Say “the Cayman Islands” to the average person and the images that immediately come to mind are of stunning beaches, turquoise blue waters, scuba diving, luxury resorts, offshore banking, frozen cocktails and sunny, relaxing vacations. While none of these are inaccurate representations by any means, the country has a lot more to offer- both above and below the surface of the (indeed turquoise blue) water.
Discovered by Christopher Columbus, the Cayman Islands were once part of a single British colony that included Jamaica. Jamaica became an independent nation in 1962 while the Caymans remained an overseas British territory. The three islands that comprise the Caymans: Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, lie 90 miles South of Cuba at the precipice of one of the deepest oceanic trenches in the world, the Cayman Trench (depth 25,217 feet). Offering one of the highest standards of living of any island nation in the world, the Caymans thrive due to the country’s robust tourism industry, high productivity per capita, and the many investments that flow into the country as a result of the British government’s policy of no direct taxation.
Each of the three islands offers it’s own unique blend of outdoor adventures, delicious food & drink and opportunities to socialize or find solace. Deserted sections of beach can be found on all of the islands, and are perfect for burying your nose in a book or dreaming away the afternoon under the heat of the Caymanian sun, while the rolling waves lap at your toes. The people are so good natured and laid back that they’ve coined a term after the friendly, easygoing attitude there: Caymankind. It’s more than just a name though, it’s a state of mind that’s rather contagious.
During my two visits to the Caymans I made many lasting friendships, spent numerous nights partying until the wee hours of the morning, ate some of the most delicious food I’ve ever encountered, and dived in some of the most incredible visibility I’d ever seen while admiring and photographing colorful marine life and sizable shipwrecks. The Cayman Islands may well be the best overall vacation destination of anywhere in the world, with its safe and clean surroundings, unending assortment of things to do, people to meet and sights to soak in. Plus, if you really like it there, it’s a pretty darned good place to settle or revisit often, and it is comparatively financially feasible to do so in the Caymans, I might add. Now that I have your interest, let’s dive a little deeper.
This article offers a broad overview of all three islands, including tips on how to make the most of your time on each one. Feel free to skip ahead to the appropriate section for island-specific recommendations on who to dive with or where to eat, grab happy hour or find a good party. Alternatively, you can simply kick back, relax and enjoy some images.
Grand Cayman (kay-MAN)
Most people begin their journey by landing on the most populated of the three islands, Grand Cayman (the ‘Cayman’ in Grand Cayman is pronounced kay-MAN, whereas the other two islands are pronounced more like you’d imagine, KAY-men). Most of the time when I’m on site visiting a new place that I plan to write about, I get the heck out of the populated area straight away. After visiting Grand Cayman on both of my trips to the country, and learning about the many great places to visit and things to do, I highly recommend spending time on the largest of the three islands. Grand Cayman has everything to offer a traveling diver, foodie, party animal or honeymooner.
The first thing that you should know about Grand Cayman is that most visitors to the island find themselves staying somewhere along Seven Mile Beach. Studded with resorts, shops, condominiums and restaurants along this beautiful stretch of sand, and the parallel main road, Seven Mile Beach is a wonderful place to stay if you like the vibrancy of a well-used beach (I do), bars (I do) and bikinis (I most definitely do). Even though it sounds like it should be terribly overrun with tourists in ugly Hawaiian shirts and white socks with sandals-surprisingly, it’s not. Most of the cruise ship gringos stick to the over-priced shopping areas of George Town, the capital of the Cayman Islands, which lies further South.
Following the beach Northward, you can find my favorite oceanside watering hole, Calico Jack’s, a dive-y little beach bar that has live music weekly. Many of the local expats enjoy an after-work beer there. Keep heading North and the sand eventually gives way to rocky shores (which translates into coral in the water). Many divers stay North of Seven Mile Beach for this reason.
If avoiding the masses is your thing, Compass Point Dive Resort is a beautiful place to stay on the much quieter East End of Grand Cayman. The diving on that side of the island is fantastic, with walls that drop down into an underwater canyon, and the chance to see sharks and other large pelagic animals. The North side of Grand Cayman is also a special area for diving, but accessing it is weather dependent. Talk to your dive operator and try to get out to some of the Northern dive sites. You won’t be disappointed.
Rum Point is a charming area at the Northern end of the midsection of Grand Cayman. There are small shops, an ice cream parlor, a variety of restaurants as well as beach and water activities to enjoy there. The Caymanian government does a fine job of allowing for development and the inclusion of the finer things in life on Grand Cayman, without turning the entire island into one huge Señor Frog’s endless Spring Break bonanza experience. In particular, I really enjoyed kayaking in the Bioluminescent Bay near Rum Point, which boasts some of the highest levels of aquatic bioluminescence in the world. With each push of the paddle, the microorganisms in the water activate in unison, forming a brilliant, sparkling cloud of cyan colors. It’s one of those things you just have to experience for yourself; photos just don’t do it justice.
In addition to it’s fabulous land and above water attractions, Grand Cayman is home to perhaps the best recreational depth shipwreck in the world, the USS Kittiwake. In fact, my entire second visit to the Caymans centered around photographing this recently created artificial reef. The USS Kittiwake served the US Navy from 1946 – 1994. She was primarily used to support combat submarines, as well as to monitor diving and underwater rescue operations. Her most publicized achievement was the recovery of the black box belonging to the Space Shuttle Challenger, which tragically broke apart 73 seconds into its last flight in 1986. The Kittiwake is the first US Navy ship to be decommissioned and sank as an artificial reef in another country, which speaks to the friendly relationship between the Cayman Islands and the United States, as well as the determination and resolve of the folks in the Caymanian dive industry, who worked tirelessly to make it happen (it was a long journey).
Now, a definitive statement like “the best…” requires explanation. So, here are three reasons that make the Kittiwake the best shipwreck for the recreational diver.
One: The people behind the sinking of the ship knew what they were doing. The Kittiwake’s deepest point is at around 59 feet with her stern in the sand. The upper-most parts of the superstructure are so shallow that I could probably stand on top of the wreck and nearly have my head out of the water on a low tide. But deep shipwrecks are cool, you say? Why yes, they are- to the very small subset of people who can enjoy them in person. Even for those who can reach deep shipwrecks, both bottom time and ambient light come in extremely limited quantities. The special thing about the Kittiwake is that she has five incredibly vast decks to explore, all of which have been meticulously cleared of obstructions and sharp edges and made safe for divers and wildlife to enjoy (the lower decks are typically reserved for more seasoned divers). Numerous portholes and doorways original to the ship’s design offer an abundance of entry and egress points for even the most newly minted divers to take a peek inside. For those so inclined to penetrate this wreck, all of these openings offer not only the peace of mind that you can find the way out at all times, but they also make for a dazzling array of sunbeams that filter down into the interior of the wreck, casting dramatic shadows and illuminating everything from the ship’s hyperbaric chambers to its mess hall and bathrooms. I have not been inside a more accessible and exploration-friendly shipwreck than the USS Kittiwake (and I write this after just having finished shooting wrecks for a couple of weeks in Chuuk, Micronesia- so take my word for it).
Two: On most good days, you can see her in all of her glory, from bow to stern – all 250 feet of her length. The water clarity in the Cayman Islands is not measured in tens of feet or meters, as it is in most tropical places around the world, but oftentimes in hundreds of feet of visibility. I estimate that on one particular day out diving with Seasports, the visibility was well over 400 feet, judging by the sprawling canyons of coral and rock I could see around and below me. When the visibility is that amazing, the sun’s light starts doing strange things to your eyes. Some experience vertigo from looking out into the unending distances of the blue open ocean. This is gin-clear water we’re talking about. No annoying little particles floating around to create backscatter for photographers, and no murkiness to obfuscate the many stunning features of the Kittiwake. No other wreck in the world has been prepared and sunk as deliberately, or sits in as clear of water at a depth that invites exploration by divers from most skill levels, as the USS Kittiwake.
Three: Life is already colonizing the USS Kittiwake at an explosive pace. When I first dived it, the 250′ artificial reef had been underwater for less than three months. It was already home to a great number of species for having just been sunk in front of a stretch of beach that is basically just sand for a great distance in either direction. I saw schooling jacks, squadrons of squid floating in formation above the wreck, banded boxer shrimp, a goliath grouper and many pioneering invertebrate species already settling in. In years to come, the Kittiwake will undoubtedly become absolutely covered in life, taking its rightful place as a national treasure of the Cayman Islands and her carefully and sustainably managed dive travel industry.
Food & Nightlife on Grand Cayman
People who know me well know that I like me a good party. It’s hard to find excellent diving and ruckus-filled nightlife all in one place. Well, Grand Cayman not only offers both of these things, but also a plethora of outstanding restaurants that range from elegant and trendy fine dining to local, home-cooked Caymanian goodness. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of places that you’d do well to visit while on Grand Cayman, in no particular order.
- Calypso Grill – Ambiance is splendid, right on the water and the decor is in bold, tropical colors. The food and wine selection is excellent, and they’re famous for their bread pudding dessert.
- Calico Jack’s – My favorite little beach bar. They have live music weekly, and many of the local expat crowd gathers here for after work adult beverages. Mostly pub food.
- The Sunshine Grill – Best burger on the island. Perfect place for lunch, and reasonably priced.
- Pappagallo – Probably the most well-known Italian restaurant on the island (watch out for the auto-play audio on their web site).
- Rum Point Club Restaurant – Excellent seafood, vibrant atmosphere and of course, out at Rum Point which is a nice place to visit. Pricey.
- Casa Havana – Located at the Westin on Seven Mile Beach, you can have them set up your candle-lit table on the beach (for a fee). Pricey.
- The Wharf – Best place on Grand Cayman to watch the sunset with a cocktail. My advice is to do happy hour here and then pop over somewhere else for dinner.
- Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink – As the unusual name would suggest, this spot is where to go for the avant-garde palate.
Cayman Brac, or “the Brac,” as it’s called by locals, is the tallest of the three islands whose highest point is at an elevation of just over 140 feet. Its most defining geological feature is a small bluff that runs the island’s length, growing steadily in height as one heads East. The porous limestone that the bluff is comprised of has eroded over time, resulting in a number of small caves that can be explored with a local guide. Rock climbers also make good use of the bluff, and Cayman Brac has grown in popularity as a rock climbing destination over the past twenty years. I, for one, would rather spend time in the beautiful Caymanian waters or at the beach, than getting all sweaty and scraped up on those hot rocks – but to each his own. The bluff also creates a habitat for a number of interesting bird and plant species.
As far as diving is concerned, Cayman Brac has a nice wreck of its own, called the MV Captain Keith Tibbetts, which is actually a renamed, Soviet-built vessel that was originally commissioned for use by the Cuban navy, and later purchased by the Cayman Islands government to be sunk as an artificial reef. The Keith Tibbetts lays on its side and is well covered in marine life. At 330 feet in length, it’s longer than the USS Kittiwake but I would say it makes for a less interesting dive, since it’s not as well set up for penetration by recreational divers.
Night dives on the reef are especially nice on the Brac, where you can see nighttime critters such as lobster, squid, eels, crab and more. While I only did a handful of dives off of Cayman Brac during the couple nights I had there, the makeup of the marine life was different enough from the other two islands that I should definitely go back there for more.
The Brac has a different feel than the other two islands. Grand Cayman is populated, diverse, vibrant and fairly commercialized. Little Cayman offers solitude and is one of the most informal places I’ve ever visited. Cayman Brac is a friendly, slower-paced island where you’re likely to encounter more facets of everyday Caymanian life than on the other two islands, where the hallmarks of tourism are much more prevalent (though not necessarily in a bad way). I visited a small farm on Cayman Brac, and it was a pleasure to see where the local produce came from, as well as the largest pig I have ever laid eyes on.
Transport to Little Cayman and the Brac are by way of small aircraft on Cayman Airways, which has the best logo of any airline in the world: a swashbuckling pirate turtle, complete with peg-leg. The inter-island flights are very short, only 20-30 minutes, but can be a little turbulent depending on the winds. So, take some medicine if you’re prone to motion sickness. Your travel companions will thank you for not barfing in the small plane, which does get incredibly hot inside while on the ground.
Little Cayman is an extremely informal, laid-back island. It’s not uncommon to be greeted at the tiny airport by someone walking around barefoot. Things only get littler from there, as there is only one restaurant on the island that’s not affiliated with a hotel or resort, the Hungry Iguana. The name of this restaurant couldn’t be more appropriate, as there is at least one very large iguana sauntering around, looking for an easy morsel.
*Side note: I strongly recommend not feeding these critters. I watched in horror as a very large iguana launched itself at a man’s face (where his fork was headed) when he decided to stop feeding the reptile in favor of enjoying a few bites himself. The gentleman ended up with a clawed-up arm and minus a fair bit of blood. So, don’t feed the wild animals, please.
Little Cayman has a very easy feel to it, like everyone there knows just how good they’ve got it and that there’s no need to convince anyone else. In my estimation they’re 100% correct, and the ratio of residents to visitors appears to be in harmonious balance, as there are no signs of ugly sprawl or over-development. There are quite a few condominiums in a development called the Conch Club, but a quick walk along the beach in front of them told me that most of them laid vacant, at least during the season of my visit.
There’s not much to do besides relaxing and diving on Little Cayman – both of which the island offers in spades. The Southern Cross Club offers some extremely idyllic quarters, most of which are duplexes and one of which, “the honeymoon suite,” is a standalone abode complete with outdoor bathroom so that you can admire the unending shades of turquoise blue water as you do your business. The restaurant-bar at Little Cayman Beach Resort is probably the liveliest place on the island. Many dive clubs have left their mark there, as evidenced by the plethora of scuba club regalia, hand painted by people from around the world, that hangs from the ceiling. The pool is quite nice too.
Bloody Bay Wall
The real thing to write home about from Little Cayman is the diving. The reefs offer a veritable cornucopia of life, and the famous Bloody Bay Wall offers perhaps the healthiest and most stunning wall diving in the Caribbean. With barrel sponges so large that a diver can disappear inside of them, this well known reef is a must-see for all divers visiting Little Cayman.
One of my favorite experiences there was interacting with the large groupers that swim alongside divers to hide in their shadows while hunting the skittish squirrelfish. I’d inch myself closer and closer to these massive fish until I was swimming just beside them. I could hear the massive *chomp* of water being displaced, as they’d launch out from just under my arms toward a squirrelfish that had wandered just a little too far out from the coral head. In my excitement, I almost missed the four foot, green moray eel that was swimming out in the open. This was just a typical dive in Little Cayman, but every typical dive there is worth remembering.
Weather can make it tough to get out to Bloody Bay Wall, so plan ahead and get yourself out there earlier in your trip if at all possible, to avoid missing the opportunity during your stay. If you do find yourself about to leave prematurely, you could always just stick around indefinitely, as many have done before you.
Living & Working in the Cayman Islands
There is no sales tax, income tax, capital gains tax for individuals or companies, annual property tax or inheritance tax. Nada, zero, zilch. The government makes it money by implementing “indirect taxes” on its residents and visitors, such as import duties on goods from abroad, and taxes on tourist accommodations (currently about 20% and 10%, respectively). Imagine that, once you buy a home in the Cayman Islands it’s yours – no pesky annual property taxes to pay. Well, at least from a financial standpoint, sounds like an ideal place to live, right? Well, that’s where things get tricky for those looking to move permanently to the beautiful Cayman Islands.
Visitors to the country are given a maximum of 7 years to live and work there. After this duration, the person must either demonstrate that they’re a “key employee” or leave the country for one year before being granted another seven year visa. This might not seem too bad at first glance – but imagine how settled into a place you’d be after seven years, and then trying to figure out a way to put your life on hold there, while simultaneously putting down temporary roots for a year somewhere else. Many expats struggle with the policy, which is intended to give Caymanian citizens a leg up on the limited number of desirable careers in the Cayman Islands, that are sought after by thousands around the world, simply because it’s such a great place to live and work.
Recommended Dive Operators
- Seasports – Owner operated, Seasports has a personalized feel to it that’s unmatched. They picked me up on the beach right in front of my hotel. I don’t know of any other operator that does this (the pickups are typically by van, and then you’re driven to the boat). They also have the latest departure and a small, fast boat. I greatly appreciated the extra sleep I got, diving with Seasports. The majority of their business comes from repeat customers, which speaks volumes about their service.
- Living the Dream – These guys are very professional and in my opinion have the best dive boat (pictured above). The vessel can handle 16 divers with crew, but they only take 8 max (only 4 when I was onboard). The boat has a wide, flat deck with tons of room, a freshwater hose for showering off, a table and rinse bucket for cameras, and a safety “hang tank” provided in the water. Living the Dream was recently named #1 in the top 10 adventure tours in the world, by TripAdvisor.
- Ocean Frontiers – Dive operator of the beautifully appointed Compass Point Dive Resort, Ocean Frontiers is located in the serene East End of Grand Cayman. The dive staff here are extremely experienced and it is no more apparent than when your guide freehand draws an incredibly detailed map of the dive site during each comprehensive pre-dive briefing. The East End is worth making it out to; the diving is some of the best that Grand Cayman has to offer.
- In Depth Watersports* – While I did not dive with them, the owner is the highest rated technical dive instructor on Grand Cayman.
- Sunset Divers* – Dive operator of the Sunset House, which has become an institution on the island due in no small part to the presence of Cathy Church’s Underwater Photography School. Cathy Church is an icon in the dive industry and beyond the school, she owns and operates one of the best camera shops geared toward underwater photography in the world. Cathy Church has saved my butt on more than one occasion, when I needed a rare part or some help with gear while on Grand Cayman.
While some of the dive operators double as resorts, others simply take you diving. For most of my visit to Grand Cayman I stayed at the Villas of the Galleon, a managed condominium development that sits at the widest and most desirable point of Seven Mile Beach, right in between the much more expensive Ritz Carlton and Westin resorts. I highly recommend staying there if you’re looking to separate diving and accommodation, if for example you’re traveling with a non-diver who wants easy access to the beach and other activities. For travelers who would rather forgo proximity to Seven Mile Beach in favor of staying closer to the nice dive sites up North, consider Cobalt Coast Resort & Suites. Another way to go about finding accommodations is to look at vacation rentals by owner (VRBO).
- Reef Divers – Dive operator of the smoothly-run Brac Reef Beach Resort on Cayman Brac – these guys have two large boats that can handle large groups of traveling divers. The guides are friendly and likable. Diving on Cayman Brac is a bit less structured than on the other two islands as buddy teams can be fairly independent when diving with Reef Divers.
- Southern Cross Club – If money is not an object, spoil yourself by staying at and diving with Southern Cross Club. The dive staff are absolutely top grade. The boats are well equipped to make the journey to Bloody Bay Wall even in inclement weather and the resort itself is straight out of a fairy tale. Beyond that, the resort staff are impeccable and the food is absolutely off the charts. During a two week stay at Southern Cross Club, I wasn’t served the same meal twice.
- Little Cayman Beach Resort* – A great alternative to Southern Cross Club if cost is a consideration. LCBR is a much more social place where divers share stories of what they saw during the day and enjoy a cold beer by the pool while doing so. While I didn’t stay at this particular resort, it appeared to have nice common areas such as the bar, restaurant, pool and beach – paired with fairly standard accommodations. Little Cayman Beach Resort is the sister resort of Brac Reef Resort.
There are plenty of other dive operators doing business in the Cayman Islands, and I encourage people to do their own research when deciding which outfit to dive with. For those of you who don’t like to do time consuming research, take my word for it. I dived with each of the operators listed above, with the exception of those noted with an asterisk*, which I included for specific reasons. For a complete listing of all dive operators doing business in the Cayman Islands, please visit this page.
I would like to express my gratitude for the unique opportunity to thoroughly profile and photograph the Cayman Islands to the following people and organizations:
- Cayman Islands Department of Tourism – for supporting AtlasOmega’s original reporting on the ground and in the water. No other DOT has been as accommodating or professional. The Cayman Islands DOT sets the gold standard.
- Agatha Capacchione, Juliette Daviron and Katie Laucks – for making the whole thing happen and (Agatha and Juliette) keeping me out of trouble.
- Villas of the Galleon – for putting me up in the best location on Seven Mile Beach.
- Fellow Underwater Photographer and journalist, Sandy Sondrol – dive buddy and photo collaborator.
- Cathy Church & Theunis Neethling – for helping to get me shooting again.
- Doug Krause, Oceanic Worldwide – for demo units of the VT 4.0 dive computer used on location.
- Jennifer Olson, Women’s Adventure Magazine – most pleasant press trip ally.
- Aileen Torres, Outside Magazine – kept me from getting bored or sunburnt.
- Jim Soda & Kevin “Danger” Zimmer – the dynamic duo.
- Lisa Queen – island sweetheart.
- Scott Hartwell – for taking care of mum.
Random scenes from the making of this article.
All photos in this article by Calvin Tang unless otherwise noted – © 2007-2011, AtlasOmega