Cayman Brac is named for its most distinctive feature, a moody, craggy limestone bluff (brac in the Gaelic of the Scottish highlands fishermen who settled the islands in the 18th century) that runs up the spine of the 12-mile (19-km) island, culminating in a sheer 140-foot cliff at its eastern end, the country’s highest and easternmost point. The bluff holds the angry Atlantic at bay, gradually tapering like a coil losing its spring in the west. Nature’s artistry—and awesome power—is also evident in the many caves and sinkholes that stipple the crag, long rumored to hold pirates’ gold. The islandscape is by far the most dramatic in the Cayman Islands, though divers the world over come for the spectacular underwater topography and sponge-encrusted wrecks.
The Brac, as it’s commonly called, sits 90 miles (143 km) northeast of Grand Cayman, accessible only via Cayman Airways (and private boat), but it’s nothing like the cosmopolitan and Americanized Grand Cayman. With only 2,100 residents—they call themselves Brackers—the island has the feel and easy pace of a small town. Brackers are known for their friendly attitude toward visitors, so it’s easy to strike up a conversation. You’re never treated like a stranger; locals wave when they pass and might invite you home for a traditional rundown (a thick, sultry fish stew) and storytelling, usually about the sea, the turtle schooners, and the great hurricane of 1932 (when the caves offered shelter to islanders). Brackers are as calm and peaceful as their island is rugged, having been violently sculpted by sea and wind, most recently by Hurricane Paloma, which leveled the island in November 2008 (locals quip that all 18 churches sustained significant damage—but no bars).
• Diving. This is unquestionably one of the world’s great scuba destinations, from walls and wrecks exploding with kaleidoscopic marine life to wondrous man-made creations like the “Lost City of Atlantis” underwater installation.
• Lighthouse Walk. In addition to thrilling Caribbean vistas and an eerie, almost lonely lunar look, you experience nature’s fierce elemental savagery, the crescendo of crashing surf and whipping wind.
• Local Crafts. Several “old timer” artisans keep traditions alive. Visiting their shops (often in their homes) is a marvelous immersion in Bracker culture.
• Caving. Several caves are accessible—most easily, some via a mildly strenuous hike; in addition to striking natural formations, they played a vital role in sheltering islanders during storms.
• Museum-hop. The Cayman Brac Museum pays tribute to this remote island’s maritime tradition; though small, it’s jam-packed with odd, often poignant little artifacts.
The island is quite easy to navigate for the most part. One main road hugs the north coast, another the south, while a paved roller-coaster bypass (Ashton Reid Drive) across the Bluff roughly bisects the island, linking the two sides. Numerous gravel and dirt roads crisscross the island, but these are best avoided. The main hotel development and nicest beaches lie near the airport in the West End (the island’s lowest point, at sea level). The southern road climbs the Bluff, passing spectacular caves and cliffs, ending at the Parrot Reserve and Lighthouse, with their splendid panoramic trails. The north road accesses the tiny towns of Stake Bay and Spot Bay, where several historic attractions are located.
When to Go
The Brac is sleepy year-round, and there’s slightly less difference pricewise between low and high season than on other islands, since diving, climbing, and fishing excel throughout the year, as does bird-watching (though winter attracts the migrant fowl). Still, summer represents savings, though some properties might close for maintenance in September during hurricane season.
Getting Here and Around
Cayman Airways Express provides Twin Otter service several times daily from Grand Cayman to Cayman Brac. Depending on the flight route, you may land on Little Cayman first. The flight is approximately 40 minutes nonstop. Cayman Brac has its own small airport, Gerrard Smith International Airport (CYB).
You need a car to really explore Cayman Brac, though hotels often provide complimentary bikes. Your own valid driver’s license is necessary to obtain a temporary local driving permit ($20), which can be used on any of the Cayman Islands. Figure $35 to $55 per day, with compacts and midsize generally at the low end, jeeps and full-size median, and SUVs high-end.
Driving is on the left, British-style. Gasoline is quite expensive; there are only two stations (one at each end of the island), whose hours can be erratic. The main road circumnavigating the island and the bypass over the Bluff connecting the north and south coasts are well maintained. Yellow lines on roads indicate no parking zones. Most locals park on the side of the road.
Four D’s, which carries mostly Nissans, tends to have cheaper rates, but rarely offers discounts. B&S Motor Ventures offers compacts, midsize vehicles, jeeps, SUVs, and vans. The only on-site airport agency, CB Rent-A-Car, has Hondas, Hyundais, and Toyotas from compact to minivan. Most agencies offer a low-season discount and/or complimentary pickup and drop-off.
Contacts…B&S Motor Ventures.345/948–1646www.bandsmv.com.…CB Rent-A-Car.Airport Dr., Gerrard Smith Airport,West End, Cayman Brac345/948–2424, 345/948–2847www.cbrentacar.com.…Four D’s Car Rental.345/948–1599, 345/948–0459.
Brackers often wear several hats, so your tour guide might also take you out fishing or serve you drinks; all of them are fonts of local lore and legend. An island day tour generally costs $24 per person, with a minimum of two people. Occasionally, you may have to wait to be picked up. Your hotel can arrange airport transfers. Rates are generally fixed: $8 to the closest hotels like Brac Reef Beach Resort, $15 to Cayman Breakers near the southeastern tip, $20 to the Bight and Spot Bay on the north side. Drivers will generally load up passengers from several properties, including individual villas.
The tourist office and the hotels have a list of preferred providers, including D&M Taxi and Tours, run by David Hurlston, who has a minivan as well as a 24-passenger bus for larger groups. He and his daughter Monica are courteous, knowledgeable guides, as is his father, O’Neil, who sometimes spells him and can regale you with soft-spoken stories of scaling the Bluff to collect water or herd cattle at 4 am, as well as his adventures running bananas from Ecuador to Virginia.
Contacts…D&M Taxi and Tours.345/939–0583, 345/916–7226.
From 8:30 to 5 weekdays, the affable staff at the Sister Islands office of the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism can supply brochures on accommodations, dive outfits, activities, and nature and heritage trails. This office also services Little Cayman.
Contacts…Cayman Islands Department of Tourism.209 West End Community Park,West End, Cayman Brac345/948–1649www.caymanislands.ky.
Most resorts offer optional meal plans, but there are several independent restaurants on the island, some of which provide free transport from your hotel. Local restaurants serve island fare (local seafood, chicken, and curries, as well as addictive beef patties). On Friday and Saturday nights the spicy scent of jerk chicken fills the air; several roadside stands sell take-out dinners. Look for the local specialty, a sweetish, pillow-soft, round bread.
Prices in the restaurant reviews are the average cost of a main course at dinner or, if dinner is not served, at lunch; taxes and service charges are generally included.
Lodgings are small and intimate, and guests are often treated like family, congregating in the lobby or bar to swap stories, tall or otherwise, of their exploits. There are only a few full-service resorts, two of them condo complexes. There are also a couple of cozy guesthouses and several private villas (usually second homes for snowbirds) for rent throughout the island. In November 2008, Hurricane Paloma wiped out most of the island’s larger properties. All have been rebuilt, in some cases from the ground up.
Prices in the hotel reviews are the lowest cost of a standard double room in high season, excluding taxes, service charges, and meal plans (except at all-inclusives). Prices for rentals are the lowest per-night cost for a one-bedroom unit in high season.