Ten Days on Grand Cayman
by Michelle Segal
Grand Cayman, Dec. 25-Jan. 3, 2002
Flight: We had free roundtrip tix from California to Florida, and when we scoped out Caribbean destinations (including Bonaire, Curacao, Puerto Rico, etc), the least expensive flight in/out of Miami was to Grand Cayman. There are flights on Southwest (if you fly up/down California a lot or fly often to Vegas, and if you book online, you quickly get free SWA tix) to Ft. Lauderdale that leave early and most fly through New Orleans and Orlando. If you are lucky, youll get SWA flight attendants, like ours, who humored us with Christmas Carols (over the loud speaker) and attitude. From Ft. Lauderdale, we had to get to Miami, and we had a bit a time, so we took public transportation (light rail) from Ft. Lauderdale to Miami airport. We had booked a hotel at Miami airport via Expedia, and when we got off at the Miami airport light rail stop, our hotel was literally a five minute walk! We stayed at the Wyndham Miami Airport for about $55/night and they provide free 24-hour transportation to the MIA airport. We ordered in a pizza, since there are no restaurants around there.
On Christmas Day, in the morning, we flew Cayman Airways 737 to Georgetown. We paid about $300 return for the tix. We were served rum punch and the flight was almost empty. The landing was PERFECT, much better than the landings Ive had on US airlines. Our flight back was scheduled for Jan. 3 mid-day. At the airport in Miami, we inquired if we could change our return time, and we were told we could fly anytime on Jan. 3 without a fee change.
On Jan. 2, we called the Cayman Airways office at the airport and they told us we could fly standby on the Jan. 3 evening flt and there were plenty of seats on that flight. When we got to the airport @ 5pm (our original departure time was 2pm), we were told that we had to pay a $75 change fee. We argued a bit with the Cayman Airways ticket counter person (Mr. Eberald Forbes) and told him that we had been given an ok from Miami and from there office, and he said that we can only change without fee if we fly standby on an earlier, not later, flight. Anyway, in the end, we flew the later 6:30pm flight back to Miami, which was about ½ full.
Accommodation: It is possible to make the Caymans affordable. If you cant afford the $300-$500/night places, there are one or two alternatives. We stayed at the wonderful Eldemires Guest House. I had stayed there before, and its a great place to stay. Its clean, friendly, and the beds are comfortable. The guesthouse has about five rooms and a few studios. There is a main family room, or community room, that has some books, old magazines, and cable tv. There is a small dining area and a large kitchen where you can cook your meals and there is a refrigerator and pantry to store your food. I think theres also a barbeque out back. Breakfast (toast, jam, coffee, juice or tea) is included and prepared by the wonderful Georgette. Shes been working there for seven years and she originally hails from Jamaica.
The proprietor, Tootie, is a wonderful Caymanian. She is friendly and has a fantastic sense of humor. She has a couple of boats that cater to the Cruise crowds, and if you stay @ Eldemires and arrange it with Tootie, you can go on a Sting Ray Sand Bar and/or Snorkel Trip for free. The rooms are about $100/night, which is as budget as you can get on the Caymans. She has seasonal rates, so check her website. The studios, which have their own kitchens, are a bit more.
The best room is #2, and #1 and #3 arent bad either. Room 4, where I stayed, is good for one person, but a bit small for two. And, room #5 . If you are the last one to book during busy season, then you are stuck with the windowless room. Rooms 1-3 have two beds in each room and a #2 has bath tubnot sure about #1 and #3, but #4 is shower only. All rooms have a small tv (which will have cable soon, we are told), A/C, and a ceiling fan.
There are some roosters and a couple dogs on the premises, but they dont go into the guest house. The outside garden is nice, and the actual guesthouse was recently repainted in bright orange, green, purple and red, inspired by Tooties respect for South American indigenous homes (I forget exactly where, but ask Tootie). The roosters seem to get confused what time is sunrise, but I guess they are just cock-a-doodle doing for all the guests who may be on local time (whether thats Japan time, California time, or Boston time). After a full day diving or snorkeling and your AC turned on high, you wont hear a thing.
The bath towels are kind of small, and if you have a big butt, forget it! The towels barely cover you, but dont worry, its so warm there, you dry off fast. Georgette changes towels and linens on request (and you have to ask for more toilet paper too), but thats part of the character of the place. You can ask her for large beach towels to borrow, and shell get you some. The other guests were soooo nice. We ended up hanging out with more than ½ the guesthouse for New Years and often enjoyed fun filled days of snorkeling and story-telling with the other well-travelled guests. During our stay there were two from Japan, a family including a 7 and a 10 yr old from Michigan, four from San Diego, and one from SF Bay area. Finally, if you are lucky, about 6-8 wild parrots visit the place at dawn and dusk. Overall, Eldemires, or Tooties, is a great place to stay, and I cant wait to go back.
Diving: I dove with a 3mm shorty (short sleeves too), no gloves, no light, no knife (I had one, and used it on first dive, but then didnt use it). Suggestion: bring good little light for nooks and crannies and writing tablet to remember creatures.
In 2000, I dove with Red Sail Sports and it was great. This time around, I visited during high season, and I shopped around. It turned out that it was around the same price everywhere around. I only go diving a couple times a year, so I like to dive with really good (reliable, safe) dive operators. Red Sail is fantastic. I did nine dives with them, including a night dive and they gave me a free t-shirt and Sunset Sail on their catamaran.
I wanted to do all North Shore all the time, but the weather wasnt so hot the first day, so we went to South Shore. We dove Oriental Gardens and somewhere else, and it was ok, but I much prefer North Shore.
On North Shore, I dove Babylon for the first time. It was a 100ft dive and its a huge coral pinnacle about 200ft in diameter (it takes about five minutes to circle it). I was smart this time and invested in a dive computer before my trip (an Aladdin Pro), so my bottom time was 30 minutes, vs. those who didnt have computers and stayed down for 20 minutes. The dive was absolutely gorgeous and we saw gorgeous corals, brittle sea stars, red lipped blennies, shrimp. The key to this dive is going really slow around the coral and carefully examining the coral to see all the groovy creatures. Its a multilevel dive, so we only stayed at 100 ft for a few minutes and then worked our way up. The end of the dive was beautiful, too, at about 50 ft, lots of gorgeous creatures. I also did this dive later in the week with Cayman Diving Lodge and near the mooring line, I saw a wonderful large (6ft?) moray eel that was fairly well-exposed so I could pet (shame, shame on me for touching!! but I couldnt resist) its tail.
I also dove Oriental Gardens on South Side which was beautiful, but I didnt record any of these dives in my log book, so Im going from memory. My night dive was the Oro Verde. I had two buddies on this dive, and one of them had a digital dive computer. We started the dive exploring the wreck and then the middle of the dive around the coral fingers and then finished the dive (and the remainder of our time) around the wreck. There were about 24 people on the dive and it got kind of crowded around the wreck at the beginning. Next time, I think Ill start with the coral fingers for about 20 minutes and then finish the dive at the wreck when its less crowded. We were one of the first down (and last up) and we saw a beautiful blue-green medium sized octopus in the middle of the wreck. We also saw some large crabs and lobsters and HUGE parrot fish. We didnt see the infamous huge moray but a few people did. Around the coral, we saw the typical night crustaceans and some beautiful shrimp. We had fun finding a nice barrel sponge (the ones that are cylindrical and hollow in the inside) and all turned off our lights and then waved our hand to see a magical firework display of biophosoresphence (spelling?) up and down the coral sponge. It was so amazing. On the way back, we explored more of the Oro Verde and we were soooo fortunate to stumble upon a very poisonous and rare sea snake on the sand (it was near back part of the wreck). My digital camera buddy got it on film and Ill post it if he sends it to me. Our bottom time was 44 minutes, 53ft. Red Sail did a fabulous night dive pre-briefing and carefully drew the ocean floor topography on the white board and reviewed it with everyone and made sure everyone was ok.
A note on Red Sail: they are so great. They are always friendly, never complaining and always smiling. One guy noticed I was missing my O-ring that seals my 1st stage to the safety cap and promptly replaced it. As soon as I finished my dives, they would graciously offer to help me remove my tank and changed my BC to a new tank. They all have a great sense of humor, especially Tony the North Shore captain, and reminded me of the safetys of diving by gently scolding me when I stayed down near the mooring line on my own when my buddy decided to go up (short on air) a couple minutes early. Red Sail emphasizes safety over everything else, and I respect that. Their boats are in great condition. What else? They have water (and sometimes dry towels) on board, but the water tastes a bit funny, so you may want to bring your own. They give you orange slices after every dive and take a poll vote on where you want to go before setting out to a dive site. Finally, if you have been diving with them before (they have a lot of repeat divers), they remember your name. They are the Nordstrom of diving on the Caymans. Oh, and it doesnt hurt that all their Divemasters are very cute too! They dont have many female DM, but there are a few, but I think they mainly are instructors. I was on the boat when one of the woman DM was instructing some junior PADI resort divers (10 years old) and I was impressed with her patience and professionalism. If I had kids, I would send them to Red Sail for certification. I saw a lot of Cruise Ship people rushing to Eden Rock and it would scare me to have my kids use that equipment that is frequently used by a zillion Cruiseship transients. Thats just my two cents.
After Babylon, our second morning dive was No Name Wall, but as a shallow dive. Beautiful Eagle Rays in fact, one was coming right at me that I came nose to nose with a spotted ray! At the end of the dive, I saw a small turtle. Oh, and we saw some lobsters on that dive too, but we had to look really carefully in the nooks and crannies.
Towards the end of my visit, I arranged to dive two dives (the morning) with Cayman Diving Lodge on East End. I originally was going to dive it on Dec. 31, but I called to rearrange it to another day, which I thought was Jan. 2. When I showed up, the lady said We were expecting you yesterday (Jan. 1); you were supposed to be here then; I dont know if we have room for you today. I was apologetic, but a bit taken aback by that comment (very different from the laid back and super friendly attitude I encountered from Red Sail). Anyway, there was room for me. I specifically went to CDL to dive East End, and we ended up at Babylon, which I dove earlier in the week with Red Sail. I didnt really mind, because Babylon is so beautiful, but I did sort of want to do two East End dives. Again, Babylon was beautiful second time around, esp. since thats when I saw the big moray at the beginning and the end of the dive near the mooring line (under a big coral). The second dive was at Top Secret and that was my favorite shallow dive of the week. Saw a purple spotted moray, a school of inquisitive squids, shrimp (not sure what kind), and these weird animals that are like brown-spotted white nudibranches (fingerprint something); they were on the backside of all the pretty fan coral--- sorry, I really need to take a class on sealife nomenclature.
The lunch at CDL was superb: paella, couscous, tuna salad, homemade bread, kool aid, lemonade, and homemade chocolate chip macademia nut cookies and brownies. The overnight guests said the food is phenomenal the nights are filled with card games and good conversation. See snorkeling below for more comments on CDL. Next time, I think Ill try Ocean Frontiers just to see how they are for East End dives.
Snorkeling & other adventures: Suggestion -- bring your snorkel equipment. We brought our own and we met several people who didnt. By the time youve rented three days, you could have purchased your own (renting is about $12-15 day). Get fins with booties, so you can easily walk on the rocks or coral if you have to, w/out cutting up your feet. If you want to purchase on Grand Cayman, try Divers World or Divers Supply.
We spent a lot of time snorkeling, since the person I traveled with doesnt dive. It worked out wella ten day vacation, diving about every other day, snorkeling every day, including diving days. It was 10 magnificent days in the water. Since we stayed at Eldemires we often snorkeled Smiths cove which is a 15 minute walk from Tooties place. We saw a huge (5ft?) barracuda that was checking us out and lots of fish near the coral rock to the left of the cove.
The snorkeling @ Cemetery Reef is good for large quantities of fish and turtle sightings. People must feed the fish there b/c lots of Sargeant Majors escorted us all along the snorkeling. The coral is pretty dead, but there are so many fish that you feel like you are in a mini aquarium. Its fairly flat, so its a really easy, protected site. And, if you are lucky, youll see a turtle swimming by J!
Some of the Japanese from our guest house visited the botanical garden and werent that impressed. Our visit to the turtle farm was ok, but the turtle water is kind of dirty and smelly, and I sort of wonder where some of the restaurants get their turtle soup from?? The turtle farm lost several large breeder turtles during Hurricane Michelle, but there are still soooo many turtles at the farm, that its definitely worth a visit, esp. if youve never been there before.
Finally, two of our favorite snorkeling experiences were on East End. CDL let us snorkel their dock b/c I dove with them and we saw lots of lobster, a small ray, flounder, a rock/scorpion fish and some shadows of tarpon. The following day, we snorkeled @ Tortuga Club and saw about 30 or 40 tarpon, flounder and lobster.
Eating: Lone Star -- Texas style sizes, bar menu, good spicy shrimp burritos; Crows Nest -- excellent Pina Coladas, best black bean soup, good stuffed Chilean Sea Bass and Jerk Chicken; Morgans Harbor -- there is a small dive (restaurant), not the more fancy restaurant -- the one next to it, that serves killer conch fritters; Naked Fish is the new restaurant opened by the owner of Lone Starthe Wahoo is excellent and so is the tuna. Service is hit or miss. Sunday Brunch @ the Hyatt is reputably the best brunch on the island, but reservations are needed. The Brittania Club House (near the Brittania Golf Course at the Hyatt) is excellent for salads and service -- we ate there twice, once on Xmas day, once on New Years day. They are open all the time, in case you are like us and want a 3pm lunch, and they have great cobb salads and stuffed baked potatoes. The restaurant @ the Hyatt in front of 7-mile beach has horrific service and attitude and the food is dinky portions and marginal. And, of course, Chicken Chicken which has good jerk chicken. But, my overall recommendation is to go for the seafood at some of the waterfront view restaurants.
Supermarkets -- there are three: Hurleys, Kirks, and Fosters. Kirks has best quality produce and overall. Hurleys is closest to Eldemires. Fosters is in town or near the airport. Expect to pay 1.25 or 1.5 times what youd pay in the USA for everything. Example- a can of tuna in the USA is US$1.39, at Kirks is $2.30 Cayman.
Drinking: We had drinks @ Rackams almost every night so we could watch the 7:30pm Tarpon Feeding. Very fun and relaxed. We also had drinks at the Naked Fish, which is the new bar opened by the owner of Lone Star, and is about a five minute walk from Eldemires. Other good hangouts are the Lazy Lizard (always packed, but not on the beach; they are on 7-mile beach but w/out the view) and the Tree House (on the beach, just near Georgetown). Of course, there are always sunset drinks @ the Westin or Marriott. The Hyatt is overly crowded and annoying. The Westin is nice but has a lot of mosquitos and sand flies. The Marriott is low key -- we had drinks there and enjoyed their Jacuzzi, which is right next to the beach. And, the drinks were ok. Beers are about $3 Cayman; blended drinks are about $7 Cayman.
Getting Around: The taxi from the airport to Eldemires is US$12 or Cayman$9.60, not including tip. You can rent a car from Andys Rental or anywhere on the island for about $50/day. I was told it was easier to rent on the island, however, we opted not to rent a car at all. We simply hitched or took the bus. There were other guests at Eldemires who rented cars and we sometimes got a lift with them, but mostly we relied on hitching and the bus. Eldemires is in a great location--- about 1 mile from town (south), and about 3 miles from 7-mile beach. Most people know where Eldemires is (Tootie is famous on the island), but if you are hitching, just tell people to drop you off in front of Blue Parrot, a bar that got destroyed by Hurricane Michelle, but the sign is still thereits in front of Coconut Harbor.
There are several local buses, in the form of mini-vans, that leave regularly from Georgetown. The routes are as follows: Georgetown to 7mile beach; Georgetown to West End (turtle farm); Georgetown to North Side (near Morgans Harbor); Georgetown to East End (near Rum Point, Tortuga Club, Ocean Frontiers, Cayman Diving Lodge). We spent a couple days diving and snorkeling East End. To East End, the buses leave Georgetown bus depot on the ½ hour (actually a bit earlier) and cost Cayman $2.50 one way to Cayman Diving Lodge, Ocean Frontiers, Tortuga Club. It takes about 50 minutes and make sure to be there a few minutes early, esp if you are diving and cant be late (e.g. if you have a 9am dive @ CDL, be at the bus @ 7:25 b/c it leaves @ 7:28am and you get there around 8:20am). To catch the bus, on 7-mile beach, just stand on the side of the road and flag the bus down. The bus is $1.50 Cayman to go up/down 7-mile.
Hitching was easy and convenient. Its always a risk, esp for females, but Caymans seems relatively safe. Most people who stopped to pick us up were either Jamaicans or Hondurans, not expats, but there were a few Brits and Canooks who gave us a lift here and there. Basically, it was no problem not having a car. Between hitching and the bus system, we were fine.
Overall: Our trip was superb, but next time, well try Little Cayman or Cayman Brac, for a change of pace and sea-nery.
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