Grand Cayman Island- Beautiful Beaches, Bioluminescent Water, Stingrays, and More

If you follow my blog, you may recall I had a teaser post before the holidays on Grand Cayman Island, 10 Reasons to Skip the Cruise and Stay in Grand Cayman Island Instead. Now I’d like to dive a bit deeper in this caribbean island, beginning with the beaches. Seven Mile Beach is a world-renowned beach on the northern part of Grand Cayman Island with some of the softest powder white sand you’ve ever ran your fingers or toes through and turquoise blue water so crystal clear you can see six feet or more straight to the bottom. This is one of my favorite beaches I’ve ever been to. Parts of the beach can get crowded, especially when the cruise ships have just dropped off their load of passengers.

However, there are ways around the crowds, such as going to a part of the beach behind one of the many hotels. You may have to pay a few dollars to rent a chair and a few more for an umbrella or maybe you’ll get lucky like I did and your hotel has an arrangement with one of the hotels (Royal Palms in my case) and you can snag a chair at no charge (though we did have to pay for the umbrella) and not have hordes of people around you either. Many people assume you have to stay at a hotel to use their beach area, but this usually isn’t the case, at least not in Grand Cayman Island.

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Seven Mile Beach lives up to the hype

There are of course many other beautiful beaches in Grand Cayman Island, each with their own unique properties. Rum Point is a small beach area with shallow, clear waters and a handful of restaurants. Spotts Beach is a small beach area with some shade provided by palm trees where you can spot some turtles off past the pier if you’re lucky. East End Beach is on a more quiet end of the island with several restaurants and some shops nearby. Governor’s Beach is also a beautiful beach located near the Governor’s House and is part of Seven Mile Beach.

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Spotts Beach

One of the most unique features of Rum Point is the bioluminescent water on moonless nights. I was lucky enough to see bioluminescent water in Long Beach, California and when I saw Grand Cayman Island also has bioluminescent water, I jumped on the chance to experience it again. If you’ve never seen bioluminescent water, the best way I can describe it is when you drag your hand along the water, it’s like you’re seeing pixie dust. There are tiny plankton in the water that emit bioluminescence when they’re touched (even though you can’t feel them). We took kayaks out with Cayman Kayaks and it was an hour and a half of pure magic. I wish I had some photos but we were told to leave our cameras behind because they wouldn’t capture the bioluminescence.

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Beach in East End

We also went snorkeling with Red Sail Sports off the coast of Rum Point to an area known as Stingray City. While the coral reef wasn’t the most colorful or biggest I’ve snorkeled through, it was still one of my favorite things to do on the island. We saw loads of colorful fish in the coral and even an eel that would occasionally pop its head out of the coral. The stars of the show, though, were the stingrays. Countless stingrays were hanging out in this shallow sandbar where we could stand while the graceful creatures floated by us. Some of the guides would pick up a stingray and let snorkelers touch, hold, or kiss a stingray. The guides said if you kissed a stingray you’d have seven years of good luck.

Finally, also in the Rum Point area is Starfish Point. Some of the snorkeling trips took people here, but we had a rental car so we just drove here on our own. True to the name, there are dozens of starfish here. Technically, starfish should be called sea stars, since they aren’t fish, just like jellyfish should be called jellies, but they’ve been called starfish and jellyfish for so long, their proper names will probably never fully catch on. As a scientist it’s a pet peeve of mine, but I know I digress.

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Starfish Point

Grand Cayman Island has warm waters year-round, so you can always find something water-related to do regardless of the time of year. The coldest the water gets is around 78 degrees in February, so even then you could have your choice of how to spend your time in paradise.

Have any of you been to Grand Cayman Island? Did you love it as much as I do? If you haven’t been, are you ready to go now? What Caribbean island(s) is/are your favorite?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

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What Travel Taught Me in 2018

I always like to re-cap my year in travels by noting all of the things I learned while I was traveling. Let’s jump right into it! My first vacation in 2018 was to the Canary Islands, (a group of Spanish islands off the coast of west Africa), beginning with Carnival in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands. Other than going to Carnival, I saw and did many things in Gran Canaria and Tenerife. I did a lot of hiking in Gran Canaria and Tenerife, went to a science museum, historical sites, and winery, natural parks and botanical gardens, and went to many beaches.

My first travel lesson I learned for 2018 came from going to Carnival. Either choose your accommodations very far in advance (several months to a year) so you can find a place within walking distance from the parade route or if you have a rental car like I did, park your car in a place where you won’t be blocked off by the parade route when you want to leave.

The second most important thing I learned in the Canary Islands is having a rental car is by far better than taking the bus to get around the islands. Driving in the Canary Islands is pretty easy for the most part. I found locals to be courteous drivers and not overly-aggressive. One of the worst parts about driving in the Canary Islands is how narrow some of the side roads are. I recommend getting a small rental car. Overall, the roads in Tenerife seem to be a bit wider than in Gran Canaria in general.

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Carnival in Gran Canaria, Canary Islands

A third thing I learned in the Canary Islands relates to going from one island to another. Choices for inter-island hopping include taking a ferry or flying. When I checked into prices and options for going from Gran Canaria to Tenerife, the prices weren’t hugely different to fly versus take a ferry. We enjoyed the ferry to the San Juan Islands in Washington in the US and from Gozo to Malta so much that we decided to take the ferry to Tenerife. This was a mistake. The water was so rough both my daughter and husband were sick the entire time so they didn’t even enjoy it. Honestly, there isn’t much to look at either other than the water. Next time I would fly for sure.

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One of my favorite photos from the Canary Islands

A few months after going to the Canary Islands, I spent some time at one of my favorite theme parks, Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia. In 2017, I had gone to Colonial Williamsburg and spent very little time there, so this year I decided to get Spring Bounce Tickets, which include admission to both Busch Gardens and Colonial Williamsburg. My family and I spent four nights in Williamsburg and we were able to get our fill of the rides and shows at Busch Gardens plus see what we wanted to at Colonial Williamsburg. My lesson here was that Spring Bounce tickets are perfect for a few reasons:  1) It’s not quite as hot and humid as it will be if you wait until later in the summer to go, 2) You have up to a week to use your tickets, 3) You’ll save money by purchasing tickets this way.

Almost straight after going to Williamsburg, Virginia, I flew to Idaho for a racecation. Famous Idaho Potato Half Marathon in Boise was state number 42 for me. After the race, we had a great time hiking all around the Boise area and discovered just how beautiful Idaho is (you can read about our adventures in Boise here). I learned Idaho has to be one of the most under-rated states in the United States in my opinion, especially by east coasters, many of whom don’t even know for sure where Idaho is and all they relate it to is potatoes. It is one of the most beautiful states I’ve been to, and is full of outdoor activities year-round.

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Beautiful Boise, Idaho!

A couple of weeks after returning home from Idaho, I went to Charleston, South Carolina, one of my favorite cities in the United States. I’ve written about Charleston before and it’s one of the few places that I’m happy to return to time after time. Even after having visited Charleston many times, I learned that there’s always something new to experience in Charleston. On my last visit, I went on a walking tour and went to a raptor center.

In August, I went to Alaska for another racecation, beginning in Anchorage, where I ran the Skinny Raven Half Marathon, my 43rd state. My family and I decided to skip the ever-popular Alaskan cruise and instead rented a car and drove from Anchorage to Denali National Park to Seward and finally to Girdwood. I was immensely grateful we didn’t go on an Alaskan cruise because my husband and daughter were sick the entire time on the 6 hour cruise we took through Kenai Fjords National Park near Seward. I learned that boats in general are not a good idea for our family, and we’ve decided not to go on boat tours or ferries again (my husband and daughter have a history of getting sick on some boats in the past, although not every boat they’ve been on). Another thing I learned while in Alaska is that things are extremely expensive here. I was astounded at how much some things cost at grocery stores (I understand they have to travel a long way so it adds to the cost) and tours and ticket prices were expensive pretty much everywhere we went.

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Grizzlies in Denali National Park, Alaska

An incredibly early arrival of cold weather happened to coincide with my next racecation in Arkansas in November. Normally the weather should have been much warmer but unseasonably cold air made its way through and it looked like we were going to have some cold, rainy days. On top of the cold weather that I hadn’t acclimatized to, I had been dealing with anemia and my hemoglobin was extremely low so my expectations weren’t much for the White River Half Marathon, state number 44.

It turns out the White River Half Marathon was on a blazing fast course so I surprised myself with a sub-2 hour finish. It was freezing cold (31 degrees at the start) but I could deal with that. My full race report can be found here. After the race, we drove 3 1/2 hours to Hot Springs to spend a few days. I learned that mineral water from hot springs works miracles on tired muscles after you’ve just run a race the previous day. Seriously, I’ve never felt better after a half marathon than I did after this one. If I could, I would run half marathons in all of the remaining states in places near hot springs. Sadly, I don’t think Iowa, Delaware, New Mexico, Minnesota, or Nebraska has hot springs but Wyoming does.

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Hiking in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

Hot Springs, Arkansas is a pretty touristy area but we enjoyed ourselves and especially liked hiking at Hot Springs National Park, seeing the lights display at Garvan Woodland Gardens, and soaking in the thermal baths the best. You can read my full blog post on Hot Springs here. Everyone we talked to seemed like genuinely nice, friendly people. The autumn leaves were a bit past their peak, but the trees were still colorful and it was a beautiful time to visit.

After a brief time back home, we were off once again after Thanksgiving, this time to Grand Cayman Island. I hadn’t been to the Caribbean since my honeymoon, 14 years prior, so I was well over-due for a visit. We aren’t cruise-type people (see references above to my family and boats in the Canary Islands and Alaska) so we spent a week at a resort on the quiet east side of the island and drove all over the island in a rental car.

The first thing I learned is don’t let the rental car agents intimidate you into buying extra rental car insurance. When we picked up our rental car at Hertz, we were told the roads were narrow, drivers were aggressive, and if we were to get in an accident, it would basically be a horrible mess to take care of without the extra insurance purchased through them. In fact, what we found was the roads are in great condition, the drivers are not anymore aggressive than anywhere else (meaning some people can be aggressive at times but in general they were fine), and we never had any issues with driving, albeit driving on the left side of the road takes a bit more brain effort if you’re American.

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Aptly named Starfish Point in Grand Cayman Island

On our first night in Grand Cayman Island, I learned if a local gives you a recommendation for something to see or do or a restaurant to go to, listen to them. Many years ago when my husband and I were in Hawaii, a local told us to be sure to watch the moonrise, and we blew them off and never saw it. However, when we were at dinner on our first night in Cayman, the server told us to be sure to stay to watch the moonrise, and we almost didn’t, but it wasn’t going to be much longer so we decided to stay. If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching a moonrise, let me try to describe it. It’s sort of like watching a sunrise but better. You see the moon slowly rising in the horizon until it’s high in the sky. It’s much more exciting than what I’m describing too. Several people around us were making comments like, “Wow! That’s so cool!” and “I’ve never seen anything like that before!” We were never disappointed when we followed the advise of locals on this vacation and have definitely learned our lesson.

Finally, I learned that I absolutely love Grand Cayman Island. Seven Mile Beach has the softest, powder-white sand I’ve ever seen and all around the island, the water is so clear you can see fish swimming around you without a snorkel mask. The island may be small (though not as small as neighboring Little Cayman and Cayman Brac islands) but it’s filled with natural beauty. The Crystal Caves are definitely worth checking out, as is the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Garden (be sure to get the extra ticket to see the endangered blue iguanas, not to be confused with the endemic and pest-like green iguanas). There’s also the fairy-dust-like bioluminescent waters in the Rum Point area, the sand bar with stingrays known as “Sting Ray City,” and nearby coral reef garden where you can snorkel, Starfish Point which is filled with starfish (sea stars technically), and the many other beaches where you may see some turtles if you’re lucky. Just about the only downside to Grand Cayman Island is it’s pretty expensive, although our airfare was cheap from the east coast, so it did balance out that way.

I feel very fortunate to have visited the Canary Islands, Williamsburg, Virginia; Boise, Idaho; Charleston, South Carolina; Alaska; Arkansas; and Grand Cayman Island this year. Using airline miles, credit card points, and watching for good deals on airfare, I saved a ton of money. I was reminded I need to check airports at cities within a few hours of my home every single time I check airfare prices. When I did this for Grand Cayman Island, I saved almost $300 per ticket, which for three people is close to $900, definitely worth the extra hassle of driving from another city. I realize some people have to do this any time they fly and I’m fortunate enough to have an international airport close to my home, but still it’s worth checking other airports if it’s going to save several hundred dollars or even a couple hundred dollars.

What about you guys? What did you learn from your travels in 2018?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 Reasons to Skip the Cruise and Stay in Grand Cayman Island Instead

Caribbean cruises are hugely popular and many stop at Grand Cayman Island, which is a British Overseas Territory. However, many of these cruises arrive at Grand Cayman Island in the morning and depart in the afternoon. To really get a feel for the island, I suggest you stay at a hotel on the island and rent a car or take taxis to be able to see and do more. Here are some of the things you can do in one week:

  1. Beach hop! In addition to the famous Seven Mile Beach, there are so many more white-sand beaches. If you stay on the island for a week, you will have time to explore them all and decide for yourself which ones you like the best.
  2. Eat your way around the island. There are some diverse restaurants spread around the island, ranging from those offering Mexican food, Italian, Indian, Australian with a Caribbean twist, Caribbean, steakhouses, seafood, and gourmet restaurants.
  3. Explore the island’s newest nature attraction:  Caves at Cayman Crystal Caves, only recently opened to the public.
  4. Go shopping in one of the most beautiful open-air shopping areas I’ve ever seen at Camana Bay. In addition to a nice array of shops and restaurants, you’ll find the area nicely landscaped with plenty of trees, flowers, fountains, and seating areas.
  5. Try out all of the water sports. You can rent jet skis, kayaks, stand-up paddle boards,  go sailing, parasailing, snorkeling, scuba diving, or deep sea fishing. Many people from cruise ships will arrange a tour to go snorkeling at Sting Ray City but if you stay on the island, you can do much more than that, at your own leisure.
  6. Have your choice of where to stay. You can stay in a plush hotel like Westin, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, or a bed-and-breakfast, a family-friendly resort, or condo.
  7. Take in some historical sites. Georgetown gets much more busy and crowded when cruise ships are in, but if you choose a day when no cruise ships are in town, you’ll be able to walk around and have a more enjoyable day. Elmslie Memorial Church, the National Museum, the Government Post Office, the Government Library, and the Town Hall are all historical sites in Georgetown. In Bodden Town, learn about the island’s history at Pedro St. James castle, a wonderfully restored 3-story house overlooking the water.
  8. Go to Hell. Hell is the name given to a large outcropping of sharp limestone rocks in the district of West Bay. Sure it’s touristy but it’s still fun. While in the area, visit the Hell Post Office where you can send a letter postmarked “Hell” and take some photos with devil-themed props from the nice people who live next door to the post office.
  9. Kayak through bioluminescent waters and experience the fairy-dust-like magic as you skim your hands or kayak paddle along the water. You can only do this on certain nights when there is no moon. You can also touch a jellyfish; my husband and daughter both did this. Our guide showed us how the jellies in this area don’t have that potent of stingers so you feel only slightly numb after touching them (or so I’m told since I didn’t touch one). Bonus- see dozens of sea stars at nearby Starfish Point during the day before you go kayaking at night.
  10. Experience a moon rising. We were lucky enough to be able to see this on our first night and it was truly magical. I know it doesn’t sound nearly as fascinating as it actually was, but the only way I can describe it is to say it’s sort of like a sunrise, only in reverse, so you see the moon slowly rise over the horizon until it’s high in the sky.
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Cayman Crystal Caves
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Starfish Point
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Camana Bay Shopping Center

I have a couple of more in-depth posts coming that cover some of the things to do I listed here, but this was meant to pique your interest.

Have any of you been to Grand Cayman Island? Did you stop as part of a cruise or did you stay on the island? Have you ever seen a moon rising?

Happy travels?

Donna

My Top 5 Favorite Places Outside the United States and Why I Love Them

Similar to my list of top 10 favorite places in the United States and Why I Love Them, I decided to write up a list of my favorite places outside the United States. Since I’ve traveled more extensively inside the US than outside, I limited it to my top 5 international places, only I felt the need for an honorable mention since I couldn’t limit it to just 5 places. I wanted to choose one city for each pick, but was unable to in most cases, so I limited the choices to a region or small area. I hope you enjoy my list! It was a lot of fun to make the list and reminisce about places I’ve been to over the years.

Honorable Mention:  Rethymno, Crete, Greece. As I’ve said many times on my blog, when my family and I travel, we often veer off the beaten path a bit. We don’t always go where the crowds go. So when we went to Greece, while we did go to the popular destination of Athens, we skipped the tourist-flooded islands of Santorini and Mykonos and opted for Crete instead. We may eventually go to some of the aforementioned islands, but we’re in no rush. Crete was absolutely everything we love in a vacation spot- there were beautiful hiking areas and some of the most stunning beaches I’ve ever seen. I especially enjoyed the Venetian harbor and fortress in Rethymno. Within driving distance are ruins (such as Knossos), caves, gorges, and many quaint small villages to keep you busy and in awe. My favorite beach on Crete is Elafonisi, with its pink sand and clear water, but there are many other beautiful beaches in Crete as well.

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Number 5:  St. Kitts and Nevis. These tiny islands in the Caribbean are only about 65 and 36 square miles each, respectively. My husband and I got married on the island of St. Kitts and took a ferry to Nevis for our honeymoon. We stayed at Nisbet Plantation Beach Club on Nevis and it is still to this day one of the nicest places I have ever stayed. It is the Caribbean’s only historic plantation on the beach. The service at Nisbet Plantation is unparalleled, the food top-notch, and the accommodations amazing. While there isn’t a ton to do on the island, it’s the perfect place to get away from it all and just relax and be pampered. St. Kitts has a bit more to do on the island than Nevis, and there are many options for outdoor enthusiasts. The day before our wedding, my fiancé and I climbed up to the top of one of the volcanic peaks on St. Kitts, even though our tour guide thought we were crazy given the timing. Other than our wedding, it was the highlight of our trip to St. Kitts so I was very glad we did it. St. Kitts and Nevis are both the perfect places to go if you enjoy outdoor activities and water sports.

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I loved the black volcanic rocks in St. Kitts
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One of many beautiful views in St. Kitts

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Number 4:  St. Johann im Pongau district, Austria. Two places are of mention here: Bad Gastein and Werfen. When I read an article about Austria and saw a photo of Bad Gasteiner Wasserfall (waterfall) I immediately wanted to go. You could say the whole reason I went to Austria at all was because of that photo of a waterfall and the travel article written about the area.

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I finally got to take my own photo of Gasteiner Wasserfall!

We went to Austria in the spring and there were more waterfalls here than anywhere else I have ever been. Bad Gastein is a spa town in the district of St. Johann im Pongau, in the Hohe Tauern mountain range, in the state of Salzburg. Other than the city of Salzburg, this area is full of tiny towns great for hiking and exploring. I found the people here very friendly, the food good, and the scenery outstanding. Werfen is famous for the Eisriesenwelt Ice Cave, one of the highlights of our vacation in Austria. Cameras aren’t allowed inside the cave, but here are a couple of photos from their website.

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Also in Werfen is the Burg Hohenwerfen, a castle that’s over 900 years old. There are extensive weaponry displays and an impressive falconry flight display. The castle is surrounded by the Salzachtal Valley so it’s beautiful just to walk the grounds.

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Number 3:  Banff, Canada. A few years ago we went to Missoula, Montana where I ran a half marathon and we followed up the race with a visit to Glacier National Park, which I thought was pretty amazing, but then we went to Banff, Canada and the scenery just kept getting better the further north we went. As majestic as the Rocky Mountains are in the United States, I think the Canadian Rocky Mountains are even more so. The glacier-fed waters in the area are such a beautiful hue of greenish-blue and the mountains are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Banff National Park, about 70 miles west of Calgary, is the oldest national park in Canada. I found the town of Banff to be pretty touristy but it is full of restaurants, shops, museums, and art galleries so you can find plenty to do here when you’re not hiking. There are many, many tours including glacier tours, boat tours, and general sightseeing tours if that interests you. We took a boat tour on Lake Minnewanka, the only lake in Banff National Park open to public motorized boating, and it was definitely a highlight of our time there.

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Number 2:  Florence, Italy. Since I wanted to limit my choices to one city whenever possible, this one was tough to choose just one city we went to in Italy. I loved Rome almost as much as Florence, but in the end I’d have to say Florence may have the edge, but just slightly. I was surprised I loved Florence as much as I did, honestly. Before I went to Italy, I expected Venice or Rome to be my favorites (we also went to Naples and Pompeii), but Florence won my heart. I think it must have been the art that did it. While I was in Florence, I felt like I was immersed in art. You could go to just an ordinary little shop and there would be the most beautiful mosaic, or at a small cafe and find gorgeous statues or paintings just kind of tucked away, obviously not for ostentatious display but just part of the cafe. There are of course the famous museums such as Uffizi Gallery, Accademia Gallery, and the small but still stunning Museo Nazionale del Bargello. Then there are the many beautiful piazzas, cathedrals, and other archeological sites. All of these places are so out of this world beautiful just one place alone would make for an incredible visit to the city, but the fact that there are so many stunningly beautiful places in one city make it almost surreal. With some of the best food and wine in the world on top of the artwork everywhere, what more could you ask for?

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Number 1:  Whitianga, New Zealand. This one was also a tough one. I knew somewhere in New Zealand would be my top choice, but to limit it to just one place was really difficult. The North Island of New Zealand is so diverse with its Redwood Forests, sandy beaches, geysers, wine country, and rolling hills. I loved touring Hobbiton and found the countryside there beautiful. Seeing the glow worms of Waitomo Caves was incredible. Walking around the geysers and thermal mud pools at Wai-O-Tapu in Rotorua was like being on another planet. Walking through the redwoods forest was so quiet and serene. But our boat ride through the sea caves in Whitianga was something impossible to ever top. The water was such a gorgeous color of blue-green and being able to go inside some of the caves was so much fun. I felt like I had a smile plastered across my face from beginning to end of the tour. This is a place that has seriously ruined other boat tours for me because nothing will ever be able to compare. Besides the boat tour here, the beaches are also some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Whitianga also has wineries, a fun museum, and hiking trails, all things I love. I almost didn’t include this area as part of our North Island tour because I didn’t think we’d have time. I’m so glad that didn’t happen because we would have missed the best part!

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Being in this small boat made it easy to go in the caves and explore

Has anyone else been to these places? Does anyone want to go now?