Diving into Island life in the Western Caribbean
From the sandy beaches of Little Cayman, the seafood, through to diving amongst the stingrays on Grand Cayman there’s much to be taken in by on the Cayman Islands
Article by Mark Nicholls
With its long beaches of white sand, clear warm seawater and pastel-painted chalets on the shoreline, Little Cayman is a taste of Caribbean perfection. The smallest of the Cayman Islands group, it is truly idyllic in the way it combines uninterrupted relaxation with the opportunity to enjoy the finest seafood, excellent scuba diving on a magnificent coral reef or sea fishing. The chalets are peaceful beachfront retreats to escape to with a good book and a cocktail. Simply put, it is the quintessential Caribbean hideaway.
Easy to get to, it is a 40-minute flight from Grand Cayman to Cayman Brac and then a mere 10-minute hop to Little Cayman which is barely more than a beach-lined speck in the ocean. Protected by the offshore reef where the waves crash and break, the beach is of fine white sand and lined with leaning coconut palms. My favourite resort is the Southern Cross Club (SCC), which features comfortable shoreline bungalows in an array of pastel Caribbean shades of pinks, yellows and greens, with a club house, a bar and restaurant and an ambience where time stands still.
It reclines in the concept of barefoot luxury and whilst you can swim, canoe, fish or dive, lazing under a palm on the beach on a sunbed and occasionally cooling off in the sea is more than acceptable. The view across the turquoise blue is mesmerising. The SCC has a dive boat which sets off daily to some of the amazing sites beneath the ocean surface around the coast of Little Cayman.
The spots along the Bloody Bay Wall are regarded as among the world’s top dive sites. With imaginative names such as Eagle Ray Round-up or Mixing Bowl, they offer access to the stunningly beautiful reef life where you will see grouper fish, stingray, giant lobster, clown fish, cow fish and green turtle as well as reef plantation and sea cucumbers. The reef has channels and gullies to swim through and an outer wall to explore which drops 6,000 feet into the deep dark blue.
The SCC caters for all levels and will offer dive refresher courses as well as rent all equipment and has small groups on the boats to ensure guests get the best from their dives. The resort also has boats for offshore fishing and catches, such as Mahi-mahi and Wahoo, can be brought back to the resort and cooked by the chef for your dinner.
There are also snorkelling sites and close to the SCC is Owen Island, where you can take one of the sea kayaks from the beach and paddle across to spend an hour or two of secluded sunbathing.
With so much centred on the ocean, seafood is at its finest on the Cayman Islands and anything from lobster, shrimp, mussels, and sea bass, are among the mouth-watering treats. Another way to explore Little Cayman, which is popular with honeymoon couples, is by bicycle. With hardly any traffic on this island, which has a permanent population of only 200, you have the roads to yourself, though there are certain hazards to look out for such as a slow-moving iguana emerging from the verge. Signs actually proclaim Iguana: Drive Slowly.
The iguana, in its various guises, is the symbol of the Cayman Islands and on Grand Cayman there is an ongoing conservation project to protect and revive the blue iguana. Whilst Little Cayman treasures its rock iguana, Grand Cayman nurtures the rare blue iguana – named due to their ability to change shade – usually through mood or hunger – that a decade ago was almost extinct with only 10 – 25 of them left in the wild. Hosted within the picturesque Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme has helped repopulate the island with the species. Maintaining the ecological balance of their islands, whilst having to contend with the fiercest of elements of the hurricane season, is important to Caymanians. And the survival of the blue iguana is pivotal to that.
For visitors to this British Overseas Territory, a popular choice is to split a break between Little Cayman and the main island of Grand Cayman, which has a broader range of attractions. They include the Seven Mile Beach – as the name suggest a long stretch of lovely sand and sea lined with hotels and resorts – the popular Stingray City where you can take the catamaran out to a sandbank and swim among the friendly stingrays in waist deep water, or even get a bird’s eye view and hover above the waves in a helicopter tour for a different perspective. As the premier island in the British Overseas Territory and a financial centre, Grand Cayman, is also a popular port of call for cruise ships.
Enticing dive sites lie just offshore, notably the wreck of submarine rescue ship USS Kittiwake launched in 1945. After leaving service in 1994 it was eventually towed to Grand Cayman and sunk in January 2011 as one of the island’s many and varied dive sites. Scuba divers can work their way around the vessel, venture inside into the engine room and explore the various decks. But for those who want to experience the deep without the weight of a scuba tank on their back, there are submarine tours which take you down 100 feet below the surface.
Just across the water, or a short flight, is Cayman Brac, the larger neighbour of Little Cayman which has a more rugged appeal and fewer beach sites but diving is available and there are great views from the Lighthouse high above the rock wall. The island, which like its neighbour was discovered by Christopher Columbus in May 1503, has hidden caves which were in the past – and still are today by some – used as emergency hurricane shelters and reminders of how the elements can impact on this Caribbean retreat.
Each island has its own lure, but for me Little Cayman remains a truly magical spot, an isle where you can wander in barefoot luxury and be assured of true relaxation in a Caribbean destination you’ll fall in love with. With great beaches, wonderful restaurants and bars and an irresistible laid-back way of life, the Cayman Islands is the perfect Caribbean retreat offering an inviting blend of beaches and diving, wildlife, sumptuous seafood and luxurious relaxation…barefoot or otherwise.
Cayman Island Department of Tourism: www.caymanislands.co.uk
Blue Iguana recovery Programme: www.blueiguana.ky