When we looked for a warm place to ring in the New Year, we discovered the beautiful unspoiled east and north side of Grand Cayman island. The picture I had of  the Caymans, was one of money and sophistication, a playground for the rich with a lot of high end stores, fancy restaurants and a ton of cruise ships. Georgetown and 7 mile beach have all of that. However, we found the other side of Grand Cayman: the east and the northside. Unspoiled beaches, nice little restaurants and above all great opportunities for swimming with stingrays and turtles. We also had a magical night kayaking in bioluminescent waters.

The East side

After picking up our car at the airport in Georgetown, we drive through the city on our way to our hotel on the East Side. As soon we leave the city, we are getting into that island feeling. The road called Sea View road takes us, as you might have guessed, along the coast. We see blue greenish water and white sandy beaches and pass places like Half Moon Bay, Pirates Cove and Wreck of the Ten Sails. After 40 minutes we arrive at the Wyndham Reef resort at the very end of the East side. It is a nice colonial style hotel right on the beach and with no other hotels close by. Our room is nice and spacious with a balcony overlooking the ocean and a little kitchen area with a fridge and microwave. We are settling in for a week of beach and water adventures.

Stingray City

One of the mornings we leave the hotel early to drive all the way to the north side. We have reservations for a trip to Stingray City, where you can swim with stingrays. Yes that’s right, stingrays, the same species that killed crocodile hunter Steve Irwin. We drive past Rum Point and arrive at Kaibo Marina, where we are meeting our captain from White Sand Water Sport. After getting briefed on where we are going and what to expect, we get on board the boat and leave the marina. It is just after 7am and still nice and quiet on the water. The boat takes us about 20 minutes out to a place in the middle of the ocean with a set of sandbanks and shallow water. This is the where a large number of stingrays like to hang out, hence the name Stingray City.

Feeding Stingrays

So here we are, standing in the turquois waters of the Caribbean See, surrounded by dozens of Atlantic Stingrays. We put on our snorkels and tentatively start swimming. Soon we feel more comfortable as the rays come up to us and glide against us. Once used to it, it is an amazing experience. I realize that I had a complete wrong image of them, instead of dangerous creatures, they are graceful and gentle souls. Some are lying on the bottom and we are careful not to step on them. The captain asks if we want to hold or feed them. First he lets us feed squid to them and then he tells me I can hold one. Instructing me to hold out my arms, he places a ray right on top of my outstretched arms. It is exhilarating to be able to hold one of these big creatures.

Swimming with Turtles

There are so many highlights this trip, and swimming with turtles is one of them. Floating behind and following a turtle for almost an hour is almost spiritual. We were happy on the East and North side and don’t really want to leave. However they had told us that the best place to swim with turtles is at Potts Beach. So one afternoon, we brave the car ride and head out. We park the car and follow the path to the beach to another stunning beach. Long stretches of beach both to our left and our right. We put on our snorkels and head out. It doesn’t take long before we see the first turtles. I lose sense of time as a follow one of them. We swim for several hours until the tides start to be stronger and the waves start rolling in. Another satisfying day in the water.

Kayaking in Bioluminescence waters

Another unforgettable experience is the night we go kayaking with White Sand Water Sports in the waters near Star Fish Point, passed the Kaibo Marina. The waters have rare bioluminescent plankton. It is just before sunset when we get into our kayaks and peddle for about 20 minutes to Bio Bay. Once we enter Bio Bay, our guide points out how the water here has a glow to it. By now it is dark and we see the vibrant green-blueish color when we look around us. Our guide tells us to put our hands through the water and that’s when the magic happens. When our hands move the water, they create a kaleidoscope of color. Combined with the stars above, it feels like a magical lightshow in both the sea as well as the sky.

Postcards from Hell

We are content in our little beach world and have no desire to go to the crowded West side of Georgetown and Seven Mile Beach with all the high end hotels and above all the cruise ship crwods. However, we feel we have to visit the only town in the world called Hell that has its own post office. So on a day when there are not supposed to be any cruise ships in town, we drive all the way to the other side of the island. Hell is a small area with groups of short black limestones. It almost looks like lava. We learn that the reason the place is called Hell is because somebody said ” this is what hell must look like”, so they named the place Hell. There is not much else there except the hell-themed post office, where we mail our “postcards from hell”

To Hell and Over the Edge

We decide to live life dangerously. After our visit to Hell, we drive back to the North side and have dinner in a restaurant called “Over the Edge“. We are for sure taking risks today by going over the edge and hell all in one day.

Food for foodies

We not only swim and snorkel our way through the East and North side of the island, we also eat our way through it. There are plenty of options for great food. Over the Edge is a great restaurant on the North side. It’s a little bit of a trek to get there, but both the views and the Caribbean food are more than worth it. We love the two seafood places we try for lunch: Captain Herman’s Fish Fry and Vivine’s Kitchen. Both serve delicious Caribbean seafood with beachfront outdoor seating.

Eating with a shark

But my favorite restaurant is Tukka,  which serves Australian food with a Caribbean twist all in a laidback Australian atmosphere. The restaurant has an outdoor deck right over the ocean. One night, when eating out on that deck, we have a shark swim up right below us. The food is so good, that we have to go back a second night to try the rest of the menu. They serve the freshest fish right of the boat. From the lobster and shrimp spring rolls, to the mahi mahi and lobster tails. For meat lovers, the steaks are also fantastic.

Happiness is….

The Cayman Islands have truly surprised me. We had a wonderful week of living in and on the water in the unspoiled East and North side of Grand Cayman. The white beaches, swimming with starfish, turtles, sharks and stingrays is pure happiness. That combined with great food makes it a true paradise and it is definitely somewhere in the top beach destinations for me. Happiness is:

All photo credits Mariel van Tatenhove and White Sand Water Sports

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