Explore Caymen Islands

Caymen Islands Travel Guide

Renowned for beautiful beaches, excellent diving, and offshore banking, the Cayman Islands is made up of three islands situated between Cuba and Jamaica, only a 90-minute flight from Miami. Grand Cayman is the largest and most developed of the islands and the location of the capital, George Town. It is hard to believe that among the buildings that line George Town's harbour are more than 500 banks making up one of the world's largest offshore financial centres.

Discovered by Columbus in 1503 and explored by Sir Francis Drake in 1586, it was not until 1670 that the islands came under British rule. They remain a British territory, and the Queen's picture is still displayed proudly, but the US exerts a lot of influence over what it considers its backyard. For years the islands were a base for pirates who delighted in the remoteness of Grand Cayman. A bonus was the island's absolutely flat topography, which ensures that its profile is practically invisible against the horizon, making it the perfect hide-away for nefarious characters.

While some people are still looking for a safe place to hide their treasure, these days most visitors to the Cayman Islands are after a relaxing getaway. The Islands are a beach paradise with great swimming, snorkelling, scuba diving, fishing and other watersports.

Little Cayman and Cayman Brac are 70 miles (113km) northeast of Grand Cayman and are much smaller and even more relaxed than the main island. Visitors don't come to these islands in suits; the little business that goes on revolves around diving and catering for the world's best bone-fishing.

All visitors are required to hold sufficient funds for intended period of stay in the Cayman Islands, as well as a return or onward ticket and documents required for further travel. Entry may be refused if not complying with general appearance, behaviour and clothing requirements. Although originally granted for 60 days, tourist visas can generally be extended for stays of up to six months. As part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), all travellers travelling between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean region are required to present a passport or other valid travel document to enter or re-enter the United States. If departing from the USA a valid passport will be required by immigration authorities. We recommend that passports be valid for six months after intended period of travel.

Seven Mile Beach

Address: Grand Cayman

Just north of George Town, Seven Mile Beach is a beautiful stretch of white sand that curls around the west of Grand Cayman. A bit of a misnomer, Seven Mile Beach is actually only five and a half miles (8.8km) long, and is slowly shrinking due to erosion. A reef protects the coast and ensures that the water is blissfully calm and ideal for swimming and snorkelling. This is the most popular beach on the island and is bordered by dozens of hotels, but it is large enough to ensure sunbathers do not end up towel-to-towel. For day-visitors there are plenty of restaurants, beach bars, and even grilling facilities to relax at after a day of watersports. The calm and safe swimming conditions and ample space make Seven Mile Beach a great option for families with children. North of Seven Mile Beach is West Bay, the country's second largest town.

Boatswains Beach

Address: 825 Northwest Point Road, West Bay Grand Cayman

Boatswain's Beach is Cayman's premier attraction. It features the famous Cayman Turtle Farm, an Education Centre, as well as a one of a kind marine park, with 23 acres of reef lagoon in which guests can snorkel. When Christopher Columbus first discovered the Cayman islands in 1503, he named them 'Las Tortugas,' meaning The Turtles. According to legend, there were so many turtles that the islands looked like they were covered with rocks. They are now a protected species and the Cayman Islands Turtle Farm is home to thousands of turtles ranging in size from six ounces (170g) to 575 pounds (261kg) each. The priority of the farm is to maintain an ideal breeding environment for the turtles. Breeding season runs from May to October, during which time the turtles dig their nests on the beach and produce their eggs. The eggs are immediately taken to the hatchery, where staff monitor the hatching process.

Guests at Boatswain's Beach can tour the Turtle Farm, and enjoy other attractions: Cayman Street, which showcases a bit of the Cayman Islands' culture and history; a nature trail with colourful flowers and butteflies; a free-flight bird aviary; Boatswain's Reef, with a viewing panel into the Predator Reef; the Breaker's Lagoon swimming pool; and up-close-and-personal animal encounters at the touch tanks. Boatswain's Beach also has gift shops and restaurants to shop and relax in.

Pedro St James Castle

Address: Grand Cayman

East of George Town is Pedro St James, the islands' oldest surviving building, originally built by an Englishman who arrived here on Grand Cayman in 1765. Local stories also associate the house with the pirate Henry Morgan and a 17th-century Spaniard, Pedro Gómez. The house is touted as the islands' 'birthplace of democracy' because it was here in 1831 that the decision was made to vote for elected representatives, and four years later the Slavery Abolition Act was also read here. Constructed around 1780 from quarried native stone, the house has been restored by the government as an historic site.

Behind a traditional coral stone wall rises an authentic, three-storey early 19th-century great house and assorted outbuildings, with traditional 'grounds' planted with pineapple, banana and other provisions. The adjacent acres are covered with luxuriant tropical plants, palm-lined walkways and a splendid manicured Great Lawn sprawling to a fantastic view over the Caribbean. A new 3D multimedia theatre shows a 20-minute film of the history of the castle, and there is a memorial to the victims of Hurricane Ivan.

Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park

Address: Frank Sound Road Grand Cayman

The Cayman Islands are better known for their sea life than flora and fauna on land, but for keen botanists or those who would simply like a pleasant walk, the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park is hard to beat. A well-marked mile-long (3km) trail winds through lush, easy terrain, featuring almost 300 native species including roses, hibiscus, lilies and orchids (which bloom in late May and June). The park and lake is home to the endangered (and elusive) Blue Iguana, as well as a fascinating array of birdlife including parrots, herons, coots and the rare West Indian Whistling Duck. The nearby Mastic Trail meanders through the old-growth forest that once supplied early settlers with timber on Grand Cayman. The 26-hectare (65 acre) park is in the district of North Side, and is a 45-minute drive from George Town.

Rum Point

Address: Grand Cayman

Rum Point Beach consists of hundreds of yards of crystal-clear shallow sand flats, perfect for snorkelling in a conservation marine park. It is a tranquil retreat where hammocks slung under shady trees, picnic tables, a sandy beach and warm shallow waters provide a relaxing haven for the day. Many watersports are offered, with easy access to North Sound, including jet-skiing, sailing, and kayaking, and snorkellers can explore the coral formations just off the beach. The shore is dotted with ultra-casual beach bars, and slipping into a hammock with a cocktail is the perfect way to spend a relaxing hour or 10. Rum Point is a good option for families on Grand Cayman as the shallow waters are calm and safe and there are plenty of diversions for kids.

Stingray City and Sandbar

Address: Grand Cayman

Stingray City and the Sandbar are snorkelling sites located in the North Sound, and are a must-visit for watersports enthusiasts. The clear shallow waters are frequented by friendly stingrays that come to find out what titbits visitors have brought them. Boat tours take snorkellers and divers to swim with and feed the stingrays on bits of squid; they will brush against swimmers and allow themselves to be touched. This famous Cayman attraction was accidentally created by fishermen who used to clean their catch in the calm waters, casting bits overboard, and so attracting the Southern Stingrays to the area.

Swimming with the stingrays is a remarkable experience. Travellers should do their best to ensure, however, that they use only reputable tour operators who have respect for the environment and the animals.

Hell

Address: West Bay Grand Cayman

A popular and slightly bizarre stop on any tour of Grand Cayman, Hell is a tiny village that features strange black limestone rock formations that are said to resemble the Underworld. Though Cayman residents are generally religious, residents of Hell show their sense of humour to tourists with a bright red post office that sends 'Postcards from Hell', and a gift shop where 'Satan' passes out souvenirs and inquires of visitors: 'How the Hell are you?' The village, home to only 60 people, also features a restaurant and bar. The natural rock formations, comprised of the spiky 'Ironshore' rock found elsewhere on the island are interesting, and the residents have turned Hell into a quirky island attraction for those exploring beyond the beaches and resorts.

Diving

A breath-taking variety of marine life, year-round warm and calm water, and great visibility, make the Cayman Islands one of the world's best scuba diving destinations. There are more than 40 dive operators on the island and more than 200 reef and wreck dive sites. The abundance of fish, marine and coral life is protected by strict conservation.

On the main island, Grand Cayman, the best dive sites include Victoria House Reef, just off Seven Mile Beach, and along the reefs at the mouth of North Sound. Eden Rock and Cemetery Beach Reef are also popular for snorkellers. Nearby at Sandbar and Stingray City there is the unique opportunity for snorkellers and scuba divers to feed and stroke the stingrays. Sandbar is a pure white sand ridge in just three feet (1m) of water. Stingray City is slightly deeper at 12 feet (4m). In Cayman Brac the most famous dive site is the Russian built Cuban destroyer, which was purpose-sunk in 1996 to form an artificial reef. Little Cayman also boasts some first class dive sites including the North Wall and Bloody Bay Wall off Jackson Point. Non-divers can enjoy the reefs from the Atlantis Submarine, which offers hour-long underwater trips for up to 46 passengers.

Scuba diving is possible and enjoyable all year in the Cayman Islands. Many people prefer to avoid the hurricane season, which runs from August to October, but if the storms don't hit this is in fact a wonderful season for diving. The water is warm enough to dive without a wetsuit, or in a short 1.5mm wetsuit, although technical divers going to greater depths may want something a bit warmer.

Sunset Cruises

Watching the sun set spectacularly over the sea while sipping rum cocktails is an understandably popular way to spend an evening in the Cayman Islands, as it is in most of the Caribbean. A number of tour operators offer sunset cruises, including the Jolly Roger which is a replica of a 17th-century galleon and takes one back to the days of Tortuga and the Caribbean pirates, offering cocktails, snacks and a well-stocked bar, as well as music. Sunset cruises are usually available all year round, unless the weather is stormy. Hurricane season in the Cayman Islands runs from August to October, but some people prefer to risk the chance of storms to enjoy a more peaceful off-season holiday. Trips are usually about two and a half hours long and leave from George Town on Grand Cayman at about 5pm in winter and 5:30pm in summer.

There are no specific health risks associated with travel to the Cayman Islands and food and water are generally considered safe. No vaccinations are required, but vaccination for hepatitis A is recommended and travellers should always be up to date on vaccinations for MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) and tetanus-diphtheria. Dengue fever has been reported in the Caribbean region and insect protection measures should be taken. Medical facilities are relatively good in the Cayman Islands, with two good hospitals, but serious illness or injury may still require evacuation. Visitors should take out adequate travel and medical insurance to cover the possible need for an air ambulance. There is a decompression chamber available in the Cayman Islands.

The culture of the Cayman Islands is a blend of American, British and West Indian traditions. The churchgoing Caymanians appreciate politeness and modesty - topless bathing and nudity is illegal and beachwear in not acceptable off the beach.

Most restaurants and hotels automatically add a 10 to 15 percent service charge to the bill, otherwise a gratuity of the same amount is expected. At hotels, a 10 percent government tax is also usually added to the cost of your room. Taxi drivers expect a 10 to 15 percent tip as well.

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