Donning snorkel and flippers, I fight the instinct to hold my breath as I lower my head under water. Quickly I am transported to another world – a colourful, magical and mysterious underwater paradise.
Schools of blue tangs and chubs meander through the coral, seemingly unperturbed by my presence. I find myself mesmerised by their patterns, and with only muffled sea sounds in my ears I feel relaxed and entirely switched off from modern-day life.
Dive into the Caymans
I am on Seven Mile Beach in the Cayman Islands, one of the best known beaches in the Caribbean – in 2022 it received the accolade of ‘The Caribbean’s Best Beach’– and renowned for its beauty.
And this is just a ‘taster’ of what the Cayman Islands offers divers and snorkellers as it is unequalled as one of the best places to do both in the Caribbean, with its perfect all-year-round conditions, small coves, and shallow water coral reefs.
For an added sense of adventure, there is the USS Kittiwake, an ex-US Navy submarine rescue vessel that was sunk in 2011 in Grand Cayman to create an artificial reef and shipwreck attraction for scuba divers and snorkellers.
It rests just 55 feet below the surface and is easily accessible divers of all abilities.
Divers get close up to the ship’s five decks which are overflowing with a rainbow of rare sponges, goliath groupers, darting squirrelfish and menacing urchins.
A magical paradise
The Cayman Islands has long presented more than a hint of mystique as one of those faraway and more glamorous destinations in the Caribbean, with a reputation for world-class beaches, stunning natural beauty, cuisine from top chefs, and the very highest quality of life.
Moreover, its reputation and experience as a global financial centre has, over many decades, brought stability, growth and a certain sophistication to this British Overseas Territory.
Upon arriving in Grand Cayman I’m greeted with the exciting news that an additional direct flight will be operating in 2023: a fifth weekly flight from London Heathrow with British Airways is due to start on January 19, making it easier than ever to visit this tropical but underrated destination.
I am welcomed at my hotel, the fabulous sea-facing Ritz-Carlton, by smiling staff and luxury amenities. I soon learn it is renowned for hosting the annual Cayman Cookout, which invites an all-star line-up of chefs for a four-day culinary extravaganza. And if the fare at the resort’s signature restaurant is any indication of the standard, it’s well worth attending!
Into the darkness
Time doesn’t allow for me to sign up to one of Cayman Brac’s deep-sea fishing excursions, nor searching out Little Cayman’s endangered iguanas, amazing wildlife, and seabirds which include the Red-footed Boobies.
But ample compensation is at hand with a visit to the breathtaking Cayman Crystal Caves. I watch my step, which is tricky as I can’t help but be distracted by the immense stalactites and stalagmites. Cave after cave has endlessly impressive crystal structures and otherworldly formations.
I am told by our guide that this is the Cayman’s newest tourist attraction. In bygone times pirates would hide in the caves, evading those trying to claim back their bounty. There’s even an annual Cayman Pirates Fest in November, complete with a mock-pirate ‘invasion’, music, street dancing, competitions, local food and drink, a children’s day, sea swims and firework displays.
Steeped in history
My next stop is the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, which provides us with a serene and enjoyable mix of natural beauty, culture and history. I am fortunate to have a close encounter with the endangered Grand Cayman Blue Iguana.
The two-acre lake is the breeding ground for native birds such as the Caribbean Dove and the Cuban Bullfinch, rare aquatic birds and other native animals.
Learning about the heritage and culture of Cayman requires a visit to Pedro St. James, the oldest existing stone building in the Cayman Islands. In the 1990s, the island’s government purchased Pedro St. James and restored the Great House to its original splendour, showcasing period furniture, authentic artefacts, and an experience of what life was like here so long ago. I am privileged to listen to an entertaining history lesson telling us how a wealthy Englishman created the astonishing three-storey building also known as Pedro’s Castle.
Perhaps my most vivid memory will be a visit to the awesome Stingray City, a diving spot 25 miles off the north shores of Grand Cayman. A tour also incorporates access to Coral Garden, Starfish Point and Turtle Lagoon, with its mid-size green turtles and hundreds of fish species, the shark tank, the turtle touch tank, the bird sanctuary, water slides and beach chairs.
I am introduced to the huge green turtles at the Turtle Lagoon and join brave swimmers as they get up close and personal with enormous yet majestic stingrays surfing in the waist-high water.
This unforgettable experience of interacting with these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat is just one of many treasured memories I’ll be taking home from this carefree collection of islands.