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10 Cayman Island Vacations Beyond the Beach

Take a five-minute mini Caribbean vacation and explore the exotic wonders of the Cayman islands.

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An island paradise made famous in the 1980s for its rich offshore banking system and starring role in movies like The Firm, the Cayman Islands are also well-known for their lovely combination of sugary white sand and warm blue Caribbean waters. For most Canadians, that’s where their knowledge about these three islands-Grand Cayman, Little Cayman, and Cayman Brac-ends. But the Caymans have a lot more to offer than tax-free bank accounts and endless afternoons at the beach. For those seeking more than a tan from their vacation, here are the ten best things to do in Grand Cayman-beyond the beach.

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1. Head to Stingray City

A natural sandbar out in the middle of the North Sound, Stingray City is a remarkable place where dozens of these grey monsters swim among boatloads of tourists. Climb down into the water and feel the unforgettable sensation of having a half-dozen South Atlantic Rays swirl around you, then crouch down and pose for a photo with one in your arms.

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2. Go to Hell

A visit here means that you can tell your friends-truthfully-that you’ve been to Hell and back. Really just an area of dolomite that’s been worn into sharp pinnacles by small, carbonate-eating organisms, a little imagination turns this place into a place of simmering brimstone. Local legend also has it that a former British governor lost a rabbit he was hunting among the gray rocks, in doing so yelling out “Bloody Hell!”-giving the site its current name.

(Photo courtesy of Templarion/Flickr Creative Commons)

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3. Get Revved Up at the Auto Museum

Perhaps the only museum of its kind in the tropics, this private collection belonging to a wealthy Norwegian-who lives part time on the island-isn’t just for gearheads. Yes, there’s an impressive line of red Ferraris, but the collection also includes the original Batmobile from the ’60s TV series, one of Queen Elizabeth’s first royal limousines, and a 1905 Cadillac-the very first car to come to the Caymans.

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4. Spend Some Time With Sea Turtles

Located at the north end of the island, the Cayman Turtle Farm allows guests to catch a glimpse of the operation that has revitalized the Green Sea Turtle population in the Caymans and several other countries. Giant “breeders,” some more than 40 years old and weighing more than 500 pounds, swim in a big pond, breed, then lay eggs on the artificial beach, and the progeny are released back into the wild (while many of the eggs are also sent abroad). You can actually pick up some of the younger turtles (babies and those 6,12, and 18 months of age) or spend some time in the water amongst the big ones in a large snorkeling area.

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5. See the Blue Iguana

This unique creature-similar to other iguanas, except for the fact that its skin in a Technicolour shade of turquoise-is endemic to the Caymans. Brought back from the brink of extinction not long ago, Blue Iguanas now scamper and scurry in revitalized numbers on Grand Cayman, and the best place to see them is at the island’s Botanic Garden, where you can stroll past ponds and through peaceful patches of orchids and other native vegetation, usually stumbling upon the iguanas as they soak up the sun along the pathways.

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6. Walk and Shop

A shining example of New Urbanism-a postmodern architectural and social movement that values community integration and the ability to walk from home to shopping and other daily functions-Camana Bay features dozens of stores, residential units, and loads of public space, including breezy areas designed to capture prevailing winds and fountains crafted by the designer of the famous dancing fountain at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

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7. Step Back in History

Built way back in 1780, Pedro St. James has served a number of functions: plantation home, jail, birthplace of Cayman democracy and the spot where slavery was abolished on these islands. The house’s sturdy walls have withstood two earthquakes, three fires and more than a dozen hurricanes, and the site is now home to a slick multimedia presentation and a small but surprisingly informative little museum that walks visitors through a thorough history of the Cayman Islands.

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8. Enjoy Some Fine Dining

Home to a food festival that brings in top chefs from all around the world and voted the number one culinary destination in the Caribbean, the cuisine on Grand Cayman far surpasses anything offered up on most tropical islands. Luca, the restaurant at the ultra-luxe Caribbean Club, boasts literally hundreds of wine selections, Papagallo, a little thatch-roofed spot tucked away beside a lagoon, integrates authentic Italian with local seafood, and Abacus, a relatively new eatery, serves up mean steaks and some of the best mac and cheese (baked, peppered with bacon) in the world.

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9. Visit Calico Jack

Striking the perfect balance of kitsch and charm and occupying one of the very best stretches of the world-famous Seven Mile Beach, Calico Jack’s is more than your average beach bar. Occupied by cruise shippers during the day, the place fills up with local colour in the evenings and especially on Sundays, when a mix of Caymanians and expats of all stripes gather to knock back Caybrew, play beach volleyball, barbecue in the little cabanas, and chat about their respective lives in paradise. Try the bacon cheeseburger quesadilla with pickles, a house specialty.

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10. Get Some Jerk

Historically, culturally and, for many years, administratively linked to their larger neighbour Jamaica, the cuisine of that island has, not surprisingly, also influenced the Caymans. This is especially true since the relatively recent prosperity of the Cayman Islands has drawn an influx of Jamaican workers, some of whom have set up little local stands selling jerk chicken and pork in and around the capital, George Town.