resorts and water sports.
Best Beach for Water Sports: The best windsurfing is found off of East End, near Morritt's Tortuga Club. Cemetery Beach, off West Bay Road (just north of Seven Mile), offers excellent snorkeling and a reef that's close to shore -- as well as good shade.
Best Beach/Shopping Combo: Governor's Beach is a stone's throw from Governor's Square Mall, making it an ideal destination for people who want to chill out on a beach but get anxious about sparing enough time to shop, too.
Lunch spots are divvied up between downtown George Town and the various beaches. You'd expect them to be jam-packed, but we've found it easy to get a table if you go slightly earlier and slightly later than the peak lunchtime hours (say, 11:30 a.m. or 1:30 p.m.). Typical menus spotlight the same ingredients found on other Caribbean islands: beans and rice, steamed fish and coconut, though the Caymans are particularly known for conch-based dishes.
Michael's Genuine Food & Drink is the sequel eatery of James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Schwartz. (His first place is in Miami.) Schwartz is also the brains behind the 2011-12 menus at the chic specialty restaurant 150 Central Park aboard Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas. With his new restaurant on Seven Mile Beach, Schwartz crafts menus daily, based on the availability of locally sourced ingredients. Lunch offerings include crispy triggerfish sandwiches, rock shrimp salad with starfruit and avocado, and grilled pork chops with local mango chutney. Wash it down with homemade ginger-lemongrass soda. (47 Forum Lane, on Camana Bay; 345-640-6433; lunch served Monday through Saturday, noon to 3 p.m.)
The Grand Old House, located in an old plantation house, is full of atmosphere and ideal for a gourmet lunch. The building was shipped from Boston and reassembled in George Town more than a century ago. Reservations are highly recommended. (648 S. Church St.; 345-949-9333; Monday - Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
Near the Turtle Farm, the Cracked Conch features its namesake ingredient in an assortment of appetizers, including fritters, soup and ceviche. And, of course, you can order your conch "cracked" (pounded thin, dredged in egg, then flour, and fried); the dish is accompanied by pickled fennel and curried tartar sauce. Jerked meats (pork, chicken and burgers) are popular, too -- as are the sweeping sea views. (North West Point Road on West Bay; 345-945-5217; lunch served daily from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. December through May only)
Champion House is a favorite with the locals. It features popular island dishes like curried goat, braised oxtail and turtle stew. If you're there on a Saturday, don't miss the themed lunch buffet, featuring even more Caymanian and West Indian dishes. (43 Eastern Ave.; 345-949-7882; open 6:30 a.m. to midnight daily)
Staying in Touch
Numerous cafes, hotels and shops offer Internet access in Grand Cayman. Cable & Wireless, the main Internet provider for the Cayman Islands, has a "Communication Station" located next to Columbian Emeralds in George Town (open daily from 8:30 a.m.). You'll find other options at Galleria Plaza, West Bay Road and along Seven Mile Beach, and there is an Internet cafe up an alley opposite the main George Town post office, a five-minute walk from the tender stations.
Best Hands-On Choice for Nature-Lovers: To experience one of the most popular shore excursions in the world, visit Stingray City, where the stingrays are so tame they suck the squid right out of your hand. Warning: When there are lots of ships in port, the water gets very crowded, and the stingrays are positively swamped by eager humans (and vice versa). Duration: 3-4 hours.
Best Choice for Sightseeing Nature-Lovers: Take a ride on the Atlantis Submarine, a real, 50-foot-long submarine that carries 48 passengers to a maximum depth of 100 feet below the surface for a close-up look at the Cayman Wall. Not to worry -- you won't get wet or hot, as the sub is air-conditioned. Duration 1.5 hours.
Best for Active Types: The Cayman Jeep Wrangler Adventure and Beach Snorkel tour lets you drive your own 4x4 vehicle (in a convoy, of course) across the island. Stops include Morgan's Harbor, Barkers National Park, blue iguana habitat, the town of Hell and a rum cake shop. The trip wraps up with two free hours to snorkel and lounge at the Beach Club Colony. Duration 5.5 hours.
Best for Divers: Travel by catamaran to the Cayman Wall, where divers of all levels usually find favorable, calm conditions and warm water year round. Most outlets offer two-tank dives, taking you 100 feet deep in search of sponges, coral, sea turtles, reef sharks and dozens of fish species. Those seeking an easier, shallower dive should opt for an alternate trip to Casuarina Point near Devil's Grotto. Duration: 2 hours.
For More Information
On the Web: Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, 877-4-CAYMAN
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Cayman Islands
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: Cayman Islands Boards
--Updated by Elissa Leibowitz Poma, Cruise Critic Contributor