With 11 years of Grand Cayman vacations under her belt, New York mom Margarit O has got to know the island as a young couple, newlywed, mom of one, and family of four. "On every count, we've found it completely enchanting," she says. "It's well-developed and safe, has almost daily flights from NYC, and a burgeoning organic haute-cuisine scene. My only disappointment is that the sleepy island doesn't live up to its nefarious reputation!" Read on for Margarit's favorite places to sleep, eat, play and shop on Grand Cayman.
We've always stayed at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, which is the most child-friendly resort I have ever visited. They have two swimming pools; a kids’ club called Ambassadors of the Environment (designed by Jean-Michele Cousteau), which offers various drop-off programs geared towards older kids; a spectacular tennis center and camps run by Ulrich Hoppe; and free water sports that include snorkeling lessons, paddle-boarding, glass-bottom-boat kayaking, sailing, water tricycle (don’t ask!), and more. There's also a competition-grade golf course that keen golfers seem to love. There are other water activities, like the large catamaran and a sailboat, that can be booked for an extra fee, and for parents in need of pampering, there's a lovely La Prairie Spa.
THE RITZ-CARLTON, GRAND CAYMAN Blue by Eric Ripert is the biggest "experience" restaurant at the resort. It has all the hit dishes from La Bernardin and impeccable service, but is definitely on the formal side and reservations are recommended. Andiamo is my kids' favorite for the more casual Mediterranean fare, dockside setting, and outdoor kids’ movie theater. Many families park their children downstairs and enjoy dinner on the terrace with a good view of the kids and the screen. Their truffled fries are ridiculous. They also do tarpan feedings off the dock daily at 5:30 p.m., which the kids really enjoy. Warning: the mosquitos here are vicious, so bathe in bug repellant if you plan to watch a movie.
The steakhouse, Seven, is excellent if overpriced. This is also the restaurant that serves the daily breakfast buffet and hosts the island's biggest Champagne brunch every Sunday, which is spectacular. Indoors, there's a surprisingly good sushi lounge, Taikun. Good to know: Kids under age five eat for free (when dining with a paying adult) at all of the resort's restaurants.
NEAR THE RESORT Within walking distance is Luca's. A fabulous Italian restaurant with a selection of Il Buco–worthy wines. It's a great option for a date night since you’re not too far from the hotel and can walk home along the beach.
FINANCIAL DISTRICT My favorite restaurant is The Brasserie, the island's first and only true garden-to-table restaurant. It has no views and an in-town location away from the oceanfront, but they serve fish caught that day on the restaurant's two boats, and meat from all local farms. My kids love sitting in the garden and getting a tour of where their veggies are grown, and the Wednesday burger night is a hit, too. Note: Closed on Sunday and Monday, and reservations are recommended.
MORGAN'S HARBOR Our sentimental favorite is Ristorante Pappagallo. Set on a cute pond on the other side of the island, but only a 15-minute drive or cab ride away, it does old-fashioned Italian, and the big selling point for kids is the owner's exotic birds that are kept just outside the entrance. Another nearby favorite is Calypso Grill for the excellent fresh fish and lovely views. They no longer take reservations for outdoor seating, but it’s worth the occasional wait to snag a seat outside. Literally across the parking lot is a newer restaurant, Catch, which opened in December 2014 and already has a loyal following for their inventive seafood creations like smoked marlin crudo and nicely varied wine list. Both are good for dining en famille or for date night if you get a sitter. In the same northeast part of the island is Osetra Bay, which I would recommend for the hip look and good cocktails rather than the food, but is reopening under new management in December 2015, so could improve.
WEST BAY In the direction of the Turtle Farm, there's Cracked Conch. They serve the best conch ceviche I've ever had (and I make it a sport to try every single one I find on a menu) — with the kind of spice that makes you want to spoon off the juice when nobody's looking. The views for dinner are spectacular because it sits over the water, although in my opinion, the dinner entrees aren’t as impressive as the simple conch. If you do go there in the evening, keep an eye out for night-divers going in and out of the water.
GEORGETOWN I am not a huge fan of the restaurants along the waterfront, which are mostly cheesy versions of Caribbean food. Our friends who've lived on the island for a decade do recommend Dolce Vita, however, for decent, reasonably-priced Italian and water views.
CAMANA BAY The mall and residential area by the resort is popular with families because of the big fountains where kids can splash about as you eat. My favorite place is Ortanique, which has really nice, comfortable outdoor tables, though the food can be overpriced. I recommend packing a swimsuit and a towel for the little ones and letting them go nuts. There's also a small sandy area with a couple of hammocks, so it’s a good place to let the kids run around.
FROM THE RESORT In addition to the amenities offered at Ritz-Carlton and through a company called Red Sails, also based on the resort, here are some of the adventures that are child-friendly and fun for adults, too:
- The Atlantis Submarine rides that run from Georgetown every 90 minutes to explore the local sea life.
- The glass-bottom boat ride, also from the Atlantis, for spectacular views under the Caribbean Sea.
STINGRAY CITY Grand Cayman’s best-known attraction is Stingray City, located about a mile-and-a-half off shore. An underwater sea dune, it’s now populated by enormous stingrays that jump out of the water and take pieces of squid out of your hands. My older son first went there when he was 21 months old, and it was ok for him. To get there, take a private boat tour or arrange a charter through one of the many local companies; Captain Marvin’s is great. From there, the charter boat can go to Starfish Point on the other side of the island, where you also stand in shallow warm water and spot all starfish on the sandy seabed.
BLUE IGUANA HABITAT The island is also home to the only population of blue iguanas in the world, housed in the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Gardens. I love going there, but it’s not an essential stop on shorter trips. We usually rent a car for a day and combine with a stop at Rum Point, just to take in the views.
TURTLE FARM & CAYMAN MOTOR MUSEUM Towards West Bay, there’s the turtle farm, where you can see the entire breeding process. They have recently expanded and built a gaudy waterpark. There’s also the jaw-dropping Cayman Motor Museum, which was built by a ridiculously wealthy Norwegian shipping magnate to house parts of his private car collection. It has the first car ever made, the original Bat Mobile, and other rare models like the armored limousine custom-built for Idi Amin and a Rolls Royce made for the Queen of England, as well as about 100 vintage motorcycles. It's heaven for kids of any age and a great activity for a rainy day.
CAMANA BAY Head here for the movie theater and some decent shopping, including a book store, a few ice-cream shops, and cute shaded areas to walk around.
Being tax-free, Grand Cayman is an appealing place to shop for jewelry, but it's decidedly not a place for fashion shopping. The stores at Camana Bay sell all the necessities, including clothes, underwear, swimsuits, and shoes. It even has an Apple store and a green market on Thursdays. They also have Bay Market, which sells a tiny subset of the organic brands found at Whole Foods.
Within walking distance of the resort is Fosters, a Pathways-type enormous supermarket. It carries all kinds of diapers, sunscreens, creams, baby food, Earth’s best formula and infant food in jars, and sand toys (about four times cheaper than at the Ritz).They also have a good pharmacy. Alternatively, Kirk’s is a five-minute drive away and stocks a good selection of gluten- and dairy-free items.
People often ask me about renting a car. I have never found it necessary to have it for the entire stay. Usually we rent it for a day and use it to drive to the Botanical Garden and then onward to the other side of the island. For the rest, you can take taxis, which are always parked by the hotel entrance and decently priced. The hotel has a car rental agency which will, of course, cost you more, but if you're renting for a single day, it's very convenient.