Cayman Islands Revival - My Family Travels

The Cayman islands are flourishing with more upscale lodgings, new recreation, myriad attractions and that same superb marine environment.

The Cayman islands, comprised of three islands, are a British Overseas Territory overseen by a governor appointed by the Queen.  In years past, the Caymans have been known for their superior diving, but is it possible the three tiny islands discovered by Christopher Columbus will be equally well known in the future for their family-friendly programs? That’s among the goals of tourism officials on what has always been one of the Caribbean’s most expensive beach getaways.

Meet a Trio of Cayman Islands

The Caymans are really buzzing. There are nearly 60 flights each week from 13 major US cities to Grand Cayman and it’s only an hour’s plane ride from Miami. This is the largest island, but that’s all relative since only 42,000 people live on an island that is only 22-miles wide.

The smaller islands, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, are accessible via flights from Grand Cayman on CAL Express, a commuter subsidiary of Cayman Airways.

Most of the tourism activity and many of the hotels on Grand Cayman are on the famous Seven Mile Beach, famous for its piercing water said to be seven shades of green (and really only about six-and-a-half miles, tourism officials admit).

The diving here is said to be among the best in the world, and since there’s not much industry but tourism, officials have tried to make it ever better. The dive industry was literally started here in 1957 when legendary Bob Soto opened the first dive shop in the Caribbean on Grand Cayman. Many of the 250 dive sites on the island have man-made attractions, for example, such as a 330-foot-long Russian warship.

Cayman Brac is from the Gaelic word for bluff and aptly describes the cliffs that soar to 140 feet. Families interested in hiking will find plenty to do here as will bird-watchers, butterfly experts and botanists.

Little Cayman offers quiet beaches and a general “get away from it all” feel. A good way for the entire family to see the smallest of the islands, only 10-miles long, is to rent bicycles.

Most international car rental companies operate here, but considering morning and afternoon traffic jams, visitors might choose walking, bicycling or taking reasonably priced taxis. The first thing visitors might notice is that you drive on the left side of the road, a la the United Kingdom. Signs warn street-crossing pedestrians that traffic is coming from the left or the right. The dollar here is on a fixed exchange rate: 80CI to US$1. You can use US dollars anywhere but there’s a good chance your change will come in Cayman money.


Grand Cayman Watersports

Bathtub-like, year-round temperatures of 79°F to 83°F make the islands popular for all water sports. Forty-five tour operators and recreation oufitters feature activities that include jet skiing, parasailing, kayaking, deep sea fishing and snorkeling, and in recent years, families have found more to do here than ever before.

The Caymans make it easier for families to combine fun with education with their Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants Sea School. Designed for children from 5 to 11, the program includes lectures on pirate ships and various hands-on nature activities.  The program runs during the summer season, June through September.

Certainly destined to be popular with youngsters is the Black Pearl Skate & Surf Park (345/947-4161) on Grand Cayman. The park has an intimidating concrete skate board layout with a 20-foot vertical ramp. Surfers have to settle for 11-foot-high, machine generated waves. Developer Mark T. Cotton boasts there is nothing like it anywhere in the world: a combination skate and surf park. Instructors are on hand, and parents might let highly skilled teens surf and skate while they spend time browsing at a dozen adjacent stores at The Shoppes at Grand Harbour. Don’t miss Books by the Bay for a great selection.

Stingray City and Stingray Sandbar are among the most popular attractions in the Caribbean for all ages. The “City” is in 12 feet of water where snorkelers pet and feed squid to the tame stingrays. Visitors who do not snorkel can have the same sensation at the sandbar, where the water is only waist-deep.

Atlantis Submarine Adventures (800/887-8571) offers a variety of underwater experiences. These include two-passenger submarines controlled by an outside person (riders can take over if they wish). Rides on top of the water are also offered through the company’s Cayman Wetlands Kayak Safari.

Grand Cayman Day Trips

The old Cayman Turtle Farm in Grand Cayman, home to thousands of green sea turtles, was once among the islands’ most popular attractions. After repairing the damage from hurricanes this past decade, it has evolved into the more elaborate 30-acre themed marine park called Boatswain’s Bay (345/949-3894).  This day-long excursion offers families a range of experiences including swimming with turtles in a 1.3-million-gallon lagoon. The facility is unusual in that it is also recognized as a serious research center. Admission is $45 for adults and $25 for kids 4-12; shops and island-related restaurants abound.

While the islands seem to offer an overwhelming number of choices for outdoor family activities, they also manage to have a few attractions to please those whose tastes might be towards the indoors.

There is a new, 10-lane Stingray Bowling Centre (345/945-4444), and, perhaps this was inevitable: O2B KIDS FUN ZONE (345/946-5439) recently became the first air-conditioned indoor children’s play area in the Caymans. The Fun Zone has play equipment, a toddler area, ride-on games and a small cafe where adults can watch the action or hide out.

Grand Cayman Trip Planning Details

There are a variety of places to stay that have fairly inexpensive rooms in the summer slow season. There are two that are generally recommended:  The Grand Cayman Beach Suites (345/949-1234), where Lil Turtles Kids’ Camp offers a wide variety of supervised children’s activities including arts and crafts for kids 3 to 12, and The Reef Resort (888/232-0541), which has 88 suites and 1600 feet of beach, the most beachfront of all hotels and resorts on the Caymans.

Possibly the best restaurant in the islands is The Grand Old House, a former Coconut Plantation on Grand Cayman (345/949-9333). Careful restoration efforts have kept it alive for 90 years.

Italian style is represented by Casanova by the Sea on the Waterfront in George Town (345/949-7633), which is where the cruise ships dock.

Also on the waterfront along Seven Mile Beach is the Seagrape Café (345/946-4433), which offers fresh fish lunches for a reasonable price. For an unusual setting the kids will like, try Ristorante Pappagallo which is in a lagoon resting on a 14-acre bird sanctuary (345/949-1119).

The Caymans, of course, are also known for their loose currency laws that tend to draw publicity-shy bank transactions (banks are found in George Town, where the cruise ships land). This is a touchy subject for Cayman tourist officials, who say the islands’ image of that business is exaggerated by movies and popular media.

But island officials are quick to offer information to travelers and have designed some very helpful Cayman Island sites including Dive Caymans; Cayman Islands Tourism for UK Visitors; and the Canadian Cayman Tourism site. Here are some quick tips I picked up during my visit:

Currency: Although the US dollar is accepted everywhere for payment, prices are noted in Caymanian dollars, usually also written as Ky$. Note that US$1 = $.80, making things about 20% more costly than they appear to travelers using US dollars.

Dress: Casual certainly, but not too revealing. Beachwear is frowned upon in public.

Driving: Caymanians follow the British custom of driving on the left side of the street. Note that many resident ex-pats drive cars with left-hand steering, though many rental companies offer right-hand steering cars.

Information: Cayman Islands Department of Tourism (800/346-3313, 345/949-0623)

Language: English is spoken, along with an island patois used by natives.

Medical: Recommended physicians– call General Hospital (345/949-8600); Professional Medical Centre(345/949-6066); Dr. Victor Look Loy (345/949-7535); or Dr. Shirley Cridland (345/949-5225).

Tipping: Service charges are added to all bills, so tipping is rarely necessary.

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