Though Grand Cayman is most celebrated for its aquatic activities, there’s no shortage of diversions to please landlubbers, history buffs, the ecocentric, and families, from turtle and butterfly farms to ruined fortifications. It’s just as alluring on land as underwater, gleaming with a ravishing dryness. Though not lush, the surrounding scenery can spiral from arid semidesert to tropical hardwood forests that pierce the sky like cathedral spires. Many attractions admirably attempt to foster a greater understanding of the environment and the importance of responsible stewardship of our resources.
Window-shopping in the captivating capital, George Town, ranks as many visitors’ favorite form of recreation and sightseeing. Not only will you find no additional sales tax, but there’s duty-free merchandise aplenty. And though most people’s image of Grand Cayman is bustling Seven Mile Beach, there are downright rural, pastoral pockets where if time doesn’t stand still, it slows to a turtle’s steady crawl. This is where travelers can experience the “real” Cayman, including craft traditions such as thatch weaving that have nearly vanished.
POINTS OF INTEREST
In the island’s original south-shore capital you can find an old cemetery on the shore side of the road. Graves with A-frame structures are said to contain the remains of pirates. There are also the ruins of a fort and a wall erected by slaves in the 19th century. The National Trust runs tours of the restored 1840s Mission House.
This affordable, intimate, Mediterranean-style seaside inn has roomy one-bedroom apartments and a pool overlooking a narrow beach with good snorkeling. You can find basic supplies some 10 minutes west at a shopping center in Savannah, but you’ll still need to rent a car to get around. The apartments enchant, with arcaded balconies, beamed ceilings, black iron grillwork, vivid throw rugs, and stylish artworks. The two-bedroom condos have a washer/dryer and dishwasher. The meticulous attention to detail is exceptional, from the high-thread-count sheets to the basket of suntan lotions in the lobby for forgetful guests. Other nice touches include World Phones with cheap fixed rates for rent; complimentary use of kayaks, rafts, and snorkeling gear; and fantastic packages including a rental car for week-long stays.
A thrust proscenium stage allows the Cayman Drama Society and its partner arts organizations to mount comedies, musicals, and dramas (original and revival) year-round.
Begin exploring the capital by strolling along the waterfront, Harbour Drive, to Elmslie Memorial United Church, named after the first Presbyterian missionary to serve in the Caymans. Its vaulted timber ceiling (built from salvaged wreck material in the shape of an upside-down hull), wooden arches, mahogany pews, and tranquil nave reflect the island’s deeply religious nature.
Just north near Fort Street, the Seamen’s Memorial Monument lists 153 names on an old navigational beacon; a bronze piece by Canadian sculptor Simon Morris, titled Tradition, honors the almost 500 Caymanians who have lost their lives at sea. Dive-industry pioneer Bob Soto, wife Suzy, and daughter-in-law Leslie Bergstrom spearheaded the project, which Prince Edward unveiled during the 2003 quincentennial celebrations.
A few steps away lie the scant remains of Fort George, constructed in 1790 to repel plundering pirates; it also functioned as a watch post during World War II to scan for German subs.
In front of the court building, in the center of town, names of influential Caymanians are inscribed on the Wall of History, which also commemorates the islands’ quincentennial. Across the street is the Cayman Islands Legislative Assembly Building, next door to the 1919 Peace Memorial Building. A block south is the horseshoe-shaped General Post Office, built in 1939 at the tail end of the art deco period. Let the kids pet the big blue iguana statues.
South of the Grand Old House, this tiny but popular protected swimming and snorkeling spot makes a wonderful beach wedding location. The bottom drops off quickly enough to allow you to swim and play close to shore. Although slightly rocky (its pitted limestone boulders resemble Moore sculptures), there’s little debris and few coral heads, plenty of shade, picnic tables, restrooms, and parking. Surfers will find decent swells just to the south. Note the curious obelisk cenotaph “In memory of James Samuel Webster and his wife Arabella Antoinette (née Eden),” with assorted quotes from Confucius to John Donne. Amenities: parking (no fee); toilets. Best for: snorkeling; sunset; swimming.
Built in 1833, the historically significant clapboard home of the national museum has had several different incarnations over the years, serving as courthouse, jail, post office, and dance hall. It features an ongoing archaeological excavation of the Old Gaol and excellent 3-D bathymetric displays, murals, dioramas, and videos that illustrate local geology, flora and fauna, and island history. The first floor focuses on natural history, including a microcosm of Cayman ecosystems, from beaches to dry woodlands and swamps, and offers such interactive elements as a simulated sub. Upstairs, the cultural exhibit features renovated murals, video history reenactments, and 3-D back panels in display cases holding thousands of artifacts ranging from a 14-foot catboat with animatronic captain to old coins and rare documents. These paint a portrait of daily life and past industries, such as shipbuilding and turtling, and stress Caymanians’ resilience when they had little contact with the outside world. There are also temporary exhibits focusing on aspects of Caymanian culture, a local art collection, and interactive displays for kids.
The portion of the island called West Bay is noted for its jumble of neighborhoods, many featuring ornate Edwardian homes built by seafarers, nautical tour companies (and real fishing fleet) at Morgan’s Harbour, and a few attractions. When traffic is heavy, it’s about a half-hour to West Bay from George Town, even with the newer bypass road that runs parallel to West Bay Road.
Secluded, spectacular beaches are accessed via a dirt road just past Papagallo restaurant. There are no facilities (that’s the point!), but some palms offer shade. Unfortunately, the shallow water and rocky bottom discourage swimming, and it can be cluttered at times with seaweed and debris. Kitesurfers occasionally come here for the gusts. Amenities: none. Best for: solitude; walking; windsurfing.
Scuba operator DiveTech’s stunning ecodevelopment (motto “living lightly on the planet”) features sustainable wood interiors and recycled concrete, a gray-water system, energy-saving appliances and lights, and Cayman’s first wind turbine generator. But you needn’t be an ardent diver or environmentalist to appreciate the nine striking units overlooking the eponymous dive site. Those glossy “granite” and “marble” surfaces might just be recycled beer or vodka bottles, and the mostly reclaimed, artfully distressed hardwood furnishings bespeak elegance. Each unit features an energy-efficient dishwasher and washer/dryer, solar panels, glass-block features maximizing natural light, walk-in closets, cathedral recessed ceilings, jetted tubs, flat-screen TV/Blu-ray DVDs, teak furnishings, and enormous patios with sensational sea views. Distinctive details include public bathrooms with bathysphere-like doors; salvaged antique anchors, buoys, and cannon as found art; a splendid on-site eatery, Vivo, which emphasizes fresh local organic produce; and a half-acre landscaped park gracing the dramatic ironshore. Best of all, these upscale green lodgings won’t cost too much green.