The idea of a visit to the Cayman Islands might conjure at least a few of the following Caribbean vacation clichés: white sand beaches, umbrella-accented tiki cocktails, and cruise ships dispensing hoards of sunburnt tourists into a crowded port. On a recent visit to Grand Cayman, the largest and most famous of the three islands that make up the British territory, many of the expected cliches were present—right down to the steel drum band playing live calypso music at the airport. (Which, by the way, is not an unpleasant thing to encounter while waiting in a customs line after a quick three hour flight from cold New York.)
But Grand Cayman has more to offer than its longtime reputation as an off-shore banking haven, scuba diving mecca, and cruise ship stopover would have you believe. Venture away from the souvenir shops of George Town and you'll find an island paradise with a rich history and a diverse population that includes over 135 nationalities ranging from Jamaican to Filipino to Canadian. And despite an ever-growing roster of sleek new property developments (like the buzzy residential-entertainment center Camana Bay), the stunning natural beauty of the island remains visible from nearly every locale; In fact, it's still entirely possible to chance upon a ramshackle beach bar on an uncrowded stretch of sand—the perfect place from which to watch the sunset with one of those aforementioned tiki drinks in your hand, tropical vacation clichés be damned.
Here, a look at where to stay and what to do should you decide to make Grand Cayman your spring break (or anytime) getaway.
Where to Stay
With all that's happening on Grand Cayman, it's hard to believe that the recently opened Kimpton Seafire is the first new resort to be built on the island in more than a decade. And, with its bohemian-meets-mid-century decor and laid back vibe, it's also one of the hippest hotel options around. Stay here and you'll definitely have a hard time making it off-campus: Most of the 266 rooms boast balconies with ocean views and oversized soaking tubs; the hotel offers a full schedule of wellness programming ranging from SUP yoga to outdoor boot camp and pilates; there's a beach kiosk offering unlimited use of snorkeling equipment, paddle boards, kayaks, and mini catamarans; the sprawling central pool has its own cozy bar and the beachfront has plenty of cocoon-like chaises perfect for soaking up the Caribbean sun.
Where to Eat
Thanks to Cayman Cookout, an annual food festival hosted by Le Bernardin's Eric Ripert and attended by celeb chefs like Anthony Bourdain, Emeril Legasse, and José Andrés, Grand Cayman has recently become a bit of culinary hotbed—so, if you do manage to tear yourself away from the beach, there are plenty of enticing dining options. Ripert's own restaurant, Blue, is located at the Ritz Carlton and features a menu of local seafood in a handsome dark-wood setting. Up the beach in West Bay, is The Cracked Conch, a longtime favorite beloved for its unbeatable views, conch chowder, and truffle-laced short rib ravioli. Vegetarians should make the trip to Bread and Chocolate in George Town for plant-based breakfast and lunch options like tempeh-bacon breakfast tacos, "Angus" beet burgers, and cashew cheese sandwiches. For a more local experience, head to the Mango Tree which serves Caymanian classics like jerk chicken and oxtail stew in a homey, indoor-outdoor environment.
Back at the Seafire, executive chef Massimo De Francesca's sleek but airy restaurant Ave boasts an impressive wine list and a tasty menu of Mediterranean-tinged dishes like island snapper, seafood curry, and an insanely creamy avocado-melon gazpacho, while De Francesca's restaurant-in-a-restaurant Avecita offers a tasting menu of innovative tapas at an intimate chef's counter. Though each of the Seafire's on-site restaurants would be worth a visit even if you weren't staying at there, you'll likely spend most of your time at Coccoloba. The white-washed, open-aired hut is perched right on the shore and serves Mexican favorites like elote corn and fish tacos, plus hearty salads made with local greens and topped with fresh-caught grilled fish. Be sure to try the Coccoslide, a milkshake-like blend of Absolut, crème de cacao, coconut, cold brew coffee, and cream. (Calories don't count when you're on vacation.)
What to Do
Forget your preconceived notions about Stingray City, a Wildlife Interaction Zone on a shallow sandbar in the North Sound where hundreds of stingrays feed. Everyone—from locals to island regulars—will tell you that it absolutely can't be missed. And they're not wrong: When else will you have the chance to frolic with dozens of giant-but-gentle southern stingrays in the middle of the sun-dappled Caribbean Sea? Plan to be there early in the morning; not only will you beat the cruise ship crowds, but you'll also have the crystal clear waters all to yourself.
The less-developed northern coast is also home to some of the island's most intriguing geography. Spend an hour or two wandering Crystal Caves, a system of underground caverns filled with ethereal crystal stalagmites and stalactites, some of which are partially submerged in crystal-clear underground ponds. Afterwards, head to Rum Point, at the island's northernmost tip, where low-key beach bars marked by driftwood signs and colorful hammocks dot an unbelievably pristine white sand beach. Nearby, at Starfish Point, snorkelers can peep thousands of red cushion sea stars. Closer to George Town, check out Smith Cove, a locals' beach known for its intimate swimming cove sheltered by craggy rock formations.
It's impossible to talk about the Cayman Islands and not mention scuba diving—after all, it was the world class diving that initially attracted tourists to the islands. Thanks to the islands' unique location atop Cayman Ridge, a massive underwater mountain range, the islands boast 365 high-visibility dive sites—many of which feature super-steep, reef-covered walls or protected ship wrecks. Newbies and experienced divers alike should consult the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism for a full list of dive operators supported by the government-backed Cayman Islands Watersports Operatiors Association.
This story originally appeared on Vogue.
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