Spring Break on Grand Cayman: Part Two

Memorial plaque and viewpoint at the site of the famous 1794 Wreck of the Ten Sails

On our fourth day in Grand Cayman, we opted to make a trip to the capital of this island nation, Georgetown. Again, we caught the first hotel shuttle of the day to make the 15-minute drive. We stopped first at the cruise ship terminal to drop off an older couple who were trying to catch their cruise after missing its initial departure in Florida. We could easily have walked from there to the museum, our first stop, but the driver insisted on taking us all the way.

As cities of the world go, Georgetown is not particularly large, but its population of 35,000 makes it the largest capital of the United Kingdom’s 14 British Overseas Territories. I love that the town was initially called Hogsties, named for all the pigs kept in the vicinity! The bay is still called Hog Sty Bay.

We stopped first at the Cayman Islands National Museum. Though quite small, it is chock full of information and uses some really nice multi-media presentations. The museum is housed in the oldest public building in the Caymans, dating from the 1830s.

After visiting the museum, we took a stroll around the town. A few cruise ships were in port and the main streets fronting the harbor were busy with cruise ship passengers clogging the souvenir shops. A few blocks back and it was just a quiet Wednesday afternoon in a small island capital. We passed the House of Parliament, the library, the 1919 Peace Memorial and the Clock Tower constructed in 1937 in memory of King George V, and Heroes Square. It was not a long walk, but it was enough to drum up an appetite for our lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, which surprisingly was not too busy. After lunch, we called the hotel shuttle for pick-up and spent the rest of the day lazing around the hotel.

On Thursday, I rented a car. I just did not want to keep relying on the hotel shuttle that only operated from 10 AM to 5 PM on the hour or the island bus. or the pricey taxis. We needed some wheels! Unfortunately, we did have to get another taxi to the airport to pick up the rental, but we would drop at the airport when we departed. I had opted for the smallest, most economical car but was pretty excited when we upgraded to a mini jeep! The perfect car to tool around the island.

The Cayman Islands National Museum, the sign welcoming tourists at the port, and a fun sculpture at Heroes Square

We first drove over to the far east end of the island to visit the Cayman Parrot Sanctuary. It is an approximately 45-minute drive, but more like an hour or hour and 15 minutes when you are completely unfamiliar with the roads and tend to go around one too many times at the traffic circles. (not saying that was me, just saying that *could* happen to some people). Frankly, the driving was fine with a few little wrinkles. For example, on the one road that resembled a highway, the East-West Arterial Road, the posted speed limit was 40. Given that we were in a British territory and driving on the left, I assumed the posted speed limit was in kilometers. Certainly, the speedometer in the car used kilometers. But 40 kilometers an hour is just 25 miles an hour and seemed extremely slow for a two-lane each way highway. This was really puzzling me until I saw that there were a few places near the posted speed limits where there were those digital “Your Speed” signs and it was reading in miles per hour!

The Cayman Parrot is the only native parrot to the Cayman Islands and their national bird. C had got it in her head recently that she wanted a parrot and was thrilled to learn she could visit with the birds during our Grand Cayman vacation. The Cayman Parrot Sanctuary has much more than parrots. We were able to go into an enclosure and feed some parrots, parakeets, and cockatiels; then to another enclosure to pet some sweet little guinea pigs, held a small snake, and pet the resident agouti.

The beautiful historic house at Pedro St. James

After the parrot center, we drove back towards town stopping briefly at the site overlooking the reef where ten British sailing ships wrecked centuries before. It’s the most famous wreck of the Caymans and Queen Elizabeth II dedicated a memorial to remembrance in 1994 when she visited.

When then traveled on to the historic site of Pedro St. James. On arrival we were informed that there was a large cruise ship group arriving in about 20 minutes so we would have to wait for them to view the 4-D introductory presentation. C and I cruised the grounds a little before returning to join the group for the presentation. Afterward, knowing that the group would be tramping through the home together, we had lunch at the on-site cafe. We had also opted for the self-tour of the house as the guided tour was about 90 minutes long! The house is interesting, and I would have loved to have heard more on the architecture and history, but it is not a big home, and I did not think C would hold out that long (or I for that matter).

After lunch we then had the “castle” all to ourselves. Though it was not large by today’s standards, it would have dwarfed nearly all other buildings on the island. If I remember correctly, the first floor was the food storage and preparation areas while the second and third floors were the living spaces. The most extraordinary part of the home was the wide wrap-around verandas which created additional living space with an additional room in each corner and light-filled, ventilated walkways between that could be used for extra seating or office space or whatever. The house is the oldest surviving stone structure in the Caymans and is known as the birthplace of Cayman democracy as it was here at the “castle” where in 1831 a decision was made to form the territory’s first parliament and in 1835 an envoy from the Governor of Jamaica read the proclamation ending slavery in the British Empire. It was well worth a visit.

A fiery sunrise

On Friday, our sixth day, the weather had turned. It was still very warm of course, but it had grown cloudy and windy. I was glad we had joined the Stingray City tour early in the week as the wind made the sea a bit choppier. I woke up early to catch the sunrise and walked out to the hotel’s little beach. It did not look promising with all the clouds, but just when it looked like there would be no sunrise at all, a ball of red light began to glow at the base of the clouds. With the cloud cover, the light did not have much room to grow, but though small, it was dramatic.

It was Good Friday, which turns out to be quite a big holiday in the Caymans. I had not realized the strength of the Christian belief such that places that are open nearly all year round are closed only on Christmas Day and Good Friday. While looking around for someplace that would be open, one site noted that they had live music six days a week and would do so seven if Cayman law were amended to allow it! Normally, I am quite thorough in my research of vacation destinations, but I did not anticipate this. I found that a lot of entertainment and restaurant venues would be closed on Good Friday, limiting our options. But in the end, we just wanted to hang out and I wanted to drive.

We first made our way back to Hell as C wanted to check out the gift shop. Imagine our disappointment that though the sign for Hell indicated it was open daily, it was in fact closed on Good Friday. (There is a lot to unpack there, but I will leave that to the reader to do so). From there we headed to the Dolphin Center, just across from the Cayman Turtle Center. Though we did not intend to book any dolphin experience, a fellow tourist had mentioned there was an observation area that we could enter for free. We spent about an hour watching the dolphins as they swam and jumped either on their own or in their interactions with the paying guests.

For lunch, we stopped at a delicious Mexican place in town that was luckily open on the holiday. Then we drove the hour or so to Starfish Point at the tip of the landmass on the right side of North Sound. I had hoped the drive would reveal beautiful ocean or other views but frankly, it was a bit on the boring side. Initially, we passed through the same towns we had the day before and it was largely shopping centers and residential homes. There seemed little in the way of beaches on the less populated, eastern part of the island. As we cut up Frank Sound Road, the only road the cuts north/south in the east, the few houses quickly gave way to dry scrubland. Even along the northern road to Rum and Starfish points I found few spots worthy of a stop.

Once we arrived in the vicinity of Starfish Point, we saw where a good chunk of the local population was spending their Good Friday. I had never thought of Easter as a party kind of holiday, much less Good Friday. But it seems in the Caymans that it very much can be. Camping over the Easter weekend is a Cayman tradition and the popular beaches, like Starfish Point, are covered over with pop-up tents with friends and families eating and drinking, cooking and talking, and swimming. We made our way over to Starfish Point, hoping we might see some starfish in the shallow waters, but there were far too many people and boats (including a BBQ boat selling food to those not cooking themselves). No one stopped us from wading in the water, but no one interacted with us either. C and I were the odds one out. We were not local, we did not know people, it was not our holiday. We got ice cream at the very busy Kaibo restaurant nearby before we headed back.

Flora at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park

On Saturday, our last full day on Grand Cayman, we headed back over to the East End to visit the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park. We arrived soon after the opening – I wanted us to be there before the free Easter festivities for local kids commenced. After days of clouds, the morning was hot and humid. In many areas of the park, one could walk beneath a canopy of plants but between individual gardens the path lay directly in the sun. There were a few other visitors but we had little interaction and it was almost like having the park to ourselves. Visiting the park was also a chance to see the endangered blue iguanas, only found on the island of Grand Cayman. We were able to see some roaming around the park but also in the conservation center on the property.

That evening we had one final activity – a tour that would include a visit to Bioluminescent Bay. I had read that it was not advised to swim in the bay given the type of algae involved can be harmful to humans and humans can be harmful back. But we were still up to seeing the phenomenon. Our boat left the dock about an hour before sunset so that we could watch the sun sink as we motored from the inlet near Governor’s Creek across the North Sound, returning again to Starfish Point. The Easter revelers were in rare form with music from the campers on shore and that from several party boats competing. C and I stayed on the boat chatting with some other tourists (who as incredible luck would have it live only a few blocks from us in Virginia!) while most of our boat’s occupants jumped into the shallow waters. It did not take long for many of them to rush back onto the boat for some treatment for jellyfish stings! I am not sure what our tour guides were using as luckily C and I had no need, but there were at least eight on our boat that needed treatment.

Sunset from the jellyfish bar

Ironically, our next stop was the Jellyfish Bar – where our tour guides tried to lure us off the boat into the one-foot-deep waters to learn about jellies and hold them. After a good third of our boat had just experienced some stings, it was a little bit of a hard sell, but the guides explained this interesting fact: jellies cannot sting the palm of the hand or the sole of our foot. The guide scooped up a jellyfish and deposited it into the palm of our hands. Both C and I even gave it a try and lo and behold it was true. Though afterwards it is key to use the sand to “wash” our hands to remove any of the minuscule barbs the jellyfish may have left behind to ensure we do not transfer them to other parts of our body where it will in fact hurt.

After our educational jellyfish stop, the sun had set and night had fully come, we motored into Bioluminescent Bay for those who would participate. From the boat, C and I could see some of the glow, but it was not nearly as impressive as we thought it might be. Maybe it would have been better in the water, but I was happy to just stay on the boat to see the sunset, enjoy the oohs and aahs from our fellow travelers, and the cooler air as we headed back in at the end of the trip. It was a great way to end the trip.

All in all, it was a good vacation for C and me; we had just the right amount of activity, including a once-in-a-lifetime stingray experience, and lazing about. I was so proud of C for getting out of her comfort zone — kissing a stingray, holding a snake, holding a jellyfish, riding a scooter, and her willingness to snorkel her second and third times ever after a not great first experience several years before. After the challenging previous months, we needed some wins and we found them in Grand Cayman.


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.