An online image search for Grand Cayman suggests that the island’s tourism appeal is limited to swimming with the stingrays, cruise ships, and a single strip of sand that runs along the island’s western shoreline — Seven Mile Beach. While there is no doubt that the luxury high-rise hotels and fancy restaurants lining this beach are the main attraction for many tourists, more intrepid travelers find that a trip to the lesser-known eastern districts of East End and Northside offers a more authentic Caribbean experience. Free of the crowds and high prices of Seven Mile Beach, the outer reaches are a wonderful place to breathe and relax. Let’s discover the real Grand Cayman through the eyes of the locals.
The districts of East End and Northside have stunning beaches without an overpriced sun-lounger or jet ski in sight. The beaches are often hidden from the road by trees and vegetation or sheltered among the rocky cliffs of the rugged coastline. The key to finding them is to look for the brown roadside signs that lead you down narrow paths through the bushes. Simply park your car on the verge and bring your sunscreen and a hat. Here are three locals’ favorite beaches on Grand Cayman.
Barefoot Beach, East End
Located on the Queen’s Highway, a road that runs along the island’s Northside, Barefoot Beach is a serene spot that faces the prevailing northerly trade winds creating a cool and breezy place to relax. The numerous pine trees offer plenty of shade and there is nothing better than stringing a hammock between two trees, setting a cooler of drinks below you, and whiling away the day with a good book. Parking here has become more difficult recently as the narrow path has been washed out and is no longer vehicle accessible, so find a safe spot along the roadside and walk down instead.
Heritage Public Beach, East End
This is a government-managed public beach, so it is clean and well-maintained. It has a shady cabana and tall trees to hide from the sun. It is located in an area surrounded by a natural fringing reef that protects the shoreline from large waves. Even in windy weather, the waters here are calm and great for paddle boarding and snorkeling. Look for large spotted eagle rays which glide gracefully through the shallow lagoon searching for food, especially at dawn and dusk.
Colliers Public Beach, East End
Situated at the north-eastern corner of the island, Colliers beach is a wide-open expanse of powdery sand complete with colorful cabanas and public amenities such as restrooms and showers are provided free to the public. There are even grills, picnic benches, and trash cans that visitors are welcome to use making it a great spot to have a BBQ lunch. A small convenience store is located just a mile down the road to pick up supplies.
As you might imagine, activity options in the eastern districts center around the ocean. However, there are still plenty of things to do on those days where you do not want to get wet. Nature lovers especially will be in heaven with a multitude of options.
SCUBA diving and snorkeling
Diving in the Cayman Islands is already known as world-class, but diving on the East End takes this to a whole new level. With only two dive operators, Ocean Frontiers and Tortuga Divers, and over fifty named dive sites, it feels very uncrowded. Significantly fewer environmental pressures compared with the densely populated west side means healthier reefs and abundant marine life. The local resident divers know this, and you can expect to share the boat with them on the weekends as they flock east to enjoy the best diving on the island.
The Cayman Islands are formed by the protruding tops of a submerged mountain range so they are surrounded on all sides by a steep underwater drop-off. Most dive trips start with an adrenaline-inducing deep dive along the phenomenal shear wall, followed by a serene shallow reef dive to relax and enjoy the warm water and amazing clarity. Expect to see sharks, rays, eels, and all the usual reef fish too. The two local dive operators offer entry-level programs through to more advanced courses and daily dive trips for all levels.
For snorkelers, shore entries are possible but undeniably more limited than on the west side due to the breaking waves and fringing reefs. However, those who want to see the best corals and marine life on the island should fork out around US$50 for a boat trip taking in the best snorkeling the area has to offer with knowledgeable guides and stringent safety procedures.
Kiteboarding and paddle boarding
The fringing reefs around the eastern coastline not only offer a calm haven for marine life, but also the ideal conditions for people to enjoy being on the ocean too. The near-constant onshore winds in the winter are a kiteboarder’s dream, and between November and April, you can expect the sky to be full of brightly colored kites dancing in the air. If you have your own gear then launching from any of the public beaches is easy and perfectly legal, while beginners can contact a local kite school for high-quality instruction, gear rental, and support. The area around Collier’s Bay in the northeast is the most well-known location for kiting and is where the kiteboarding schools are located.
For those seeking a gentler way to spend the day, the surface of the water remains calm enough for paddle boarding thanks to the protection from the barrier reefs. Easy to learn and extremely fun, paddle boarding is also very good for your health and fitness, not to mention a great mental break from social media and emails. Experienced paddle boarders can travel for miles around numerous and vast protected areas, while beginners can stay near the beach while they get their balance. Remember, falling in the water is half the fun. Paddle boards can be rented from most of the hotels, and many Airbnbs have them available for guest use. Also, there are paddle board rental companies that offer island-wide delivery and pick-up.
Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park
The beautifully landscaped and well-tended Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park sits in the island’s interior, accessible via Frank Sound Road. The site sprawls across many acres and offers visitors a tranquil refuge. A soothing stroll along wooden boardwalks learning about endemic plant and animal species can calm even the busiest mind, while the extensive woodland trails will exercise the body too.
Highlights of the park include the orchid trail, the color gardens full of exotic flowers, the serene lake, and the blue iguana reserve. Blue iguanas are endemic to the Cayman Islands and are a protected species due to the many threats that they face, not least of all from the invasive green iguana. Entry is only $10 and it is easy to spend at least half a day enjoying everything the park has to offer.
There is no better place to escape the sun than underground. Located in Northside, the Cayman Crystal Caves offer tours by local guides who show you not only the beautiful caves themselves but also the surrounding forest. The friendly guides are bristling with plenty of interesting information about the local flora and fauna, as well as some history and culture too. Although perhaps not as extensive as cave systems in other parts of the world, this fun attraction nonetheless provides a great way to spend half a day when all that time at the beach has become too much.
Grand Cayman has experienced the Airbnb revolution just like everywhere else in the world and offers visitors to the eastern districts a wonderful opportunity to experience real Caribbean living. Unlike the faceless mega-resorts of the west, the east end is full of cozy and modest beachside properties while still providing all the modern comforts such as AC and WIFI. Where to base yourself is a matter of personal choice, but let’s look at some options below.
East End Village
With a population of 1200 people, the village of East End is where the main amenities are located such as a gas station, post office, and an ATM. Some good deals can be had here if you are happy to be away from the oceanside on one of the backstreets. However, with limited access to the sea, lots of passing cars, and noisy neighbors, many choose to base their vacation in a quieter area.
Gun Bay and Austin Connolly Drive
Austin Connolly Drive begins just north of the village leading through an area known as Gun Bay before ending in Colliers Bay where it becomes the Queen’s Highway. This three-mile-long stretch of road has plenty of great accommodation options which are still close to all the attractions yet offer a peaceful getaway with easy ocean access. The only resort in the area is Compass Point which is small, friendly, and a great choice for divers and their families. Plenty of modestly sized and cute private homes are available to rent in this area as well, the vast majority of which are right on the ocean. Great for people who love epic sunrises.
For those with money to burn, a taste for unadulterated luxury, or a large group, the massive villas that line the Queen’s Highway along the island’s northern coastline are where you want to be. Many of these homes are nothing short of palatial and have everything that one would expect when paying for such luxury. Secluded and hidden from the highway by high walls, wrought iron gates, and thick hedges, these offer guests the highest level of privacy. Much of Queen’s Highway runs along the top of a rocky bluff, but most of the homes have stairs leading down to tiny private beaches hidden in sheltered coves.
At the far western edge of Northside, Cayman Kai is a trendy and exclusive neighborhood that offers many types of accommodation ranging from small wooden homes to contemporary architectural works of art. There is no through-road so it is a quiet and undisturbed area that really feels like you are away from it all. There are a couple of local bars and restaurants as well as a small convenience store but don’t expect to have lots of options close by. Although the remoteness and beauty of Cayman Kai is in many ways a major selling point, some folks may be put off by a long drive to other parts of the island including grocery stores and a larger selection of places to eat and things to do.
Bars and restaurants
Enjoying cold drinks while listening to lapping waves is a Caribbean institution, and Grand Cayman is no exception. The eastern districts have plenty to offer in this department with the added bonus of lower prices and fewer crowds. The island’s strong international reputation means a high level of food safety and quality, and a range of drinks options to suit everybody. Here are some of the most popular bar and restaurant options in the outer districts.
Kaibo Beach Bar, Northside
Many have heard of the infamous Rum Point Bar, but savvy drinkers know that Kaibo Beach Bar just a mile to the south offers a more relaxed experience without the boats full of day-trippers. With a stone pizza oven, cold brew coffee, and a toes-in-the-sand dining experience, Kaibo is a fantastic place to get away from it all. In the evenings the area is illuminated with subtle lighting and gentle live music which completes the soporific atmosphere.
Over The Edge Cafe, Northside
With a deck extending out over the water, low ceilings, and a tasteful nautical theme, Over the Edge Cafe is a spot that is very popular with both tourists and locals that has an honest feel without being pretentious. While its rustic vibe may not appeal to everyone, this charming bar has many fans who return year after year. Those who like to eat real Caribbean cooking will love the menu options here, while picky eaters and young ones will be satisfied by the American-style options too. A real highlight is their breakfast menu filled with exotic-sounding dishes such as Saltfish and Ackee — a Jamaican delicacy consisting of salted fish and the cooked flesh of ackee, a sweet fruit native to the Caribbean.
Eastern Star Bar, East End
Newcomers may be surprised by this bar’s unexpected location behind a gas station, but a small wooden walkway down the side leads to a lovely beach area lined with picnic tables and an outdoor bar and kitchen. On Sundays, the place is full of local families listening to loud soca music and enjoying freshly cooked fish. Eastern Star Bar, while very welcoming of tourists, is certainly not a tourist bar — don’t expect the same level of service that you might expect back home. But go in with the right attitude and you will see the true friendliness of the Caymanians.
Blue Rock, East End
If you find yourself tired of beach bars and sunshine and are in need of some chilled AC and dim lighting, then look no further than Blue Rock Bar, located in a small plaza within the Health City complex on the south side of the island adjacent to Lovers’ Wall. Offering pool tables, televisions, and comfortable seating, Blue Rock is a popular choice to escape the tropical heat outside. The friendly staff loves to mix up a variety of cocktails with real ingredients, and the chefs put out consistently good food of all styles. The Indian options are arguably the best, and the Biryani of the day is incredible.