Up Close and Personal with the Cayman Islands
It’s not uncommon for vacations to bring out a person’s “wild side” but this is getting ridiculous.
Right now, just a couple of feet to my right, my wife is puckered up and planting a big fat kiss on a smooth 315-pound guy named “Richie.” And this isn’t even the first time this has happened on this trip! Just yesterday we watched her smooch some other dude named “Charlie.” Back home I’d be pretty bent out of shape but here, on Grand Cayman, it’s apparently a fairly common occurrence so I just roll with it.
Of course, “Richie,” is an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin and, “Charlie,” is a large southern stingray. When you visit Grand Cayman, just a quick two-hour flight from Atlanta, the opportunities to not only observe, but actually have hands-on experiences with these creatures are some of the most unique you will find in all your travels.
Upon arriving at Airport, we take a quick cab to the Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort which sits on the soft white sands and aquamarine waters of the crescent shaped Seven Mile Beach on the western side of the island. The property just experienced a $16 million renovation and has been transformed into a “Beach House” theme, a stylishly luxe, light and airy Hamptons-esque vibe with great restaurant concepts and truly the best service I have experienced in the Caribbean. Unquestionably this is the buzziest property on the island right now so we’ve come to the right place to unpack and seek out some natural adventures.
First we head for the Cayman Turtle Farm, an incredible sea turtle Mecca which includes a hatchery, turtle “touch tanks,” wading pools as well as an experience where you can actually swim alongside adult loggerheads. Having some knowledge about the fragility of this species and how difficult it is for young hatchlings to survive, it boggles the mind to see hundreds of these rare specimens thriving at different stages. Holding a young one is a thrill but nothing like swimming in the water with the larger ones, touching their hard, ornate shells and their soft, leathery flippers. Besides the turtle experiences, the park also has a large waterslide, “predator reef” where they house nurse sharks and other predatory fish, a bird sanctuary and the island’s sole crocodile in captivity so if you purchase the full experience this could easily encompass an entire day.
For our next adventure we rent a car and drive about an hour from Seven Mile Beach to the northern tip of Grand Cayman for Starfish Point, a sandy public beach with yards of waist-deep crystal blue water hosting a couple dozen massive orange starfish as big as Frisbees. Wade in the serene surf and scout for these beauties—just be sure you leave them as they are or don’t take them above the surface too long—there apparently used to be hundreds at the point but tourism has taken its toll on the population.
Next we set our sights on a dolphin encounter at The Dolphin Cove Grand Cayman, the site of the “Richie” kissing incident. Dolphin Cove is home to six Atlantic bottlenose dolphins that live in a large lagoon on the property. Guests can experience these gentle creatures in a variety of experiences depending on your size and swimming ability. We engaged in the “Ultimate Swim” where we donned life preservers and plunged into the warm water to “meet” our new friends. Our group of about 10 people was paired with “Richie” and “Lucea” and one by one we really got to know them. We got to get gently pushed and pulled by the pair, posed for photos with them and at the end plant a wet kiss on their snout, or rostrum. This should be a bucket list item for anyone, especially kids.
Finally it was time to visit Stingray City, the island’s main natural attraction. Located about a hundred yards from the shore on the northern tip of the island, this is a snow-white sandbar covered with crystal clear blue water--it essentially looks like a massive swimming pool in the middle of the Caribbean. Over time fisherman used to stop here to clean fish and discard the entrails making it a perfect feeding ground for stingrays and now visitors can wade in waist-deep water and enjoy these docile creatures. Unless you have a private boat the best way to get there is on Red Sail Sports catamaran which handles all the details. We sailed right to stingray ground zero which is where my wife met “Charlie” and we spent an hour watching dozens of these fluid gray creatures float by our ankles and skim the bottom like mobile amorphous manhole covers. Our Red Sail guide gently picked one up for us to hold and, yes, kiss.
After an exhilarating week on Grand Cayman making new friends, it’s time to return to normalcy—I have made it clear to my wife: no more kissing strange beasts! But we have our memories and lots of amazing video we shot with the GO PRO that the Marriott loaned us. And just for full disclosure: I kissed Richie and Charlie too.
Know Before You Go
Delta Airlines has daily non-stop flights to the Owen Roberts Airport (GCA). The flight is 2 hours going and a little longer coming back. The main resorts are a short cab ride from the airport ranging from $18-$25USD. Everyone happily accepts the US Dollar (USD) on the island but be aware that many things are priced in Cayman Island Dollars (CI) he Cayman Island currency is about 20% stronger than the USD. That $10 pina colada is actually $12 when you get your credit card statement at home.
Taxis are plentiful and there is a safe and easy public bus service which will take you anywhere on the bus line for $2.50 USD per trip. Once you are there you do not need a car but renting is an option. We rented a car from Avis right in our hotel lobby and drove freely around the island. Just be aware: as a British territory all of the driving is on the opposite side of the road than we are used to in the US. Even our car had the steering wheel on the right side. Nothing you can’t get used to.
The Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort sits on the famous Seven Mile Beach and is a 20-minute cab ride ($18USD) from airport and feels like a brand-new property after its $16 million makeover. They have several restaurants including the Veranda overlooking the Seven Mile Beach and top-to-bottom the most personable service I have experienced in all the islands. Included in your resort fee are LINUS Bike rentals, free snorkeling equipment and access to their man-made reef just off the shore, free GO-PRO rentals, paddleboards and kayaks, beach toys, a game room and free WI-FI throughout the property. Doubles start at $229. www.marriott.com
Red Sail Sports offers a number of sporting adventures including SCUBA dives on the sea life-rich reefs around Grand Cayman as well as boat trips to Stingray City. Without question this is the gold standard of tour operators on the island. You can book online or in person at certain hotels like the Grand Cayman Marriott. www.redsailcayman.com
Dolphin Cove is located about 15 minutes by cab from the Seven Mile Beach and creates, in their words, “emotional Disney-like” experiences through up-close experiences with dolphins. The different experience packages depend on your swimming ability and comfort with interacting with the dolphins. My 8-year-old loved the up-close encounters, it’s about as non-threatening as it gets and the staff and trainers are complete pros who will put you at ease. Experiences begin at $119 for adults and $99 for kids. www.dolphincove.ky
Cayman Turtle Farm is located about 20 minutes north of the Seven Mile Beach. There are 2 levels of admission; the basic admission ($18 adults/$9 children) will get you access to the hatchery, the breeding area (known as the Genesis Pond) and the turtle touch tanks. For admission to the swimming experience, the waterslide and aviary I highly recommend upgrading ($45 adults/$25 for children). www.turtle.ky