Grand Cayman: Back to the Island

Seven Mile Beach, on Grand Cayman’s west shore.

 About a million years ago, back before grown men proudly wore Crocs in public and when “being green” just meant you were the jealous type, Mrs. Bunny and I spent six glorious days in Grand Cayman on our honeymoon. We were mere travel newbs at the time, but still managed to eat, drink, and explore a whole bunch of GCI’s indigenous offerings, even despite the fact that Mrs. Bunny applied a ludicrously inadequate sunblock level 7 on her fair skin and turned the hue of Ragu spaghetti sauce on Day 2 and didn’t feel much like moving around.

So when GB’s Chief Photographer Kathy and her fiance Dave decided on a beachfront wedding ceremony this past summer on Spott’s Beach along Grand Cayman’s southern coast, it didn’t take much convincing (or any, really) for us to check the YES box. We even brought the kids this time.

Grand Cayman is the big brother of sibling islands Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, with Cuba to the north and Jamaica just next door to the east. Its long stretches of powdered white sand beaches and luminescent turquoise waters make this an absolutely stunning Caribbean destination,  and one with a hair-sheddingly high pricetag to boot. Grand Cayman is a financial juggernaut, home to nearly 600 banking institutions and a preferred spot for those Armani-wearing, money laundering types, so the cost of goods and services is already inherently high. Add in an unfavorable exchange rate with the American dollar, and your Amex card may start to leak from overuse.

So, after a brutally early takeoff at BWI and plane change in Miami, we descended down through ginormous white clouds so thick they look like whipped cream, approaching Owen Roberts International Airport with the long strip of world-famous Seven Mile Beach stretching out on our left. We came in hot, the pilot standing on the brake pedal to land and stop on a runway that’s roughly the same length as a placemat. A live band greeted us with light steel drum music as we crossed the hot, sticky tarmac to the tiny terminal. Ahhhhhh, yes. Island time.

♥ GB Side Note: Cell Service

Verizon’s cell service and data plans are monumentally expensive on the island, which prompted all of us to leave our iPhones in Airplane Mode for the entire trip. However, as long as we had a wi-fi connection, we were able to text between all of our iPhones and even use FaceTime video without invoking the data plan. 

GOING MOBILE

Thanks to Mrs. Bunny’s insightful research, we bypassed the major rental car counters there in the airport, and walked across the small parking lot to Andy’s Rent a Car. Andy’s is local, with the lowest rates on the island. Still, weekly rate was more than $300.00 for a bad-assed 64 horsepower Hyundai i10 that was roughly the same size as a washing machine. Somehow we managed to squeeze four people and luggage into the mini subcompact, clown car-style, and set off.

Funny. The car we rented isn’t in their promo photo.

Now you’d think that finding the beach that we just flew over would be a snap, and you’d be wrong. Moments after leaving the airport, we’re lost. Maybe it was the happy little map the rental car lady gave us that was about as coherent as Keith Richards at a frat party. Or maybe the culprit was the proliferation of British-style roundabouts installed about every ten feet on all their roadways. I was on zero sleep and dealing with a steering wheel that some idiot put on the wrong side of the car, and the roundabouts truly sucked. I finally gave up, hung an abrupt and illegal u-turn on a busy one way avenue, and dove into a nearby Esso gas station for directions.

But no worries. Once you acclimate, Caymanian driving is pretty smooth. All of the rental cars on the island have exclusive white license plates, alerting the locals that you’re a tourist and therefore a liability, and most were patient with us.

If you don’t feel like renting, there are plenty of official (and unofficial) taxi cabs willing to give you a lift. Just walk along the side of the road, and soon someone  will stop and offer a ride in exchange for a few bills. Kathy and fiance Dave traveled the entire island this way on their last Cayman trip.

Mrs. Bunny Says: “Yes, even I became competent at driving on the left with steering wheel on the opposite side of our little roller skate. Just expect that you will inadvertently switch on the windshield wipers on a regular basis when reaching for the turn signal since they’re backwards on right side drive cars, much to the giggling delight of the clowns in the back seat.”

Our boys posing with the fly whip Hyundai.

ACCOMMODATIONS & PROVISIONS

Datsa lotta rooms.

A long row of exquisite resorts makes for an impressive pastel skyline along lower Seven Mile Beach. They’re all plenty swanky, so you’ll be shelling out at least $375+ per night for a standard room that may not even have a water view. Seven Mile is all glitz and glamour, so you won’t see any modestly-priced motor lodges in the area–nuthin but ultra posh.

Since we brought our two boys, and a week in a hotel room can be more than claustrophobic for four people, Mrs. Bunny hunted down condo rentals instead, along the northern bit of Seven Mile Beach, finding a good number of options available on the beach.

We ended up choosing Aqua Bay Club. For about the same price as a Seven Mile hotel room, Aqua Bay provided a superb two bedroom beachfront unit, with two full baths, almost full kitchen (full-size fridge, dishwasher, stove top, microwave, but no oven), living room with flat screen TV and satellite, daily maid service, complimentary wi-fi, and a perfect screened-in porch that opened out to the sand, with pool, hot tub, and gas grills right there. The view is pure Corona Beer commercial.

The view from our condo’s back door. You likey?

While Grand Cayman used to be slow and easy, the greater Georgetown/lower Seven Mile area is now awash with non-stop traffic and throngs of people, and becomes even worse when a cruise ship pulls into port and dumps a few thousand more souls in town. But the upper end of Seven Mile Beach is far more spread out and chill. Aqua Bay’s beach was devoid of crowds and offered excellent snorkeling just offshore, though the coal and rock underfoot was a bit of a challenge to navigate when getting in and out of the sea.

Mrs Bunny Says: “Definitely prefer the condo atmosphere. Mingling with the locals is easier, like talking to our cleaning lady while we were both doing laundry. Furthermore, when we checked out, our lovely hostess gave us hugs and kisses and seemed genuinely sorry to see us leave (us too). Try getting that in the hotel zone!”

Kathy and the soon to be Mr. Kathy were staying at the Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort a few miles south of us, in the middle of all the hoopla. The multi-story showplace is impressive, and  Mrs. Bunny and I quickly realized that it’s the same place we stayed on our honeymoon back in the 90s, when the property was owned by Radisson–a very cool and unexpected revelation.

Marriott’s Seven Mile Beach Resort

♥ GB Side Note: Hurricane Ivan

The Grand Cayman we remember from years ago is essentially gone. In 2006, Hurricane Ivan’s wrath changed the island forever, with rampant destruction and devastation everywhere. Six years later, signs of Ivan’s impact are still clearly visible. And the horror stories we heard from locals who lived through it sounded like they were describing a nuclear bomb strike.

If you don’t go condo, and aren’t a fan of the high-rise tourist stackers, your best bet is to check out the hotels on the island’s East End. It’s more quiet and rural on that side, which is usually more of our speed anyway. The Reef is a really nice option, as is Compass Point Resort

Mrs. B and I headed to Fosters Food Fair for provisions. It’s a small chain where the Caymanians shop and we found local goodies like oxtail, scotch bonnet peppers (face meltingly hot!!!), key limes, and real ginger beer. Most shoppers bring their own grocery bags with them, but you can buy at the register if needed.

Mrs Bunny Says: “The Fosters near our condo us was very third world; a little culture shock. But the oxtail at the food bar was amazing and so were the jerk chicken wings.”

The cashier also gave us directions to a liquor store close by. Now, Grand Cayman has a reputation as a safe island and we were all over the place on our last visit, but this time we needed to be buzzed into the neighborhood liquor store and were quickly sized up by the armed security guard inside. Crikie! A very Southeast DC moment.

Rum is our choice in the Caribbean since it’s produced locally. But man, you’d have to be Donald Trump to become an alcoholic down there. For example, a 1.75 liter of Bacardi, which runs about $22 at the wine and spirits place back home, was a whopping $70 USD! And local brands like Tortuga and Jamaica’s Appleton’s were even more. It was at this point that I decided to simply stop looking at pricetags altogether and go wid’ da flow, mon. Plus, I was thirsty.

 GB Side Note: Drink Local

Beer fans, make sure you check out GCI’s local brews while there. White Tip and Caybrew are really nice examples of classic German pale lagers, while Ironhorse is a heavier bock with great flavor. And of course, Red Stripe is brewed and bottled one island over.

As far as liquor goes, rum is the staple. The local Tortuga brand is good, as is Appleton’s, but for a real treat that we can’t get in the States, be on the lookout for authentic Cuban product like Havana Club. The 7 anos anejo (aged 7 years) in particular is una fiesta en tu boca. 

Cayman beer. Good stuff.

LET’S EAT

Bring your appetite. Cayman food is an enticing combination of Caribbean spice and seafood, with old world English pomp, and there’s excellent examples all over the island.

Casual

Rackam’s Bar & Grill.

Rackam’s sits on the water’s edge, overlooking Georgetown Harbor. They’re famous for their Jerk Chicken, which is highly spicy and truly amazing, as well as local fresh fish served Caymanian style, with grilled peppers and onions. The Red Snapper was fantastic. For a touch of added tourism, Rackam’s does a Tarpon feeding every evening which draws dozens of those big suckers in the waters just off the bar.

Coconut Joe’s is on the Seven Mile strip, and does a credible job with fish & chips, jerk chicken sandwiches, etc on a huge palm tree-covered deck. It was fine, not  great, but we’d go back.

Upscale

To be honest, we didn’t do a lot of fine dining while on the island. Besides the sunrise wedding ceremony (yes, sunrise), we swam, we snorkeled, we drank like sailors, we relaxed, and tried to avoid tasks like shaving and combing our hair.

Having said that, we did have two fancy-pants culinary experiences.

Sunday Brunch at Ferdinand’s at the Westin Resort was top shelf all the way. The outdoor patio had a pristine tropical view and feel, and featured a loaded omelette and waffle station, as well as excellent seafood, exotic fruits, and traditional breakfast fare galore. We learned it was also a popular place with the natives when a small land crab came cruising under our table, clicking along the tile floor.

Ferdinand’s at the Westin Resort.

On the other hand, dinner at The Wharf is one that I believe our entire party would like to forget. When the best thing you can say about an upscale dining experience is that the service was good, that’s an issue. Mrs. Bunny is a huge fan of conch chowder, and always orders it at every restaurant that has it on the menu. Everywhere else, the Conch Chowder was really good, like MD Crab Soup. But The Wharf’s chowder was lukewarm, bland, and tasted like it came from a can. Likewise, the rest of the food was meh at best. In all, a disappointing meal that didn’t come close to matching the fat price tag.

Dining In

If you do feel like cooking, we highly recommend stopping by the Open Air Fish Market in Georgetown. It’s on the waterfront near Rackam’s and Eden Rock, and features fresh catch coming in all day long. Mrs Bunny and I hit them up one morning around 9, a bit too early to have a wealth of choices, but we did pick up some Amberjack and Red Snapper that was just pulled out of the sea an hour before. We waited and watched while a big guy with a thick accent cleaned and filleted them like a ninja. No fishy smell whatsoever, which is always a good sign of seafood freshness.

Fresh catch for dinner that fed all six of us hungry fools = $35. Nice.

Cayman Fish Market. It’s the real deal, and it’s cash only.

The Golden Bunny Award Goes To…

Our top choice  for sustenance in Grand Cayman is a very cool, off-the-beaten-path gem on the island’s Northwest coast. Macabuca is an open air tiki bar that is, hands-down, the best bar we’ve ever visited. Period. Macabuca was so good, once we found it we ended up going back the next day, AND the day after that.

Their food comes right out of the upscale Cracked Conch restaurant next door and it’s GOOD. They do fresh conch three ways: fried fritters, ceviche, and cracked conch, and they’re all amazing. So are their sandwiches and salads. There’s a big selection of beers and a wide choice of cocktails, including several signature frozen and non-alcoholic concoctions. Frozen Bananas Foster was fantastic.

The music was a perfect mesh of reggae and old school country, and our Canadian bartender was both friendly and clairvoyant with refills. Turns out he and his wife owned a restaurant on Seven Mile that was destroyed by Ivan, and now he’s content to mix cocktails and let someone else take the risk.

My view from the bar at Macabuca.

Sitting at the bar, staring at the crusty limestone coastline and infinite blue water with a Scotch Bonnet Bloody Mary in hand and the beautiful Mrs. Bunny in a bikini next to me, there was no place on the planet that could have been any better. In fact, I’m truly surprised that I’m not still there.

But I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet.

Macabuca has a large stepladder maybe 25 feet from the bar that descends down into a tiny cove, with a reef that’s teeming with marine life just offshore. So, you eat, have a few drinks, and then grab your snorkel or scuba gear and go diving for a while. When you’re done, come back up the ladder, drop your wet gear by the rail, and your bar stool is still waiting for you.

Mrs. Bunny Says: “He ain’t lyin’! Out of the two of us, Mr. Bunny is certainly the bar connoisseur. BUT I fricking love Macabuca! I am still craving the food. Combine that with the cool atmosphere and the snorkeling (with amazing underwater stuff to see) between drinks and I want to go back to Grand Cayman for this bar alone.”

Macabuca Bar & Grill. That stepladder descends into total Jacques Cousteau-ness.

 

STUFF TO DO

As you might expect, most of the doings there are water-based. And that was fine by us. I mean, if you don’t like the water, what the hell are you doing in the Caribbean in the first place???

Diving/Snorkeling

Grand Cayman is awash with great opportunities to check out the underwater world, no matter your experience and skill level. Our advice: don’t leave your hotel or condo without your snorkel gear. You never know when you’ll stumble upon the perfect place to get wet.

Eden Rock sits right in the heart of Georgetown and has a fully stocked dive shop onsite. Jump in off the rock wall and get busy. There’s a shallow shipwreck just offshore on your right that’s only in about 20 feet of water and loaded with fish. And the coral formation that gives the place its name is about 1/4 mile out and 50 feet down. Go a few hundred feet south, and you’ll find Devil’s Grotto. Snorkelers and divers alike will love it.

As you swim along, don’t be surprised if you quickly develop an entourage of black and yellow sergeant majors and other cool little fish. They’ll simply cruise along with you, happily protected by your size in the open water. Great time to have a Lifeproof case for your iPhone for pics and video.

If you’re a serious scuba type, there are incredible offshore dive sites that are among the world’s best, with excursions departing from every corner of the island, and several resorts wholly dedicated to scuba. Check out DiveCayman.com for more info.

Spott’s Beach is a small and secluded stretch of sand on the south shore that’s a locals favorite. Like many other beaches and reefs on the island, it’s adjacent to a small cemetery. The coral and rock walls that drop down to the beach are incredible.

After Kathy and Dave tied the knot on Spotts pier, we dove in and swam with loggerhead sea turtles, which was pretty danged amazing.

On your way there from Seven Mile you’ll pass the Old Shoe Tree, which is exactly what it sounds like: a tall tree adorned with footwear of all sizes. It was originally started years ago by a local artist who was tired of seeing people’s garbage carelessly dumped all over the place. So he gathered up all the old shoes he found, and started nailing them to a roadside tree. People have been adding to it ever since.

The happy couple on Spott’s Beach pier, just after their beautiful sunrise wedding.

Stingray City

Sorry, but this is a must-do. We very rarely make statements like that, because we’d rather that you make your own choices based on our “suggestions”, but yes, it’s that cool. Stingray City is on an open water sandbar at the top of the Sound in the island’s center. Apparently commercial fisherman used to cut up the day’s catch and dump the guts overboard, and the rays flocked to the smorgasbord. Eventually they got used to being around people and now it’s somewhat of a stingray petting zoo. Last time, we took a boat trip there and swam with them in about 15 feet of water. It was amazing.

For this trip, we decided to try a jet ski tour there instead, and rented gleaming new Waverunners and a tour guide from Ebanks Watersports (a far cry from the beat-to-crap hooptie watercraft we’ve booked in Florida). Cost was $175 USD per Waverunner for the 2.5 hour tour, and IMO worth every penny.

Blazing across the open blue, Waverunner flat out in Sport Mode, the sun huge and heavy overhead, it was pure elation. And it’s futile to try to explain it, but believe me when I tell you that just when we thought the water couldn’t get any more beautiful, it did. The colors became even vibrant and clearer, the small, dancing waves gleaming to the point of luminescence….I lifted off the throttle, came to a stop, and just drank it all in.

After a 20 minute ride, we rafted up the Waverunners together and jumped in. The area was semi-crowded with other jet skiers and a few tour boats, and at first we didn’t see anything. But then dark shapes were moving, sweeping their side fins like birds and gliding along. These weren’t those little things in the city aquarium, they were huge! We found footing on the sandbar, and they were all around us. Our tour guide gathered one the size of patio table in his arms, and everyone petted her smooth skin and kissed her for good luck.

Them dark things underwater sure ain’t rocks.

Yes, stingrays can be dangerous, and a few people were freaking out as the rays swam towards them. But apart from having to hop over a few as they floated under us, it was all very calm and easygoing. Our whole crew loved it; especially the kids.

After hanging with the rays, we followed the guide to nearby Barrier Reef for snorkeling, loaded with huge sea fans, colorful coral, and fish galore.

Mrs. Bunny Note: “Yes, Stingray City is a must. While you can get cheaper deals going on a tour boat, the intimate jet ski tour was an amazing, once in a lifetime experience for our boys. How often do you see looks of amazement and wonder from a 17 and 20 year old? Exactly.”

Road Tripping

You just don’t get the full experience of Grand Cayman by staying drunk and pampered on Seven Mile Beach the whole time, so we piled into our mobile Washing Machine and set off for Rum Point on the Northeast coast of the island.

I love a good Island Road Trip.

Along the way we passed cool stuff like Chester’s famous Fish Fry Stand, Blackbeard’s Caves in the southern port of Bodden Town, and countless other indigenous sights that we didn’t see in the tourist zone.

Rum Point is a favorite of the locals. And since it was Sunday, the day off for most Caymanians, the parking lot was packed.

Dave at Rum Point. What’s amazing about this pic is that the beach was packed, yet there’s nobody in the photo!

We grabbed chaise lounges near the palm tree covered beach, and mixed and mingled.

Rum Point is home to the Wreck Bar, and it’s said that this is where the frozen Mudslide cocktail was conceived. Whether it’s true or folklore, they were tasty on a hot day.

With so much foot traffic, the  water was actually murky, which didn’t help when my sunglasses slipped off my face and <ploop!> out of sight. Thankfully Kathy’s probing foot saved the day.

When storm clouds began to gather, we packed up and rolled to Over the Edge, a little North Shore locals joint just down the road for a drink. We walked into the bar, and EVERYone was glued to the Olympics on TV. Moments later, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt smoked the other runners and won gold, setting a new world record. The place went absolutely bananas, celebrating a victory for their (semi) local hero. What a moment.

Night Life

No idea. After a full day of swimming, snorkeling, tennis, and cocktails, none of us had the energy to check out the bar scene. I know; we’re lame. We did hear what sounded like quality live reggae music coming from a few different places on our way back from dinner, if that helps.

GB Side Note: Critters

Just so’s you know, there are some interesting animals both in and out of the water that might catch you off guard if you don’t expect to see them. Lizards are all over the place, including some pretty big iguanas. Pretty cool to see. Just don’t leave the door open, or they’ll come right on in. 

Then there’s the aforementioned land crabs, one of which popped out of the bushes and chased my Uncle Charlie down West Bay Road one night, a long time ago. And just like Key West, chickens run wild, cock-a-doodle-doodling in the distance whenever they feel like it.

Chicken at the airport.

In the water, keep an eye out for barracuda. They’re much more aggressive than sharks (which are obviously there too, but typically stay further offshore) and will quickly chase any shiny thing they see. Remove all jewelry before diving, snorkeling, and swimming or run the risk of becoming a chew toy.

One diver told us that a barracuda even took a chunk out of one of her flippers because it was clear and shiny.

When checking out coral, look but don’t touch. You don’t want to get too close anyway, as those dark holes can be the home of moray eels. Morays are naturally mean and nasty, and their teeth are sharp as needles. Don’t give them a reason to taste you. 

 

Other Stuff

Other notable attractions on the island include the Cayman Motor Museum, which has a formidable collection of classic Ferraris and other exotics, and the Turtle Farm, which is an exploration center that’s especially cool for the little ones. There’s also a black limestone formation just off the main road called Hell, which is free of charge, and cool to check out for about two minutes, and has its own post office so you can send a postcard to your friends from Hell. It was a lot more rundown and junky than we remembered. And if you’ve seen the island’s northwest coast, it ALL looks like that.

 

 GB Side Note: Safety

As far as islands go, Grand Cayman is considered to be one of the safer destinations in the Caribbean. And we did feel truly comfortable exploring all over the place, away from tourist hotspots.              

Having said that, there’s rising concern over the increase in drug trafficking and other organized crime from Jamaica. And at the same liquor store where Mrs. Bunny and I saw the armed security guard, Kathy was hassled by an aggressive guy a few days later who demanded money and tried to get into her car while Dave was inside buying beer. She quickly locked the door and got him to leave, but scary to say the least. Just be smart–it ain’t Disneyland. 

(SADLY) LEAVING ON A JET PLANE

Our flight home was scheduled for early afternoon, so we made it a point to sneak back to Macabuca one last time for lunch. Yum.

It was easier to find the airport than it was to leave it the week before, and before long, we were sitting in the departures terminal, each of us mentally struggling to hatch a plot that will allow us to stay longer. A LOT longer.

And in a twist of fate, Mother Nature grants our wish, in the form of a 2.5 hour delay due to storms in Florida; a problem since we were connecting in Miami once again. I used the time wisely, buying rum at the duty free shop and hitting the bar.

I can’t stress this next point enough: DO NOT CONNECT THRU MIAMI ON YOUR WAY HOME! Connecting in Miami from an international flight means you also go through Customs in Miami, and we found ourselves in a snaking line that HAD to have 3,000 people in it. We were already running late because of the flight delay, and we didn’t need this. We made it through Customs, ran through a massive sea of people to find our luggage pieces spread out all over the baggage claim area, yanked them over to a disinterested airline rep, BACK through security, and hustled to our gate, only to find out that the flight to BWI was delayed as well. Ugh….bienvenidos al Miami.

Our last sunset on the island, on the beach at Aqua Bay Club.

SUMMARY

Grand Cayman remains a stunningly beautiful Caribbean vacation spot that’s suitable for all ages. They’re genuinely friendly, they speak English as their primary language, and you’re not trapped inside some all-inclusive compound the entire time. Just know that your hard earned US dollar is worth about 80 cents there. Further, Caymanian cost of living is so high that several locals we spoke with said that it’s actually cheaper to fly to Miami a few times a year and hit our big box stores to buy clothing, household items, and other goods for their families. Expensive? Yes. Unforgettable? Definitely.

If it’s an island destination you seek that’s a step apart from the Bahamas, Virgin Islands, etc, without the safety restrictions of Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, Grand Cayman awaits.

GALLERY

Mrs. Bunny snorkeling at Stingray City before the rays showed up. (is that water incredible or what?)

Morning on the beach at Aqua Bay Club.

Cruise ships in the harbor might LOOK cool, but it means thousands more tourists underfoot.

We loved the lizards.

Macabuca’s Frozen Bananas Foster was very tasty and very STRONG.

Rum Point.

Mr Bunny, on the sea wall at Eden Rock.

Waiting for our flight home. Kathy’s expression summed it up for all of us.

Rackams nightly Tarpon Feeding.

Mr. Bunny.

Chilling on the beach with the boys at Aqua Bay Club condo.

© 2012 Getaway Bunny. All rights reserved.

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