The Cayman Islands are the most picturesque place in the Caribbean, popular with vacationers and cruise-goers alike. This guide offers tips for visiting Grand Cayman, including best & worst things to do, where to eat, where to stay, my photos, and more. (Updated September 6, 2020.)
Before we get started, let’s discuss the phased reopening plan for the Cayman Islands. Currently, the target date for gradually resuming tourism is October 1, 2020 for air travel arrivals and sometime in 2021 for cruising. Cayman leaders have indicated that this will be a slow and cautious process, seeking to avoid the fate of other countries like the Bahamas that have reopened too aggressively only to close again and institute new lockdowns after fresh outbreaks.
Beginning October 1, 2020 the Cayman Islands will start its “soft reopening” with the first phase aimed at vacation-home owners and other longer-stay tourists. The process for visiting will include an application to travel, a negative test within 72 hours of departure, another negative test eight days after arrival, and monitoring with a BioButton or other technology. Arriving visitors would not be required to go into mandatory isolation at a government facility, and could instead isolate at their home or condo if wearing the BioButton.
While we’ve spent over a month in Grand Cayman over the last few years, we do not anticipate the Cayman Islands reopening to most ‘regular’ tourists until early 2021. In following the local news, it appears local leaders are being more cautious than other Caribbean islands, and are eager to reopen–but in a slow and deliberate manner that does not involve resuming commercial flights from the United States until early 2021.
That rules out visiting for us, and presumably, most people reading this travel guide. Nevertheless, we’re hopeful to return around Spring 2021.We love Cayman and look forward to our next visit; Sarah has been visiting Grand Cayman every year since she was a kid, so it’s tradition for her. Cayman is a leisurely experience for us; we largely continue working as normal, just in a different place. When we’re not working, we aren’t doing much of anything.
In other words, visiting Grand Cayman is akin to a work-play vacation, and not our normal style of go-go-go travel. With that said, I have done several things in our down time over the course of the last couple of years, and Sarah has done pretty much everything on Grand Cayman over the course of her life.
The purpose of this post is not to offer a comprehensive Grand Cayman trip planning guide. Rather, I think a non-comprehensive Grand Cayman guide is worth posting because a lot of the information about Grand Cayman that’s out there is pretty poor. Most of the information you’ll find once arriving in Grand Cayman are sponsored pamphlets written by sponsored, advertorial content prepared by travel service providers, and it seems like a lot of online posts are just regurgitation of that.
We’ve been burned by some of these “recommendations” so I thought I’d jot down some of my tips for visiting Grand Cayman here…
Grand Cayman seems dissimilar to other places we’ve visited in the Caribbean. Grand Cayman is safer and its cities are better-developed, for starters. While over 2 million people visit the Cayman Islands each year, it feels less touristy than other Caribbean islands. There’s much more to Grand Cayman than the tourist side, and even the areas of heavy development don’t have that vibe to them.
As with other islands in the Caribbean, travel and tourism is a huge sector of the economy in Grand Cayman, but there’s less of a sleazy side, and more that’s high end. In that regard, Grand Cayman probably has as much (if not more) in common with Hawaii than it does the Bahamas. Fortunately, just like Hawaii, there’s a vibrant local culture throughout Grand Cayman that gives it a rich and unique character.
One thing that strikes me about Grand Cayman is its diversity: expats slightly outnumber native Caymanians. This is true even in the tourism sector, and it a point that’s illustrated by Rum Point. There, a sign post shares the origin of the staff and crew at the businesses, and a dozen or so countries are represented, including locations in Europe and Australia. This seems to be the rule, rather than the exception, elsewhere in Grand Cayman, too.
Then you have the financial sector in Grand Cayman, which is no doubt a large driver of the local (and not-so-local) economy. I’m still trying to get my shady off-shore banking on in an effort to retire next year off my profits, but I’ve been told repeatedly, “sir, $179 is not enough to open an offshore investment account.” Nevertheless, I’ll persist.
Kidding aside, while Grand Cayman was once a tax haven and shelter for shady business transactions (and probably still is to some degree), this has been curtailed significantly due to legislation in the United States and other countries over the course of the last 7 years. It’s unlikely the kind of notorious scenario like that of The Firm could occur in the Grand Cayman today. But it’s still kind of interesting to speculate as to what each suitcase from Miami is carrying…snorkels and fins, or fat stacks of cash?
Getting to (and Around) Grand Cayman
Despite being a relatively small airport with only one runway, Owen Roberts International Airport in George Town is service by most major air carriers (some have only 1-2 flights per day, though). Many flights to Grand Cayman from the United States are via Miami, which is a little over an hour away.
We recommend ITA Software to search for flights to Grand Cayman. ITA is the best way to find the lowest prices on airfare for set dates of travel. If you’re in the preliminary stages of researching your flight, use fare alerts on Airfarewatchdog.com. You can set some parameters for the alerts here and receive email updates when they deem prices to be low.
Airfare costs to Grand Cayman range in price dramatically, and depend more upon demand through Miami for your travel dates than your originating airport. For times we visit, we typically pay ~$400-500 round trip, and this is true whether we have flown out of Los Angeles, Orange County, or Indianapolis. (All of which require connecting via Miami or, sometimes, Charlotte.)
There are several car rental options at Grand Cayman’s airport, and like flights, they range dramatically in prices. Book as early as possible because inventory is extremely limited, and cancel if you find a better rate. We typically pay ~$11/day by booking early and monitoring fluctuations, but have seen rates above $75. If you’re staying on Seven Mile Beach, the cost of a taxi is likely to be minimal–certainly lower than what you’ll pay for daily parking.
Note that, as a British Overseas Territory, driving on Grand Cayman is on the left side of the road. This is disconcerting and confusing for many Americans (me included). As most visitors to the Cayman Islands are Americans, there are “convenient” arrows painted on many roads. Driving around Cayman is generally safe and laid back (there are a ton of roundabouts), but every once in awhile, you’ll see someone on the wrong side. The far more frequent hazard is crabs and chickens in the road, though.
Things to Do in Grand Cayman
One of my favorite things to do in Grand Cayman is absolutely nothing. No joke. It’s a great place to decompress, just sitting there under a palm tree or from a hotel balcony watching the waves hit the shore. More than anything else, my days in Grand Cayman are spent on a beach chair with my laptop in hand, doing exactly that. Grand Cayman is a perfect spot for a true vacation, one that is spent unwinding rather than doing “things.”
Of course, “nothing” is not very good suggestion if you’re trying to find activities around Grand Cayman, so here’s some other stuff we’ve done aside from nothing, some of which we recommend, some of which we do not recommend…
Rum Point – This is the beach from which we leave for our Stingray City tour. There’s a lot of recreation here, ample lounging space, a waterfront open-air restaurant, gift shop, and more.
We both really like this area, particularly on an uncrowded day. It’s busiest when cruise ships are in port at Grand Cayman (it’s a popular port adventure), so check out the George Town Port Schedule and go at a time ships are not here.
Cayman Turtle Centre: Island Wildlife Encounter – Known as the Cayman Turtle Farm, this is another one that’s popular as a cruise excursion. Per Sarah, this changed dramatically after Hurricane Ivan. Before that, it was an intimate experience that allowed you to get close with turtles while also sharing information about their conservation.
Now, the experience is much more touristy. The central element, holding a turtle, is still there, but dramatically reduced in duration. Everything else is more aimed at getting visitors to part with their money rather than teaching guests about the animals.
Starfish Point – This is a location that’s listed as a hidden gem in just about every Grand Cayman travel guide I’ve read. Sarah has been going here for a while, and says it definitely was a hidden gem at one point. That’s not the case any longer. There are a variety of jet ski and boat tours that stop here, and on our recent visits, it was absolutely packed during the day.
This does not mean it’s overrated or we do not recommend it. To the contrary, it’s a beautiful little beach, and the starfish here are incredibly abundant. Our recommended approach is arriving early in the morning or going for sunset. The goal here should be to avoid the times tour operators are taking visitors. If you drive yourself (there’s a small parking lot) and go after 5 p.m., you can still have the beach entirely to yourself.
Stingray City – This sandbar to which stingrays swarm is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. It’s one of Grand Cayman’s most popular points of interest and is incredibly touristy, but it’s also oh-so-awesome. The location is gorgeous, there are a ton of stingrays, and the interactions with them are really fun. We’ve been up close to stingrays elsewhere, but nowhere compares to Stingray City. It’s hard to articulate just how awesome this is.
I’ve done this a few times now, and I’ll admit that it still makes me a bit uneasy. After Steve Irwin spent a lifetime of croc wranglin’ but somehow succumbed to a stingray, I think this is a pretty common fear. Freak accidents can happen anywhere and in any circumstances, something of which I remind myself when getting in the water at Stingray City. These little creatures are so playful that I usually warm up to the stingrays here within a few minutes.
A variety of companies offer excursions out to Stingray City, but the one we recommend is Red Sail Sports. Sarah does her dives through them and was pleased with the service, so we decided to use them for Stingray City, too. All of our encounters with their staff have been phenomenal; they are incredibly friendly, knowledgeable about stingrays, and seem passionate about their jobs. This isn’t to say other Stingray City tour groups are not good (I have no clue), but we stick with Red Sail Sports because our experiences with them have been unanimously positive.
As with Rum Point in general, be mindful of the cruise calendar when considering when to do Stingray City. We’ve done tours that are half-full with only a couple of other boats out there on “off” days, and other days the tours are totally full with a half-dozen other boats out at Stingray City.
Seven Mile Beach – Some of the Cayman Islands travel guides I’ve read tout the array ‘best beach in the world’ awards Seven Mile Beach has received. It’s a nice beach, no doubt, but I think a number of these accolades stem from the fact that it’s the most prominent beach in Grand Cayman, and where most of the luxury resorts are located. In that regard, it’s like Waikiki Beach in Hawaii–far from Hawaii’s best beach, but the one everyone knows about since it’s near so many hotels.
Pretty much every beach in Grand Cayman is absolutely gorgeous. Aside from Seven Mile Beach’s length, I’d say its defining characteristic is the level of development and number of people on it. There’s nothing wrong with Seven Mile Beach, per se, but I would definitely recommend any number of beaches in less-developed areas if you’re looking for a serene experience.
Smith Cove – I guess you could say Smith Cove/Smith’s Barcadere is near Seven Mile Beach. It’s still in George Town, and is near-ish Seven Mile Beach to be convenient to visitors staying at those hotels, but far enough away to not draw hordes of tourists. This is a great spot for snorkeling, having a barbecue, and just swimming in calm water.
In my experience, this is also the absolute best spot for photographing the sunset on Grand Cayman. From the cove itself to the rock formations, you have some interesting foreground material, and the beach faces the correct direction for shooting into the setting sun. (Seven Mile Beach similarly faces the correct direction, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find an interesting foreground and will have other people in your shots, so unless you want nothing but ocean and sky, it’s a poor spot.)
Scuba Diving – I don’t dive anymore, but Sarah does, and she says the Cayman Islands offer the best diving of anywhere she’s visited. The visibility is excellent, there is excellent diversity among the Cayman Islands’ dive sites, and there are several relatively inexpensive dive companies that pick up guests from their resorts (even where we stay, off the beaten path on the East End).
Beyond excellent visibility, the dive sites in the Cayman Islands feature a wealth of beautiful fish and 365 engaging dive sites. Sarah mentions the Kittiwake artificial reef, Babylon canyon, and Devil’s Grotto & Eden Rock as being some of the best scuba diving anywhere.
If you’re traveling to the Cayman Islands, there’s a relatively good chance you are going for the primary purpose of scuba diving. As such, we’d recommend reading posts about diving in the Cayman Islands from more knowledgeable sources. Here, here, and here are a few good options.
Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park – This botanical park is known for its blue iguana. When Sarah was growing up, she says it was world-renowned for this, and you’d routinely spot dozens of huge blue iguana roaming freely. That sounds really cool, but unfortunately, it’s no longer the case. The last time we visited, most of these iguana were in “protective custody” because local dogs had been eating them (no joke). You could pay extra to go near their cages, but it’s hardly the same experience.
As a botanical garden, this Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park is incredibly weak. The trails are nice and there’s some flora, but it’s nothing all that impressive. It’s also really, really hot and humid. The blue iguana were the main draw here, and without them roaming freely, we see little point in visiting.
Snorkeling – If you’re not certified to go scuba diving, you’ll still want to snorkel. There’s exceptional snorkeling all over the place, and you can see a variety of vibrant tropical fish, huge Tarpon, beautiful reefs, and even nurse sharks.
If you do a trip out to Stingray City, many providers (including the aforementioned Red Sail) include a snorkeling stop along Cayman’s barrier reef. Other recommended locations include Smith Cove and Spott’s Beach. Really, though, just about anywhere offers something to see. Even under the dock at Morritt’s is a great location for fish-spotting.
East End Blow Holes – These can be a bit difficult to find because the signage is small, but they are quite stunning. A couple of blowholes along the craggy coastal rock that sprays water up over 20 feet into the air on a good day. The Blow Holes are not a major draw, but they’re worth seeing, nonetheless.
I enjoy just sitting and watching these, particularly around sunrise when literally no one else is there. There’s something oddly calming about them, and their repetitive nature is soothing.
Colliers Beach – This public beach gets our seal of approval because it’s right on your way to the Blow Holes (about 7 km away), is usually uncrowded (save for the chickens), offers some shade, and a stretch of beautiful coastline. It’s not the most dramatic beach in the world, but it’s nice.
Plus, where else are you going to see chickens wandering around on a beach?!
Hell – This is a “city” in West Bay, and it’s totally pointless. It exists exclusively for purveyors of dad jokes to boast about visiting “Hell in Paradise,” sending postcards “from Hell” to their friends back home, and buying incredibly tacky souvenirs from Hell. It’s a complete and utter waste of time for anyone else.
There are a handful of other things in Grand Cayman we’d like to do that we have not yet done, most notably the Cayman Crystal Caves and Pedro St. James Castle, but that covers the major points of interest we’ve experienced thus far.
Where to Stay on Grand Cayman
This is a big gap in our knowledge, as the only place we stay on Grand Cayman is Morritt’s Tortuga Club and Resort on the East End. Sarah has stayed elsewhere, but it’s been ages since she did.
Located approximately in the middle of nowhere, Morritt’s Tortuga Club is a fairly large resort, and is directly adjacent to Wyndham Reef Resort. Aside of these two resorts (that are also timeshares), there’s not a whole lot along this stretch of beach.
Morritt’s is fine, and from what we’ve seen of the Wyndham Reef Resort, it’s also fine. Neither are ritzy nor do they offer the type of luxury you’ll find along Seven Mile Beach. We’ve visited some of those resorts (including the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, Kimpton Seafire Resort, and Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort), and the difference is night and day. Those offer 4 or 5-star service and amenities, whereas these East End resorts are 3.5-star properties with 4-star service.
With that said, the distinct advantage Morritt’s and the Wyndham Reef offer is their isolation. The stretch of beach between the two is quiet, and is not overrun with people, jet skis, or boats. The stretch of beach beyond the resorts is almost completely devoid of people, if you want to totally escape the crowds (something that is not possible in the Seven Mile Beach vicinity).
There are a few other areas outside of the East End that offer similar, isolated resort experiences, but I have not been to any of those. Basically, when choosing a place to stay on Grand Cayman, it comes down to the development and luxury of Seven Mile Beach versus the seclusion and serenity of somewhere else. Which you prefer depends upon your priorities, but after experiencing the secluded side of Grand Cayman, I have no interest in Seven Mile Beach.
Airbnb is also a popular option on Grand Cayman, and based on prices I see when browsing, it would definitely be an appealing option to me. I’d still avoid Seven Mile Beach and instead seek more secluded spots. You can use our sign-up link for a $40 credit your first time using Airbnb!
Where to Eat
Almost without exception, we’ve found the food on Grand Cayman to be expensive and underwhelming. We’ve been to a number of popular places, including Kaibo Restaurant (their beachfront bar is a good option for wood-fired pizzas), Agua Restaurant, The Wharf, and several other spots. We left each disappointed. Not because the food was necessarily bad, but because it didn’t live up to the cost (even assuming you’re paying a premium for ocean views).
The lone exception to this for us has been a place called Kurts Korner. This place deserves serious hole-in-the-wall status, as it’s tucked away behind a combination liquor store (“Water Boyz”) and dive bar, and is an outdoor seating area attached to a kitchen. There’s no indoor seating, and the bugs can be sort of bad depending upon when you go, but the food is phenomenal and inexpensive.
Whereas most everywhere else on Grand Cayman has premium pricing (ostensibly due to foods costing more on an island), Kurts Korner is inexpensive by virtually any metric. The fried bread service (included if you’re dining there) and conch fritters are both must-dos, and the rotating specials are all good. If available, we recommend any of the curries (coconut curry grouper and goat curry are the highlights), any of the fish, or jerk chicken.
We’ve gone to Kurts Korner many, many times, and at this point, it’s one of the few restaurants on Grand Cayman that we have any inclination to visit in the future. Its prices are about on par with the local Wendy’s, and the food is exceptional. We’d also try other hole-in-the-wall spots, but probably wouldn’t go back to Seven Mile Beach to eat unless it were a special occasion. Too rich for our blood!
Speaking of the local Wendy’s, it’s nearby a supermarket called Hurley’s. This store has a few locations on Grand Cayman, and you should seek one out if you plan on preparing some of your own meals. Smaller convenience stores are located all around the island, including near hotel and timeshare developments, but typically have exorbitant prices. Hurley’s is more expensive than a United States grocery store, but by Cayman Islands standards, it’s reasonable.
Here are a few other things we didn’t cover elsewhere, but that are probably worth mentioning:
- Currency of the Cayman Islands is the CI dollar, which maintains a fixed rate of exchange with the US dollar (1:1.25). The US dollar is accepted in Grand Cayman, so currency exchange is unnecessary.
- Most locations, aside from small mom & pop shops, accept credit cards issued by US banks. Be sure your card does not charge a foreign transaction fee before using it.
- Tipping is a thing in the Cayman Islands. Based upon our ‘suggested tips’ at Grand Cayman restaurants, appropriate amounts range from 10-15%, rather than the 15-20% in the United States.
- Atlantic hurricane season runs from the first of June through November, during which time rain is more common.
- The off season in the Cayman Islands is roughly mid-April through mid-December, but you’ll see a slight spike in guests during the summer, particularly at resorts that are aimed at families.
- The sweet spots for visiting are going to be the beginning and end of off-season in order to avoid both the rainy season and hottest months of the year. We tend to aim for late-April to early-May, and this time is more or less ideal, even though the midday sun can already be scorching by May.
- Zika cases have been reported in the Cayman Islands, and it’s recommended that you take proactive steps to protect yourself. (Mosquitos are relatively common in Cayman.)
- Grand Cayman is relatively safe. You are unlikely to encounter the same pickpocket problems found throughout the Caribbean, although isolated incidents of theft can occur anywhere.
Finally, the Cayman Islands are generally known for being an expensive place to visit, which is perhaps in part spillover from its ties to the financial sector and in part reputation earned from the spots along Seven Mile Beach.
If you’re staying on Seven Mile Beach, eating there, and scuba diving from that area, Grand Cayman will be incredibly expensive. Your hotel could easily be $300/night, meals at oceanfront restaurants could cost $100/person, and the sky is the limit on daily entertainment depending upon how many dives you do.
By contrast, if you stay at an Airbnb or a hotel on a different area of the island, you’re looking at $150 (or less) per night, potentially $15/person meals (or less if you prepare your own food), and inexpensive entertainment if you’re just spending your days on the beach.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s a “misconception” that Grand Cayman is expensive. It’s a totally accurate conception, it’s just largely true about one specific area that is most popular with tourists. Get away from that, and prices drop precipitously.
For now, that’s all I have in terms of what to know before visiting the Cayman Islands. As I mentioned at the outset, this is not to be viewed as a comprehensive guide to the Cayman Islands–it’s based upon our experiences only. Consider this post a work-in-progress, too. If there are reader questions about particular topics that seem pertinent, I’ll supplement the main post over time. If you’re traveling to the Cayman Islands, hope you have a fun and relaxing trip!
Have you visited the Cayman Islands? What did you think of the experience? If you’ve visited other Caribbean islands, how do you think Cayman compared to those? Any tips of your own to add about visiting Grand Cayman, or things to do while you’re in the Cayman Islands? Any questions? Hearing from readers is part of the fun (and is helpful to others), so please share your thoughts in the comments below!