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Explore the Cayman Islands

Explore the Cayman Islands, a group of islands in the Caribbean Sea approximately ninety miles south of Cuba. Grand Cayman is by far the largest, the most populous, and the most visited. Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, together referred to as the Sister Islands, are remote, rural, and sparsely populated. The great majority of visitors arrive by cruise ship to spend the day in Georgetown or doing activities elsewhere in Grand Cayman. Those who vacation in Cayman often come for excellent scuba diving or for the white sands, turquoise waters, and exclusive hotels of Seven Mile Beach. The Cayman Islands function as a self-governing British Overseas Territory. George Town is the capital and with only 20 000 people, is the largest settlement in the islands.

Grand Cayman

George Town – the islands’ capital city, the largest settlement, and the hub of commerce and tourism. It is also the location of the main ferry port. Its population is approximately 20 000 inhabitants with as many as 10 000 to 15 000 thousand additional cruise ship visitors and tourists on busy days. George Town has a small, historical downtown area with a number of attractions, shopping areas, and restaurants within a few minutes’ walk from the ferry port.

Seven Mile Beach – a long stretch of white sand beach, calm turquoise waters, and exclusive luxury hotels. There are also shops and restaurants across the street. The beach itself is public and can be accessed through marked “public beach access” paths if you are not staying at one of the hotels.

West Bay – The region north of George Town on the west side of the island. Home to many Caymanian residents as well as popular tourist attractions like the Turtle Farm and the Dolphin Discovery.

Bodden Town – A smaller settlement on the south side of the island.

East End – The farthest east region of the island. Sparsely populated and home to a few resorts.

North Side – The north shore of the island, west of Frank Sound Road. Home to beachside cottage mansions, a few resorts and restaurants, and a few tourist destinations including Rum Point and Starfish point.

Sister Islands

Cayman Brac –

Little Cayman –

History

The Cayman Islands were colonized from Jamaica by the British during the 18th and 19th centuries. Administered by Jamaica from 1863, they remained a British dependency after 1962 when the former became independent.

In addition to banking (the islands have no direct taxation, making them a popular incorporation site), tourism is a mainstay, aimed at the luxury market and catering mainly to visitors from North America. Total tourist arrivals exceeded 2.19 million in 2006, although the vast majority of visitors arrive for single day cruise ship visits (1.93 million). About 90% of the islands’ food and consumer goods must be imported. The Caymanians enjoy one of the highest outputs per capita and one of the highest standards of living in the world. The Cayman Islands are one of the richest islands not only in the Caribbean but in the world.

Climate

Tropical marine. Warm, rainy summers (May to October) and cool, Great vacation spot, relatively dry winters (November to April).

Landscape

Low-lying limestone base surrounded by coral reefs. Highest point: The Bluff on Cayman Brac, at 43m.

Rentals are generally safe, reliable, and readily available. You must be 21 years old to rent a car. Seatbelt use is mandatory. Tourists who wish to drive on island must obtain a temporary local license called a visitor’s permit by showing their home driver’s license and paying a $16 CI fee. Rental agencies offer this service onsite. Visitors who plan to borrow a vehicle from a friend or relative need to get a permit from the police station or the Department of Vehicle and Driver’s Licensing.

On foot

If you don’t mind the heat or the sun, walking is a perfectly good way to get around Georgetown or the Seven Mile strip. Most populated areas have sidewalks and the island is quite safe for pedestrians practicing common sense (e.g. avoiding walking alone at night in deserted areas wearing expensive looking jewelry). Pedestrians may find it confusing or unsettling that they are honked at frequently while walking. This is quite typical here and it’s not a sign of anger from drivers! While there are designated bus stops, busses (that look like small vans) are usually just flagged down by pedestrians walking along the road. So the honking is simply a “heads up” that a bus is approaching, in case you were hoping to take one.

Talk

The Commonwealth variety of English is the official written language and the local creole is spoken by virtually everyone. Native Caymanians have a pleasant and unique accent with many charming turns of phrase. For example, in Cayman rumors are not heard “through the grapevine”, instead they’re heard “along the marl road”. Locals pronounce Cayman as Kay-MAN, and not KAY-min.

What to see. Best top attractions in the  Cayman Islands

Cayman Islands National Museum, Harbor Drive, George Town. F 9AM-5PM, Sa 10AM-2PM.

Ft. George remains, Harbor Dr. and Fort St., George Town. Remains of a 1790 fort built to protect the harbor.

Cayman Maritime Treasure Museum, North Church St., George Town. Boat building, turtling and pirates.

Hell, West Bay. This is a common tour stop, often shrugged at by those who go there. It consists of black volcanic rock formations that are thought to resemble what Hell might be like. You can get postcards postmarked there, and there are a couple of gift shops selling all the Hell-themed souvenirs imaginable.

Boatswain’s Beach, formerly the Cayman Turtle Farm, is a 24-acre marine park. The world’s only commercial Green Sea Turtle farm, it is home to over 16,000 sea turtles, ranging in size from six ounces to six hundred pounds and now even houses an alligator. Boatswain’s Beach features a 1.3 Million Gallon Saltwater Snorkel Lagoon where visitors can swim with turtles and other marine life; a Predator Tank (viewable by snorkelers)is filled with sharks and huge turtles; an Aviary and Iguana sanctuary; a Nature Trail and “Blue Hole” Sunken Cave, turtle farm tours with full access around the breeding ponds; Caymanian Heritage Street with porch-side artisans and crafts and restaurants featuring classic and contemporary Caymanian cuisine;a large pool with a waterfall and a state of the art research and educational facility focusing on the conservation of sea turtles.

Pedro St. James Castle, Savannah. This 1780 stone structure, surrounded by a preserve, has hourly multimedia shows.

Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, North Side. Daily 9AM-6:60PM. Much to see here, with a visitor center, short walking trail, endemic blue iguanas, and a c. 1900 Cayman farmhouse and sand garden.

Camana Bay. A small area near Georgetown featuring a mix of shopping, restaurants, outdoor art, and public space.

National Gallery of the Cayman Islands. Local artwork by Caymanian artists.

What to do in the Cayman Islands

Stingray City

Stingray City is Cayman’s most popular attraction and really a unique experience where you can see, touch, and even hold a stingray! The “city” is a sandbar near a channel in Cayman’s barrier reef. Historically, fisherman used to come to the sandbar to clean the fish they had caught throughout the day. They threw the unwanted bits overboard, which started attracting stingrays. Eventually, this practice grew and became a tourist activity. The stingrays live in the ocean and are technically wild animals, but they have become quite accustomed to people and they flock to the area looking for squid handouts from guides and visitors. In case you think stingrays sound dangerous, don’t worry. They do have a scary-looking barb near the tail, but they aren’t going to use it on you. Stingray injuries mainly occur when an unsuspecting beach-goer steps on a sleeping stingray hidden in the sand at the water’s edge. The standard advice is simply to shuffle your feet to avoid stepping on one by accident. Many tour operators run boat rides to Stingray City, sometimes in combination with other activities like snorkeling or sailing.

Coral 101

What is coral? Coral looks like underwater rocks or plants, but it is actually a collection of tiny animals!

Why does coral matter? Coral reefs are extremely bio diverse and they play an important part in the health of the oceans and the planet!

How are coral reefs doing? Sorry to say, but the coral reefs of the world are not doing so well. Global warming and interference from humans has caused measurable damage to reefs in Cayman and around the world.

How to protect the reefs? The number one rule is don’t stand on the coral! Corals are extremely fragile and if every visitor broke off a little piece here and there, the whole reef would be demolished soon enough. Avoid wearing sunscreen when snorkeling or choose reef-safe products. In terms of eco-friendliness, Cayman is quite behind other developed countries. Tourism dollars have a huge influence in Cayman, so show your support for environmentally-conscious products and tour groups!

Beaches

All shoreline and beaches on Cayman are considered public property. Even in areas with luxurious resort hotels, the beaches are for everyone’s use. Many areas have marked “public beach access” paths leading from the road to the beach in between private properties or hotels. Beaches are not supervised by lifeguards. They vary in terms of amenities. Some have docks, benches, bathrooms, picnic shelters, and fresh water showers and others are less maintained.

Seven Mile Beach. The most popular beach in Cayman. A miles long section of white sand beach north of Georgetown.

Cemetary Beach. Technically a portion of Seven Mile Beach. North of the main tourist areas.

Governor’s Beach. Another section of Seven Mile Beach, near the main hotels.

Smith’s Barcadere. A small beach with fine sand, shady trees, and a bit of surf most days. Popular with locals and snorkellers.

Spotts Beach. A small beach area sheltered from the waves by the coral of the barrier reef.

Diving

Ever heard of Australia‘s Great Barrier Reef? Well, Cayman’s got a barrier reef too, and it’s a scuba diver’s dream! If you are already certified, there are plenty of options for offshore diving or a spot on a dive boat. There are also options for “try it out” fun dives for beginners that don’t require any certification.

Snorkeling

Want to take your first look at sea life? You’ll need a mask, a snorkel tube, and a pair of fins. Many dive shops rent gear, or if you join an organized snorkel tour they will provide you with some. It takes a little getting used to, but you can see lots of neat fish without venturing far from the beach, so give it a go! Don’t feed the fish! Some people think it’s cute, but it’s actually unhealthy food for them, plus it trains them to chase tourists looking for a handout. And watch out: the chubs bite!

Festivals

Batabano, the Grand Cayman carnival, occurs near the end of April or early May. Batabano is a weekend of live steel band music, revelers parading the streets in colorful costumes, and eating exotic foods. Cayman Brac holds a celebration called “Brachanal” the next Saturday after Grand Cayman’s.

Pirates Week Festival, George Town with events country-wide. Mid-November (2008: November 6-16). Fireworks, “pirate landings”, street dancing, heritage day events in Cayman towns.

Gimistory: The Cayman Islands International Storytelling Festival Country-wide. November.

Cayfest: The Cayman Islands National Festival of the Arts. Celebration of local arts, crafts, music, dance, drama etc. April

Horseback Riding

Hiking

Owing to generally flat terrain, there’s not a lot of hiking to do. However, the island maintains one cross country path called the Mastic Trail. The trail is well signed, and guided tours are available.

Other Sites and Activities

Dolphin Discovery Across from Boatswain’s Beach, people are allowed to swim with dolphins

Cayman Crystal Caves, 69 North Sound Road, Old Man Bay. 90 minute tour of three cave sites on the North Shore of Cayman. Easy accessible and very interesting.

What to buy

The Cayman Island’s dollar (KYD) is the ninth highest valued currency unit on the globe and the highest-valued dollar unit; be careful and always know if you’re paying in CI or US dollars!

Since 1972 the Cayman Islands has its own currency, whose basic unit is the dollar, issued in notes with denominations of CI$100, 50, 25, 10, 5 and 1 and coins valued at 25 cents, 10, 5 and 1 cent. The CI dollar has a fixed exchange rate with the US dollar of CI$1 equals US$1.22. Or, the US dollar equals CI $.82.

The US dollar is ubiquitous and typically accepted by hotels, restaurants, and shops at the rate of one US Dollar for every 80 Cayman Islands cents, with change usually given in Cayman Island dollars.

Most shopping is in George Town and Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman.

Caymanite is the Cayman Islands’ own semi-precious stone.

Black Coral is often used in jewelry here.

Rum cake from Tortuga Rum Company is very popular with visitors to Grand Cayman.

There are many tourist shops where you can buy t-shirts, hats, postcards, and much more. Don’t buy any seashells though; beachcombing is much more fun, and cheaper.

Costs

Almost everything must be imported and is subject to a 20% import tax (sometimes higher, depending on the product); food and other items are relatively expensive.

What to eat

The culinary influences of many regions are reflected in Cayman cuisine. Local specialties such as fish, turtle, and conch are delicious and often less expensive as they don’t need to be imported. With more than 150 restaurants, unwinding with a good meal in the Cayman Islands can include chic five-star dining as well as a more casual venue under the stars, or even a themed event. From traditional Caymanian seafood to Caribbean to Thai to Italian and New World cuisine, discerning diners are sure to find something to fit their taste. Other exciting options include dinner cruises on luxury catamarans and even an authentic tall ship.

While in Cayman ask your taxi driver for their favorite local Jerk Stand (a MUST try), and also ask them the tourist spot they suggest. A decent amount of Gluten Free, Organic, and Kosher Foods are available at local supermarkets, contact the Jewish community of Cayman for Shabbat Dinners.

Finding budget food on the Cayman islands can sometimes be a challenge as the cost of living is higher than most other countries including the united states. Most restaurants are expensive. However, there are still a few options for charming casual places to eat.

Any restaurant food can be expensive on Grand Caymen, even for fast-food.

What to drink

Alcohol is expensive on the islands, even from the liquor stores.

Liquor stores close at 22:00, and are mostly closed on Sundays.

Visitors flying into the Cayman Islands are able to bring either 1 bottle of duty free spirits, 4 bottles of wine or champagne, or one 12 pack of beer per person 18 years of age or older. Exceeding this duty allowance will result in substantial taxation to the excess items.

A variety of local drinking establishments range in price and consumer base yet all preserve a sense of Island flair.

Where to sleep

Accommodations are ample but tend to be relatively expensive, even on the two smaller islands. There are several luxury resorts with all amenities, as well as other less expensive options. In addition, the cost of food and drink is high in Cayman, but many visitors stay in condominiums with kitchen facilities and take advantage of the first class supermarkets and cook and barbecue on the beach.

Cayman is not known for all-inclusive resorts, but there are two smaller Caribbean style properties that do offer this option.

The majority of hotels and resorts are in Grand Cayman, where the main hotel “strip” is Seven Mile Beach, home to several major chain hotels and numerous condominiums. Seven Mile Beach is a public beach, so you are able to walk the entire length of the beach.

Off Seven Mile Beach are several dive resorts and, in the Eastern Districts, numerous private homes and villas, as well as several resorts and attractions for those preferring a more tranquil vacation.

Little Cayman focuses on dive vacations and has a unique charm, as well as some of the best diving anywhere.

There are no campsites on any of the islands and camping is very rare except during Easter. There is an Easter tradition among Caymanians of camping on the beach.

When you want to explore the Cayman Islands, lodging is expensive on Grand Cayman, but Vacation Rentals are a cheaper option.

Official tourism websites of the Cayman Islands

For more information please visit the official government website: 

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