For the first time in history, my employer decided to close for the winter holidays. I saw this as an opportunity for another trip; somewhere with sand and palm trees, and an even 80 degrees. The prices of flights during Christmas week are astronomical, but we found a fairly good deal and headed for the turquoise waters of Grand Cayman.
Customs was a breeze. While we waited for our Airbnb host to pick us up, we saw countless people wearing Santa hats and coming to greet their loved ones at the airport. Christmas songs emanated from speakers in sharp contrast to the swaying palm trees that lined the entrance to the terminal. It was Christmas Eve in the Cayman Islands, and I was thankful to be away from cold temperatures and frantic shoppers.
Our Airbnb hostess Annice became our “Cayman mother” during the stay, always willing to help and making sure we were OK. As soon as we dropped off our luggage, she drove us to a nearby café called Country & Western and returned to finish making up our room, since we had arrived so early in the afternoon.
For our first meal on the island, we chose stew beef with rice, mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, and bananas, and a side of conch soup that we split as we typically do. I ordered a soursop juice and Mark had a guava juice. Deliciously satisfying but not cheap. I handed the server a US $50 bill and got only CI $15 and some coins back. Welcome to Cayman sticker shock!
A short ways down the road past the first of many traffic circles, we walked to the Grand Harbor Shopping Center to explore. Murals on the grocery store windows depicted island-style holiday scenes and a very chill Santa. We sipped on some coffees at a vacant lot that would surely be the future site of waterfront condos, looking into the peaceful blue waters. Our slate was a blank one for the day, for the trip…for now.
The wild hair we got after lazing by the water had us catching a local bus to the capital city, George Town. Wandering the streets of town, we followed a few of the stray chickens that are ubiquitous here. Despite being feral, the roosters were beautiful and definitely acted like they owned the place.
As the sun was starting to sink, we decided to enjoy the moment and celebrate our first night with tropical drinks by the water. The Paradise Seaside Grill became the ideal location for sunset viewing over the harbor. In fact, we had a couple more drinks and just stayed for dinner. We hadn’t even ventured very far from where the bus had dropped us off, but there was no hurry to explore. We were on Cayman time already.
In the distance, a Disney cruiseship began to embark for its next destination, leaving the capital quiet once again. We grabbed the last bus of the night at 8pm for a short 10-minute ride to the Good News Baptist Church sign where we knew to get off and walk back to our room. Fireworks exploded in the distance, a phenomenon that would become a recurring theme throughout the holiday week.
On Christmas morning we woke up late to partly cloudy skies and little on the agenda besides a beach. We made some eggs over easy with toast from the DIY free breakfast options and thought about how our day would go. A nice couple from Saint Louis who were heading back to the airport to return their rental car offered us a ride. After realizing we would have trouble getting around with an unreliable holiday bus schedule, we took them up on their offer and easily got our rental car a day early.
Soon I was navigating traffic circle after traffic circle adorned with Christmas decorations while getting used to the left-side driving and the steering wheel on the right, heading towards Cemetery Beach. Aptly named for the graveyard that abutted it, this was reportedly one of the best beaches on the island. It is technically part of legendary Seven Mile Beach, but on the north side and slightly apart from everything else so as to be distinct. It was also thankfully much less crowded because it is further away from cruise ship ports.
I marched onto the beach bedecked in my Christmas stockings, Santa hat and all red attire. This was my first Christmas on a Caribbean beach, so I was determined to make an entrance and snag some pictures for potential future Christmas cards. I can be somewhat of a Grinch back home, but put me on a beach and let my Christmas spirit shine (while I get a tan).
Stunning ocean sprawled out before us in shades of teal, emerald and aqua. Distant storm clouds menaced downtown George Town but nary a drop of rain we felt on this strip of beach. Yes, it was our Christmas miracle to be able to luxuriate on a beach. The only white we experienced was the sand and sunscreen.
Following our holiday reverie, which we had completely skipped lunch to indulge in, we needed to find food. There was little use in researching places to eat that would be open for dinner on Christmas, so we just started driving on a hunch.
Checking the map I realized how close we were to a place that we simply had to see, just so we could say we went to Hell for Christmas. Yes, there is an actual place in the western part of Grand Cayman with such a moniker. It even has a post office, and a small assortment of other Hell-named shops.
Hell gets its share of mediocre reviews on travel sites due in part to its overabundance of seemingly tacky souvenirs and cruise ship tourists, as well as expected overkill play on the name. It really is just a small town that happens to be the location of a series of menacing-looking jagged rock formations known as phytokarsts. A popular legend has the name originating from someone exclaiming that the diabolical rocks must resemble what hell looks like.
Miraculously, a gift shop was open. We stocked up on requisite post cards to send to some family and friends for the shock value of receiving a “post card from Hell” in flaming red letters. The plan was to address them and come back when the post office was open so we could mail them with the quintessential postmark. Being an avid postmark and stamp collector myself, there was no question that we would return.
Just about the time we had given up on the West End for dinner options, we found life at one of a cluster of eateries along the water at Morgan’s Bay. The bartender there explained that we would have a 40-minute wait, since they weren’t yet open. While we could have probably driven towards town and found another place, we put in for reservations and walked around the area in the cool sea breeze until it was time. It was a good decision to wait around because Catch was an excellent choice.
We dined on an outdoor deck overlooking the bay and enjoyed a treat consisting of a seafood sampler (tuna sashimi, wahoo ceviche, smoked mahi mahi, and seafood pate), blackened wahoo, coconut rice with veggies in a curry cream sauce, tropical drinks, and mango skillet cake for dessert. Merry Christmas to us!
The day after Christmas is Boxing Day, another holiday that I would describe as being celebrated like Memorial Day or Labor Day in the US, but with fireworks. People were sitting outside, grilling, drinking, and talking to friends and family. Most things were closed or on reduced hours, although more were open than on Christmas. We reserved the day for the east side of the island.
Not known for its beaches, the southeast and eastern sides of Grand Cayman nonetheless have plenty of charms. Between the villages of Breakers and East End are The Blowholes. We watched the rolling waves crash on the rocks and the subsequent spray through the holes in the rock, which had been damaged by legendary Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Still the phenomenon was evident and cool to witness. No one else was there aside from a lonely guy at the side of the road who asked if we needed a guide.
Not far past some colorful pastel condos in East End town, the road started to curve northward along the eastern side of the island. Less than ten minutes later we had pulled onto deserted Colliers Beach to catch some rays. The beach itself was fan-shaped and was fine for sunbathing, but the shoreline was littered with seaweed and bits of trash. The beach sand gave way to rocks and more sea grass, so we did not want to go in the water. It was really windy too, but we had the beach pretty much all to ourselves and enjoyed the quiet for about an hour.
Back on the road, we got behind a pickup truck that had a Santa Claus in the back throwing candy to kids as he rode through small towns. He waved joyously to us as we passed him, though we got no candy. We pulled over at Old Man Bay to snap a quick picture of the beach (mostly the sign, though) and found a little family of lizards crawling on the rocks at the foot of a lone palm.
At lunchtime we pulled into the gravel parking lot at the end of Water Cay Road at the far tip of the island known as Starfish Point. We didn’t see any starfish, but maybe we were too hungry to figure out where to spot them. We joined the masses at Kaibo Beach Bar for a lunch of conch pizza and crispy coconut curry mahi mahi. I ordered a local beer that was on tap.
Next to the restaurant we found a nice little coffee shop, which hit the spot after a meal that was more filling than expected. We brought our to-go cups over to the edge of the little park by the water and took in the peaceful sights: families enjoying a picnic, a father and daughter zipping by on a waterski, another family snorkeling, a couple just sitting in lawn chairs with their feet in the water.
Before heading back around the island, we stopped at the Wreck Bar in Rum Point to have a Mudslide. I really wanted to experience the drink at the place where it had originated. Unfortunately they served it in a plastic cup and charged a ridiculously high price, even for Cayman dollars. The Mudslide Mark had on Christmas Eve was much better, and it had come in a slender glass with chocolate syrup drizzled on the sides. There were so many tourists around that perhaps they lost the incentive here to serve it that way to save time. But giving credit where credit is due, the drink was a good invention and I’m glad someone there came up with it.
On our way back we drove through a cloudburst that lasted less than 10 minutes but put our shoddy window wipers to the test. We were glad it wasn’t dark yet. The plus side was that we saw a rainbow when we finally drove out of it. That’s always a good luck sign.
The sunset that evening was complemented by a giant cruiseship resting in the harbor, which we could see from our perch at the seaside bar at The Wharf. I ordered myself a Blue Dream (butterscotch schnapps, Malibu rum, blue curacao, and cream served in a martini glass) and Mark the Frenchi Bacon Old Fashioned, which was inspired by bartender and contained bourbon infused with bacon fat, honey, and chocolate bitters.
Frenchi himself talked to us as we watched the skies turn fiery orange to pink. He didn’t exactly convince us, but we were curious enough not to be dissuaded to try the turtle appetizer. Somehow they are able to farm raise turtles that aren’t considered endangered species. The Cayman Islands have a long history with turtles, having originally been named after them (Las Tortugas in Spanish) and important to the local population. As tasty as our appetizer was prepared, I vowed not to try turtle meat again for ethical reasons.
For dinner we wanted to try to find the little roadside shack we had passed on our east coast drive. On the way we got to take in the over-the-top Christmas light displays at two particular estates. These places are open to the public and completely free. I can’t imagine the time it takes to get all the lights and decorations set up, and the cost must be astronomical. However, it was a magical sight to behold. The bonus was being able to enjoy all of it while wearing shorts and a t-shirt.
Getting there was easy from downtown George Town: we simply followed the road hugging the coastline until we saw the massive colorful lights and lots of parked cars along the road. There are two locations, both on South Sound Road. Both had thousands and thousands of lights strung around palm trees and bushes, nativity scenes in motion, holiday tunes blaring from loudspeakers, characters from popular culture and yuletide tradition, and plenty of Santas and reindeer. It was definitely a highlight of the Christmas side of the trip. There are actually a lot of Christmasy things to do on Grand Cayman. I could see this as a perennial holiday destination for anyone from cold climates.
The Czech Inn Grill is just east of Bodden Town and must be the most inviting dry bar I’ve ever seen. It’s a BYOB place, but the nearby liquor store was closed so we took the opportunity to hydrate with plain water. The food took some time to come, but once again it was worth it. Mark had jerk chicken and I had Hawaiian style ribs. Even the fried potatoes that came with it were to die for. As was the custom with anyone who dines there, we wrote our names and the date on the wall in permanent marker.
Another beautiful morning promised to lead to another new beach. We returned to Hell to mail our post cards and buy some stamps. I will say that Hell was much more efficient than I had expected. I exchanged a post card for a different design and the processing of getting things mailed and stamps was the easiest I’ve had in a foreign country.
On to Barkers Beach, we reached the end of a paved road at the northeastern most tip of the west end. The road immediately degraded to a wide but potholed clearing through thick palms and brush. A few kilometers in (or about 20 minutes), we saw a tiny road leading up a small hill or dune that promised to offer at least a glimpse of the ocean. There were no signs at this point, but when we crested the hill, it was unmistakably Barkers Beach with a lone tree sprawled out like a fan shading the tiny desolate beach; a scene that perfectly matched the photo in a tourist booklet we’d picked up at the airport.
While the beach itself was completely unpopulated, the amount of washed up vegetation made it untenable for lying out, so we went for a stroll instead. We reached a promontory where we saw a group of tourists riding horses and a dozen or so kitesurfers gliding to and fro amidst the wind and waves. As we approached, we got a close look at the process of how the surfers were maneuvering the equipment and were fortunate to witness several air flips and kites nosediving into the water.
We spent the afternoon lounging at West Bay Beach after a delicious meal of grilled wahoo and conch fritters at Heritage Kitchen, an outdoor eatery along the beach wall. Waves slammed the beach, which was at an incline, as we relaxed in the sun on this comfortably small public beach with showers and bathrooms. We’d left our car in the parking lot next to the restaurant. From what I could tell, there were no parking restrictions on this island.
I couldn’t let this vacation go by without going to the island’s first brewery. Located in Red Bay, the Cayman Islands Brewery isn’t your typical Caribbean light beer. They actually brew a full range of microbrews, from a high quality IPA to a refreshing mango ale to a Guinness-like stout. We enjoyed an official sampler and got to try a few of their other beers for free, thanks for our lovely hostess Shania. We bought some brewery swag and at 5 PM sharp, she poured our beers into to-go cups with the Caybrew logo and sent us on our way. There are no concerns here about drinking in public or transporting open containers, though we hadn’t had that much.
We drove to Spotts Beach for sunset and walked along the beaches with our beers, hoping to spot the turtles that reportedly frequent these waters. While we didn’t see any (note to self: buy simple snorkeling gear for future beach trips), we did see a guy catch a small lobster for his dinner. Yet another spectacular sunset cascaded across the horizon, spilling streams of amber and orange across the partially cloudy skies.
For a change of pace, we headed back to the Airbnb and freshened up a bit before going to dinner at Salty’s Sports Bar in the nearby shopping center. Our dinner was fine, although the food and atmosphere could have been anywhere in Florida. We sat through a few rounds of retro music bingo, but left after not winning and having filled up. Too exhausted for further outings, instead of heading back to a beach to stargaze, we got to bed early.
Our final full day in Grand Cayman (sniff, sniff) was one of the best yet. We’d booked a discounted stingray and snorkeling tour with Captain Marvin’s, as did the family from our Airbnb. About 15 of us piled onto a catamaran and chugged out to the reef known as Stingray City. True to the advertisements, we were about to jump in the water and handle these mystical creatures that mostly received bad press for causing the death of the famous Australian “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin. These stingrays were tame, and very popular, so there was nothing to worry about.
Waves were choppy as we gathered around and prepared to individually hold, kiss and “wear” a stingray named Michelle. Steering clear of her suction-powered mouth and barbed tail, we held her “wings” as they gently fluttered in the water. The texture is hard to describe, but something like buttery, rubbery and resinous. Her eyes seemed to peer into my heart. It was fascinating, fun, and kind of weird.
After the photo ops–and yes, we kissed the stingray for good luck and had her draped over the back of our necks–it was feeding time. It was imperative that the dead squid treat we were about to feed her be protruding from our fist, but our thumb was to be tucked into our palm. “Otherwise, she’ll suck it right off,” claimed our guide with a half-smile. I quickly understood why. Feeding her the treat was like holding your hand near a very powerful vacuum–as soon as that squid was within a few inches of her mouth, she suctioned it away. I recoiled my hand immediately and emerged with all digits intact.
Our next two stops were for snorkeling, but I had a rough time because of the waves and my mask not fitting very well (reminder again to buy my own gear!). Mark, however, actually enjoyed himself. I didn’t dislike it; I just had some difficulties and kept ingesting saltwater. But the marine life is plentiful in this area, including coral, large and small fish, and an occasional turtle. Even during my turbulent time in the water, I saw lots of fish and coral but no turtle.
Following the tour we went our separate ways for lunch and drove back to where we’d been yesterday and ate at the West Bay Diner. While Mark wasn’t impressed with his chicken sandwich with cheese, I thought my pepper steak was one of the best meals I’d had on the island. I could tell that this was a place that locals would go to. This may have been the only non-breakfast meal we had that didn’t include fish.
The afternoon put us back in the car to head downtown to the Cayman National Museum. We parked for free less than a block away from the museum and with our discount tickets from another tourist brochure, we entered and watched the eight-minute welcome video. The museum is small, but it was interesting to learn about the other two islands, the various species from here, and a bit about the history. I’d read that the Cayman Islands had been in the path of more hurricanes than any other Caribbean place, and whether that’s true or not, I can vouch that they’ve had their share of destructive storms.
The main display celebrated Cayman Airlines’ 50th year of operations. The island’s coat of arms also got its own room for its 60 years of existence. Another temporary exhibit featured the late local legend “Captain Chuckie” Ebanks, who was such an enthusiastic shipbuilder and tour guide that he was named as a tourist ambassador for the islands and singlehandedly changed the tourism industry for the better.
After doing some souvenir shopping, we rushed out to the Tortuga Rum Company for a quick tasting and to buy some of their famous rum cakes to take home before they closed for the day. There were several flavors of both rums and cakes, such as chocolate, banana, mango, and pineapple. Since we couldn’t bring rum back with us, we settled for the rum that was in the cakes and the two tastings. We would end up buying more at the airport. After all, it was still the holidays and they make great gifts.
The sun was getting low in the sky again, and while we could have easily rushed to a beach to catch the last rays, we opted instead to visit the other brewery on the island since it was just a few blocks away from the rum place. 19-81 Brewing, so named for the geographical coordinates of the island and not the year, had seven beers on tap for our tasting pleasure. The oatmeal stout even came with a homemade chocolate chip cookie that was baked by one of the owner’s grandmother. That was a first!
We debated about where to go for dinner. It was our last one on the island, and while we’d been spending a lot of money for food on this trip, I really wanted to celebrate and enjoy the food. I was also curious about local food that would likely be cheaper, like the jerk stand we passed driving through a back street in George Town. I found another place on GoogleMaps that looked interesting and was rated well, but when we got there it was just a residential area with no signs of an operational business. I took that as an omen and made our decision final: Tukka.
If there is one place you should splurge on the island, Tukka is it. It describes itself as Australian “with a Caribbean twist.” It also has what is probably the largest rum collection in this part of the Caribbean. The setting is in the tiny town of Gun Bay on the far east side, with half of the seating literally on the sandy beach. We were seated on the terrace overlooking the diners below and out to the sea. The perfectly temperate breezes put us at ease and promised a relaxing evening aside from the 40-minute drive.
We started with a rum tasting flight with the three rums made in the Cayman Islands: an 11-year Edward Teach, 12-year Tortuga, and Seven Fathoms. Each had distinctive flavors, with the Tortuga being the sweetest and as a result my favorite. The irresistible appetizer we got was “tree chicken” prepared three ways. That’s the local name for green lizard. As the name implies, it did taste like chicken and I would order it again.
Our entrees were red snapper and wahoo with shrimp, mashed potatoes, and risotto. Everything was blackened per our request, and the charred flavor was absolute perfection. We shared each other’s meals as we almost always do, and we would have been satisfied if we’d eaten either’s food or just our own. It was that good.
For dessert we ordered a Mudslide drink to share and something called “Luv in a Jar,” consisting of layers of cream cheese, chocolate, and walnut paste topped with whipped cream, and a side of biscotti with berry compote. Talk about decadent! We really wanted to order the rum cake or one of the other delectable desserts (they had 9 of them, not counting gelato or drinks). Stuffed to the gills, we drove back and crashed.
Our flight didn’t leave until late afternoon, so we were able to squeeze a couple more beaches into the morning after breakfast. Returning to Spotts Beach in the morning sun, we found it quite deserted and very comfortable. We spent a couple hours lounging about, strolling around and finding our favorite niches. There were rocky berms near partially submerged in the water near the end of the beach and the water there was so clear. There was something about it that was so calming and cozy, I kind of wish we would have gone here earlier. That tranquil moment may have been enhanced simply because it was our last time to enjoy it before returning to the reality of winter back home.
Still no turtle sightings and with the morning waning on, we made our final stop at Smith Barcadere, better known as Smith Cove. The beach itself was rather small, but that’s not why one goes here. The cove is one of the most picturesque settings in all of Grand Cayman. The shape of the cove is like a natural swimming pool, and the craggy rocks surrounding it provide a backdrop unlike very many other beaches I’ve seen. The waves were particularly strong, and slammed into the rocks, creating giant white clouds of spray that spilled over the crevices.
I took a dip in the pool, but the waves were pretty strong and swimming back to shore was quite the arduous process. No one seemed concerned, despite the perilous rocks and waves that surrounded. People were just enjoying it all, as did we…until it was time to head back, shower, and get back to the airport.
All good things must end, and so it was with this trip. But the experiment of escaping the madness of Christmas stateside was a huge success, and one that we are already thinking of repeating and bringing along family to share in the joy. I would not hesitate to return to Grand Cayman, or explore the sister islands. While not cheap, there are ways we could have cut down on some of our meal costs, but overall it was worth it for a true vacation.
Isn’t that more important than the pressure of gift wrapping anyway?