Grand Cayman Vacation Recap: Part 1

It’s cold here in Washington DC, but I’m staying warm by drinking hot chocolate and wrapping myself in fond memories of our recent vacation in Grand Cayman! Of course I took a ton of photos during our week on the island, so I’ll be doing a two-part recap here. Part 1 commences in 3…2…1… [LONG POST WARNING!]

SATURDAY

John and I flew nonstop to Grand Cayman from Dulles on January 20. The flight was only three hours and ten minutes! We had a bit of a panic the day before we left, however. I went online to check us in for our flight and while I had John’s confirmation info, I wasn’t able to find confirmation of a plane ticket for myself. He didn’t have just any seat, though; he had somehow booked himself a business class seat without booking a seat for me. Before you assume he was doing something shady, I’ll tell you that I was literally in the room with him when he booked “our” flights! The price of one business class ticket seemed like a reasonable price for two regular tickets, so when the cost hit our credit card bill there was no reason for concern and neither of us bothered to read the ticket confirmation email closely (which is like…shame on me for not noticing I wasn’t included in the confirmation). Fortunately, there were still affordable tickets available on both of our flights so John was able to get me a ticket. He felt so bad about his fuckup that he let me sit in his business class seat on the flight to Grand Cayman and back. All’s well that ends well, right? Now we’ll always laugh about “that time John bought himself a business class ticket for OUR vacation.”

When we arrived in Grand Cayman it was such a great feeling when the tropical air hit us. We got our luggage and rental car at the airport and John did the driving for us, because they drive on the left side of the road in the Cayman Islands. It was incredibly unnerving at first, but after a couple of days we got used to it. At first, every time we got in the car we’d make an announcement before turning, like: “turn right, which is like turning left, but onto the wrong side of the road.” It only took a couple days before we felt like we didn’t need to announce how to make every turn.

We had decided to stay at an Airbnb condo instead of a hotel—the hotels in Grand Cayman are super expensive at this time of year. The property manager met us at the condo and showed us the ropes, then we headed out to Foster’s Food Fair, a grocery store about a five minute drive away, to buy provisions for breakfast and snacks. We came back and checked out the condo property, pictured below. The property had a nice pool with ocean views, a private beach, and a pier. Hardly anyone was around, so it was very quiet. The weather that first day was pretty overcast and we got a little rain in the afternoon, but it stopped in time for dinner.

For dinner that night we decided to make it easy and walk to the restaurant closest to the condo: Ristorante Pappagallo, which was literally across the street. This place came up in all of the Grand Cayman guides I looked at before and during our trip, and it did not disappoint. This Italian restaurant is very cute, with an island-style design, and is situated on a lagoon. The main dining room is an airy screened-in room (which I appreciated because MOSQUITOES). They have an extensive wine list and good dining options for vegetarians and vegans. I opted to start with the Burrata Cheese (pictured below on the left) and had the Pumpkin & Amaretto Ravioli (pictured on the right) for my entree. Both were delicious! We also had a Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie for dessert; I only had a couple bites of it but it was really good. The place is expensive, but it was worth it. After dinner we went to the bar for one more glass of wine to celebrate being on VACATION!

SUNDAY

We woke up to the sound of cock-a-doodle-doo-ing from one of the many roosters roaming the condo property. Chickens and roosters seem like the rats and pigeons of the island—they’re EVERYWHERE. People must feed them all the time, because they’d boldly come onto our patio like they were expecting us to give them food:

Yay for the turtle mosaic on our patio floor!

We made breakfast at home, then drove about ten minutes to the Cayman Turtle Center. We love turtles so we thought this would be a fun activity to kick off our trip. We arrived around 9am and there were literally no other guests in the place, so we had it all to ourselves for almost an hour. You can either pay $18 USD to see the turtle habitats, touch tanks, and wading pools…or you can pay $45 USD for the whole shebang, which includes access to the snorkeling lagoons, predator reef, nature trail, aviary, and more. I really wanted to see the nature trail because they have native orchids there, so we paid for the full access. And in hindsight, I wouldn’t have done so. The orchids weren’t in bloom and we didn’t go snorkeling, so the extra $27 per person wasn’t worth it. An annoyance unrelated to the cost: I didn’t think to put bug spray on that morning and of course mosquitoes started biting the shit out of me as soon as we started on the nature trail. So do bring your bug spray if you go to the turtle center!

The turtles were super cute! They’d swim up and stick their heads out because they thought we were going to feed them (sorry, guys…we didn’t have food!).

Mature green turtles in the large breeding pond:

Later that day, John found this Nat Geo article regarding a controversy over the turtle center. Apparently the place has kept turtles in inhumane conditions. Cayman Islanders also eat turtle, so some of the turtles at the center are raised to be sold as food for humans, which staff will freely tell you; it’s not like they’re trying to hide it. After reading the article we felt really icky for having visited the place, but at the same time, we didn’t see anything troublesome during our visit. It seems that they are responding to the negative press and have been making improvements—at least, I hope that’s the case. That said, if you are considering visiting the Cayman Turtle Center, read the article first and then decide for yourself whether you want to visit.

After the turtles, I wanted to go to Hell. Yes, you read that correctly. Before our trip, I searched Grand Cayman on Atlas Obscura to see if there was anything weird we could check out on the island. Sure enough, a spot called Hell popped up—and it happens to be a four minute drive from the turtle center.  Hell is a very old limestone formation that has become a tourist attraction over the years. Ironically, the first plot of Hell we visited is owned by a family named McDoom.

McDoom’s Hell

Queen of Hell

There’s also a post office in Hell, so you can mail your friends and family a postcard from Hell. Here’s a look at the section of Hell behind the post office…it’s actually quite picturesque.

After Hell we went back to the condo for some relaxation time. It was still overcast and windy, but we hung out by the pool with margaritas anyway because what else are you supposed to do on a tropical island?

The sun started to come out later that afternoon and revealed the beautiful aqua ocean. John swam out for a snorkel with another condo guest who had just arrived—the first of many snorkeling jaunts for him.

For dinner that night we drove down past the turtle center to a cute “alternative restaurant” on the water called Vivo. The place focuses on sustainability, right down to the bamboo cutlery, and offers a farm-to-table, mostly vegan menu. They do also offer lionfish; the species is invasive and they are trying to limit the population. I had the Sun Day Roast—a lentil, herb, and mushroom loaf that in the below pic looks like…well, you know…but it tasted great. It’s hard to make a brown loaf look pretty. John got the lionfish curry and he really enjoyed that as well. Vivo was a really nice spot for an outdoor dinner right by the water and it was more affordable than Ristorante Pappagallo.

MONDAY

We ate a light breakfast at home because John had booked us a 9am snorkeling excursion. The sun was shining when we got up, so it was shaping up to be amazing weather for our adventure, which wouldn’t have been the same with the overcast sky we’d had our first couple of days. We drove down to Safehaven Marina across from the Ritz-Carlton and met our boat captain, Manny, while we waited for the rest of the guests to arrive by bus. There ended up being about 20 guests on board plus the three crew members, so the boat was lively but not overcrowded. Our snorkeling tour had three stops: Coral Gardens for snorkeling, then Stingray City and Starfish Point for aquatic wildlife encounters.

The boat headed out for about a 25 minute cruise to Coral Gardens, and because it was windy we all got splashed the entire way there (which was kinda fun). At Coral Gardens I got help from the captain with my snorkeling mask, then hopped in the water, where I promptly started having issues with the mask’s fit. The water was pretty choppy, too, so I was getting close to panicking as I tried to get the mask on properly. John tried to help me out but because I’m not very good in the water and was struggling with my mask I decided to skip the snorkeling and head back to the boat. I wasn’t the only one—most of the other passengers headed back fairly quickly…I guess it was a boat full of amateurs like me.  🙂 But…LOOK AT THIS FUCKING WATER. It’s so, so beautiful!

Snorkelers at Coral Gardens

From there we had another 10 or 15 minute cruise on over to Stingray City, which was already pretty packed with about 10 other boats. I think we missed the big cruise ship crowds because we went early (and there were only one or two ships in town that day). I can’t imagine what the place would look like on a day with eight or so cruise ships in town—this is the most popular tourist attraction in Grand Cayman, so I think when cruises come in the majority of folks head here. This was the scene when we arrived:

I hadn’t realized that Stingray City is literally just a sandbar in the ocean. I had thought it was some sort of wildlife encounter park with enclosures for the animals. This is WAY cooler. The water is about waist deep (for adults).

We all got off the boat and Manny picked up a stingray (keeping it underwater so it could breathe) for all of us to have photos taken with. He and his assistant (first mate? skipper? I don’t know boat crew terminology), Winston, showed us how to properly and safely handle stingrays and how to feed them. Everyone on the boat got to hold the stingray while our boat’s photographer snapped pics that we could purchase at the end of the trip (which we did: $45 for 18 photos of the two of us). Winston also gave us each a piece of squid to feed the stingray and it was pretty cool to feel the ray snatch the squid right out of my hand with its mouth.

Thank you, stingray, for letting us put our grubby human hands all over you!

Stingray City was truly SO MUCH FUN!! I had a huge smile on my face the entire time we were on the sandbar. Since the water was choppy we all kept bumping into each other and getting knocked over, and I loved every second of it.

Stingray City selfie!

From Stingray City we hopped back on the boat and headed to Starfish Point. I was super happy being on the boat with this stunning ocean backdrop:

Starfish Point is another incredibly beautiful spot on Grand Cayman:

Captain Manny and Winston advised us of the proper way to handle the starfish (don’t take them out of the water!) and let us roam around the area for about 15 minutes. There weren’t a ton of starfish around, but we found a couple here and there and it was fun to hold them. The little suckers on their underbelly cling to your skin…it’s a weird but kind of cool feeling:

After returning from our boat adventures, we stopped at the Westin on Seven Mile Beach to get coffee from the lobby cafe, then went back home to chill. I watched John snorkel off the condo pier—it was nerve wracking for me to watch him because it seemed like he was swimming out SO FAR, but he always made it back just fine. He’s way better in the water than I am. My swimming abilities don’t go much beyond doggy paddling and 90-year-old-doing-the-breaststroke.

Our condo’s guest book had some good recommendations, one of which was Monday night BBQ at Macabuca, a tiki bar across the street from the turtle center. The BBQ is all-you-can-eat for $17 CI per person, which is much less than we’d been spending on dinner. So we figured we might as well give it a try!

Because I don’t really like meat I went there expecting to only be able to eat some beans and rice and maybe bread and corn, but the BBQ buffet was surprisingly vegetarian-friendly. There were a ton of meat-free sides like pasta salad, greek salad, mac & cheese (DELICIOUS), cauliflower, cole slaw, plantains, Johnny cakes…the list goes on and on. I’d even venture to say there were more meat-free options than meat itself. As far as meat goes they had jerk kitchen, BBQ ribs, and escovitch fish. Everything we ate was great, and we loved the oceanside-at-sunset setting. Seating is first come, first served, so we shared a table with a local couple and chatted with them for awhile. They gave us some good suggestions for things to do and places to eat. After dinner we headed home and shared a bottle of rosé on the beach under the stars, as you do.

TUESDAY

Breakfast at home again, then we drove about 8 minutes to Cemetery Beach, a spot recommended by everything I had read and everyone we talked to. John went out to snorkel and I splashed around in the water to avoid getting bit by mosquitoes on the beach. Again, the water was STUNNING. I just cannot get over how vibrant the ocean colors are. No matter how many times I see these colors, it’s hard for me to believe they exist in nature! The water was calmer here, and it was less windy that morning as well.

We had a fairly lazy day on Tuesday since Monday was a pretty big excursion. We spent most of the day hanging out around the condo and chilling on the beach. John did some more snorkeling there too.

Tuesday evening we drove down to Seven Mile Beach (about 15 minutes south of our condo) to check out some of the big hotels and then have dinner. First we stopped by the Kimpton Seafire (nice but overrun by large families, which I do think is atypical for the resort), then checked out the Ritz-Carlton (not impressed), then headed to the Marriott, where we had dinner reservations at Anchor & Den. A&D is located in the hotel lobby and it offers all the things: juice bar, cocktail bar, sushi menu, all-you-can-eat Mexican street food on Tuesdays, and a sit-down restaurant. One of the guide books in our condo mentioned A&D’s halloumi cheese flambé and when I read that I was like “they had me at halloumi on fire.” So we ordered that to start, and it did not disappoint:

FLAMING CHEESE (with fig jam & sourdough)

The cocktails were great—I had the Rum Brûlée and John had the Monkey Food, which came topped with a small bowl made of ice holding banana chips:

L: Monkey Food, R: Rum Brûlée

John got a burger (which was HUGE) and I had a local spinach & pumpkin flatbread with charred corn, seasonal peppers, and mozzarella. We were stuffed after dinner so we headed back toward the condo, then grabbed a glass of wine at the Ristorante Pappagallo bar before falling into bed.

Thus concludes Part 1 of my recap of our Grand Cayman vacation! Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon….

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