Starfish, stingrays and serious relaxation
Chipper fish: up to two dozen friendly stingrays gather at Stingray City sandbar, and a cookout at Rum Point. Photographs: Peter Ruck/Baldwins/CIDT and Patrick Gorham/CIDT STAR OF THE SEA Inspecting a cushion starfish on Little Cayman. Photograph: Stephen Frink/Getty
It’s worth waking up early in the Caymans, so that you can fit as much as possible into each day of your stay, writes SYLVIA THOMPSONGETTING OFF our plane at the tiny international airport on Grand Cayman was like waking up in a dream. The heat wafted through our clothes as we searched for a taxi to bring us to the northern tip of the island, the largest of these three small Caribbean islands. We crossed the entirely flat island in 45 minutes to get to the beachfront villa in Cayman Kai that would be our home for the next week.
Choosing to stay on this part of the island meant that we could explore it as a family and ignore, as much as possible, the popular perceptions of the Caymans as a tax haven, honeymoon destination or clubbing Mecca – the Seven Mile Beach strip of hotels and bars was on the other side of the island.
The next morning, at 5.30am, I woke to a cloudless sky brightening over the Caribbean. Early mornings became an enjoyable part of the week: the children were in the pool before breakfast, covered in factor-50 suncream at 8am and indoors in the middle of the day.
The next day we booked a dive boat and instructor to go snorkelling above a coral reef a couple of kilometres off the coast. It was the highlight of the trip. Looking down through warm water at flapping coral and bright fish, breathing slowly in and out as the colours changed with the sun’s rays, was both exhilarating and surprisingly calming.
The next day we visited Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, which is fighting to halt the decline of the island’s blue iguanas. These lizards and their green cousins, which roam freely around the islands, are high on the list of Cayman must-sees. Only about 20 wild blue iguanas were found in the last census, making these small reptiles an endangered species. The park’s Blue Iguana Recovery Programme hopes to change that by releasing animals back into the wild.
On Tuesday we drove to George Town, the islands’ capital, catching a glimpse of all those offshore banks and duty-free shops on our way to an underwater trip in the Atlantis Submarine. Joining us on this once-in-a-lifetime experience were American passengers from the many cruise ships that tour the Caribbean. We took a short boat trip out to the submarine, which was coming up to the surface as we arrived. One of only 11 tourist submarines in the world, it brought us down about 30m to view the coral and tropical fish through portholes. We adults were fascinated; the younger children quickly tired of the 30-minute experience.
Back on dry land the turtle farm was our next stop. The sea turtle is the national dish of the Cayman Islands, but because of overfishing you now need a licence to catch these beautiful creatures. Boatswains Beach Turtle Farm and Marine Park was our best family outing of the week. As well as the elegant, colourful turtles, and exotic fish and birds, the park has an excellent lunch bar and tastefully landscaped outdoor fresh- and saltwater swimming pools where you could swim, snorkel or snooze the entire day.
On Wednesday we took a kayaking trip to get a close-up view of the islands’ protected mangroves, whose water-based root system protects the coastline from erosion and flooding. It was too windy for a long trip with young children, but Tom Watling of Cayman Kayaks found some beautiful red starfish to show them.
Stingray City, a shallow area of sea just off the coast, is probably the Caymans’ biggest tourist attraction. Some of us jumped into the water to get a feel of being close to these potentially dangerous fish – but quickly swam off to snorkel in the Coral Garden, for another glimpse of one of the world’s most famous reefs. In fact, the Cayman Islands are themselves formed from coral, sitting on an underwater mountain range that runs between Cuba and Belize.
On Thursday morning we got up early to visit Little Cayman, 50 minutes away by air. Riding on a 20-seater plane, we looked down on the flat islands and turquoise seas below. Little Cayman has a desert-island appeal, with just a couple of shops and resorts along the coast. We hired a minibus to take us to Point of Sand, the most isolated part of the island, for a picnic on a beach whose stunning beauty was marred by the amount of rubbish left behind by a previous group of picnickers. As the Caymans must import almost everything, the absence of recycling and a broader ecoconsciousness is striking. Peter Hillenbrand, who set up the Central Caribbean Marine Institute and runs the Southern Cross Club resort on Little Cayman, seems to be one of the few environmental pioneers in this part of the Caribbean.
On Friday we opted for a quiet day at the swimming pool, then headed down to a nearby beach bar for a leisurely lunch and swim at Rum Point, where you can swim, lounge in a hammock or have a cool drink.
On Saturday morning we visited Dolphin Cove, one of two controversial dolphin parks recently built on Grand Cayman. Locals are unhappy that the animals are enclosed; we decided to visit with an open mind. Sadly, we had to agree that these creatures are far too intelligent to be asked to do tricks for visitors day after day, even if the children enjoy touching them.
Lunchtime and it was time to leave. Time to take those three flights back across the Atlantic and wake up from our dream.
Where to stay
Villas could be perfect for larger families. You’ll find a range of shoreline villas in Cayman Kai, in northern Grand Cayman. Check out the five-bedroom Villa Emmanuel ($750-$1,575 per night) and the two-bedroom Cool Change ($290-$490 per night). caymanvillas.com.
Little Cayman Beach Resort. Little Cayman, 00-1-727- 3238727, littlecayman.com. Perfect for a get-away-from-it- all holiday, this resort is on the quietest of the three islands. $1,094-$1,585 for seven nights.
Kaibo Yacht Club apartments. Some of these small apartments have their own tiny indoor pools; others share a pool. From €2,000 a week. ownerdirect.com.
Where to eat
Rum Point. Grand Cayman, 00-1-345-9479412. The must-see spot on the north side of Grand Cayman has a formal restaurant that specialises in local seafood. Its beach bar is perfect if you want to nibble in a hammock under a shady tree or at picnic tables. The latter is perfect for families, as the children can paddle along the shoreline while adults eat. Kaibo Bar Grill. Cayman Kai, Grand Cayman, 00-1-345-9479975, kaibo.ky Choose between informal outdoor or indoor eating or formal dining. Specialities include jerk chicken, grilled tuna, deep-fried conch and rum punch. Live music on Tuesdays.
Where to go
Ocean Frontiers. East Side, Grand Cayman, 00-1-345- 9470000, oceanfrontiers.com. Accompanied dives and offshore snorkelling trips for all levels of experience.
Boatswain’s Beach turtle farm and marine park. Grand Cayman, 00-1-345-9493894, boatswainsbeach.ky. Perfect place for a family trip. See turtles of all sizes, swim in fresh- and saltwater pools and have lunch in the shade.
Cayman Kayaks. Next to Kaibo Yacht Club, Grand Cayman, 00-1-345-7463249, caymankayaks.com. Tom Watling takes all ages out on trips through the mangroves or around the coastline, night and day. He’s careful, considerate and kind to children.
When to go
The average temperature year round is 28 degrees – slightly higher between April and September. Hurricane season runs from June until November. December to March is the most popular time to visit.
British Airways (ba.com) flies to Grand Cayman via London and the Bahamas. Its flights to Miami also connect with Cayman Airways (caymanairways.com) services to Grand Cayman. For packages from Ireland see caribbeancollection.ie.
Sylvia Thompson and her daughter were guests of Cayman Islands Department of Tourism