By Bao Ong
In these penny-pinching times it can feel wrong to surround oneself in luxury. Such concerns evaporate once you land in Grand Cayman. How could it not in this Caribbean kingdom? Leave the guilt behind. The water is clear and sapphire blue while the sun’s rays hit you just right on the soft, sandy beaches. You suddenly realize you’re on vacation, and you deserve to enjoy it.
As you leave the airport for your hotel, you’ll no doubt encounter the Tortuga Rum Company. Besides the one in the tiny airport, there are more dotting the island like a chain of popular coffee shops back in Manhattan. I picked up a rum cake before checking into the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, which is situated along a major thoroughfare known as Seven Mile Beach.
Within seconds of entering the Ritz-Carlton, I felt as if I was the beneficiary of some financier with an offshore account. The rooms are bigger than most New York apartments, and the pristine beach is just steps away. It was difficult at times to leave the hotel. After all, you can get a professional facial at Silver Rain, a La Prairie spa downstairs, dine at Eric Ripert’s restaurant Blue, hit a few tennis balls on a grass court or simply enjoy a view from your balcony of the ocean.
There are rewards once you step out of the oasis that is the Ritz-Carlton. Diving is extremely popular, whether you want to go snorkeling or visit Stingray City to pet the gentile stingrays floating between the coral reefs and tropical fish. Other outdoor trips worth checking out include the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, where iguanas roam about (the iconic ones are blue), and the Heritage Garden, which is where a small pink cottage called the Rankin Home sits in a traditional sand yard and garden full of native greenery.
But it’s the food of Grand Cayman that impressed me the most. Yes, there is the fine-dining experience of Eric Ripert’s restaurant Blue, where I might even proclaim that the popular tuna with foie gras made popular at Le Bernardin is even better here. Maybe it’s the freshness of the fish.
You’ll find plenty of seafood at a number of restaurants worth checking out. The Brasserie located in the George Town neighborhood at Cricket Square has a backyard garden where vegetables and herbs are grown for the restaurant. Here, you’ll want to taste the conch tempura, which is lightly battered and finishes with a nice crunch. At Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink, which is originally based in Miami, Michael Schwartz’s restaurant features many dishes using fresh and local Caribbean ingredients — all the grilled dishes feature seafood caught off the island. There’s also a new restaurant called Blue Cilantro, where Chef Vidyadhara Shetty infuses local cuisine with classic Indian flavors; I could eat the tandoori soft-shell crab every day.
If you want to make a gastronomic vacation of your trip — Grand Cayman offers a nightlife scene but it’s relatively calm overall — you will want to plan it around the Cayman Cookout. Unlike some other food festivals with big name chefs and food obsessed-types following their every footstep, this one is more intimate. You’ll run into the chefs and get a chance to chat them up and their family. Everyone is laid back and for chefs, it’s also a vacation.
While as extravagant as it may be, Grand Cayman can also offer some more budget-friendly activities — food or otherwise. With a little bit of searching, you can find places like Al La Kebab for a quick meal of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine. Or there’s Seymour’s Jerk Centre, a no frills plate of jerk chicken that leaves you with extra cash to spare (many places accept the U.S. dollar).
Expensive or not, Grand Cayman is worth the trip. At the end of the day, it is the type of destination that you dream of when you think of that post-card getaway with all the visions of perfect beaches and water, fancy hotels, great local food, outdoor activities and so much more. I’m not going to feel guilty about it and neither should you. It’s a great investment.
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