I was under no illusion that Grand Cayman was going to be some tranquil Caribbean idyll, but when I first arrived on the island I had a sinking feeling that I had wound up living in an even bigger tourist trap than I imagined. Seven Mile Beach is beautiful but lined with large hotels serving $15 pina coladas and nuisanced by jet skis; you’ll find most recognisable fast food joints such as Burger King, KFC and Pizza Hut; Georgetown boasts faux Caribbean architecture and is home to Margaritaville, Senor Frog’s and so many jewellery/watch/gem stores that you wonder how they manage to stay in business. The reason is largely that thanks to the cruise ship industry, as many as seven ships can be in port on one day, spewing over ten thousand vacationers into Grand Cayman.
Sounds appealing huh? OK, with the minimum price for a night’s accommodation starting at around $100, it’s virtually impossible to visit Grand Cayman on a budget. Hostels simply do not exist and camping is illegal (except for Easter weekend). Flights from the US in particular are reasonable though, and if you can afford the accommodation there are a few options for getting away off the tourist trail and even doing it cheaply if you’re willing to make the effort. Here are my top tips:
Use the public bus system
Grand Cayman actually has a pretty decent bus network. Buses are not scheduled but in my experience very regular. In the day time I’ve never had to wait more than five minutes for a bus on the West Bay/Seven Mile Beach-Georgetown route and it only costs CI$2 (around US$2.50). You can even explore the more remote parts of the island like the East End by bus. This site has information on all of the routes. To catch a bus, simply stand on the side of the road and flag one down; they stop wherever you ask. The buses look like mini vans and can be identified by a large round sticker on the front, coloured and numbered according to route, e.g. Yellow #1 = West Bay. Unfortunately the buses become less reliable at night, although I have been able to pick one up at around 10pm before. I doubt the East End buses run that late at night. The bus terminal in Georgetown has recently moved to the waterfront road just north of town, opposite the fish market; this is your hub for catching buses all over the island.
Explore away from the West side of the island
Whenever I go to the East End of the island I’m reminded that I am actually in the Caribbean. It’s quiet, it’s laid back and beautiful in a desolate sort of way. If you’re an adventurous independent diver, get your buddy, rent a tank and go for a shore dive at Babylon (make sure you get local advice on conditions and access points first). If you prefer to boat dive with a group and/or a divemaster, Ocean Frontiers run daily dive trips. Of course you don’t need to be a diver to enjoy the scenery of the East End beaches. Closer to Georgetown, Smith Cove is a nice little beach and a great snorkelling spot. It’s small and very popular with the local residents though, so it can get fairly busy at the weekend.
Cayman Kayaks offer several different ‘eco-adventure’ tours around the mangroves in the North Sound, which is essentially a huge lagoon protected by a barrier reef. Their night tours to see the bioluminescence are highly recommended. You can also kite surf at the East End with the Kitehouse, based at Ocean Frontiers. If you fancy getting away from the beach and maybe seeing some of the local wildlife (other than the kind you get at Margaritaville) I’d also suggest the Mastic Trail and Reserve; the Trail is two miles long and takes 2-3 hours to walk. It’s maintained by the Cayman Islands National Trust, and they do request that you contact them for self-guide information before attempting the trail or if you’d like to book a guided tour. Their office can be contacted on (345)949-0121 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Also bear in mind that there is more than one Cayman Island. Fly out from Grand Cayman to Little Cayman or Cayman Brac, where you’ll truly get away from it all. I’m looking forward to exploring the Sister Islands at some point in the future, so that’s another post for another day…
So while Grand Cayman is never going to be a backpacker’s (or even flashpacker’s) paradise, there are some options other than visiting Hell (essentially some iron shore and a post office aka opportunity for some funny souvenir photos), Stingray City or the Turtle Farm. And whatever you do, don’t go to the dolphin ‘experience’, it’s just wrong…