A tale to tell: Why the Cayman Islands should be on everyone's destination wish list
Cayman Islands | October 10, 2023 | Hollie-Rae Brader
This British Overseas Territory gives its West Indian neighbours a run for their money
There are many places around the world that have taken my breath away. That first glimpse of Machu Picchu; seeing lions roaming the plains of Kruger National Park stalking their prey; snorkelling in French Polynesia; and diving with sea lions and turtles in the Galápagos – each experience had a profound effect on me for different reasons.
Perhaps somewhat naively, I didn’t expect the Cayman Islands to join that awe-inspiring list. I knew very little about this clutch of Caribbean isles before venturing there, and I think most Brits are likely to be in a similar position, which presents a real opportunity for agents to recommend a different Caribbean experience.
The Cayman Islands might not be the obvious choice, but this British Overseas Territory gives its West Indian neighbours a run for their money in every sense. Epic beaches? Absolutely. A bounty of water-based activities? More than you can count. High-end hotels? Of course. Sublime cuisine? It’s a foodie’s paradise. You get the idea… And as one of the most developed and safest destinations in the Caribbean, Cayman ticks a multitude of boxes.
Within minutes of setting foot on Grand Cayman’s famed Seven Mile Beach, I was questioning why more Brits don’t take the plunge to book this little slice of paradise, especially when there are direct British Airways flights from Heathrow via Nassau. Americans flood to the islands in their droves, but it’s still considered a best-keptsecret among Brits – and I’m proud to now sit in the “if you know, you know” camp.
Big-brand hotels are represented en masse on the main island, Grand Cayman, with Kimpton (Review, page 61), The Ritz-Carlton, Westin and Marriott all found dotted along the shores of Seven Mile Beach. At the other end of the spectrum, the best boutiques include the art deco-inspired Palm Heights and Botanica, a new property featuring one and two-bedroom cottages – both options will appease the appetites of well-heeled clients.
Seven Mile Beach is so perfect, it almost feels otherworldly. The azure waters are bath-like, making it next to pointless attempting to cool down from the mid-afternoon heat. The buttery, calm waters tempt everyone – groups gather for cocktails in the shallows while some happily bob along on paddleboards and others kayak. Giggling children attempt to jump over the waves hypnotically lapping the shores, while their parents relax on the sumptuous loungers provided by Kimpton Seafire, my home during my stay on the island. Nearby, jet skis roar as they zip along the coast, skimming the water’s surface and leaving swirls of bubbles in their wake.
Guests are drawn back to the shores each night, as the sun lingers on the horizon and the sky is illuminated by countless strokes of pink, punctuated by occasional candy-floss clouds. One evening we board a catamaran for a sunset cruise from the Kimpton to George Town and back, everyone completely mesmerised by the bright hues on display as we sail along the shoreline.
With beaches so pristine, it’s no surprise that water activities reign supreme. The island’s biggest attraction is Stingray City, a shallow sandbar in the North Sound where the graceful creatures are found in abundance. It’s said that fishermen used to throw surplus conch and fish into the calm waters here, and over time the stingrays began to associate the area with a guaranteed free meal. I visit with Cayman Luxury Charters, whose expertise and knowledge comes in handy when we discover that we’re purposefully visiting Stingray City on a day when fewer cruise ships are docked on the island.
On this occasion we’re joined by a smattering of yachts, but on busier days a huge influx of tourists flock here to see the rays. Our yacht departs from Camana Bay, a colourful new development home to a little harbour along with boutiques, bars and restaurants. During the short voyage to Stingray City, our captain tells us more about the lay of the land in Grand Cayman, detailing endless dreamy sunset locations and reels of snorkelling and diving hotspots.
The sandbank is teeming with stingrays. We jump into the balmy water to discover that a research team is surveying the numbers swarming around the bank, a clear demonstration of how important stingrays are to the islands. In fact, their value to the economy is staggering – our guide tells us that estimates suggest each ray generates around $500,000 a year to the local economy, and as such, these serene creatures are protected throughout the country.
However, the island isn’t known only for its stingray population. This place is an underwater treasure trove, with more than 300 dive sites across the islands as we soon discover during a spot of snorkelling and a visit to Starfish Point, named after the myriad starfish found hugging the shores.
Adventures continue on land, with visits to the glittering interiors of the Crystal Caves and the chance to see beautifully ornate gardens at Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park. Next to the gardens you’ll find Blue Iguana Conservation, which, we are told during a private tour, is effectively a rehab for “naughty or injured” endangered iguanas, and yet another example of the local desire to protect the island’s flora and fauna. History is preserved too, with Pedro St James – home to the first elected parliament of the islands in 1831 – a key cultural site for visitors to explore.
Water and wildlife aside, much of my time on the island is spent devouring gastronomic delights. Caymanians pride themselves on their culinary offering, and I’d be surprised if anywhere else in the Caribbean offered such a spectrum of cuisines, perhaps reflective of the island’s large expat community. Clients should head to Jessie’s Juice Bar in Camana Bay for its fruity smoothies and healthy dishes, while Bacaro in West Bay offers refined Italian options with a focus on seafood. Trendy spot Tillies at Palm Heights is an absolute must – and my favourite spot on Grand Cayman.
Here, before I tucked into a spread of ceviche with scotch bonnet, conch fritters and butterflied snapper, I strolled along the shores of Seven Mile Beach. Shoes in hand and feet dipped into the clear waters, slowly sinking into the powder sands below, I found myself completely at peace watching the slumbering sun disappear from sight. The beautiful beaches here took my breath away, and stole a little piece of my heart. I’m so lucky to be one of the few Brits to have ventured to the shores of Grand Cayman.
Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa
You’d be hard-pressed to find a hotel with a better location than Kimpton Seafire, located on the shores of pristine Seven Mile Beach. The hotel is west-facing, meaning guests enjoy the most outstanding technicolour sunsets – something I quickly discover on arrival, with the sky illuminated in half a dozen shades of red as I check in.
The property has 264 rooms and suites, and the decor throughout is fun and trendy. A neutral palette is complemented by bright, fire-engine-red sunloungers and rocking chairs, and Tiffany-turquoise pouffes. The food offering is exquisite, with three main restaurants plus a pool bar and cafe. Ave serves up a sumptuous breakfast followed by Mediterranean dishes at lunch and dinner. Avecita has a chef’s counter and offers tapas-style fare, but my personal favourite was beach-side Coccoloba, an open-air restaurant serving a variety of taco options and the creamiest piña colada.
The hotel’s spa, meanwhile, is a haven for relaxation and one of the best on the island. Families will adore Kimpton Seafire, especially thanks to Splash, a mini water park open to kids up to 12 years old. Hotel guests have access during their stay, but many locals buy day passes to enjoy the facilities. seafireresortandspa.com
Grand Cayman is home to exceptional hotels and a bounty of activity, but the sister isles of Little Cayman and Cayman Brac are also worth visiting.
The smallest of the three islands, Little Cayman offers secluded white-sand beaches and epic snorkelling. At only 10 miles long and one mile wide, the island is easy to explore. Wildlife enthusiasts should visit Booby Pond Nature Preserve, home to the largest colony of red-footed boobies in the western hemisphere. For further exploration, grab a kayak and head to neighbouring uninhabited Owen Island and bask in the stillness. There are no ferries operating between any of the islands, so access is only possible by air. There are several daily flights available to and from Little Cayman.
Cute boutique bolthole Le Soleil d’Or is the place to stay for high-end guests venturing to Cayman Brac. Part hotel, part farm, the property is as relaxed as they come with a charming bohemian, rustic style. The island is a hop, skip and a jump away from Grand Cayman – in other words, a 30-minute flight. Known for its diving, Cayman Brac is home to limestone caves and sinkholes aplenty, and there is even a sunken ship to explore.
Hollie is editor of Aspire’s print and online products. She is responsible for the running of the club and ensuring the content produced and the events organised are relevant to the Aspire audience. She was previously deputy news editor and cruise writer for sister title Travel Weekly. She loves exploring new destinations and is gradually ticking new countries off her list. She most enjoys writing about cruise, South America and Japan. Before working in the travel industry she held news reporting roles at the East Anglian Daily Times and Ipswich Star.