Soul-shaking scuba-diving, the best beach in the Caribbean and food so good you’ll be craving it for months: How the Cayman Islands became unbeatable at low-key luxury…
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Paradise is often an overused term when it comes to holidays. After all, what one person might deem a slice of heaven, another might find frightful.
But when it comes to the classics – silk-soft sand lapped by azure waters, food worth piling on the pounds for, sensational service and more adventures than you can shake a snorkel at – the Cayman Islands are triumphant.
Long known as the financial centre of the Caribbean, this trio of treasures is so much more than a playground for the rich and a cruise ship stop-off; it is low-key luxury served up family style. Just as good at five-star service as it is friendly ramshackle beach bar.
You’ll be welcomed like an old friend as soon as you arrive at the small airport in Grand Cayman. In fact, it will feel like a home away from home (it’s a British Overseas Territory), and your experience will only become more gratifying once you begin to explore this natural beauty.
Living up to its name, Grand Cayman certainly has lofty aspirations despite being just 22 miles long. Of course, it is an expert in luxury, with the stunning Seven Mile Beach lined with some of the world’s finest hotels. But while you can enjoy expertly-crafted cocktails and hand-rolled cigars, there’s another side to the island – literally.
Over in West Bay, water babies and wildlife enthusiasts are in their personal playground, ticking off must-dos such as exploring the beachside Barker’s National Park, horse riding in the surf or searching out shelled friends at Turtle Reef.
Then there’s the culinary exploration. The island’s menus are a melting pot of global deliciousness: international cuisine including Jamaican, European and Japanese are perfectly paired with fresh local ingredients.
What to do:
This destination is a diver’s dream. Touted as the best in the Caribbean, you could easily fill your entire trip with diving excursions and still not see the plethora of underwater sites on offer.
A bucket list’s entry to tick off is Stingray City, which is not to be dismissed as some sort of amusement park. Here, on a sand bank in the middle of the North Sound, you can meet, greet and feed the friendliest rays imaginable. First attracted by the unwanted catches fishermen dumped here decades ago, the rays now show up daily for snacks from tourists. Meanwhile, in Babylon, a deep dive into the waters will pay you back tenfold as you swim by black corals, barrel sponges, parrot fish (whose coral chomping makes the sand on the beaches so soft).
Meanwhile, foodies should snap up tickets to the annual Cayman Cookout. Hosted by French master Éric Ripert, some of the world’s greatest gastronomists, including José Andrés, Clare Smyth and Emeril Lagasse, gather for cook-offs, taste talks, lunches, beach BBQs and pool parties during the five-day eating extravaganza.
What to see:
If you can drag yourself away from bathtub-warm waters and lazing on your lounger, there’s a diverse array of adventures just a short drive away.
Wannabe geologists should book a tour of Crystal Caves, a labyrinth of glittering crystals – some of the largest ever discovered – at a depth of 300 metres, before meeting the local residents, a colony of bats.
Flora and fauna fans should stop at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, 65 acres filled with a host of exotic plants, trees and flowers, which have bloomed on the island since settlers first arrived. This is also home to the endangered native reptile, the Blue Iguana, one of the longest-living species of lizard in the world. Make sure to meet Sir Peter the iguana, who enraptured HRH Prince Charles during his recent official visit.
Where to eat:
The question is, how many places can you fit in to your holiday? The Caymanians are masters at hosting, so anywhere you choose to eat will be a pleasant experience.
If high end is your bag, it doesn’t get any better than Éric Ripert’s Blue at the Ritz-Carlton. The Caribbean’s only AAA Five Diamond restaurant elevates local ingredients to the heady heights of fine dining. Sitting in the poolside grounds, this elegant, white tablecloth experience is a must for a special evening.
For family style dining, head to The Brasserie, where Executive Chef Dean Max and Chef Artemio López put a very personal stamp on every aspect of their dining experience. So much so, the fresh fish is caught by the restaurant’s own boat, the seasonal salads and vegetables head straight to the kitchen from the on-site garden – and it even has a market! Everything is worthy of tasting, but don’t miss out on the Cayman Conch Salad, bringing one of the island’s most mouthwatering ingredients to life.
Meanwhile, lunch should be a laid-back affair; head to Rum Point on the island’s North Side and choose a bench on the beach before ordering huge platters of crispy calamari, surf and turf, and jerk chicken. This must be washed down with a Mud Slide, a deliciously moreish and boozy milkshake.
From conch to cassava cake: The Cayman culinary delights worth flying for…
Conch is a local delicacy in the Cayman Islands. A tropical marine mollusc famed for its ornate shell, they taste similar to scallops or clams and are served in a variety of ways, including in seafood stews and as ceviche.
But the favoured way of cooking them is in fritter form. The conch is deep fried in a spicy batter and served alongside tangy tartar sauce or jerk mayo.
Marinated in ginger, chilli and garlic, this slow-cooked beef is a Caymanian’s version of a roast dinner.
Once cooked down, the mouthwatering meat pulls apart and can be used on everything from sandwiches to pizzas.
A lot of the flavours and ingredients in the Cayman Islands are Jamaican-inspired or introduced, and jerk chicken and pork are two of the most popular.
The meat is marinated in the famed mix – cumin, nutmeg, all spice, smoked paprika, cinnamon, chilli and brown sugar – before being grilled or barbecued.
Served with coleslaw and corn on the cob, it’s best enjoyed on the beach at lunchtime with a rum punch or two.
A leafy green which is similar to spinach, this iron-rich plant is great with jerk, cooked in garlic, or served with eggs at one of the island’s famed Sunday brunches.
As the top predator in its food chain, the dramatic-looking Lionfish can cause huge amounts of damage to the coral reef because of their voracious appetites. So, to help cull back their huge numbers, they have become a delicacy in the restaurants around Grand Cayman.
Once its poisonous spikes are removed, the fish has a meaty taste, making it perfect for ceviche, tacos and fried in sandwiches – and is certainly something to brag about back at home!
A dense Caribbean bake is usually the centre piece of a celebratory spread in Cayman.
Made from grated cassava – similar to a yam – coconut milk, brown sugar and Caribbean spices, it’s a regular sighting on the shop shelves.
If you’re looking for something straight out of the pirates of the Caribbean, Cayman Brac is it.
With its moody, craggy bluff, sheer cliff drop and uncountable number of hidden caves and caverns, The Brac (as locals call it) looks like it should be the ‘X’ marking the spot on a treasure hunters’ map.
As different from its glamorous sister island Grand Cayman as is possible to be, this tiny island is only reachable by plane or private boat – and makes an amazing place to get away from it all.
Proud locals, Brackers, are calm, peaceful yet traditional folk, so don’t go there expecting to party the night away with a $40 cocktail in hand. This is a place to unplug and reconnect to nature. Swap sunbathing and selfies for snorkeling, fishing, hiking, rock climbing and spelunking (more about this later!).
What to do:
Unlike most of the Caribbean, made up of miles of sandy white beaches and lush undergrowth, The Brac offers something different: excellent hiking trails.
Make your way up to the tip of the Bluff which runs the spine of the island, passing cacti and aloe plants as you head to the lighthouse to take in the glorious views of the ocean.
If you fancy a less strenuous activity, Cayman Brac is an excellent place to fish. The shallow waters off the southwest coast are perfect for wading out for a bash at bonefishing, or fly fishing as Brits know it. Meanwhile, on a chartered boat you can cast your line into clear waters packed with marlin, tuna and wahoo.
Being a craggy island, The Brac is also unbeatable at caving – or spelunking as it’s enjoyably called. The most historic is St. Peter’s Cave, where locals have taken refuge for centuries during hurricane season. Hike through to enjoy sweeping vistas of Spot Bay below.
On the island there is also Bat Cave, where you can see the collection of roots from the trees above as well as, obviously, its very own collection of bats which hang from the roof of the cave.
What to see:
Parrots. Your best chance of spotting the national bird of the Cayman Islands is at the Parrot Preserve nature reserve. While their distinctive bright green plumage can make it a struggle to see them in the trees, this is your best bet – just make sure you head there in the early morning.
Make sure to stop by Heritage House during your time on the island. Set in beautiful landscaped grounds, this place includes a replica of a traditional house, similar to the ones built when settlers first arrived on the The Brac in 1833. It also takes you back to the natural and cultural history of the island, through activities such as watching local artists at work.
Where to eat:
While on such a small island, it’s only right to eat like the locals.
Luckily for you, they eat the most amazingly fresh old-school Caribbean cooking – and Bracker Barry does it to perfection. Cooking on his old oil drum BBQ, he serves up satisfyingly huge portions of jerk pork and chicken alongside fresh-baked bread. Barry’s Golden Jerk is only open on the roadside three days a week, so make sure to check beforehand.
More laid-back deliciousness is on the cards at long-running favourite, Star Island restaurant, a vibrant eatery serving up fresh seafood in the form of fish stew and shrimp curry washed down with rum punch.
The name gives it away. This tiny sister island is so untouched by tourism that the airplanes arriving from Grand Cayman land at its tiny terminal, where visitors can catch a glimpse of the resident green iguana which shades itself off the runway.
Once on the ground you’ll soon be glad of this low-key greeting committee. This is what escaping the rat race really feels like: tranquil, delightful solitude.
While Cayman Brac is known for its birdlife (it’s home to the Red-footed Boobies) marine life and stunningly beautiful natural scenery – as well as hikes, this is an island where you need to enjoy the water. Snorkel, swim, or dive around the surrounding coral beds in the morning, then spend your afternoon grilling fish, drinking icy beer and lounging in the sun.
What to do:
Grab yourself a kayak and paddle quarter of a mile offshore to find Owen Island. This tiny stretch of land is just beach and greenery, but you can while away a chilled few hours feeling as shipwrecked as would be actually enjoyable.
If you fancy diving deeper, tackle one of the region’s most popular underwater experiences. Bloody Bay Wall Marine Park is as exhilarating as it sounds; a sheer drop off point of 5,000ft into the dark abyss. This is an unforgettable activity, as you’ll be swimming alongside stingrays and turtles against one of the ocean’s most dramatic backdrops.
What to see:
The island by scooter. At just ten miles long, it doesn’t take long to get your bearings, but there is plenty of sea to soak up and store away for a rainy day’s commute once back home.
Head down to Point of Sand, Little Cayman’s best beach, which boasts a tiny pier and all the trappings of an idyllic day alone, as there are rarely more than a handful of visitors at any particular point.
Simply sit under a palm tree and just ‘be’.
Foodie’s paradise: Chef Clare Smyth on why the Cayman Islands has all the right ingredients…
As the World’s Best Female Chef 2019, she knows a thing or two about the perfect recipe for creating world-class food.
And for Clare Smyth (right), chef patron of two Michelin starred Core in London’s Notting Hill, thinks Grand Cayman has all the ingredients of a foodie’s paradise.
The Northern Irish chef was just one of the culinary superstars to attend the 2020 Cayman Cookout, an annual food festival uniting the best and brightest gastronomists on the planet in the stunning surroundings of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
But for Clare, what she really enjoys about Caymanian cooking is the level of pride locals have in their own produce.
She says: ‘The Cayman Cookout is fun and work for me. I have a deep affection for the Cayman Islands. It’s our (Britain’s) island and I do an annual lunch for the governor at Core back in London. I have a really close connection to the islands.
‘What I love most is to see what’s happening and what they do with the products.
‘I look to see what there is wherever I am in the world and cook with the ingredients in my personal style.
‘It’s the right thing to understand how the food gets to the table. I love it – it’s all new stuff.
‘But the best thing about being part of the Cookout is dealing with the Caymanian people; they are so kind. They have a value in people and really believe in leaving people with a good feeling.’
Where to eat:
While there isn’t a lot of choice in Little Cayman, that can be a benefit – it means you get to try out every restaurant on the island during your time there.
The resorts are the best places to eat seafood straight from the boat. At Pirates Point, you can dine out on delicious, gourmet recipes made by on-site chefs.
Meanwhile, another local institution, Hungry Iguana, serves up simple but mouthwatering bar food done Cayman-style. Conch chowder, crispy calamari and steak pomodoro pasta all make the menu, and are served up in one of the most stunning beach side settings imaginable.
For more inspiration for a trip to the Cayman Islands click here…
Book your Cayman trip today…
Cayman Islands – British Airways Holidays offers seven nights at the Sunshine Suites Resort from £1,049 per person. Price based on travelling from August 31 to October 10.
Includes World Traveller return flights from Heathrow and accommodation. Book by March 31. For reservations click here or call 0344 493 0120.
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