PHOTO: There are plenty of ways to enjoy a Cayman Islands experience while traveling on a strict budget. (Photo by Scott Laird)
The Cayman Islands, like the rest of the Caribbean, aren’t known for being a moderately priced destination. In fact, a mention that you’re headed to the Caymans will often to spur questions about whether you’re visiting your offshore bank account or setting up a shell corporation.
But the secret, as I learned on my recent visit, is that if you make some tweaks to your typical travel budget, you can enjoy the beautiful destination for an outlay that’s comparable what you might expect at other destinations in the region.
Visitors who typically select upscale properties when traveling domestically are conditioned to expect to pay from around $150 a night at the low end for second-tier cities to around $300 a night for major cities at the high end. When those same brands command room rates closer to $500 to $600 a night on Grand Cayman, plus resort fees averaging around $60 per night, it’s easy to understand why price shoppers might write off the destination as beyond their budget.
I, myself, am that exact type of travel buyer. That’s where Comfort Suites Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman comes in. I talked with Choice about their perspective on upper midscale lodging in the Caribbean, and their perspective was one that I could get behind, “save on the stay; splurge on the play”. I know from experience that many midscale and upper midscale hotel brands tend to ratchet up the quality a notch or two outside the Continental United States, so I hopped a flight to Grand Cayman to check it out for myself.
The property itself, which just came off a refresh, is in spectacular condition and is as close to the famed Seven Mile Beach as an “off beach” hotel might wish. The hotel is just steps from the beach and a hotel attendant can assist with chairs and umbrellas. The only difference between the location of the hotel and the larger resorts (aside from the price) is that it’s not beachfront, or beach facing. That said, some of the suites on the top floors have ocean views, and I quickly got myself into the habit of watching the cruise ships slip into port over my morning cup of coffee.
The room rate (which starts from $140 to around $300 depending on availability and season dispenses with the resort fee charged by most other island hotels) also includes breakfast, and it’s a substantial one: a selection of pastries, toast, bagels, flavored and plain regular and Greek yogurts, hard-boiled eggs, coffee, tea, juice, milk, cereals, a rotating selection of waffle flavors, eggs, and breakfast meats.
The hotel also has a resort pool with dependable poolside dining featuring hearty portions and well-priced drinks. Most suites have kitchens or kitchenettes with refrigerators and ranges for chilling and reheating leftovers.
Now, down to brass tacks: we know the hotel is affordable, but how much does everything else cost? Note that most prices I mention below are in Cayman Dollars unless otherwise specified, which are worth about $1.25 USD.
Several of the casual eateries on the island had dinner entrees ranging from $12 to $25 for jerk barbecue, grilled seafood and steaks. Understandably local seafood is cheaper. Most meats are imported, although there’s been an increase in farm-to-fork dining on the island, with plenty of island-grown fruits and vegetables making their way onto local menus. Do try fried breadfruit (a starchy tree fruit with a consistency similar to a potato) instead of fries for something different.
At the time of my visit, introductory gas price was about $4.20 per gallon, and rental cars ran about $200 a week, but a good alternative (particularly for those weary of driving on the left side of the road) are the local buses, which are minibuses identified by a sign in the windshield, and cost around $2.
Most shopping in Georgetown had prices displayed in US dollars, although it can get crowded during the weekdays when there are a lot of cruise ships anchored offshore. The best day for daytime shopping is Saturday when most ships have returned to the U.S. for turnarounds. Having forgotten a hat, I was able to pick up a serviceable wide-brimmed straw one for about $10 USD in one of the shops.
The Cayman Turtle Centre is a good activity for those wanting to get up and personal with some sea turtles, which are prevalent in the Caymans, and even serve as the islands’ tourism mascot. The mascot’s name is Sir Turtle, and he wields a jaunty pirate cap and peg leg. For basic activities, adult entry is US $18, while children under 12 get in for $9. Or spend a whole day at the water park and beach area for $45/$25.
For those wanting to get out on the water, there are plenty of smaller tour operators who run affordable, intimate tours and can tailor their itineraries to avoid the crowds when cruise ships are in port. The Six Senses Eco Tour is a six hour, six-stop tour that includes a stop to buy lunch or cocktails at Rum Point (the birthplace of the Mudslide) reef snorkeling, Starfish Point for starfish photo ops, a cruise along a mangrove forest, and a stop at Stingray City for selfies holding stingrays (it’s said to be good luck if you kiss them). It’s definitely a bargain at US $100 for the six-hour tour on a stable pontoon boat. Atlantis offers submarine reef dives for around $100USD—a novelty for many, the submarine dives to depths of up to 100 feet.
The Takeaway: Despite a reputation for high-end lodging, there are quality upper midscale accommodations to be had on Grand Cayman, and dining and activities are in line with the regional average. Grand Cayman is a laid back, beautiful island with mild, pleasant weather, and reserved but effusively gracious people.
I found food to overall better quality than to what I’m accustomed to elsewhere in the Caribbean. Portion sizes are generous—most entrees yield leftovers.
Peppers: A short walk from the Comfort Suites. Mains run $12 - $25 including grilled seafood, jerk chicken, pork, and sausage, salads, and pizzas.
Da Fish Shack: Georgetown, Oceanfront. Mains run $15 - $25 and include ceviche, burgers, seafood and other Caribbean favorites.
Rum Point Club: Rum Point, Oceanfront. Sandwiches $10-$11, catch of the day $13. Snacks and cocktails are available.; do try the Mudslide.
Rackam’s: Georgetown, Oceanfront. Seafood and steaks entrees $15 - $25.
Abacus: Camana Bay. Farm to table cuisine, includes seafood and steaks, salads, soups, ceviches, tapas and a raw bar. Mains $19 - $42
Airfare, accommodations, meals and tours were furnished by Choice Hotels in preparation for this story.
For more photos, check out my Instagram.