GRAND Caribbean Grand Cayman beckons with beautiful beaches and friendly, laid-back people

October 03, 1993|By Don Nichols | Don Nichols,Dallas Morning News

It's 7 a.m. and I'm lounging on a float in the Caribbean Sea. As I take in the sun's early-morning rays, I marvel at the calm water clear enough to be pool water.

As lazy as it sounds, this is how I started almost every day on a recent one-week vacation on Grand Cayman, which has been getting attention recently with the release of Tom Cruise's latest movie "The Firm," part of which was filmed on the island.

Grand Cayman is best known for its spectacular diving, but this laid-back island also appeals to non-divers like me, even though it's flat and not visually stunning. The people are friendly, the beaches are beautiful, there's plenty of water-related recreation, and crime is practically nonexistent. When I asked about safe-deposit boxes at my beachside condo complex, the manager assured me my valuables would be safe in my ` third-floor unit, though she offered to lock them in the office vault.

"We've never had a break-in on the third floor," she said.

There are other positives. The destination is convenient to the United States. It's also very Americanized, if the familiar appeals to you. The four major hotels are operated by Holiday Inn, Hyatt, Ramada and Radisson. Among the restaurants are familiar names such as Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Tony Roma's and Wendy's.

Most of the island's tourism activity is concentrated on the west side, along famed Seven Mile Beach. Most hotels are located along the south end of the beach, so that stretch of sand is more crowded than the north end, which is lined with condominium complexes. I stayed in a complex called the Grand Bay Club and was never bothered by crowds.

Seven Mile Beach is so inviting I spent most of my island vacation enjoying the sun, sand and sea right outside the door of my condo. If I wasn't reading under a shaded cabana, I usually was cooling off in the near-perfect water.

First-class snorkeling was just a walk away. Large rocks at the water's edge attract hundreds of colorful fish. And one of the island's better near-shore snorkeling spots -- the Cemetery -- is less than 50 yards up the beach. Its coral reef teems with fish waiting for snorkelers to feed them frozen peas and canned cheese.

Early every morning, about 50 yards down the beach from the condo, large sea turtles would swim up to the shoreline to take handouts from tourists; I fed them too. The animals seemed to like bread, but locals recommended feeding them dog or cat food.

At night, tourists relax in the many restaurants built along the busy road that runs parallel to Seven Mile Beach. A Pittsburgh family I met gave high marks to the Wharf, and a San Francisco couple at my condo raved about a small barbecue place called Eats.

A Caymanian-style buffet is served at Liberty's, an off-the-beaten-path restaurant owned by Caymanians Barbara and Grayson Liberty. A friendly waiter gave us a warm greeting upon our arrival at this very casual dining spot.

"Sit wherever you like. Our little restaurant is your home tonight," he said.

The Holiday Inn is the spot for dancing and drinks. George Nowak, better known as the Barefoot Man, performs at the hotel's open-air, beachside bar Wednesday through Saturday night. Grand Cayman guidebooks describe the entertainer as "legendary in the Caribbean" for his island-style music, so his free show attracts a crowd.

A scene in "The Firm" shot here has Gene Hackman dancing to a song called "Money, Money," which the Barefoot Man recorded for the movie.

Seven Mile Beach has its own two-screen theater and a Blockbuster Video store.

There are plenty of options from which to choose when non-divers get bored of hanging out on Seven Mile Beach. One of the best bets is a ride aboard the Atlantis Submarine, to view up close the coral reefs and sea life in the deep water off Grand Cayman.

During a 60-minute ride, a knowledgeable guide pointed out tarpon, angelfish, yellow snapper, grouper and scores of other fish. He also offered good tidbits about coral.

The ride, which costs $69, couldn't have been more comfortable -- the 46-seat cabin was air-conditioned and pressurized. A shorter ride costs $55.

Half- and full-day snorkeling excursions are offered by many boats. I went on a half-day trip aboard the Cayman Mama, a catamaran skippered by two friendly sailors.

At Stingray City, we petted tame stingrays and fed them squid. At Coral Gardens, we viewed an abundance of coral and hundreds of fish. As we sailed back to the boat's dock, our skippers served a grilled seafood lunch.

The trip costs $35.

Some guidebooks don't recommend touring the island by car because there is so little to see away from Seven Mile Beach. Still, I enjoyed checking out other beaches and seeing how undeveloped much of the island is.

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