With scuba diving, spectacular nature and plenty of easygoing style, these islands offer a fabulous family-friendly introduction to the Caribbean, says Jane Anderson
I’m sitting in the back of a kayak, my 14-year-old daughter, Scarlett, in front, our oars pumping through the dark water in unison by the light of an almost new moon. Venus and Mars watch us from afar as we head around a bend, past impressive Caymanian mansions, into a secluded bay. We’re in a mini-flotilla with red lights flashing on the backs of our kayaks, following Tom, our trusty guide. He stops intermittently to scoop upside-down jellyfish from the water, earnestly describing the delicate ecosystem here.
There’s more magic to come. We glide further into the dark bay and, as we dip our oars into the water, there’s an explosion of sparkling lights. We shriek with delight, and do it again and again, creating aqua fairy dust so twinkly, that Tinkerbell would be proud. As our excitement mounts, we scoop up water and throw it in the air, creating bursts of watery glitter.
My 11-year-old son, Fin, out in front with his dad, Steve, pulls his oar through the water like a light sabre and as we speed up with the thrill of it all, the hull of our kayak illuminates with the movement. Darting fish look like shooting stars beneath us.
No, this isn’t a theme-park ride. It’s the natural phenomenon of bioluminescence, which now occurs only in a few places around the world, this namesake bay near Rum Point in Grand Cayman being one of them. Microbes in the water use this lighting-up effect as a defence mechanism – after all, says Tom, would you eat something that was glowing?
When I tell friends we’re in the Cayman Islands, they have a vague idea that it’s a bland Americanised tax haven. I say, ‘No way!’ Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to visit Grand Cayman and its two outlying islands, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, a handful of times, learning to dive on the Brac more than two decades ago. Each time, this mini-archipelago unveils more secrets. Showing it to my kids is a particular highlight.
Grand Cayman appeals to families as, yes, it is a little bit Americanised, and due to its banking sector it is a wealthy island. But for visitors, this means that things are pretty slick, from the infrastructure on up. If you want safe, easy Caribbean, come to the Cayman Islands and be pleasantly surprised by all the family-friendly offerings, many bound up with nature.
The islands are perhaps best loved for Stingray City. The tale goes that around 60 years ago, Cayman fishermen anchored their bigger boats offshore to gut their fish, as it was too smelly a job to do on land and being out at sea meant they could drop the waste overboard. Soon, this attracted big black shapes – the rays. Eventually, people began coming out with masks and snorkels to watch these majestic Southern Stingrays feed. It’s estimated that today each stingray is worth £38.5m in visitor value.
You can join a group tour to Stingray City or go the VIP route as we did, and spend the afternoon with Alan and Anthony from Cayman Luxury Charters. Our sleek 42ft Cayman Elusion yacht received approving grins from the children, with its white leather seats and, parked on the hull, a jet ski that Scarlett and Fin loved piggybacking on for a ride around Starfish Point, a lagoon named after the abundance of starfish found in the seagrass.
Alan makes sure that respect for the environment is key to this tour. As we head for Stingray City Sandbar, a natural shallow stretch of water made by a gap in the reef creating a build-up of sand, he tells us in detail about stingrays and even how they give birth to up to 15 babies at a time, prompting some squirming and raised eyebrows from Scarlett and Fin.
Stingrays live for around 20 years, so the ones we meet are very used to interacting with humans now, which is both delightful and unnerving for us. As we stand waist-deep in the azure water, they bump up against us, their strong, muscly ‘wings’ rippling our sides and arms; the dominant females have an impressive span of six feet. Alan hands us squid under the water to feed to Dotty, a pregnant stingray. He advises us to tuck our thumbs into our fists, as the underside of a stingray’s mouth has the suction power of a vacuum cleaner, and he’s not wrong!
Our next highlight is at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, where we meet up with Hal, born and bred in the Caymans and proud of his heritage. As he shows us around Rankin House, a typical Caymanian structure made from indigenous ironwood, he proves to be one of those magical guides who know how to bring history to life. Even Fin, who usually switches off during a tour, engages with his tales of baking cassava cake with squeezed coconut milk and of woven baskets so strong that they can pick up a boy – as Hal was happy to demonstrate, swinging Fin back and forth.
The park is building a kids’ garden, scheduled to open at the end of 2019, but the other major attraction here are the protected Blue Iguanas. Hal tracked down Johnnie and Tootsie, a couple of real-life dragons, for us to meet and marvel over.
The beauty of Grand Cayman is that one minute you can encounter these prehistoric creatures, the next you’re enjoying swanky new leisure development Camana Bay, with its smart shops, cosmopolitan restaurants, ice-cream parlours and cinema on wide, pedestrianised boulevards.
Drop by Picture This Studios and pick up a print by Jamaica- born artist Dready, aka Shane Aquart, whose whimsical look at life in the Caymans always raises a smile. It’s fun to spot his Rasta green, gold and red in a sneaky little detail like a jackfish.
Another bold new statement on Grand Cayman is the Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa, at 10 storeys, the tallest hotel on the island and right on the famous Seven Mile Beach. Thankfully, it has masses of personality and cool style, and is perfect for families looking for five-star service, great food and a creative spark. If you follow the little trolley with popcorn and balloons, you’ll find the stylish Camp Seafire kids club. Happy campers can be seen down on the beach with smiley carers, having fun snorkelling and playing games. We loved the expansive pool, the cool beach cabanas, the gorgeous breakfasts in the Ave restaurant, the snazzy pool table near reception, the nods to Caymanian heritage, such as old sepia photos, and the spacious interconnecting family rooms with private balconies. It’s the kind of hotel my kids would have been happy to stay put in for the entire holiday. I, too, could have cheerfully checked in to the spa for a week, working my way through the hydrofacials and chilling out in the hammam. It’s no surprise that actors Will Smith and Arnold Schwarzenegger have already stayed in the awesome presidential suite at the top.
Right next door to the Kimpton Seafire is the site for the Kaaboo Cayman festival, being held on 15 and 16 February, 2019, and featuring acts including The Chainsmokers and Duran Duran. Such is the eclectic mix of experiences you’ll find on this most easy-to-enjoy Caribbean island.
Scuba diving is the main reason most visitors board the plane on Grand Cayman for the 30-minute flight to the Brac, an island 12 miles long and 1.2 miles wide, named after its breathtaking 43m limestone bluff. Here, divers plunge beneath the waves to explore spectacular reefs and the Captain Keith Tibbetts, a sunken Russian frigate.
The change in culture is palpable, even from Grand Cayman, never mind London. With just a handful of hamlets, sporting names such as West End, Watering Place and Cotton Tree Bay, and roads like Fish Bowl Loop with ‘Iguana On Road!’ signs, you simply have to slow down here.
At the Cayman Brac Beach Resort, we make the most of the gorgeous white-sand beach with its heavenly hammocks and large pool, looking forward to the craft market and crab racing. We meet up with the avuncular and refreshingly honest Keino, born and bred on the Brac, and well qualified to be a local guide, which he does for free.
Easing into our hire car with its dodgy key, we head along the north road with Keino navigating and packing his friendly banter with island facts – just 2,000 inhabitants and 19 churches, as once upon a time no one had cars so they had to walk in the heat. We arrive at a magnificent limestone cave in the definite shape of a skull, Scarlett and Fin posing in the eye and nose sockets for photos. Next stop is the Cayman Brac Museum and, more importantly, the Pioneer Bakery for cinnamon rolls, and then into Spot Bay, where Keino drops by his grandma’s house to generously hand us a bag stuffed full of guinep fruit.
Then it’s off to see Long Beach, with the mighty bluff towering above, home to incredible seabirds, such as the Brown Booby and the White-tailed Frigatebird. We come back the next day with a picnic from Billy’s Supermarket, and drive to the top of the bluff for epic views from the lighthouse and a rugged walk through moon crater-like limestone formations, cactus and wild grasses, feeling a million miles from home.
HOW TO GET THERE
British Airways flies to Grand Cayman four times a week from London Heathrow via Nassau from £895 per person.
Andy’s Rent-A-Car offers a week’s family car hire from £55 per week.
WHERE TO STAY
Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa costs from £295 per person per night room- only.
Cayman Brac Beach Resort costs from £190 per person per night full board, including airport transfers. Diving costs are extra, but usually incorporated into a package.
FIND OUT MORE
Cayman Kayaks’ bioluminescence tour, £46 pp
Stingray City Book a group tour with Red Sail Sports, £66 adult, £33 child (age 3-11). Alternatively, go high end with Cayman Luxury Charters, £1,085 to charter a boat for up to four hours minimum for up to seven passengers.
Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, £9 adult, £4.50 child (age 6-12), children under 6 go free.
Cayman Crystal Caves, £32 adults, £25 child (age 12 and under).
Rock Iguana Rock climb Cayman Brac bluff with Rock Iguana.