A First Timer’s Guide to Grand Cayman Island

Rare blue iguanas, underwater bronze mermaids, and hundreds of dive sites: This Caribbean island has a lot more to offer than tax breaks.

A First Timer’s Guide to Grand Cayman Island

Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman regularly finds itself on lists of the best beaches in the Caribbean.

Photo by Pixachi/Shutterstock

Grand Cayman is the largest of the three Caribbean islands that make up the Caymans. (Cayman Brac and Little Cayman are the other two.) Its most famous draw is the alluringly named Seven Mile Beach, a stretch of white sand to rival any in the Caribbean, but the island has a lot more to offer visitors, both on land and in the sea. From spotting blue iguanas to kayaking in a bioluminescent bay to diving through intricate shipwrecks, here is a guide to making the most out of a first-time visit to Grand Cayman.

1. Get certified to scuba dive

The Cayman Islands are a premier diving destination, boasting 365 dive sites, as well as the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame, and plenty of places to snorkel. Sign up for a tour or a PADI Open Water Certification course at Sunset Divers, a hotel that describes itself as “for divers, by divers.” The certification (which is good for your whole life) permits dives to a maximum depth of 40 feet. Try it out on an excursion along the north wall of the island, replete with sponges, sea fans, and gorgonians, plus large marine life, such as rays and sharks that come from deeper waters. Grand Cayman also has two underwater bronze mermaids for divers to meet, designed by artist Simon Morris to promote environmental awareness. And don’t miss a visit to the decommissioned submarine rescue ship Kittiwake, which was sunk as an artificial reef in 2011. Located only 800 yards from Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach, you can swim by five decks, the captain’s wheel, and the ship’s recompression chamber.

2. Meet the iguanas that exist only on this island

There’s fascinating flora and fauna above the waterline, too. In fact, the island is full of species that can’t be found anywhere else, like the endangered Cayman blue iguana. Thanks to a conservation program started in 1990, about a 100 of these colorful reptiles now live at the Blue Iguana Conservation Facility, part of the island’s Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park. After visiting them, stroll the 65-acre green space to see an orchid garden that features four blooms endemic to Grand Cayman and a butterfly garden with five species that also are only found here.

3. Paddle in a bioluminescent bay

Kick off one of your evenings with a kayaking trip in the Bioluminescent Bay as night falls. On the Cayman Kayaks Bioluminescent Tour, you can choose to explore the glowing body of water by gliding along in a kayak or in an electric-powered catamaran. Dip your hand in the water and you’ll see the organisms create a blue aura around your fingers. If more physical activity is your cup of tea, Vitamin Sea Cayman offers ways to break a sweat while still having fun, with classes that include paddleboard yoga, stand-up paddleboarding, and kitesurfing.

Snorkeling with stingrays is less daunting than it might sound.

Snorkeling with stingrays is less daunting than it might sound.

Photo by Michelle de Villiers/Shutterstock

4. Snorkel with stingrays

One of the highlights of a trip to Grand Cayman is Stingray City, a wide sandbar surrounded by barrier reefs; it’s home to more than a dozen southern stingrays that inhabit the shallow waters. The animals are accustomed to people and so gentle that you can hold them (this is allowed) or, according to the locals, give them a kiss for seven years of good luck. Many companies offer tours here, so you’ll have a lot of options. Red Sail Sports offers both a breakfast trip and a sunset excursion on its 65-foot catamaran, giving guests ample space to eat and relax during the tour.

5. Visit the other Caymans

Both Cayman Brac and Little Cayman are a quick 30-minute flight from Grand Cayman and offer their own advenures. Little Cayman, the smallest of the trio, is a diver’s paradise. Visitors come to explore its Bloody Bay Wall Marine Park and its sprawling Booby Pond Nature Reserve, home to red-footed boobies and frigate birds. Offshore, the even tinier uninhabited Owen Island is a secluded picnic spot accessible only by kayak or sailboat. Cayman Brac is also a big draw for divers, and it’s the site of the oldest museum in the Cayman Islands, where some artifacts on display date back thousands of years.

>>Next: Caribbean Islands That Don’t Require a Passport

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