Here is the report from our latest trip to Grand Cayman, long and detailed as those I like to read and rely on before booking anything. My wife and I are now avid snorkelers and the main purpose of the trip was relaxation with a focus on snorkeling from the shore as much as possible. This was a first for us in the Carribean islands, that is after over 15 trips,this was not booked as an all-inclusive. The airline tickets and hotel/resort booking was done through Travelocity.ca . Last year we used Expedia .ca and had good service but we preferred the Travelocity experience of this year, sort of a feeling of " being well cared for" . We flew, without any problems, with American Airlines from Montreal(6:30 am) to Miami(10:00am) with a connection to Grand Cayman, arriving at 2:00pm. After clearing Customs we hustled to the car rental(AVIS) agency close by the airport to get a Daihatsu Charade(sub-compact), that was reserved through the concierge service of the Reef Resort(very reliable and problem free). The cost was a total of $347US(everything included-taxes, insurance, driving license) for the whole week, plus about $25US for gas. Although the car was small, it was all we needed and would recommend using AVIS as the return of the car was one of the easiest I have known. So after packing the luggage in that car, off we go but… Grand Cayman is a British island and the steering wheel is on the right side, and you drive on the left side of the road and the moment we left the parking lot it started to rain, no, it started to pour down so hard that the water accumulated 6 inches deep in most of the streets . It makes for a pretty hectic start, especially when, even with maps, you are not too sure where you are heading… Luckily this hard downpour lasted only 15 minutes, and by the time we got to the Reef Resort , everything was dry with the sun shining.
The Reef Resort is located in the East End of the island in the area of Colliers Bay and it takes about 50 minutes for the drive, which is mostly along the southern and eastern coastline. The Reef Resort is a condo/timeshare type of hotel with all of the units or suites being oceanfront. Registration at the reception area was quick and simple. We booked for the simple ocean studio suite, which was on the third floor of the farthest of the buildings, but just a minute walk to the lobby/reception area. The suite was new, spotlessly clean and well furnished with a small kitchenette(small refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker, toaster and dinerware/ustensils/glasses/wine glasses etc.. for two persons). Our first batch of coffee took over 2 hours but the coffee maker was replaced promptly as soon we asked for a replacement. The view form the balcony was fabulous , especially for watching the sunrises. Exceptional. The decor of the room was modern and minimalist. The balcony was shared with the adjacent unit, but luckily the unit was not occupied during our stay. If the unit had been occupied, it would have made it a lot less private and we surely would not have appreciated. In fact, the resort was probably half full at the most. Definitely no crowds at this place. The Resort consists of three large buildings for the suites, one large buidling for the reception, restaurant, stores , all directly along the beach within 75 feet from the water’s edge. There is two restaurants, the Castro’s Hideaway Restaurant and the Beach Bar. The grounds are very well kept although the palm trees and flowers are still small. As mentionned before, it is very quiet all around the resort. In daytime, there was maybe 15 to 20 people max on the beach. There is two swimming pools , a bigger one close by the neighboring Morritt’s Resort, and a smaller one with Jacuzzi near our suite. Just about nobody in the pools. In the evening there would be more people in the upstairs restaurant and at the bar, but except for Valentine’s day, no real crowds. No real activities of any kind or even noise or music (no volley-ball, aerobics etc…) although we saw a few people play tennis. Near the reception area there is a well equippped dive shop runned by Ocean Frontiers and a small liquor store/internet café, the Thirsty Surfer. Also in the lobby, are usually two concierge desk ready to help you with any thing you would want to do, book, try, etc… on the island. Excellent service with very good advices on everything you want to know around the island.
Restaurants & Bars: As I mentionned earlier, this was not an all inclusive, and we were a little apprehensive as we knew restaurants could be expensive on the island. We had our first breakfast at the Reef restaurant, on the balcony and the food was very good with excellent service. Still we decided to make our own little breakfast, each morning, on our own balcony. There is a well stocked IGA/Foster’s Grocery store, just across the street from the Reef Resort, where you can buy anything you want to feed you. The suites being oceanfront, we found that having a breakfast consisting of toasts with fresh fruits coupled with lots of coffee and juices right on the balcony watching the sun rising up over the ocean to gentle sound of small waves was a cherished moment as we were also planning the snorkeling for the day… But when we are on vacation, we don’t like to cook at all so we had all of our lunches and dinners at restaurants all around over the island depending on where we were snorkeling. We had lunches at Over the Edge(12 minutes drive from the Reef ), Kaibo Beach Bar, EATS( in Georgetown), Macabuca Bar( adjacent to Cracked Conch near the Turtle Farm), Vivine’s Kitchen(10 minutes from the Reef). For dinner, we had a few directly at the Reef Resort Beach Bar Restaurant, but we also tried Over the Edge, Portofino’s Wreck View( 5 minutes from the Reef). At the Reef we preferred having dinner at the Beach Bar outside where you could order from the lunch menu. At the inside restaurant upstairs, you had to order from the dinner menu which was more expensive. Food at the Reef was very good with good service except on Valentine’s day where we had almost a 3 hours wait for our order. The Resort is staffed for being half booked. This Valentine’s evening was full pack and there were understaffed and it was not very pleasant. At the Inside restaurant, the Barefoot Man is playing on tuesdays and was there at Valentine’s day. We didn’t see BFM as we didn’t care for any nightly entertainment. The food and service were very good at any place we ate, but our favorite was definitely Over The Edge, where the fish and shrimps were excellent. Portofino’s was also very good(I tried the turtle steak) but a bit pricier. In general, we could always find a good meal with drinks for two for$20-$30US(breakfast) and $30 to $40 US(lunch or dinner), but you can easily get to $150US if you get a little fancier…(especially at dinner). It happened twice at restaurants( i.e Over the Edge) to be greated at the door by a drunk man that we initially thought was the owner but don’t be scared, go through the bar at entrance and you will reach the terrace restaurant that’s "over the edge" of water…
One evening, coming back from Georgetown after a day of snorkeling, we stopped over at Hurley’s grocery store in Grand Harbour. This grocery store is even better than Foster’s as they have a custom sandwich station, cooked meals and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. We came back with a rotisserie chicken with rice&beans, plantain, greek salad and had a very nice candlelight dinner on our balcony. If you are thinking about stocking heavily or preparing more meals, definitely go at Hurley’s. As for bars , the drinks and cocktails are on the expensive side at most bars around the island, including the Castro’s beach bar at the Reef, you can expect to pay around $6.00 US for a beer and about $11.00US for a drink like margarita or tequila sunrise. We had brought from home, tequila and gin to fix our own drinks to sip on our balcony, and we bought beer and soft drinks/mix at Thirsty Surfer that we packed with water and soft drinks and ice in a foldable cooler for taking out in our snorkeling adventures around the island.
The beach at the Reef Resort is made of nice white powdered sand and is very clean and well kept. Lost of chairs and not many people, and no music or noise of any kind. Very relaxing. If you want to swim into the ocean, there is a lot of rocks and see grass but there is two spots of about 30 or 40 feet wide where it is mostly sand but good water shoes are recommended. Other beaches we were at : Seven Mile Beach( where there is parking and a nice playground for young kids near the Harbour Heights condos), Cemetary Beach, Rum Point, Kaibo Beach, Ivory Kai. The first three are very nice, with nice white powder sand nice blue waters. The last two, are still nice for relaxing on the beach but not so nice for swimmimg into the ocean. At Ivory Kai there is just about only seegrass in the water but if you get in with water shoes waist deep you can find numerous starfish. Nice experience in a remote area. I have to mentionned that we were in GC for snorkeling and although the beaches seemed nice, we didn’t go swimming at any of these beaches. We would put on our fins and mask and go out snorkeling, so we didn’t pay any attention to rocks or grass in the shallow waters of these beaches….
This was the main reason for this trip and boy did we get what we were looking for. I had gathered a lot of info about snorkeling locations in GC from various web sites( as GC is just about surrounded by coral reefs) and it helped immensely in selecting the sites to snorkel. We started out directly on the beach of the Reef Resort. The reef is a little bit out and the currents can be relatively strong even on a non-windy day. So we stayed close to shore, not a lot of coral, but a lot of rock formations and a few fishes like peacock flounder, bar jacks, blue tangs, french grunts, palometas, sergeant majors, puffy fish,etc… Most of the fishes will gather just underneath the Reef Resort pier and you can usually see a 4 feet barracuda hanging around as well as many tarpons. Water is not that clear because of the waves but you can get real close to all of these fish species.
Right into Georgetown before getting to the cruise ship piers. You will notice the dive shop with the "diving apple" sign. You can get easily in the water directly from the ladder and go to the buoys. Nice big coral formation with vertical drops and quickly get to over 60 feet deep of water. Lots of fish, hung around with a turtle for about 10 minutes(very nice) and saw stingrays. A few small jellyfishes but didn’t bother us.
We did Stingray Sandbar with Captain Marvin outlet located in the Cayman Falls (small stripped mall). We wanted to do the Stingray thing on Sunday as there is not a lot of people, only certain operators are allowed(locals I think) to go to the Stingray Sandbar or Stingray City. We boarded a comfortable boat and were about 24 people aboard but never felt crowded. We started by doing stops at Coral Gardens and the Barrier Reef for snorkeling before hitting the sandbar. Both places had nice snorkeling. Coral Gardens had nice coral heads and numerous fishes in about 15 -20 feet deep water but we preferred the Barrier Reef as it was shallower and had more colorful sights and fishes( saw a nice trumpet fish standing still vertically imitating a soft coral…). When you reach the Sandbar, you get in the water without fins in waist deep and immediately the stingrays starts circling you and then rub your legs in search for food. You can pet them, touch their backs and bellys but do not worry they will not hurt you and the guides tell you everything you want to know about the Stingrays. They even will handle a few Stingrays and show them up close(their mouth, thier tail with the sting…yes…) and even make you kiss the Stingray as it is supposed to bring you good luck! Although we are just crazy about snorkeling and seeing as much sealife as we can, we didn’t like the feeling of being touched by the stingrays but it did made for wonderful uderwater pics and video shots. Definitely a must do and the Capt. Marvin team was very good, except for reef protection. They didn’t advise about reef protection and there were a lot of people new to snorkeling and it was just horrifying to see the damages caused by the inexperienced snorkelers hitting the reefs with their fins, standing on the coral heads and so on . Just a note to tell you that Stingray Sandbar is the snorkeling version of Stingray City, which is the scuba diving version. The Sandbar, Coral Gardens and Barrier Reef is located just off the Rum Point area so if I was to repeat the excursion, I would prefer going out from the Rum Point or Kaibo Beach area as you don’t have to cross the whole North Sound to get to the snorkeling areas and the stingrays…
A diver’s resort, a little bit before you get into Georgetown coming from the East End. We wanted to see the mermaid, a bronze sculptur fixed to the bottom of the sea. Easy access as you get into the water from a ladder and an easy swim to the buoys. The mermaid is in about 50-60 feet deep of water so for snorkelers it is not easy to find(ask the dive shop for directions) and if you find it, the views are deceiving as your as too far above. The rest of the snorkeling is average, again because the bottom gets deep rapidly and limits your views of the coral formations…
Cracked Conch:(near Turle Farm):
We left out stuff on the chairs at the Macabuca Bar, adjacent to the Cracked Conch restaurant, and got in the water easily from the ladder close by. We snorkeled alond the rock formations along the water’s edge and swam out a bit to the vertical drop. Nice views with lots of fishes. We met with a couple from Long Island, New York(in their seventies) that snorkeled the same area. We chatted about their snorkeling experience in GC and they directed us to Cemetary Reef and mentionned not to hesitate to swim out a bit before you hit the better coral formations…
Coming back from the Cracked Conch, we stopped at the Cemetary Beach(yes, right by a nice cemetary nicely decorated with flowers on all tombs). The beach is very nice with fabulous views of Seven Mile Beach but we immediately got the fins on and swam out a bit(maybe 500 to 1000 feet) from shore and got to very nice coral formations and stangely found out after a while that numerous fishes were following us( mostly Bermuda chubs) in our snorkeling trek… probably because these fishes are used to be fed by the snorkelers. A strange feeling as when you were going about the different coral heads and you would suddenly look back and you could see all these fishes following you….
A well groomed beach with beach chairs, hammocks, picnic tables, restaurants, bars, souvenir shop and dive shop, with lots of trees for shade. No fees for use of the chairs or hammocks but they ask you not to bring any outside food or beverages. We walked about 5 minutes to the right (when facing the pier) and swam out quite a bit (about 1000-1500 feet) to the coral formations and we swam in what would be a big quadrant around the pier and then back to the pier. And we had a blast. Very colorful coral formations with many queen angelfishes, french angelfishes, grey angelfishes, huge parrotfishes, squirrelfishes, spiny lobsters, sort of a never ending display of sea life. We would be going out snorkeling for about one to one and a half hour at a time. Getting back to the beach we would reward ourselves with a nice cocktail from the bar(at $10US apiece..ouch..) but they were very tasty with high content of the "hard stuff". We would usually get to Rum Point Beach at about 9:00 am and we were just about the first ones on site. As the day progresses, cruise ship people and island tourists start to arrive, making the place a lot more lively(there are activities available), but we never felt any real crowding and the place was always relaxing(no loud music). We spent another half day at Rum Point to repeat the snorkeling as this turned out to be our favorite spot on the island.
Babylon Reef/Queen’s Monument:
We tried to snorkel this area but had a hard time to find the right entry spot. We were back from Rum Point and stopped at what I thought was the location just east of Old Man Bay (no signs here…) but there was not a lot to see except lots of fan corals(green) and a mostly sandy bottom with just a few fish species. I’m sure that we didn’t have the right entry point or didn’t head out in the right direction. Better luck next time..(or get better directions…).
Compass Point/Ocean Frontiers:
This is a boat outing that we booked with Ocean Frontiers, a well trusted dive shop operating out of Compass Point located approx. a 10 minute drive from the Reef Resort. This outing was $35US per person and consisted of a three stop snorkeling excursion on Sunset Reef and two other reefs (I don’t recall the exact names) that were located inside the barrier reef close by the Wreck of the Ten Sails. We got onto a pontoon type boat with 8 snorkelers on board, with an excellent guide. The first two sites had views of a huge anchor from the Wreck of the Ten Sails, a more recent sailboat wreck and all that in about 20-30 feet deep water with the nice coral heads getting at about 5-6 feet from the surface. Saw lots of parrotfishes, stingrays, french angelfishes , queen angelfish etc… The third stop was along the barrier reef in very shallow waters(2-4 feet at times) with nice "swiss cheese"like coral formations with nice schools of blue tangs, french angel fishes. My wife saw a green moray but I didn’t get to see it… In between snorkeling sites they would provide cold water bottles and freshly cutted oranges to everyone, a nice touch. Also, when you get on a boat outing like this one, you will notice that the people onboard are a lot more serious at snorkeling/diving than say an outing to Stingray Sandbar. Very good dive shop to deal with, I would recommend them strongly.
Wherever we got to snorkel out of a dive shop(Eden Rock, Sunset House, Cracked Conch, Rum Point, etc..) we didn’t hesitate to ask about snorkeling pointers and safety tips to the young dudes at the counter and all of these were very gentle and talkative about their snorkeling or dive spot. That was very nice. Also, we felt maybe a bit lucky throughout our snorkeling week as The Ocean Frontiers guide mentionned that the wind was unusually down for this time of the year. A lot of times in winter, GC has what they call a Norwester(I think), a prevailing wind from the North West that makes a lot of places in the East End of the island subject to much bigger waves, therefore making snorkeling more difficult. But for us, all of the places we snorkeled the water were very calm to calm, with minimal waves. The only place we really felt a current was in front of the Reef Resort!
We didn’t hang out much in Georgetown except for a few stops for souvenir shopping. We did stop at Butterfly Farm, near the Marquee Cinema. This farm is an enclosed area with nets and is setted up like a botanical garden with lots of beautiful butterflies wandering around you and landing on different flowers or feeding stands installed. Yo can watch Blue Morphos, Monarchs, and other types of butterflies from around the world. It makes for a very nice and relaxing stop between snorkeling outings. The fee is about $15US per person but you get a good 3/4 hour briefing on butterflies, chrysalids, moths and cocoons with explanations and numerous specimens of all of these. You can easily spend over an hour watching all the butterflies going aroung. They even give you water as it can get a little hot in the middle of the day… We also stopped over at the Antica Gelateria(near the Marquee cinema) for a gelatto( sort of italian ice cream). A very nice treat after lenghthy snorkeling.
Grand Cayman was a very nice place with excellent snorkeling from the shore. We did, at times, snorkeled or swam out quite a bit from the shore. This type of snorkeling is defenitely not for beginners and you need to be a decent swimmer and boost your courage a little bit. If the surf had been rougher, we probalby would not have ventured out that much… People are very friendly all around the island and please do rent a car to explore the numerous beaches even if you are not snorkeling. It does take time to get use to driving on the left(and yes you will activate the wipers instead of the flashers). The Reef Resort itself is very nice, quiet, well maintained with excellent staff and service(except for dinner service on Valentine’s Day..) It is in a remote area, so you will even like it better if you rent a car. If we had to go again, we would probably try to find a place closer to Rum Point(within walking distance if possible) but we would still rent a car for exploring the other spots of the island. Restaurants on the island are expensive but if you do your homework and check out info before you head out, you can manage . The island itself is very clean, but the vegetation is scarce, (do not expect lush tropical rain forest type vegetation) and we did notice damages to shores and houses from the last hurricane. But it made for a really nice week, easy to drive roads(especially out of town) to some of the best snorkeling we have experienced so far.