Grand Cayman: the financial, diving and snorkeling capital of the Caribbean, according to many. While cruise tourists may not have much interest in Grand Cayman as a tax haven with more than 500 off-shore banks, the success of that business, together with the tourism industry, has resulted in Cayman Islands having the highest per capita income in the Caribbean, and one of the highest in the world. One obvious result of that is that the government of Cayman Islands has successfully prohibited begging and street/beach vendors - a welcome change from a number of other Caribbean countries. Grand Cayman lacks any serious crime or racial tension.
Despite the "Grand" name, Grand Cayman is only 22 miles long, and 8 miles at its widest point. But Grand Cayman is large compared to the other two small islands of the Cayman group, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. Almost 25% of the 30,000 population of the Caymans live in George Town, the capital on Grand Cayman where your cruise ship will anchor just offshore.
The Caymans are a British Crown Colony - and two of the consequences of that is that traffic drives on the LEFT, and English is the official language.
While Columbus named the Caymans in 1503 "Las Tortugas" for the enormous number of tortoises he saw, the current name is derived from the Carib Indian "Caymanas", the word for crocodiles, original inhabitants of the Caymans.
The Caymanians are descended from British, Irish, Scottish and African settlers. With over half the population of mixed origin, there's virtually no racial bias or social stratification. There is, however, perhaps more of a conservative environment than in some other Caribbean countries. Dress regulations prohibit any form of public nudity, and swimsuit wear, other than on beaches, is discouraged. Littering and conservation laws are enforced with stiff fines. Drug use meets with prison terms and heavy fines (as it does with many other places in the Caribbean). The Cayman government has met with some controversy in the past by not allowing a "gay" cruise to visit Grand Cayman. And recently, the government has prohibited cruise ships from stopping at Grand Cayman on Sundays (to take effect later this year), so that the George Town citizens may enjoy the Sabbath.
The Caymanian national logo is "Sir Turtle", a peg-legged turtle pirate, reflecting part of the history of the Caymans with turtles providing much of the food and livelihood of the islands in the past, and its history as being a hideout for pirates and a refuge for shipwrecked sailors and army deserters.
The most famous tourist destination in Grand Cayman, and perhaps in the whole of the Caribbean, is Stingray City. What a thrill, to be able to walk (or snorkel) in shallow water, surrounded by 50-60 prehistoric-looking stingrays who playfully bump you while they look for food handouts, and who will sit still (swim still?) while you tickle their bellies. It's important to note that you don't have to be able to swim or to snorkel to enjoy this experience.
Stingray City History
The "City" in Stingray City simply means that its home for many stingrays. The location is actually a sandbar in the shallow waters of the north west corner of Grand Cayman's North Sound, and near a barrier reef. Despite its shallowness, it takes a 30 minute boat ride to get to the sandbar. Stingrays are bottom dwellers who feed on clams, crabs, shrimps and small fish in shallow water. Fisherman cleaning their fishing catch in the calm waters behind the barrier reef threw the offal overboard, and hungry stingrays thereby found a new haven. Local skin-divers, starting in the 1980's, started to feed the stingrays by hand.
Rays and Stingrays
Most everybody recognizes a stingray as having broad, flat, almost diamond-shaped bodies, with no distinct head. Although eagle rays and manta rays may also be found at Grand Cayman, the friendly rays at Stingray City are "southern Atlantic stingrays", sometimes just "southern rays". The "ray" family is closely related to the shark family, although sharks feed on stingrays, despite the rays' barbed tails.
Stingrays take their name from the barbed spine at the base of their long, whip-like tail, which can inflict a dangerous poison. But this barbed tail is primarily a weapon for the stingray when it is sitting on the ocean floor, looking for crabs. When swimming as they do in Stingray City, the stingrays are not capable of directing their tail, so the chances of a sting are remote (in fact, I've never heard of any one being stung at Stingray City). The tour organizers won't allow participants to wear flippers - an extra precaution should a stingray be sitting on the bottom - your bare feet are unlikely to set its tail in action. The "wingspan" on stingrays can reach up to six feet across. The big rays are all females and in fact, the rays at Stingray City are invariably female - the males stay near the outer reef, and let their partners do the hobnobbing with the tourists.
It's a bit of a chore to get to Stingray City, but absolutely worth some inconvenience. You'll start by having to take a ship's tender or local boat from your anchored ship to the main George Town dock. With hundreds of others milling around the port building, you'll eventually find the right group and be taken to your transport. The bus trip takes about 20 minutes to get to North Sound where you board your boat (carrying anywhere from 20-80 people) to take you on a 30 minute cruise to the Stingray City sandbar. Tip: Keep your camera and other expensive gear well covered - salt water spray will invariably get you because of the headwinds unless you sit towards the stern of the boat AND in the middle.
Having reached the City, the boat operator will probably take some time to back into the right place as the operator watches out for other boats, and people and stingrays in the water. It's also necessary for the operator to anchor in a spot comfortable for non-swimmers in water a maximum of waist-high. Your tour leaders will likely do the feeding of the stingrays with pieces of squid, but you can ask to do it yourself. Feeding them has been compared to feeding a horse underwater, and it's important to keep your fingers extended and your thumb closed - the stingray will vacuum up when it (she?) smells the food, rather than sees it. Tip: While many passengers buy underwater cameras just to catch the stingrays in action, it's very difficult to get a good shot and, in any event, you really want to get a picture of the stingray feeding or being tickled, rather than just the stingray itself. The best shots are actually taken by a regular camera from the boat - hop back on board briefly, and get your photos of others doing the feeding. Your guides will know how to keep a stingray hovering in one place so that you can tickle its belly - a strangely weird and exciting experience. Tip: Wear your swimsuit underneath your clothes on the trip out - most boats have little in the way of changing areas except for a couple of small restrooms. On our visit, there was a light wind blowing which was cold on your chest - the secret was to bob down in the water which is invariably warm.
Last Notes on Stingray City
On our cruise (on Carnival's Celebration in February '99) the cruise line offered four different Stingray City excursions at an average cost of about $33 per person. You could book your own excursion once you got ashore - no doubt at a cheaper price - but I for one didn't want the hassle, or the loss of time, and the possible risk of not getting on any tour.
OTHER SHORE EXCURSIONS
As indicated above, you could snorkel or not on the Stingray City tour. Other ship's tours will take you snorkeling to see the wreck of the "Callie" and Pirate's Reef - with equipment provided. Prices were about $30 per person. Do-it-yourself snorkeling places recommended by Carnival were:
Eden Rock - 7 blocks from the dock (to your right - facing the land). Entry is free, and showers and lockers are available (not for free!). The location can be recognized by two flags on the roof, one is red with a white stripe, and the other white with a blue stripe.
Paradise - Just before Eden Rock with snorkeling almost equal to Eden Rock. Great restaurant, bar and beach.
Cemetery Reef - take a taxi (about 15 minutes, $5 to Seven Mile Beach). Ask your taxi driver to pick you up for the return trip but do not prepay.
The Cayman "walls" (sides of underwater mountains) are reputed to be the best diving sites after Australia's Great Barrier Reef and the Red Sea. Grand Cayman looks after more than 75,000 divers each year. While there are many dive shops you can contact ahead of time, there are usually scuba excursions both for beginners and certified divers, offered by the ship's tours. Costs were about $65 for Carnival's scuba tours.
Atlantis Submarines provided a variety of underwater trips. Two versions, both going to a depth of about 100 feet, are usually operated - one features high-tech extras such as divers moving about on underwater scooters and communicating with passengers via wireless underwater phones. The other version visits the reef near Stingray City. Cost is about $70 a person (this is a great experience - I tried it in Barbados and loved it). For something really unusual (and expensive) Atlantis also operates two deep-diving research submersibles which carry two passengers and pilot, and goes as deep as 800 feet. Each dive visits the wreck of the Kirk Pride, a cargo ship which sank in 1976 and is now lodged on a rock ledge at 780 feet. These special dives cost $295 per person.
The Nautilus semi-submersible boats offer a less-expensive underwater option - you can still view the fish and reefs underwater, but the vessel itself is not completely submerged. Cost of these tours ranged between $45 and $54. If you want to stay completely above water, a "glass" bottom boat" tour was offered for $24.
TO HELL AND BACK
There's not a lot to see in downtown George Town, so your tour bus (or taxi) will likely take you north, past Seven Mile Beach to the town of "Hell" where some find it amusing to send postcards postmarked with "Hell, Cayman Islands". Just past Hell is the Cayman Turtle Farm where you can watch turtles being raised and buy turtle paraphernalia in the gift ships. Caution: you can't bring back to the US any products made from turtles. On the way back, stop at the Hyatt Regency at Seven Mile Beach and lunch at "Hemingway's Restaurant" - good meals, not too expensive, and you can eat either inside or outside.
SEVEN MILE BEACH
For those who like beach-bumming (such as my fellow columnists Brent and Doug), Seven Mile Beach is considered one of the best beaches in the Caribbean, with a beautiful crescent shape and clear turquoise-blue waters. It's an easy taxi ride from the dock to the main public beach near the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Many of Grand Cayman's restaurants are located on either side of the road past Seven Mile Beach. You can pick up a free guidebook by the Cayman Islands Restaurant Association at the Department of Tourism in Cricket Square near the waterfront.
There are any number of duty-free and other stores in George Town although many consider the prices to be expensive. Carnival, like other cruise lines, publishes a list of recommended stores.
GRAND CAYMAN MISCELLANY
Grand Cayman is "grand" in my view - I hope you'll share my opinion on your visit(s).
Originally from Australia, Alan has for some time been permanently settled in Vancouver where he is a practicing Attorney. He has been a SeaLetter columnist, reviewer and our resident humorist for some time now.
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