From Subterranean Caverns to Dazzling Gardens, 8 Ways to Explore the Cayman Islands

Enjoy outdoor adventure, dazzling wildlife and gardens, and a glimpse into the history of Cayman democracy.

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Meet endangered blue iguanas on a trip to the Cayman Islands.

Photo by Joshua Stoner

If you’re looking for a beach vacation in paradise, it doesn’t get much more iconic than Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach. Gracing numerous lists of the top stretches of sand in the Caribbean—if not the world—this quintessential shoreline is a destination in and of itself: 6.3 fully traversable miles (the name is the only thing that over-promises) of white sand and crystal waters. It makes for an epic beach walk, the ideal setting for yoga or water sports, or the perfect place for simply soaking up the sun.

But Grand Cayman and its sister islands, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, offer much more than sun and sand. With a wide range of exciting experiences, each of the islands is invitingly accessible, which makes it easy to hit the abundant natural and cultural attractions they offer, including unique forest hikes, opportunities for viewing art, and important historical sites, without sacrificing your beach time.

Here we’ve rounded up some of the top things to see and do during your visit to the Cayman Islands.

1. Connect with the Caymans’ (literal) roots

These days, the Cayman Islands’ economy might be synonymous with offshore banking, but not long ago its industry was tied up in rope woven by hand from native silver thatch palm trees. At the thatch rope industry’s peak, the Cayman Islands exported 1.3 million fathoms of rope—nearly the flight distance from Grand Cayman’s capital of George Town to New York—every year. In fact, the Cayman Islands’ silver thatches grace the country’s flag and are its official national tree.

While you can find silver thatch palms all over the islands, an excellent spot for viewing them—along with a wealth of other native flora and fauna—is along the Mastic Trail on the northern side of Grand Cayman. Retracing a more than century-old agricultural footpath, the trail winds through the Mastic Reserve, the largest (and still untouched) old-growth forest on the island.

Following the boundary between low-lying semi-deciduous dry forest and mangrove wetlands, the trail is full of massive mahogany trees, old mango and citrus trees, towering royal palms, and seasonal blooms, such as the wild banana orchid—the Cayman Islands’ national flower—which blossoms every June. Trekking the 2.4-mile route is also a birder’s dream; you’ll spot parrots, West Indian woodpeckers, and rare Caribbean doves, plus snakes, lizards, butterflies, and other wildlife.

The best way to experience the Mastic Trail is via a guided tour with the Cayman Islands National Trust, which restored the trail in the 1990s. More a storytelling session than a workout, the tour is helmed by Stuart Mailer, a botanist who helped lead the restoration project. It provides a true—though often muddy—walk on the island’s wild side.

2. Soak in the homegrown art scene

From vivid island scenery to abundant underwater life, there’s no shortage of artistic inspiration in the Cayman Islands. Many visitors, however, don’t realize that the nation has a rich visual art scene, with many artists depicting the evolution of island life over the decades.

Take in the opulent variety of styles, media, and subject matter at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands, an exhibition and gathering place dedicated to promoting homegrown artists. From pioneers such as Gladwyn K. “Miss Lassie” Bush—a fourth-generation Caymanian who taught herself to paint at age 62 (her former home is now a heritage site)—to contemporary graphic works from Wray Banker (a founder of the Native Sons Artist Collective), the collection is dedicated to preserving the nation’s cultural heritage and identity through visual art.

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Cayman Crystal Caves encompass hundreds of caverns.

Photo by Katie Thorpe/Shutterstock

3. Wander through an underground wonderland

Hidden in a forest, the Cayman Crystal Caves are full of otherworldly rock formations forged by the interaction of rainwater and Grand Cayman’s foundational limestone. Here you’ll find hundreds of subterranean caverns full of massive stalagmite and stalactite crystals created by calcium deposits left over as acid in rain dissolved the limestone over millions of years.

Believed to have once been a hiding place for pirates, the Crystal Caves are now one of the islands’ unique attractions. On a 90-minute tour, you can wander through three caves that house an abundance of photogenic rock formations, making your way to the clear green subterranean pool at its center, the source of the cave system’s name.

4. Lose yourself in a colorful paradise for nature lovers

Bustling with freely roaming blue iguanas (huge, endangered lizards found only on Grand Cayman and named for the hue of their skin), kaleidoscopic parrots, and 65 acres of gardens, the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park is heaven on Earth for nature lovers.

With red giving way to pink giving way to orange, yellow, and so on, the dazzling Color Garden is arranged by hue and is a visual delight. The park features seven sections, including a heritage garden with a model of an old-fashioned island home flanked by traditional plants and fruit trees that Caymanians have used for food and shelter for generations, a boardwalk orchid garden with four native varieties among its many blooms, and a blue iguana habitat that serves as the headquarters of the island’s conservation program.

5. Take in a nighttime light show

To enjoy the best after-dark light show in the Cayman Islands, look down, not up. While on a clear night the Cayman Islands’ starry skies are certainly appealing, a much rarer display takes place below the surface of the sea in the tranquil waters not far from Rum Point on Grand Cayman’s north side.

Join a tour with Tom Watling of Cayman Kayaks, and it’s a short paddle to a quiet bay full of bioluminescent sea life. As Watling explains how the perfect combination of factors—warm water, salinity, and plant matter—produce this unique phenomenon, paddlers can splash and thump their oars to light up the water with the white and blue eruptions of illumination produced by microscopic organisms under the surface.

Tours are scheduled based on the lunar cycles, running only on the darkest nights each month for best viewing. For those who want to take in the lights minus the DIY transportation, Cayman Kayaks also offers a tour by electric boat.

6. An early morning pedal around the sleepy side of Grand Cayman

Over the past few decades, Grand Cayman has become known for its restaurant scene and the many resorts that line Seven Mile Beach. But once upon a time, the island was mostly made up of sleepy fishing villages connected by scenic coastal roadways. You can pedal back in time to those earlier days on an early morning bike tour with Eco Rides Cayman.

Eco Rides was founded by Shane Edwards, who wanted to marry his love of cycling with his passion for protecting Grand Cayman’s relatively untouched East End from development. There are no hotels or souvenir shops out this way. Instead, you’ll spend approximately three hours pedaling past colorful cottages and waving locals, stopping along the way to scope the site of the Cayman Islands’ most famous shipwreck disaster—the Wreck of the Ten Sail—photograph blowholes along the shoreline, sample local fruit, and check out the secret caves on Edwards’s family property. Tours include bike and helmet rental and a home-baked snack along the way.

7. Dive down to a submerged mountain range

Surrounded by shallow coral reefs, the Cayman Islands offer some of the best diving and snorkeling sites in the Caribbean. One of the most awe-inspiring of these submarine experiences is Bloody Bay Wall, an underwater cliff off Little Cayman that starts a little more than 20 feet below the water’s surface and plunges down 6,000 feet.

The sheer drama of this immense cliff makes for an astounding swim for advanced divers, with tropical fish, turtles, eels, stingrays, and barracudas swimming among the corals that line the wall. But you don’t have to be a PADI-certified expert diver to enjoy it. In addition to some 24 diving sites, it also features six designated areas that are appropriate for snorkelers.

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The Cayman Islands elected its first democratic government in 1831 at Pedro St. James.

Photo by Joymsk140/Shutterstock

8. Pay homage to freedom and democracy at Grand Cayman’s oldest—and most important—house

Pedro St. James—or Pedro’s Castle, as the locals call it—is the oldest surviving stone structure in the Cayman Islands, but that’s not what makes it so noteworthy. Pedro (pronounced Pee-dro) St. James is the most important historic site on the islands thanks to its role in the establishment of democracy.

It was here in 1831 that this island nation elected its first democratic government. Also on this site, five years later, a delegate of the Governor of Jamaica issued a proclamation to abolish slavery in the British Empire, which was read from the stone stairs of the Great House built 50 years earlier by enslaved people. In the ensuing 150 years, the building was used as a courthouse, jailhouse, and parliamentary house—and was battered down by hurricanes, fire, and an earthquake along the way—until the government purchased the site in 1991, restoring the Great House and other traditional buildings that dot the property.

Today, you can take a guided tour of this celebrated site, sample a flight of Cayman Spirits rum, and enjoy a lunch of marinated conch and red snapper pasta at the new Thatch and Barrel—an on-site restaurant launched by the team behind George Town favorite Cayman Cabana. It’s a tasty way to experience an essential aspect of Caribbean history.

Alyssa Schwartz is a food and travel writer based in Toronto.
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