CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Rising from the sea floor thousands of feet below, Grand Cayman, along with the sister islands of Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, makes an improbable Caribbean paradise.
The islands are small, without much soil or freshwater, and at the most only rise about 60 feet above the sea level. What they do have is incredible warm blue water with a gentle breeze and year-round warm air temperatures.
And scuba diving. The Cayman Islands have lots of scuba diving.
I’ve been there four times over the last 10 years. The first three times were while conducting safety training for local dive instructors and to do research for my latest novel, “Return to Cayman,” which is based on the island.
On my last trip, my “reason” for visiting was to hold a release party and book signing, with all proceeds from book sales benefiting a volunteer effort to restore a coral reef damaged when a cruise ship dropped anchor on a reef.
My real reason for traveling to Grand Cayman, of course, was the legendary diving.
For the avid diver, one of the best places to stay on the island is Sunset House. Sunset House and My Bar are featured prominently in “Return to Cayman” as well. The resort bills itself as “a hotel for divers, by divers” and it does not disappoint. The entire resort is oriented toward making it convenient to scuba dive, either off one of their boats or in unlimited shore diving for guests.
It’s easy to get there from Charleston. I generally leave out of Yeager Airport on the 7 a.m. flight to Atlanta and get to Grand Cayman in time for lunch at My Bar. It’s a small island, so the commute from the airport literally just takes a few minutes after you clear customs.
Situated about 200 miles south of Cuba, the Cayman Islands are located in the Western Caribbean just south of the Tropic of Cancer. Air and water temperatures hover around 80 degrees with very little variation. The rainy season runs from May through October, roughly corresponding with hurricane season.
The last major storm to hit the island was Ivan in 2004. It tore the island up, tearing roofs off of houses, but since then the island has only suffered on glancing blow from a storm.
The Cayman Islands are a British Overseas Territory, with a mix of about 55,000 Caymanians and expatriates from all over the world. Expats primarily work in the diving, tourism and banking industries. Grand Cayman boasts 600 international banks.
The bigger draw to the island, in terms of sheer numbers of people, is tourism. Nearly every day at least one cruise ship, and often as many as three or four, drops anchor in George Town harbor.
Grand Cayman is regularly voted among the top scuba diving destinations in the world. Divers know Grand Cayman for its wall diving. Coral walls are sheer drop-offs that lead down to abyssal depths. Nutrient-rich water rising from the sea floor feeds colorful, fantastically shaped corals and brings in the large oceanic animals that divers love to see.
In the shallower areas around the island, there are innumerable dive sites, including several intentionally sunk ships that serve as artificial reefs, as well as a 9-foot-tall bronze statue of a mermaid named Amphitrite.
Visitors can easily reach numerous shallow reefs that are perfect for snorkeling or diving with opportunities to see marine life like tarpon, grouper, lobster and moray eels.
For many divers, seeing a sea turtle on a dive is a treat. On my most recent trip to Grand Cayman, I saw at least one sea turtle every day. Primarily you’ll find Green and Kemp’s Ridley turtles, ranging anywhere from 2 feet long to more than 4 or 5 feet long, moving slowly and finning around without a care in the world.
My first children’s book, written for my daughters, is “Sea Turtle Rescue,” and we still have a special bond over turtles because of it. For years, hunting took a toll on the turtle population, but now they are protected in Caymanian waters, and the Cayman Turtle Farm is helping bring back the resident population. The turtle farm is open to tours and for experiences where visitors and swim with and touch turtles.
For nondivers, Grand Cayman still has a lot to offer. The Seven Mile Beach area, just west of George Town, has full-service resorts with white sand beaches, parasailing and personal watercraft rentals along with snorkeling and scuba diving charters.
Some of the more notable resorts include the Wyndham Reef Resort, the Westin Seven Mile Beach Resort and Spa and La Cazetta Beach House and Spa.
Probably the most famous attraction on Grand Cayman is Stingray City. Years ago, fishermen would stop in the shallows to clean their catch. The stingray population quickly learned that this was a great opportunity for an easy meal. Daily charters take snorkelers and divers to the area for an up-close encounter.
Whether you want to dive your entire vacation, or if spending time in the water is only part of your idea of a real vacation, Grand Cayman can meet your expectations for a Caribbean getaway.
If you go
Most major carriers offer flights to Grand Cayman through Charlotte, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas and New York. To get to Little Cayman or Cayman Brac, you will need to fly to Owen Roberts International Airport on Grand Cayman and then take an island hopper flight with Cayman Airways.
Some of these smaller planes have baggage and weight restrictions, so plan accordingly.
The Cayman Islands accepts both U.S. and the Cayman Island currency, referred to locally as “C.I.” In general, prices are listed in C.I., but shops and restaurants will provide the exchange conversion for you. The exchange rate is fixed at $1.25 U.S. to 1 C.I.
Rental cars are widely available on Grand Cayman. Remember: This is a British island, so they drive on the left side. If you don’t want to risk it, cabs are available in George Town or at any of the resorts to take you where you want to go for $10 to $20 U.S., depending on your destination.
Freshwater is provided by a saltwater desalination plant and is safe for visitors to drink. Electricity is provided through American-style plugs and is 110 volts, so your chargers and hairdryer are safe to use without an adapter.
Even with an international calling plan, your cellphone probably will not work without a local SIM card. If you have to have your phone, cards and local calling plans are available. Most of the hotels and restaurants do offer free Wi-Fi, making it easy to connect.
Eric Douglas is a Charleston native and author. His latest novel, “Return to Cayman,” is a techno-thriller set on Grand Cayman. It is available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon. Find out more at booksbyeric.com.