Imagine the stereotypical cruise port -- one with white-sand beaches, a plethora of duty-free shops selling jewels and liquor, and de rigueur water activities like snorkeling and scuba -- and Grand Cayman will likely come to mind. The cliche might just be based on the destination, with its lovely Seven Mile Beach, George Town's retail center and plenty of sites for diving, snorkeling and other water sports. Grand Cayman also celebrates marine life at Stingray City and the Cayman Turtle Farm, and even offers a twist on island paradise with the town of Hell (THE place from which to send the quintessential kitschy postcard).
Yet the cliche does have a negative side -- the crowds. It's not unusual to find five mega-ships (we're told there's been up to nine) docked in the harbor at the same time, which makes the tendering process slower than usual and the downtown streets jam-packed. (Building a cruise pier at which ships could berth is oft discussed, but it's never gone beyond the "pre-planning" stage.) The constant influx of cruise passengers keeps the waterfront restaurants bustling, so lunch in port is never a cheap affair. A stroll along the beach quickly turns into an obstacle course of sunbathing tourists, sandy children and water sports vendors.
Visitors have two choices -- embrace the crowds and touristy places with a laid-back island mindset, or escape them. Secluded beaches, like Cayman Kai or Rum Point, are a cab ride away, and even Seven Mile Beach has its less crowded spots. A mall at Governors Square offers designer clothes, housewares and even a healthy cafe for a refreshing change from shell necklaces and overpriced seafood. And the seemingly endless stretches of sea never feel too congested when you're swimming peacefully above coral formations.
All ships are currently required to anchor in the harbor and tender passengers on to the island. Ships tender passengers to one of two George Town docks (North or South), both of which are right in downtown George Town.
Be cautious as you walk along Harbour Drive and Church Street, which only have sidewalks on one side of the street at some places. And, just as drivers need to heed left-side driving rules, pedestrians should stay alert for cars.
On Foot: You'll be dropped a few steps from town, where you can easily walk to numerous shops and restaurants.
By Taxi: Cabs without meters are available at the dock. Rates are fixed and posted, but be sure to confirm the fare before the driver takes off. Most cabs are actually van-sized, and drivers may require a four-passenger minimum before they'll take you anywhere. A ride to Seagrape, a segment of beach on Seven Mile, is $5 per person, each way.
By Bus: You can hail mini-buses that shuttle passengers along the main routes. To hail one, respond with a wave when the driver toots his horn. The bus depot is next to the library (across from Heroes Square Fountain). There are stops next to popular attractions like Dolphin Discovery and Hell, but you may be taking the "scenic" ride when using the public bus (a good way to see the island).
By Car: Avis Cico offers one-day specials to cruise passengers and runs a courtesy shuttle between the port and the rental office (345-949-2468). Out at Seven Mile Beach, Andy's Rent A Car (345-949-8111) has good online discounts. There is a shopping plaza with multiple car rental agencies across from the airport. Americans are required to purchase inexpensive driving permits, but you can buy them at the rental office. Remember, Grand Cayman is a British overseas territory, so drive on the left.
Local currency is the Cayman Island dollar (visit xe.com for current rates), but U.S. dollars are also accepted throughout the island. The Cayman Islands are an international banking center, so finding a financial institution is not difficult. There are ATMs throughout downtown George Town.
English is the official language.
Lunch spots are divvied up between downtown George Town and the various beaches. You'd expect them to be crowded, but we've found it easy to get a table if you go slightly earlier and slightly later than the peak lunchtime hours -- say, 11:30 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. Typical menus spotlight the same ingredients found on other Caribbean islands: beans and rice, steamed fish and coconut, though the Caymans are particularly known for conch-based dishes.
To cool off from the Caribbean heat try a local tipple. Cayman Islands is the original home of the mudslide and the local version eschews the ice cream for a blend of vodka, Kahlua, Baileys, cherry and cinnamon. Find it at the Wreck Bar & Grill in Rum Point.
Grand Old House: Located in an old plantation house The Grand Old House is full of atmosphere and ideal for a gourmet lunch. The building was shipped from Boston and reassembled in George Town more than a century ago. Reservations are highly recommended. (648 S. Church Street; 345-949-9333; Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday)
Cracked Conch: Featuring its namesake ingredient in an assortment of appetizers, including fritters, soup and ceviche. And, of course, you can order your conch "cracked" (pounded thin, dredged in egg, then flour, and fried); the dish is accompanied by pickled fennel and curried tartar sauce. Jerked meats (pork, chicken and burgers) are popular, too -- as are the sweeping sea views. (857 North West Point Road, West Bay; 345-945-5217; lunch served daily, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. December through May only; dinner daily 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., closed in September.)
Champion House II: A favorite with the locals, this popular spot features island dishes like curried goat, braised oxtail and turtle stew. If you're there on a Saturday, don't miss the themed lunch buffet, featuring even more Caymanian and West Indian dishes. (43 Eastern Ave.; 345-949-7882; open daily, 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Cayman Islands Brewery: Caybrew is the Cayman Island local brew. If you want to sample it from the source, visit the Cayman Islands Brewery right on the way to the beach. Tours are available and there is a small bar in the tap room. (366 Shamrock Road; 345-947-6699)
The Caymans are known for being the jewelry capital of the Caribbean, with watches and diamonds among the most popular purchases. For a cheaper buy, Tortuga Rum Company (S. Church Street and various other locations) makes incredible rum cakes. You can sample the different flavors before buying.
The eclectic shopping in George Town includes handcrafted jewelry, antiques, salvaged coins and old maps -- as well as the expected duty-free buys. Cardinal Avenue is the main shopping street. On it, you'll find Kirk Freeport (345-623-7477; open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.) a terrific duty-free choice, with Swiss watches, fine china and crystal. The Jewelry Center offers designer baubles. At the Galleria Plaza (West Bay Road), a number of shops sell duty-free stuff. Nearby, is Caymania Duty Free (7 Main Street, 354-949-7972; George Town), one of the island's best-known duty-free shops for perfumes, cosmetics and gemstones.
--Updated by Elissa Leibowitz Poma, Cruise Critic contributor, and Brittany Chrusciel, Cruise Critic Associate Editor