Spring Break on Grand Cayman: Part One

Three months after our early return to the United States from Guinea, my daughter had her Spring Break. We had had such a topsy-turvy few months with our unexpected return, then two months in temporary housing, and then a move to a more permanent place, that I really wanted us to have a nice mother-daughter getaway. We had to cancel our original R&R trip from Guinea in December since we were leaving and we had only had the quick trip to Maf Village and Sierra Leone, which while a fun little adventure with friends, was not the same as the initial two-week vacation I had planned.

Finding ourselves back in Virginia during winter after always-hot West Africa, I longed to be warm again. The Caribbean seemed a good choice. But where in the Caribbean? I wanted someplace where a week would allow us to see most, if not all, we wanted to see and maybe even allow for some real downtime. After checking out a few places, I settled on Grand Cayman.

Grand Cayman is not my usual sort of place. Do not get me wrong. I absolutely love sunshine, beaches of soft, pretty sand, palm trees, and glistening clear water. I just cannot do it all day long under the noonday sun. I also like to enjoy it in peace and quiet without 10,000 other people on holiday all around me. In Cayman, C and I found a good compromise.

Then just a week before this trip our shipment of 3,500 pounds of Household Effects (HHE) had been delivered to our new apartment – an overwhelming activity at any time – and I had learned that an acquaintance of mine – a fellow single mom diplomat – had passed away. I was very much in need of a getaway.

We had extraordinary weather on the flight down – A view of the Florida Keys from the air

We had an early flight and the three hours to Grand Cayman went quickly. Although I had planned to sleep, the gorgeous weather and views kept me awake and glancing out the window regularly.

Although we arrived on Grand Cayman just after 10 AM in the morning, I did not have all that much planned for this first day. We took a taxi from the airport to the Holiday Inn Resort, our hotel for the week. The hotel is in the same general area as the famous Seven Mile Beach, but on the opposite side of the island. Though only 1.5 miles as the crow flies from Seven Mile Beach it is located across a highway, along a windy road past a golf course and a growing residential area. It’s an odd place to put a hotel, but I had enough points for a free week, so I could not really complain. (But I did, just a wee bit)

Not a bad view from our hotel room

The upside is that the hotel runs a complimentary shuttle from the hotel to Seven Mile Beach, Camana Bay, and the Cayman capital of Georgetown. The downside is the shuttle did not operate on Sundays.

We had lunch at the hotel restaurant and then took a taxi down to Seven Mile Beach near the Westin Hotel. The back of the hotel was hopping. There were people everywhere around the pool, at the majority of tables at the beachfront cafe and chairs around the bar, and spilling onto the beach to and into the water. It seemed this was the place to be. C noted all the kids frolicking nearby and turned her best pre-teen glare on me and petulantly asked me why we were not staying there. (Hint: The $800-a-night price tag was part of it) C jumped into the water. I took off my shoes and walked through the surf. It was really beautiful. But it did not take long for the searing bright sun and crescendo of the crowds to get to us. After an hour we sat down for a cold beverage and a snack at the restaurant and C conceded that the Westin was maybe not all that.

I did not want to get another expensive taxi back; I had planned for us to enjoy the late afternoon weather for a walk, but just as we got started we came across several electric scooters. C had never been on one, but it seemed a good enough time to try, especially given the winding road alongside the golf course had very little traffic. It took some time to get back and ended up costing twice as much as a taxi! But we had a fun time and a low-key first day.

On our second day, we had a lazy morning before catching the 10 AM hotel shuttle (the first of the day) to the main strip where we caught a bus heading to the northern end of the island where we could visit the Cayman Island Turtle Center. For such a developed island, the bus system is fairly regular and inexpensive; it cost 2 Cayman Islands dollars (about US$2.50), which was a far cry from the CI$30 (US$36) for the short taxi ride from the hotel to Seven Mile Beach the day before. The buses are like large mini buses similar to a small tourist bus. Ours dropped us off right in front of the Turtle Center in no time.

At the Cayman Turtle Center

I had heard some mixed reviews on the Turtle Center. The Center is one of the top tourist spots in the Caymans though there are some that are concerned its conservation activities do not go far enough as they do farm some of the turtles for local meat and shell products. It is tricky, but if they did not do that then perhaps those who wanted those items would seek alternative ways to source the turtles if they could not buy them from the Center? The Caymans have a long history with turtles. When Christopher Columbus came across the uninhabited Caymans in 1503, he named them Las Tortugas (The Turtles) for the overabundance of turtles in the islands’ waters. Harvesting turtles was a mainstay of the economy for at least a hundred years and when the Islands became a self-governing territory in 1959, the turtle became a prominent part of their flag. I could see both sides.

C and I had a great day at the Turtle Center. They had an informative talk at the predator tank where they had a few nurse sharks, tarpon, barracuda, jacks, and other predatory fish. C also enjoyed hand-feeding some birds in the aviary. And then we had the great pleasure of snorkeling in the lagoon with the turtles.

This was only the second time she had ever snorkeled! And the first time had been in Lake Malawi with an ill-fitting mask when she was about 6 years old. But she snorkeled like a champ.

After turtle snorkeling, spending some time in the Center’s swimming pool, and then lunch, we decided to walk over to Hell.

Oh, the jokes are almost endless.

We found it – Hell on Earth is inland on a beautiful Caribbean Island.

But Hell is an actual place on Grand Cayman about a 15-minute walk from the Turtle Center. Walking allowed us to stop and take a photo at the crossroads to Hell Road. Indeed, the road to Hell is paved and yes, I was leading my 11-year-old there.

Hell is just a geological formation of black limestone in standing water. Though online it is described as “sinister,” it really is not. I would not want to be walking through it (one is not allowed) and it was hot, but it was more lovely than eerie. With our backs to the kitschy souvenir shop with its dress-up devil costumes and “Postcards from Hell,” the abandoned night club and Hell Post Office, and only the rock formations, birds, fish, and trees against the startling blue sky, we could have been far from civilization. I certainly would not plan a whole trip around a visit to Hell, but quick-ish stop is worth it. Mostly, as apparently, the Caymans and tourists alike say, so we can say we have been to Hell and back.

It was hot and we were not really looking forward to trekking back to the Turtle Center or onward to find the closest bus stop, but the only other visitors to Hell at the time, three jovial ladies from upstate New York with some challenges to driving on the left, offered us a lift back to Seven Mile Beach and in the end even took us straight back to the hotel.

Boats gather at the Stingray City sandbar; C gets a pat on the back from a friendly stingray.

The activity for Tuesday, our third day on Grand Cayman, was a visit to the island’s number one tourist attraction, the famous Stingray City. Stingray City is a shallow sandbar located in North Sound, a bowl-shaped lagoon cupped between Grand Cayman’s narrow peninsula to the west and the bulkier body of the island to the east and capped by a barrier reef, where stingrays have been gathering for years, reportedly first for fishermen’s catch and now for tourists’ handouts. In the clear three feet of water, tourists can stand as southern stingrays swim around and sometimes right up to them. I read that boats are limited per day and by the number of squid goodies that can be given. For the tasty squid, stingrays will eat from your hand, let you give them a kiss, and offer you a brief slap on the back.

C had initially been a little worried about getting in with these sea creatures, but once our boat pulled up and set anchor, she was ready to jump in. Though I had chosen a trip earlier in the day hoping there might be fewer visitors given that many cruise ship passengers would likely take the midday tour, it was rather crowded with several more boats pulling up just after us. Though it would probably have been a different, and possibly more magical experience without every Tom, Dick, and Harry vacationing in the Grand Cayman on Spring Break, our tour guides made sure that everyone who wanted a stingray interaction got one. It really was a unique experience that C and I will likely not forget.

Sunset at our hotel

Following Stingray City, the boat then headed to a reef for some snorkeling. C and I opted to wear floatation devices for safety, and I am glad we did so. First off, I wear some rather thick prescription lenses and when snorkeling with a tour company’s equipment, I do not see all that well. Second, this was only C’s third snorkeling experience and the first in the ocean. And finally, the wind was beginning to pick up and the seas were very choppy. While we heard others from our boat exclaiming about seeing a stingray, a lobster, and a barracuda, C and I just saw some fish and the reef. And that was perfectly fine for this particular day. After being pushed around by the waves for 15 minutes, we were more than ready to get back in the boat. Though we almost got aboard the wrong one! That is what happens when one is partially blind and so many look-alike boats are all gathered in one place.

We spent another low-key evening at the hotel attempting to order food from the Cayman Island’s version of Uber Eats. It was fine, really. It was a great start to the week. This is exactly what I wanted – a few fun things to do while also lots of lying around doing little to nothing.


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