Stingray City is one of the Cayman Islands’ most popular attractions. // © Cayman Islands Tourism Department
Last month, Cayman Island tourism got a visibility boost when a photo went viral of three female tourists being “photobombed” by a smiling stingray at the island’s popular attraction, Stingray City. It’s the kind of social media attention a destination can only dream about, and it’s likely that tourists are booking flights to the Caymans based on the photo.
The Cayman Islands can be considered “Caribbean 101.” They are a perfect choice for first time travelers to the region, especially those who may be intimidated by visiting foreign lands. English is spoken; the dollar is accepted everywhere; and everything runs like clockwork, perhaps due to the Cayman’s success as a center for off-shore banking. Visitors will also find familiar brands, from Comfort Suites to The Ritz-Carlton, from Burger King to Starbucks.
The Cayman Islands consists of three islands. Grand Cayman is the largest of the three and where clients will find the greatest number of resorts, shopping, restaurants and attractions. It’s also the site of the famous Seven Mile Beach and the capital city of George Town. Cayman Brac, named for its 140-foot cliff, is smaller than Grand Cayman and more rustic. It’s a good choice for scuba divers, birders and those looking to relax in natural surroundings. Most people reach Cayman Brac via a 30-minute plane ride from Grand Cayman. Little Cayman is a favorite with divers and birders. The island only has 170 residents and is only 10 miles long and one mile wide. This is where you go to get away from it all.
If clients are in search of a Caribbean vacation with all the bells and whistles, they will probably want to spend the major part of their time on Grand Cayman.
During my visit to Grand Cayman, the experience that set the island apart from all others was Stingray City. The tour begins with a boat ride over calm water to a sandbar, where stingrays have been congregating for years. Decades ago, fishermen would clean their catch on the sandbar and throw the nasty bits into the sea, where they were gobbled by waiting stingrays. When the fishermen moved on, divers began feeding squid to the rays. Over time, when stingrays heard a boat motor in the water, they learned to associate the sound with a meal. Today, it’s tourists who wade through the waist-deep water, feeding the normally shy creatures. I will never forget our guide telling us to hold the squid as though we were holding an ice cream cone, and then having a stingray glide over my hand and peck away at the squid with its beak-like mouth. Also, clients don’t have to be strong swimmers, and if a person is too frightened, he or she can stay on the boat and watch the shenanigans. Cayman lore has it that kissing a stingray brings you seven years of good luck — just don’t kiss one on the mouth.
The Cayman Turtle Farm is another attraction built around an island creature. The 23-acre marine park presents an up-close view of Green Sea Turtles — more than 11,000 of them. It’s a working turtle farm, with specimens weighing from six ounces to 600 pounds. Visitors can learn about and observe sea turtles, island birds and caimans; swim and snorkel in a 1.3 million gallon sea water lagoon; and shop at a re-creation of a typical Cayman street.
Visiting the Grand Cayman Botanic Park makes a nice change of pace from the sunny beach. Here, visitors can stroll along shaded footpaths among island flowers and plants; from tea bushes to tamarind trees. A highlight of the park is the Heritage Garden, which contains a restored example of a traditional three-room Cayman wooden cottage which, amazingly, served as home for a family of 11.
Pedro St. James Castle is the oldest building on the island, dating back to 1780. More accurately called a plantation great house, the painstakingly-restored building now displays room after room of period furnishings, including bedrooms, dining rooms, a kitchen and even a courtroom and a jail. Pedro St. James Castle is also said to have one of the best sea views on Grand Cayman.