Your clients like scuba diving and have an income north of middle class? Easy. You book them a week on Grand Cayman, which boasts more than 200 dive sites in extraordinarily clear waters. While decompressing, your clients can snorkel in Stingray City and maybe look into the tropical delights of offshore banking. They’ll never stop thanking you.
But leaving aside snarky jokes about banking, is there any compelling reason for clients who aren’t scuba divers to vacation in Grand Cayman? You bet. Grand Cayman, which is shaped like a backwards letter L that decided to lie down, is an upmarket destination with true luxury condos and resorts whose prime position on the west coast—Seven Mile Beach—only enhances their desirability. Grand Cayman, which can be reached on Delta Air Lines flights from gateways in Atlanta, Detroit, and Minneapolis, also offers activities that range from time-tripping at “the castle” (a 1780s estate) to nature walks, and from big game fishing to exploring the Turtle Farm, a popular complex that’s both huge and controversial.
By contrast, there’s nothing controversial about the Westin Grand Cayman Seven Mile Beach Resort & Spa, where we stayed a few months ago. This winter it completed a multimillion dollar renovation to its guestrooms, indoor public spaces, and recreational facilities, and the Leo A. Daly design team deserves the kudos it has won for the makeover.
the westin’s makeover
The good impression starts when guests first approach the resort: In place of the white walls and orange Spanish tiles that characterize so many Caribbean hotels, the Westin Grand Cayman features foam-white exterior walls and blue-green roofing and balcony railings whose colors evoke the Caribbean Sea on a calm, peaceful day. The lobby’s blue-and-white walls, square columns, wainscoting, and polished black piano reinforce the message that this place is for people who understand the difference between casual elegance and frat parties.
The guestrooms have new carpeting, photographs by a local artist, and furniture that includes rosewood beds with Westin Heavenly mattresses.
n’awlins dining on cayman
The resort’s makeover includes menus by New Orleans’ Michael Farrell, until recently the executive chef at Le Meritage and Bistreaux. As advertised, Farrell can cook. For the Westin he has created small plates that evoke the Caribbean (e.g. braised pork belly with pumpkin puree), the Atlantic Coast (e.g. smoked salmon napoleon), and, of course, his native Gulf Coast (corn-fried P&J oysters). The small plates menu is available at torchlit tables on the sand and at the Westin’s indoor/outdoor white tablecloth restaurant, Casa Havana. Now, the combination of Grand Cayman Island, a restaurant named after Havana, and a chef from N’awlins may make your head spin, but it works, it really works. This reporter yearns for another shot at Farrell’s oysters and that crisp-and-buttery pork belly.
Tortugas Beach Grill & Bar, meanwhile, serves dishes like five-spice seared ahi tuna and a soba noodle salad as well as burgers, burritos, and jerk chicken. Ferdinand’s offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, with entrees that range from buffets and steak & frites to a blackened swordfish with cornmeal pudding and chipotle emulsion.
snorkeling cheeseburger reef
Between meals we went kayaking, sailing, and even snuck in a Waverunner Snorkel Safari, offered via Red Sail Sports Grand Cayman. Lucan, the tour guide, gave everyone a helmet, life jacket, and quick lesson in how to use a waverunner, assuring one hotel guest, “You won’t have to kick your feet.” We stashed snorkeling gear in the storage compartments and raced out to visit a couple of snorkeling spots. After tying to a mooring at each site, we tumbled into the clear water for a half hour or so.
Clients who want to try this should make sure their guide includes Cheeseburger Reef on the itinerary; it’s a knockout. Several acres in size, Cheeseburger Reef’s live coral shelter sea turtles as well as thousands of tropical fish and a few barracuda that hover like helicopters in the water, engaging in staring contests with snorkelers.
local royalty: the stingrays
Grand Cayman’s signature attraction, of course, is Stingray City, in the North Sound, so one day we joined a catamaran trip to get up-close and personal with the island’s most famous celebrities. North Sound features sandbars that range from three to 12 ft. in depth; our boat moored near a shallow sandbar so we could just walk up to stingrays rather than dive or snorkel to them (lest we forget, stingrays swim better than bipeds).
Stingrays have such strong jaws that they can bite right through thick clamshells to get at the meat, which is exactly what these 4- and 5-ft.-wide, nocturnal creatures used to do for a living, before fishermen and then tour-biz boats started feeding them bucketloads of squid in the middle of the day. When we went into the water, the first mate went in with us to make sure we understood how to safely touch and hold a stingray without getting near its mouth. He knew just how to explain it so everyone would understand: “Spread your arms toward the ray’s wingtips and make believe you’re holding a pizza.”
agents, take note
The property offers training to major travel agency partners and occasionally sponsors FAMs. For more information on agent programs visit starwoodpro.com. Red Sail Sports Grand Cayman does not pay commissions on the Waverunner Snorkel Safari, but it does pay 10 percent on other day trips. The stingray trips, for example, cost about $80 pp.
Off-season rates for the property itself, with a 6-night minimum, start at $146; a 380-sq.-ft. Ocean Pool View room costs $199. No packages have been announced yet for high season, when rates are $559, or $734 for the Ocean Pool View. Add a $35/day resort charge to all rates.
WHAT TRAVEL AGENTS ARE SAYING…
How much does Kate Schweiger like Grand Cayman Island? In a world with almost infinite travel options, Schweiger, the owner/manager of Prestige Travel Group, in Villanova, PA, has stayed on Grand Cayman five times. “This upscale island has beautiful beaches (especially Seven Mile Beach), many good restaurants, and so much to do. My upscale clients love Grand Cayman,” she says, “but you can also go as a family and stay in a condo.”
How do her clients get around? Obviously, many of the local tour operators pick them up at their hotels. It’s easy to rent a car, but taxis are expensive, so in place of conventional taxis she recommends the shared minivan taxis that get people from the main resort strip into town for $5 or $6 pp.
Immediately south of Seven Mile Beach, on 1 West Bay Road, is Wharf restaurant. “Get a table outside near the water and watch or participate in the tarpon feeding. Good photo opportunity.” Schweiger also recommends Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink at the shopping center, Camana Bay, just east of Seven Mile Beach’s midpoint. “And you can go up in the tower and get a great view of the island.”
If you’re visiting the Cayman Turtle Farm—very popular with little children—“make sure to ask to have them bring out the baby turtles in a bucket,” says Schweiger. Of course, the quintessential Cayman Island experience is Stingray City. “You do not really swim but can stand in the water,” she explains. “It is so memorable and special that I have done this five times.”