The history of the Cayman Islands has been shaped by the sea for centuries, with generations of turtle fishermen and sailors who worked on merchant ships around the world, their maritime skills in high demand. The charms of this Caribbean island seem bound up with the ocean, with the endless white sand of Seven Mile Beach, surrounded by reefs that attract divers and snorkeling, and sandbars where you can swim with the rays at “Stingray city”, that most iconic of things to do in the Cayman Islands.
During my week on Grand Cayman, the largest of the three islands that make up the Cayman Islands archipelago, I was struck by how the island seems to look outward, pulled towards the sea. In this article I’ll share what I enjoyed, as I sought out the best beaches in Grand Cayman, swam at Stingray City and tasted the locally caught fish, in sophisticated restaurants and homely fish-fry beach shacks.
Stingray City, Grand Cayman – the sandbar where you can swim with the stingrays
“We have some snacks for the stingrays, but don’t worry, you guys are not the snack!” quipped the guide as our catamaran reached the sandbar known as Stingray City in the Cayman Islands. We’d boarded the catamaran in the morning at the marina in West Bay, after a minibus transfer from our hotel, for the start of our Stingray City tour with Red Sail Sports.
Looking at a map of Grand Cayman you can see the shallow area bounding the lagoon in the north west of the island, stretching between West Bay and Rum Point. The sandbars in this stretch of water were traditionally the place where fishing boats returning from outside the reef would drop anchor to gut their fish, before they returned to land their catch.
Stingrays attracted by the easy meal came to associate the sound of the boat’s approaching engines with food. Over time they have become quite used to human interaction and divers found that they could feed the stingrays with small pieces of squid. The boat guides who come here all the time have even given the stingrays names and know which ones are more amenable to being stroked and handled by visitors.
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Our boat trip out to the sandbar took around 20 minutes, and as we arrived we found a cluster of boats anchored on the sand bar, where it was shallow enough to stand chest deep. We were given a briefing before we got off the boat, masks and snorkels were provided for us to borrow, and a photographer accompanied our group into the water to capture those memorable stingray moments for the mantlepiece.
At first I snorkelled around and could only see the sandy bottom, but soon the stingrays started to swim around the legs of those in the water, no doubt looking for the food. The male stingrays are smaller at half a metre across, but the females are much bigger with a wingspan of a metre and half.
At first these large creatures seemed quite intimidating, even though our guides explained that they had no teeth and were not aggressive. They seemed more curious as they rippled through the clear water around us. Each boat had some bait that they are allowed to feed the stingrays and the guides would attract the bigger females and move them towards their group, so that we could take it in turns to hold them underneath.
I think our guide’s description was an accurate one, when he said that they feel like a “wet portobello mushroom underneath and sand with egg over on the top”. I was able to hold one the rays for a few minutes while our boat guide took some photos for me with my GoPro which was a surreal and memorable experience.
The only thing I felt a bit uncomfortable about was the way that a large ray would be moved into the centre of the group of waiting tourists who then posed so that the photographer from our boat could take a professional style photo. It felt a bit like a petting zoo, with tourists being encouraged to kiss the stingray for the photo, before passing it on the the next person for their photo, to create that striking but somewhat superficial ‘instagram moment’.
I was glad to hear that the Cayman Islands government regulates the activities at Stingray City, which ensures licencing of the boats, controls on where they can operate and how much they can feed the stingrays.
This is one of the most popular things to do in the Cayman Islands and I suspect that when a cruise ship is in port, the Stingray City sandbars must be packed. When staying on Grand Cayman, if you want to interact with the stingrays in a more authentic way, I’d suggest avoiding the days when cruise ships are in port or taking a boat trip in the afternoon when cruise visitors will have returned to the ship.
If you’d like to book one of the Stingray City tours in the Cayman Islands, I can recommend Red Sail Sports who offer lots of different excursions. Our Stingray Sandbar and Rum Point trip with Red Sail Sports cost US$85 per person, which included transfers from the hotel and a buffet lunch and drink at Rum Point.
Take a Sunset Cruise on Grand Cayman
Another of the fun excursions offered by Red Sail Sports is the sunset cruise in the Cayman Islands, which left from the beach of our hotel at Kimpton Seafire. In the late afternoon, the light was turning golden as we headed out from the coast, and although the boat was at capacity, there were plenty of different areas to sit and relax around the 65 foot catamaran.
Especially popular was the webbing area at the front of the catamaran, where you you could watch the waves skimming underneath the boat, although I was too nervous to sit there fearing my iphone might disappear into the briny blue.
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With a bar on board, the rum punch we certainly flowing, which added to the feelgood factor on board; there’s nothing more relaxing than gazing at the passing waves with a drink in your hand! On our evening cruise, the clouds on the horizon created a hazy sunset glow as the sun slipped below the Caribbean sea in a golden ball – but sadly no fireworks of red and orange on that evening!
After a couple of hours we returned to the beach after a fun sunset cruise, which I’d highly recommend for groups of friends and couples who will enjoy the warm evening air and feeling of relaxation out on the ocean. Our sunset cruise with Red Sail Sports cost US$45, with pickups from Kimpton Seafire or Westin Hotel on Seven Mile Beach, and is one of a number of Grand Cayman excursions offered by the company.
The Best beaches in Grand Cayman – Seven Mile Beach
When you read about the best beaches in the Cayman Islands, you’ll normally find Seven Mile Beach at the top of the list. The clean white sand with sparkling turquoise water stretches for “not quite” seven miles – it’s actually 6.3 miles but who’s counting? It’s also one of the Grand Cayman beaches near the cruise port, so when visitors arrive at George Town, Seven Mile Beach is an easy taxi ride away.
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Seven Mile Beach is backed by a strip of luxury hotels which sit back behind the treeline, but there is easy public access to the beach and parking spaces along West Bay Road that runs parallel to it. The Cayman Islands beaches are public but you can’t normally use hotel facilities such as sunbeds and pools unless you are staying there, although many hotel beach restaurants (such as the stylish Coccoloba at Kimpton Seafire) are open to non-residents.
The beach starts a little north of the island capital of George Town where there are plenty of restaurants and continues north to the West Bay area, which is the quieter and less developed end. The challenge if you are not staying at one of the hotels on Seven Mile Beach may be finding shade, especially if you want to make a relaxing day of it. To avoid the heat of the Caribbean sun on beaches in the Cayman Islands, you may wish to visit in the cooler morning or late afternoon, or look for shady sea grape trees that line some parts of the beach.
Snorkeling in the Cayman Islands on Seven Mile Beach
The northern end of Seven Mile Beach also has some good spots for Cayman Islands snorkeling, such as the area in front of the Governor’s residence known as Governor’s Beach, where there is a reef just offshore. This beach is also just a little further on from the beautiful Kimpton Seafire, where I stayed.
You can relax in their beachfront Coccoloba restaurant over drinks or lunch, where their menu is inspired by Mexican street food. It’s also handy for the Red Sail Sports location on the beachfront at Kimpton Seafire, where they have a small dive shop and you can arrange watersports, diving and Grand Cayman snorkeling tours.
Further up the beach towards the West Bay area, there are a couple of other good snorkeling spots at Cemetery Beach and at Boggy Sand Road, where the reefs are just off the beach. There’s not much else around so you’ll need to bring your own snorkelling gear or rent it at the Red Sail Sports dive shop at Kimpton Seafire. I didn’t have a chance to try these snorkeling spots myself, but have read that you can see numerous colourful tropical fish on these reefs.
At this northern end the Seven Mile Beach merges into West Bay Beach, where I can recommend Heritage Kitchen as a great place for traditional dishes and local fish overlooking the sea.
Watersports on Seven Mile Beach
Red Sail Sports is one of the leading providers of watersports experiences on Grand Cayman and they have a few different locations on Seven Mile Beach where you can visit their dive shop and book watersports activities. There are seven different locations around Grand Cayman and on Seven Mile Beach you’ll find them at Kimpton Seafire, Westin Grand Cayman and Marriott Beach Resort.
There’s a small beachfront shop at Kimpton Seafire and beach clothing shops within the Westin Grand Cayman. At their dive centres you can organise everything from snorkelling equipment, kayaks and stand up paddleboards, to sailing boats and jet ski rental. Other places to arrange watersports at Seven Mile Beach include Salt Watersports at Royal Palms Beach Club or Adventura Cayman who will deliver beach and watersports equipment to your chosen location on Grand Cayman.
Grand Cayman Hotels – luxury hotels on Seven Mile beach
The Westin Grand Cayman Resort and Spa
I stayed for a couple of nights at the Westin Resort Grand Cayman, one of the Seven Mile Beach hotels that makes a luxurious base for your holiday on Grand Cayman. It’s a luxury resort that has something to offer families, couples and groups of friends, and my balcony had a delightful view over the pool area, Tortuga Beach Grill and swim up bar with views towards the beach beyond. The Westin Grand Cayman has recently completed a complete refurbishment and the decor feels calm and relaxed, with pale tones and shades of blue inspired by the ocean.
I loved the modern style that’s inspired by nature with iridescent finishes, soft blue accents and a lobby bar that’s curved like a local fisherman’s catboat. The airy lobby is a place to relax or meet friends, with a cooling burst of fragrance in the air when you walk in from outside.
Along the beachfront of the resort are beautifully maintained gardens and plantings with colourful tropical foliage under the casuarina trees that shade the two restaurants, upscale Beach House and more relaxed Ferdinands. There’s a kid’s club and busy programme of free activities here but of course you can also just relax, swim in the pools and access all the water-sports available through Red Sail Sports that has a location at the hotel.
Kimpton Seafire Resort and Spa on Grand Cayman
If you are looking for a luxury hotel on Seven Mile Beach I can recommend the Kimpton Seafire resort and spa, where I spent several days on my visit to the Cayman Islands. This gorgeous resort hotel features stunning interiors and design, inspired by the vibrant Caribbean sunsets, with accents of warm pink in the bedrooms and lobby.
The materials of stone, marble and woven cotton used in the design are sophisticated, yet relaxed and natural. I enjoyed wandering through the ground floor library with its intriguing details, where faded old time photos blend with contemporary artwork, to reference the natural beauty and heritage of the Cayman Islands.
The bedroom headboards are inspired by the sea grape trees along the beach and you’ll spot coils of the local silver thatch rope in the lobby that harks back to the old style Cayman. The Kimpton Seafire Resort and Spa is just three years old and is the newest hotel to be built on Seven Mile Beach, with beautifully landscaped pool areas and easy access to all watersports on the beach at the Red Sail Sports location.
Dining is the Ave restaurant, with a seaview balcony serving Mediterranean style seafood and steaks, incorporating the relaxed Avecita section with communal tables serving Spanish inspired tapas plates. Although I didn’t dine in the restaurants, I very much enjoyed a relaxed sunset dinner at the Kimpton Seafire’s beachside Coccoloba restaurant, where they serve small dishes inspired by Mexican street food.
The Kimpton Seafire has a sophisticated, grown up feel and although there were children at the resort I think it would be enjoyed by couples looking for a relaxed but luxurious stay on Grand Cayman.
Rum Point on Grand Cayman
Rum Point is a very popular Cayman Islands beach that’s included in many boat trips and cruise excursions. If you want a beach that has all the amenities to spend a few hours, this would be a good choice. There’s a large car park, busy beach bar, restaurant, shop, rest rooms and changing facilities with free beach chairs provided for the use of customers, and when it gets crowded there’s something of a party atmosphere.
The water at Rum Point is shallow, so it’s also ideal for families with young children who will find all the facilities handy. Personally I found Rum Point to be quite busy and crowded so I’d be looking for beaches with a more natural feel, but if you walk a little further along the beach in either direction you may find the quieter spots to swim and relax to give you the best of all worlds.
Rum Point is on the north side of Grand Cayman and it takes around 40 minutes to drive there from the island capital of George Town – not too far but perhaps more convenient to visit as part of a boat excursion to Stingray City. Another way to reach Rum Point from the West Bay area, is to take the Cayman Ferries service from Camana Bay to the Kaibo Beach Bar and then take the shuttle bus to Rum Point – cost is $25US round trip.
If you visit Rum Point, be sure to read the cheesy but fun sign outside the bar with “Questions not to ask!” – such as Q: “Is there shopping at Stingray City?” A: “Payment is in $quid only!” At the bar the most famous thing to order is their Mudslide cocktail, a concoction of vodka, Baileys Irish Cream and Coffee Liqueur which slips down like a seductively sweet and alcoholic desert, guaranteed to knock you out for the afternoon!
Starfish Point in Grand Cayman
Another popular spot that’s close to Rum Point and just a 10 minute walk from the Kaibo Beach Bar is Starfish Point, which has a more local and natural feel. The shallow waters here are well known for the starfish that sit on the sandy bottom and can be seen if you go swimming or snorkelling.
When I visited on a Sunday afternoon, the area was busy with were lots of boat trips and it felt a bit touristy. There is a small parking area at the end of the road that leads to Starfish Point and from there it’s a few minutes walk to the end of the point where the beach is more open. There are no cafes or facilities like those at Rum Point, although there was some information about boat trips and the starfish to be found here.
I had a little paddle from the beach and liked the more natural and local feel of this area, where there are picnic spots in the shade of the bushes, palms and sea grape trees. As beaches go, don’t expect the manicured soft sand you find at Seven Mile Beach, and I probably wouldn’t make a special trip unless I wanted to look for the starfish.
I didn’t see any starfish near the beach either and wonder if with all the visitors and disturbance their numbers may be declining, as I’ve read people mention that they didn’t see many. If you find any starfish while swimming, remember that it’s illegal to take them out of the water as they will die, but instead photograph them with a waterproof camera or gently hold them under the water for a photo.
Smith Cove or Smith’s Barcadere in Grand Cayman
Another lovely beach that is more of a local’s spot is Smith Cove or Smith’s Barcadere which you’ll find as you drive south from Georgetown along the coast road of South Church Street. There’s a small car park across the street from the beach and further parking along the road – no restaurant here but there are restrooms and showers.
There are plenty of shady sea grape trees around the beach, making this an ideal spot to bring a picnic and set up in the shade for a few hours – you’ll see the locals setting up barbeques too. The rocky outcrops around the beach curve around to enclose a swimming lagoon, with shallow water as you enter. The water deepens as you swim out and there’s snorkelling around the rocks, which also form a natural diving board to jump off.
Beaches and things to do on the South side of Grand Cayman
I spent my final day driving along the south coast of Grand Cayman, where the road takes you close to the beach for most of the drive. Leaving George Town behind, I sensed I was getting a more local feel of Grand Cayman, passing through residential areas with smaller guest houses and holiday apartments but no major resorts. I passed Spott’s Beach which is another popular local’s beach, known as a place where you may see wild turtles swimming in the sea grass when you snorkel. There are currents here so take care, as this beach is recommended for more experienced snorkelers, or you may wish to bring a flotations device.
A little further I drove through Bodden Town, which was originally the capital of the Cayman Islands and has a public beach. There’s a popular beach bar here, the Grape Tree Cafe serving fish fry – local style fried fish and fritters, which is the equivalent to our seaside fish and chips in the UK. A favourite local thing to do on a Sunday would be to head down to the beach after church, meet up with friends and spend the afternoon enjoying a swim and some fish fry, with a few drinks to take you into the evening.
If you continue along the coast Road I can recommend the Lighthouse restaurant on Bodden Town Road, just before the road that turns north past the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Garden heading for the north side of the Grand Cayman. It’s an Italian style restaurant built around an old lighthouse, with a cosy bar filled with nautical memorabilia and a light filled dining room and deck overlooking the sea. This stretch of coast is rocky and can be windy, so I sat inside and ordered a salad and conch fritters from the extensive menu, with a mix of Italian and local dishes as well as lots of fresh fish.
Further along the south coast of Grand Cayman, the shoreline becomes wild and rocky. I stopped to see the blowholes where the waves crash up through holes in the rock on the shore, spouting a high jet of water every so often. Although I didn’t have time to follow the coast road any further, it continues around the Eastern shore.
This would be a fun circuit to make in your hire car, to see a wilder side of the island and there were a few restaurants along this stretch that were recommended to me.
Captain Herman’s Fish Fry – a beach kiosk serving locally caught fresh fish to eat on the tables outside overlooking the sea.
Vivine’s Kitchen – Caribbean style home-cooked dishes with table seating outside overlooking the sea – expect fried fish, barbeque meats with rice and peas and other local favourites.
Tukka – on the east coast of Grand Cayman, this is a restaurant and bar offering an Australian twist on Caribbean food, and one of the places you may find the invasive green iguana or lionfish on the menu, so that you can do your bit for conservation. Vegetarian, Vegan, Gluten free and other dietary preferences are catered for here.
Plan your trip to Cayman Islands
Heather flew from the UK with British Airways, which flies direct from London Heathrow to Grand Cayman via Nassau four times a week, with a Saturday departure available from April 2019. Other flights are available via Miami and there are many direct flights from US airports.
More information on getting to Cayman Islands on the Cayman Islands Tourism website.
My trip was hosted* by the Cayman Islands Tourism Authority who provided the experiences, accommodation stays, and meals mentioned.
* More info on my policies page