The big chill on the Cayman Islands
A week spent on golden beaches, swimming and diving in beautiful turquoise waters... what's not to like?
People are hilarious all the same, aren't they?
As soon as I made it known I was off to the Cayman Islands, the jokes came flying thick and fast. "Bring me back a bag of cash." "Are you finally sorting out your tax affairs?" Ha-ha!
Well, I had the last laugh, after a week spent luxuriating on golden beaches, swimming and diving in beautiful turquoise waters, and eating the finest of fine food. Ha-ha indeed!
The Cayman Islands comprises three different islands - Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. Over the course of the week, I managed to get to all three - via aeroplane - although the majority of my visit was based on the main island, Grand Cayman, which is home to the islands' capital, George Town, and the bulk of the population too.
Of course the Cayman Islands is known for its status as an offshore financial haven, and it has a particular resonance in this country, but it is also a spectacular holiday destination. It's small - but carries a big punch.
Grand Cayman is only 35km long, and its widest point is about 13km. No prizes for deducing that it's the largest of the three, with Cayman Brac about 145km to the north-east, and Little Cayman a bit closer, at around 120km away.
Our home for our stay on Grand Cayman was the beautiful Kimpton Seafire Resort and Spa, located at the iconic and world famous Seven Mile Beach (which is actually just over six miles long). The beach area is the focus for much of the island's tourism activity, with many of its hotels and restaurants situated here, and there are endless hours of fun to be had.
Seven Mile Beach is on Grand Cayman's western tip, just north of George Town. There are any amount of activities on offer, but it is particularly known for snorkelling as there are small reefs there.
Being a sucker for speed, I couldn't resist the jet skis, but I also snorkelled off the shore - getting to swim with turtles in water with amazingly clear visibility - and took a boat trip where I got the chance to scuba dive. I did the PADI course years and years ago, and hadn't actually had a chance to dive since my honeymoon, but I was surprised at how quickly it came back. Scuba diving is exhilarating. I know it may not be for everyone, but if you want to give it a go they will take beginners and give you a run through and certify you to dive. Mark from Epic was brilliant. I watched him with those who were a little nervous to begin with and he made them feel right at home. I was thrilled to do it again after so long, and it was great to get so up-close and personal with marine life. We dived off the Kittiwake, an old American battleship which is now one of the Caribbean's most famous dive sites.
If scuba diving is not for you, be sure to snorkel, and also to take the submarine tour of the island, which is another way to discover the world beneath the sea and learn about the Cayman Trench. The submarine can drop to a depth of 100ft.
At the start of your holiday, I recommend splashing out a little and treating yourself to a helicopter tour. I can never resist a spin in one, and Cayman Island Helicopters offer a 45-minute tour of the whole island, giving you a chance to discover this magical haven and learn a little of its history. Back on terra firma, I also recommend borrowing a bike for an afternoon excursion. Most hotels will be able to help you arrange this. This is something I always try to do when I travel.
Rum Point, east of George Town, is a must-visit spot. Its popularity among locals for bars and a night out is a clue as to how vibrant it is. It's famous for its mudslides - the cocktail that is - but for tourists the major attraction is Stingray City, a natural sandbank in the bay off Rum Point where you can get in the water and feed stingrays, who will swim up to you like some long-lost pet. Nearby is Starfish Point, where you can observe an array of beautiful starfish in their natural habitat. Something you learn about the Caymans is that the names of the different areas tend to give a big clue as to what you'll find there - Seven Mile Beach, Stingray City, Starfish Point, Rum Point, and so on... you get the drift! I even visited Hell, which is the one exception to my previous statement - it was the opposite of hell, with its eye-catching black limestone configurations and a bright red post office where you can send postcards from hell!
Not far from Rum Point, near Old Man Bay, take a guided tour of the Cayman Crystal Caves, another big tourist attraction. The caves are beneath a tropical forest, and were once popular as hideouts for pirates, giving rise to local legends about buried treasure. More recently, until the caves were opened to visitors, locals had used them to gather guano - bat poo to you and me - which is a fertilizer.
Like most holiday destinations, horse riding is a popular option but there was a twist to our trek which I'd never come across before: as part of your outing, you head along the beach on horseback, and then the guide leads the horses into the sea far enough that the horse has to swim back. They don't tell you about this bit before you set off, and we had a great laugh about it.
Back into the skies again, and the first port of call was a 45-minute flight to Little Cayman, landing on a small air strip with a one-roomed airport and a little slice of heaven all around. We did an overnight in Southern Cross, a beach- front hotel with its own dive school. If you have time - and I suggest you try to make it - this is an incredible place to dive and snorkel because of the visibility in the water. You can get close to all sorts of fish, like nurse sharks, stingrays, groupers, angelfish, barracudas and maybe even an octopus or two!
When you're on holidays it's important to relax too. It can't be all go, and on Little Cayman I did exactly that. It's a very chilled-out place, there aren't many people around and when you get a chance to bask in some peace and quiet, it would be a crying shame to waste it. On the subject of relaxing, a spa treatment at the Kimpton is a must. I went for the deep-tissue massage but the more adventurous can go for a variety of other options.
Which brings me to food... an abundance of food. And I have to begin with a confession: I've never liked seafood. Ever. And here I was on an island; fish everywhere. I was worried about how I would manage. Suffice to say, I went native! I had some lobster, some crab, some prawns and some tuna and I can no longer say I don't like seafood.
My first experience was fresh tuna steaks, the house special in Morgan's Seafood Restaurant. I overcame my fears and just took the plunge. Emboldened by this, the next day we visited the Lobster Pot where the surf 'n' turf burger was recommended. It was an amazing burger, topped with lobster and a giant prawn, but it is only served on a Friday here so don't say you weren't warned.
Everywhere we dined it was the same experience. The islands are a seafood paradise and if somebody like me can make a go of it, then anyone can.
A particular highlight was a long, leisurely Sunday brunch in our hotel on Grand Cayman, with a taster menu featuring all sorts of goodies and desserts.
This is a real occasion on the island. The locals dress up in their finery and come along to while away the afternoon with the best of food and drink, and company of course.
Take two: top attractions
There are so many top-notch places on any of the islands to go diving. I’ve never experienced quite the clarity and colours I witnessed on this trip. The variety of marine life and the coral was breathtaking.
Our pilot for our island tour was an ex-professional footballer, Jerome Begot, who added a bit of humour and colour to his talk about the island and its history. Jerome threw in a couple of acrobatic manoeuvres too! caymanislandshelicopters.com
Stays at the Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa on the world-famous Seven Mile Beach start from €272 per night (room only, based on two adults sharing, minimum stay five days, excluding taxes and charges).
British Airways fly direct from Heathrow, terminal five, four days per week - Monday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday. There is an Aer Lingus flight, departing from Dublin at 06:40, which connects up with the Heathrow flight. See ba.com/caymanislands for details about the latest fares and special offers.
Sunday Indo Living