A Fresh Start for Grand Cayman Island in 2011

After recovering from Hurricane Ivan's damage and the recessionary tourism slowdown, Grand Cayman hit the ground running in 2011 when CNN, NBC's Today Show and other international media featured the government's sinking of a decommissioned U.S. Navy ship to form an artificial reef on January 5. The USS Kittiwake, a project eight years in the making, is the newest of the island's 250 moored sites that are expected to attract even more divers and snorkelers.

Some say that Grand Cayman will soon lure new cruising boaters, too, as the government negotiates a dredging project and nearby Cuba continues to beef up its marina facilities.

"We all envision a new central Caribbean cruising ground that will encompass the north side of Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and the south coast of Cuba," said Dale Westin, General Manager of the Errol Flynn Marina in Port Antonio, Jamaica, last April.

Arriving boaters currently head for the Georgetown harbor area on the west side to hail port security on VHF Channel 16 and wait at the government's mooring field until given permission to pull alongside the government dock for clearance.

Once cleared, cruisers won't yet find the bevy of amenity-heavy resort marinas found in some parts of the Caribbean. Construction of the Barcadere Marina near the airport was partially stalled by the recession; phase one docks, restrooms, fuel, water and shore power are in place, but other features are still on the drawing board. Another commercial marina, the Cayman Islands Yacht Club, damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, has fuel and slips with water but still lacks other services sought by transient boaters.

These marinas are on the North Sound, a shallow, reef-protected lagoon with an area of about 35 square miles. Cayman Premier McKeeva Bush announced in late January that he expects to sign a memorandum of understanding soon with a Chinese company to dredge a deep-water channel, a project that could attract larger yachts and facilitate marina development.

Currently, the depth of various channels in the six mile-wide sound runs only about eight to 12 feet at best and visiting captains do well to tap into local knowledge. At the bottom of the big sound, Harbour House Marina operates a full service boatyard and chandlery with haul-out and repair facilities.

The nearby Cayman Islands Sailing Club sponsors races and offers boat rentals (Optimists, Lasers, J22s and more) for non-members (www.sailing.ky) and the Cayman Islands Angling Club (CIAC) schedules events each year including a two-night swordfish tournament. For kiteboarding, windsurfing, parasailing and paddle boarding, locals head for the windy, almost deserted East End beaches.

Provisioning needs are well served by island grocery stores like Fosters and Hurley's that offer fresh meats, produce and a wide range of U.S. brands. Credit cards and U.S. dollars are accepted in most shops but Caymanian currency is given in change. The Cayman Islands dollar has a fixed exchange rate to the US dollar: one C.I. dollar equals $1.25 USD.

How do blue iguanas fit into the mix? Grand Cayman is the only place in the world where the critically-endangered lizards are found; the island's recovery program has brought their numbers from 25 to 500 in less than ten years. At the excellent Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, tourists strolling woodland trails will encounter several uncaged, sapphire-toned beasts blinking in the sun. Also worth a trip: the Pedro St. James Historic Site, a restored great house with a multi-sensory theatrical presentation included in the ticket price.

Grand Cayman shines with a world-class restaurant selection. At the top of North Sound, boaters will find restaurants like Morgan's Harbour (west side) and Kaibo (east side) with transient docks or moorings. On downtown Georgetown's waterfront, Guy Harvey's Grill has a friendly staff serving good French and Caribbean food – a worthy lunch stop during a shopping day.

Visitors who rent cars can seek out good eats and great atmosphere scattered along the south side, East End and north coast, usually at lower prices than the culinary palaces of the Seven Mile Beach tourist district. Islanders swear by Ms. Vivine Watler's fried lobster, stewed conch and barbecued chicken at Vivine's Kitchen in Colliers out east. Just up the road is the island's newest star, Tukka, where Australian Chef Ron Hargrave helps save the reefs by serving up Lionfish ceviche.

When the USS Kittiwake went 64 feet down to her new home in January, there was a tangible atmosphere of excitement among the gathered crowd watching, a feeling that 2011 brings a fresh start. Project Manager Nancy Easterbrook of Divetech said: "I jumped in the water as soon as she was under, and sure enough, she was sitting upright and exactly where she was supposed to be; a perfect beginning."

For more information: www.kittiwakecayman.com

Chris Goodier is a freelance writer/editor and was All at Sea's Editorial Director from 2005 to 2010.