Guest Post by: Paul Fiarkoski
Whether you find yourself traveling to Grand Cayman as a destination or as a stop on a Caribbean cruise, there’s little doubt you’ll end up on Seven Mile Beach. That’s because it’s the island’s premier tourist strip lined with beachfront hotels on one side; restaurants and variety of shops on the other. All the big hotel chains have properties here and several cruise lines tender passengers here. Plus, the airport’s only about a mile away. But, if you want to get a true taste of what Grand Cayman has to offer, you’ll need to venture off of Seven Mile Beach.
Grand Cayman is the largest of the three islands that make up the Cayman Islands. The other two islands (Little Cayman and Cayman Brac) are more than 50 miles (80 km) offshore and usually accessed from Grand Cayman by boat or small plane travel.
Don’t get me wrong; Seven Mile Beach is loaded with awesome sights and unique Cayman experiences. It’s just that by breaking away from the crowds, you’ll likely end up with a more favorable impression of all that the Cayman Islands have to offer. Having spent an adventure-packed week on Grand Cayman with my family in November 2018, I can attest that many of the coolest experiences on Grand Cayman are away from Seven Mile Beach.
Below I’ve provided some great things to do away from Seven Mile Beach. The distances provided are from the docks that cruise ships tender (ferry) passengers to near the southernmost end of Seven Mile Beach.
Top 7 things to do away from Seven Mile Beach (closest to furthest):
Snorkel the magical underwater world of Smith Barcadere Cove in historic George Town
Barcardere is the traditional word Caymanians use for “landing place” – for boats, that is. Cove is the word most of us would use to describe this tranquil section of shoreline where water has cut a notch into the mainland. There’s a soft sandy entry point to the water in the center of the beach, surrounded on both sides by impressive rock ledges. We saw kids jumping off the rocks into the water below, but we stuck to snorkeling. A large reef about 40 feet out from the beach is home to beautiful coral and other sea plants that attract more fish species than we saw any other place we snorkeled. We even saw a small squid.
The beach is set in a picturesque park in one of the longest inhabitated parts of the island. Stands of mature palm trees cast a cool shade over much of the beach and the public picnic tables are a great place to rest if you’re without beach chairs. You can even rinse the saltwater off and change clothes in the free (and clean) bath house facilities on site. At 1.6 miles (2.6 km) from the cruise shop docks, the location is walkable, but I would recommend taking a taxi or bus. There is no charge to park at or enter Smith Barcadere.
Stroll, shop and dine at the posh Camana Bay Marketplace
If high-end shopping and dining is your thing, you’ll love Camana Bay – just 2 miles (3.3 km) from the cruise ship drop off spot. Following the blueprint of many of the modern outdoor malls in America, Camana Bay was developed for people who like to see and be seen. Gorgeous tropical landscaping lines the wide concourses of pavers that guide you on a retail adventure through store brands you’ll both recognize and discover for the first time. Dazzling storefronts of glass and chrome beckon you to come in and browse. True to the Cayman culture, all purchases are tax free. Don’t mistake tax-free for cheap. With more than a dozen restaurants and cafes to choose from, hunger doesn’t stand a chance to spoil your trip to this mall that’s more like a small city.
Wednesday from noon to 7 p.m is the time to be there if you want authentic Cayman gifts, food or produce. That’s when locals are invited to set up for the weekly Farmers & Artisans Market. Parking and people watching are free at Camana Bay; nearly everything else here will cost you.
Ride the swimming horses on a primitive West End beach
You’ll need to book this excursion in advance. We went with Spirit of the West; however, there are a few other companies that offer this experience and all have very good reviews. We met our leader in the parking lot of Pappagallo restaurant 8.2 miles (13.2 km) from the cruise ship landing. From there, we were led down a bumpy dirt road to the point where we met our horses and the trail guides – Paul and Jordan. After they got us acquainted with the horses and laid out a few ground rules, we were on our way. We rode down the beach on our saddled horses for about a half mile. At that point, the guys removed the saddles from our horses and we rode bareback out into the sea.
It’s a little unnerving when the water rises to about knee level, but once you realize the horses seem to be enjoying themselves, it’s easier to relax. It wasn’t easy to tell when they were swimming versus walking until I watched the video back from my GoPro. After about 15 minutes out in the water, we returned to the beach, where the horses were allowed to dry off before the saddles went back on for our ride back to the starting point. Expect to pay around $150 US dollars per person for this incredibly unique experience.
Mingle with the residents of Stingray City Sandbar
Once upon a time, fishermen used to anchor up near this shallow sand bar after a busy day at sea to clean their catch and frolic in the shallow water. Stingrays were drawn to feast on the remains tossed over board and grew comfortable with humans in the water over time. These days, the stingrays love to interact with people on the sandbar now known as Stingray City. It has become one of the most popular tourist destinations on Grand Cayman. Several tour companies offer daily boat trips from the shore to Stingray City and often throw in an extra stop at a beautiful reef where guests can snorkel among many varieties of other fish. My family took the Red Sail Sports glass bottom boat tour from Rum Point ($45 US each) and we were all very pleased. Aside from the free activities mentioned in this post, this was definitely the best value of any excursion we did in Grand Cayman.
Sharpen your photography skills at the Blowholes of East End
Ever notice that some of the most amazing things you can see on your journeys are creations of nature? That’s the case with the Blowholes along the rocky southern shoreline on the island’s East End – 21.4 miles (34.5 km) from Seven Mile Beach. As waves roll on to shore, they disappear before your eyes, then whoosh – up comes an immense blast of water through the naturally occurring holes in the rock. You can park along the road and walk down a bank to see them up close. You’ll want to have sturdy footwear and a camera for this excursion. The trick is timing your shot just as the spouts of water reach their peak. Bonus points if you capture the shot with clear focus. However cool, this free experience is likely to lose your interest after 15 to 20 minutes, so plan to mix it in with other activities.
Lounge like a lizard and play in the water at Rum Point
Rum Point is not easy to get to from Seven Mile Beach. By land it’s a 27-mile (44 km) drive. Cayman Ferry from Camana Bay is a little quicker for a $25 round-trip fare. No matter how you get to Rum Point, what awaits you will leave an impression for years. The setting is mellow island lounge for all ages with bars, restaurants and other facilities you need for a day of fun at the beach. Tall, swaying palm trees cast a canopy of shade over much of the area and a fun playlist of island music keeps the beat alive. Jump into a game of volleyball, set sail on a catamaran or just relax on one of dozens of chase chairs arranged in neat rows.
Among other things Rum Point is known for, it’s also a good place to snorkel. This was my second favorite place we snorkeled (behind Smith Cove). There’s a beautiful reef teeming with fish that runs roughly perpendicular to the dock at toward the east (right) from the first gazebo about half way down the dock. Parking, admission and lounging are free, as is snorkeling if you have gear. If not, you can rent it at Rum Point (for $15), along with kayaks, stand-up paddleboard, sailboats and other water toys.
Stargaze at Starfish Point
Beautiful starfish are the stars of Starfish Point, located roughly 27 miles (44 km) from George Town Cruise Port. Spotting them requires no special skill or technique. You basically just wade out into the gentle sloping beach and look down. Chances are you won’t have to go very far until you see your first colorful starfish. Keep moving and you’re bound to see more and more. As tempting as it is to pick them up, its best to not touch them. Under no circumstances should you remove them from the water as it’s hazardous to their health.
Since there’s no charge to park or enter Starfish Point, and it only takes 30 minutes or less to get the full experience here, I’d suggest you work it in as a stop on the way to or from other sites such as Rum Point. Sunsets here are gorgeous but be warned that shortly after the sun goes down, the mosquitos come out in force.
4 things to do if you must stay on Seven Mile Beach
All that said, it’s not the worst thing if you aren’t able to get away from Seven Mile Beach. I mean paradise is paradise, right? If you stick to Seven Mile Beach, be sure check out these cool experiences:
Visit the souvenir shops
What better way is there to let everyone back home know how much you loved Grand Cayman than a few shirts, jewelry or other trinkets from the island? Many of the shops are walking distance from the cruise ship tender port and since there’s no sales tax, your total price is easier to calculate.
Go under the sea in a real submarine
Experience the thrill of journeying to 100 feet beneath the surface in a real submarine engineered for sightseeing. Large view ports allow you to see the amazing marine life and scenery. This unique tour takes you to the edge of the famous Cayman Wall, where the seafloor plummets into the abyss. Your professional tour guide provides insightful commentary throughout your 90-minute excursion. Atlantis Submarine tours depart and return next to the cruise ship pier.
Eat at Coconut Joe’s
Coconut Joe’s was probably our favorite overall restaurant on Grand Cayman. Most of the dining tables are outdoors under the shade of umbrellas and palm trees. My family of four ordered a diversified array of breakfast and lunch fare that we shared. It was here that I tried my first order of conch fritters. A conch (pronounced conk) is the slug-like animal that lives in the large beautiful shells found in the sea. Gotta love a place with a family of friendly chickens roaming around the dining area too. The prices were good, serving sizes were huge and everything tasted wonderful. Our waitress scored big points for great service.
Snorkel at Cemetery Beach on the north end
Cemetery Beach earns equal airtime with Smith Cove when talk of the best Cayman snorkeling spots come up. The legendary reef popular with fish and snorkelers is about a hundred yards out from the beach and so worth the effort to swim out to it.
Grand Cayman is so much more than Seven Mile Beach. I hope this short list of amazing things to do helps you plan your adventures away from the tourist district wisely.
Paul Fiarkoski is an adventure and lifestyle blogger based in Phoenix, AZ. If you think the Grand Canyon is the only natural wonder in Arizona, Paul’s blog azwonders.com will convince you otherwise.