Water, water, and still more water rippling from turquoise to tourmaline; and underneath lies nature’s even more kaleidoscopically colorful answer to Disney World for scuba divers and snorkelers. The Cayman Islands’ early aggressive efforts on behalf of marine conservation paid off by protecting some of the most spectacular reefs in the Western Hemisphere. There are innumerable ways to experience their pyrotechnics without getting your feet or hair wet, from submarines to remote-controlled robots, not to mention a bevy of other water sports from windsurfing to wrangling big-game fish, parasailing to paddling kayaks through mangrove swamps.
While most activities on Grand Cayman are aquatic in nature, landlubbers can do more than just loll on the lovely beaches. There are nature hikes, bird-watching treks, and horseback rides through the island’s wilder, more remote areas. The golf scene is well above par for so small an island, with courses designed by Jack “The Golden Bear” Nicklaus and, fittingly, “The White Shark” Greg Norman. Even the most seasoned sea salts might enjoy terra firma, at least for half a day.
• A Ray-diant Experience. Feeding and stroking the silky denizens of Stingray City and Stingray Sandbar are highlights of any Cayman trip.
• Snorkeling or Diving from Shore. Whether you make it to Stingray City or even scuba dive, you’re all wet if you don’t check out the pyrotechnic reef life glittering just offshore.
• Hiking the Mastic Trail. The ecocentric should hike (and sometimes hack their way) through this mix of ecosystems, including ancient dry forest that embraces 716 plant species as well as (harmless) wildlife.
• ROV-ing the Ocean’s Depths. Deep See Cayman’s ROV robot explores 2,000 feet under the sea while you watch in comfort on a yacht; the kids can steer if they’re handy with joysticks.
• Putting on the Nightlights. Kayak when the moon is waning to a bioluminescent bay; millions of microorganisms glow like fireflies when disturbed.
The Cayman Islands are an ornithologist’s dream, providing perches for a wide range of resident and migratory birds—219 species at last count, many of them endangered, such as the Cayman parrot. The National Trust organizes regular bird-watching field trips conducted by local ornithologists through the Governor Michael Gore Bird Sanctuary, Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, Mastic Reserve, Salina Reserve, Central Mangrove Wetland, Meagre Bay Pond Reserve in Pease Bay, Colliers Pond in East End, and Palmetto Pond at Barkers in West Bay. Prime time for bird-watching is either early in the morning or late in the afternoon; take strong binoculars and a field guide to identify the birds.
One of the world’s leading dive destinations, Grand Cayman has dramatic underwater topography that features plunging walls, soaring skyscraper pinnacles, grottoes, arches, swim-throughs adorned with vibrant sponges, coral-encrusted caverns, and canyons patrolled by lilliputian grunts to gargantuan groupers, darting jacks to jewfish, moray eels to eagle rays. Gorgonians and sea fans wave like come-hither courtesans. Pyrotechnic reefs provide homes for all manner of marine life, ecosystems encased within each other like an intricate series of Chinese boxes.
Reef Watch. This progressive program, a partnership between the Department of the Environment and Cayman Islands Tourism Association, debuted in 1997 during Earth Day activities. The DOE designed a field survey to involve diving and snorkeling tourists in counting and cataloging marine life. To date, more than 1,000 surveys have been completed, helping to estimate species’ populations and travel patterns based on sightings and their distance from buoys and other markers, as well as gauging how often equipment touches the fragile reefs. Though not scientifically sound, it does enhance awareness through interaction.
Taxi drivers will give you a personalized tour of Grand Cayman for about $25 per hour for up to three people. Or you can choose a fascinating helicopter ride, a horseback or mountain-bike journey, a 4×4 safari expedition, or a full-day bus excursion. Ask your hotel to help you make arrangements.
Costs and itineraries for island tours are about the same regardless of the tour operator. Half-day tours average $40–$50 a person and generally include a visit to Hell and the Turtle Farm aquatic park in West Bay, as well as shopping downtown. Full-day tours ($60–$90 per person) add lunch, a visit to Bodden Town (the first settlement), and the East End, where you stop at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, blowholes (if the waves are high) on the ironshore, and the site of the wreck of the Ten Sails (not the wreck itself—just the site). The pirate graves in Bodden Town were destroyed during Hurricane Ivan in 2008, and the blowholes were partially filled. As you can tell, land tours here are low-key. Children under 12 often receive discounts.
Though Cayman has a large sailing community, it isn’t a big charter-yacht destination. Still, you can skipper your own craft (albeit sometimes under the watchful eye of the boat’s captain). The protected waters of the North Sound are especially delightful, but chartering a sailboat is also a wonderful way to discover lesser-known snorkeling, diving, and fishing spots around the island.
The most impressive sights in the Cayman Islands are on and under water, and several submarines, semisubmersibles, glass-bottom boats, and Jules Verne–like contraptions allow you to see these underwater wonders without getting your feet wet. Sunset sails, dinner cruises, and other theme (dance, booze, pirate) cruises are available from $30–$90 per person.
The proximity of healthy, Technicolor reef to the Grand Cayman shore means endless possibilities for snorkelers. Some sites require you to simply wade or swim into the surf; others are only accessible via boat. Nearly every snorkeling outfit follows the same route, beginning with the scintillating Stingray City and Sandbar. They usually continue to the adjacent Coral Gardens and often farther out along the Barrier Reef. Equipment is included, sometimes drinks, snacks, and lunch. Half-day tours run $35–$40, full-day $60–$70, and there are often extras such as kids’ discounts and a complimentary shuttle to and from Seven Mile Beach resorts. Other popular trips combine Eden Rock, Cheeseburger Reef, and the wreck of the Cali off George Town. Most decent-size boats offer cover, but bring sunscreen and a hat.
Windsurfing and Kiteboarding
The East End’s reef-protected shallows extend for miles, offering ideal blustery conditions (15 to 35 mph in winter, 6- to 10-knot southerlies in summer) for windsurfing and kiteboarding. Boarders claim only rank amateurs will “tea-bag” (kite-speak for skidding in and out of the water) in those “nuking” winds. They also rarely “Hindenburg” (stall due to lack of breeze) off West Bay’s Palmetto Point and Conch Point.