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Grand Cayman, BWI
























“Imagine you’re in a room full of hungry puppies and you’re holding the bowl of food.” That’s how Rick described the diving experience at Stingray City, Grand Cayman to me before we visited it together for the first time. His vivid description could hardly be more accurate. As five or six large female stingrays fly directly at my head, my arms, and my feet, my slightly panicked frame nervously wrestles back and forth. I know I’m  in only 15 feet of water, but I’m in full scuba gear with a piece of cut squid in my hand which can only make my existence “bait” at this moment.  I can hear Rick’s laughter in his regulator as I stir up quite the sandstorm from wearing several stingrays up my back, around my legs, and even one that adorns my head like a Mexican sombrero.

 Ah, Grand Cayman, a dive destination travel magazines tout as one of the most visited in the Caribbean.  We have found ourselves heading there on several occasions, so this “Fish Tale” will incorporate a few combined details.  We have been diving all over the west end sites, a few sites to the south and on the North Wall, and another dozen sites out on what is known as the East End.   I guess I should start with how to get there and where we’ve stayed.  Most of the major airlines fly directly into Owen Roberts International Airport along with a variety of charter flights.  You'll find all the rental car agencies located across the  street from the airport.

 Our first trip to Georgetown together was in October 2002.  We found a package deal at the Comfort Suites and dove with Don Foster’s for one week.  Although our hotel was on Seven Mile Beach, the building itself was behind several others and a short walk from the beach.  The rooms were like small apartments with a separate bedroom and a living room/kitchen area combined.  The efficiency style room and daily continental breakfast made the package economically friendly, but don’t be naïve ...nothing in Grand Cayman will ever be described as cheap.

 But not everything on Grand Cayman will break your bank.  You can drive around (or take the Ferry that leaves from the Hyatt) to Rum Point for a relaxing afternoon at the beach.  There you’ll find a magnificent view of the North Sound with chaise lounges, hammocks, and a full service restaurant/bar that serves some tropical umbrella drinks and the best fish & chips we found on the island.  You can swim, rent jet skis, eat, or just plain relax and take a nap.

 If you think lying around on Seven Mile Beach or the one at Rum Point is just too boring, you can visit the Cayman Turtle Farm.  Although we’ve visited the attraction several times, we’ve never seen the rebuilt version now known as Boatswain’s Beach.  The older locale had large outdoor tanks for viewing turtles at different stages of their lives.  Each tank had turtles all around the same size and/or age.  They also had smaller holding pins that made picking up young turtles and hanging on for a photo easy…well not really, some got pretty feisty.  They were also helping raise Hawksbill and Kemp Ridley turtles which are on the endangered list.  I adore turtles and was delighted to encounter them so closely, but it’s important to keep in mind that this facility serves dual purposes.  Some lucky turtles live there until being released back into the wild in a ceremonial photo opportunity for tourists.  But by and large, these turtles are raised here and sold commercially for food.  Green Sea Turtle meat is served throughout the Caribbean…they say it “tastes like chicken”.  They have a nice gift shop with turtle shells and shell jewelry, but if you’re traveling back to the states, remember it’s against US law to import them.

 Another Cayman classic fun and maybe a little tacky tourist trap is a trip to Hell.  Yep, it’s free and you can buy cards that note “Hell” as the cancelled postmark.  It’s a unique place really.  The jagged limestone formations rising from the earth are interesting, but placing your face in the “Devil” cut out with that view in the background is a must.  You should attempt your visit when the cruise ships have departed for the day.  The taxis and buses make regular stops here, at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanical Park, the skateboard & water parks, and the Turtle Farm. All of these are adequate entertainment we suppose, but the best reason to come here is the diving.

 Cayman is known worldwide for its wall diving.  Some of the best wall dives are easily accessible with west end operators.  The diversity of diving here is incredible.  Your choices will range from sheer to sloping walls, and pinnacles to shallow reefs.  Armchair Reef on the southwest point of the island was home to 7 or 8 of the largest tarpon we’ve ever seen.  It’s also the only place we’ve ever seen a trumpetfish actually “blow” out the membrane that gives them their name.  And speaking of one time occurrences, while diving at Smith’s Cove, a free diver suddenly appeared and pointed to Rick’s alternate air source sort of asking for permission for a quick breath.  We watched in amazement as he took a couple of short breaths and swam off.  It’s freakish to see someone without the appropriate gear at 45 feet pointing at your spare regulator.

 Also along the west side, Bonnie’s Arch stands out in my mind.  This site was named for a diver who lived and dove in Georgetown for years.  It was her favorite site and one of ours as well.  The arch itself is very large and easy to swim through.  The formation is encrusted with coral and it’s teeming with fish and crustaceans, too. It was here that I saw a two foot lobster out for a stroll in broad daylight.  But watch out for the “salt water croc.”  Sunset Reef is located right in front of Sunset House.   The site is famous for its submerged mermaid statue.  Her image has adorned the pages of many dive magazines, but frankly, she gave me the creeps.  Rick still laughs at me, but I always felt like she was saying “just drown, and stay here with me.”  The site is great for late afternoon shore dive or a night dive, but if you’re not staying at the resort, it tends to be pricey to rent tanks there and they won’t allow outside tanks.  It’s Cayman after all.

 Also in the West Bay are Big Sand Chute, Big Tunnel and Chain Reef.  Big Sand Chute resembles the twist and turns of a mogul filled ski slope as the sand tumbles down the wall into the abyss.  It was once used for a poster reading “Ski Cayman” that featured a model in scuba gear and skis on the white sandy slope that resembled snow.

 Toward the North, but not actually considered to be the North Wall is Ghost Mountain, an underwater pinnacle that creates a fabulous dive. On our only dive there, we found a huge green moray perched right on the top. He was posing as if to say “look at me; I’m king of this mountain.”  We descended to about 110 feet and slowly circled upward stopping often to photograph the countless fish that abound on this site.

 We dove the North Wall after a week at Divi Tiara on Cayman Brac (to be posted in a different “Tale”) in March 2003.  We traveled with 15 other divers from Roanoke who returned after the regular Saturday to Saturday stay.  We made the decision to join the group a little late and frequent flyer miles were not available for our return until Tuesday.  So we just had to stay!!   After saying goodbye to the rest of our group at the airport, we journeyed back to Seven Mile Beach and dove that afternoon on the west side.  Rick found a package at The Hyatt Grand Cayman that included diving with Red Sail Sports.

 The next day we headed out to the real North Wall.  We dropped through a nice chimney at Andy’s Wall and popped out at about 110 feet. The visibility was great and the jagged wall was spectacular.  There were tons of fish, a beautiful spotted eagle ray and several turtles.  The second dive at No Name Wall brought two more spotted eagle rays and hundreds of juvenile Creole wrasse swimming in enormous schools up and down the wall. But it was the second day on the North Wall (and our last day of diving) that was our most memorable.  We returned to No Name Wall and were greeted by a green sea turtle right away. After about 10 minutes, the dive master made a solitary ping on his tank and raised his hand above his head to signal shark.  We were shocked and thrilled to see a six to seven foot hammerhead as it made two closes passes by our group.  It was over in seconds, but kept us chattering for hours.  White Stroke Canyon brought two more spotted eagle rays and more beautiful formations.  It was after this experience that we decided that on our next trip to Cayman, we would seek an operator who would take us to the North Wall more exclusively.  These sites are accessible only from the North Sound and the East End dive operators.  

 After a full itinerary of diving and exploring the island’s sites, there is no better way to culminate the end of the day than by watching sunset over the azure Caribbean waters.  A few of our favorite vantage points are My Bar at Sunset House, Rackham’s Pub in the heart of downtown Georgetown, or anywhere along Seven Mile Beach.  Many of the restaurants and bars plan appetizer and drink specials to make their location a bit more inviting.  Don’t forget to take your camera.

 Restaurants in Georgetown range from very typical American fast food like KFC, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, and Burger King to restaurants operated by internationally renowned chefs and all manner of choices in between.  If you happen to be on the island during a sporting event you are trying to follow, The Lone Star will be your best bet.  The owner, Mike (an avid Texas A&M fan, but we’ll forgive him) runs a Tex Mex joint with a sports bar flair.  We’ve watched NCAA March Madness and college football alongside the resident island Canadians gearing up for hockey.  Tee shirts from all over the world adorn the ceiling of the restaurant and it’s a very popular place for the dive masters of the island.  Mike seems to have something for everyone.  We found and fell in love with a small Italian place called Casanova that has since been destroyed by Hurricane Ivan.  However, during our last visit in August of 2006, we did find out they are rebuilding, so look for them if you go. The dining landscape has dramatically changed since the storm and a lot of the smaller establishment built right on the beach or close by are simply gone.  Only time will allow others to spring up and take their place.

 The restaurants and attractions are fairly spread out around the island.  While you can get a taxi, that option would be expensive for an entire week.  We usually just rent a car because getting around is fairly easy…as long as you remember to stay on the left.  You can travel from the downtown area all the way to Rum Point in about 30 short minutes.  And you can continue all the way around the loop the circles by the lovely East End beaches, the blow holes, and some other good restaurants. 

 On our most recent visit, we opted to return to the East End and once again stay at Compass Point and dive with Ocean Frontiers. We had stayed with them on our previous visit in November 2005 and found their “valet diving” philosophy to be effortless. Although the effects of Hurricane Ivan’s destructive visit from October of 2004 were still noticeable, the island is still very beautiful.  This resort is fairly new, built in 2004, the two 9 unit condominium buildings sit right on the beach with the pool and dive shop nestled in between. They picked this location along the southern edge of the island due to its close proximity to the cut through the fringing reef. We stayed in an extremely nice 2 bedroom unit that was fully furnished. It had a complete kitchen, a full dining room, a spacious living room, 2 bedrooms and 2 full bathrooms.  Each unit also has a balcony with a dining table and chairs outside. The units are well kept and no amenity has been overlooked.  The kitchen has large counter spaces with toaster, blender, coffee pot, full size oven, refrigerator, and dishwasher.  Also hidden in the kitchen, you’ll find a full size washer and dryer should you need them.  Outside on the beach are grills for all the guests to use. The unofficial Compass Point mascots, Bubbles and Thumper, can usually be spotted roaming along the beach, too.

 The dive staff here takes care of everything. We set out our gear in the provided plastic crates the first morning and never had to touch it again until the end of the trip! They ask that you inspect the gear setup (which is a good thing to do all the time) the first day and let them know of any special arrangements you may have. After that they took care of everything. You arrive at the boat to find your equipment setup and ready to go, they change the tanks over after the first dive and just have you pile your stuff back in the crates when you arrive back at the dock. Yep, wetsuits, booties, and everything else goes in the crate to be rinsed, hung up to dry and magically reappear on the boat ready to go the next day!

 Ocean Frontiers runs two boats, the 38’ catamaran Nauti-Cat and the Ocean Hawk, a 38’ mono hull. They limit each to a maximum of 12 divers so there’s lots of room for gear setup and cameras. On our first visit here we spent our time diving off the Nauti-Cat with Captain Spencer and DM’s Neal, Kaz and Karen for most of the week. Unfortunately, a tropical wave was headed our way and the high winds kept us pinned along the south side of the island. Part of the beauty of Compass Point/Ocean Frontiers location is the ability to dive sites all along the north, east and south sides of the island. So while the weather may keep you away from one area, there’s always an available alternative and we didn’t miss a day of diving.

 While I’ve always been a fan of the North Wall, there were some very good dives to be had along the south side of the island. Among our favorites for the week were Three Sisters – named for the three submerged pinnacles, Agatha, Bertha and Cleo. Lost Valley had some beautiful swim thrus and more pinnacles. Both of these would be good choices for Nitrox to extend your bottom time if you are so certified. Little House with its maze of swim thrus was named for the landmark “little house” on shore and a good second shallow dive. Jack McKinney’s Caverns, and Kangaroo Gorge were nice wall sites and Fantasea Land’s abundant fish life made a great second dive area. Detailed maps and descriptions of these and many of the other sites can be found on Ocean Frontier’s web site. 

 On our second visit we were able to try out the Ocean Hawk with newly promoted Captain Kaz. The weather was much more cooperative this time around and we had to opportunity to sample some of the dive sites around on the north side. The underwater topography here is very reminiscent of the more well known north wall sites around North Sound. Our favorites from this abbreviated trip where Babylon with it's pinnacle rising out from the wall and and the profuse fish life at Snapper Hole.     

 While there isn’t quite the selection of restaurants on this end of the island, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some good choices around. Dinner at Portafinos can’t be missed along with some fine seafood at the newly reopened Lighthouse.  They serve a nice variety of seafood and sandwiches at Rum Point, or a quicker lunch can be had across the street at Arlain’s for soup and sandwiches or a cheeseburger. Vivine's is a short distance up the road near the Wreck of the Ten Sails memorial. It serves a local clientele the traditional island fare. And of course Georgetown isn’t that far away with restaurants of all types.

 With such a great diving selection and amenities of all types it won’t be long before we are headed back again, and don’t even get me started on the Sister Islands! But that’s a subject for another Fish Tale.



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