Once upon a time, when I was a teenager growing up in a middle class family in the suburbs of a big Midwestern city, “summer vacation” meant packing up the family (mom, dad, 4 kids), getting in Dad’s wallowing American sedan, and going on a roadtrip. Maybe we drove along the shores of the Great Lakes, stopping at motels along the way; for a treat we’d get fudge on Mackinac Island and had breakfast at the Grand Hotel. On another trip, we’d follow the Great River Road along the Mississippi River. One particularly extravagant year, we drove to the Gulf Coast of Florida and spent a week in a motel with apartment-like units, using it as a base to go to Disney World, Busch Gardens, Sea World, etc.
These days, in my naivete – since I neither have kids nor travel in the summer – I’ve learned that apparently a family summer vacation means a week at a Ritz Carlton resort in the Caribbean. (Adopt me, please!)
My husband and I had earmarked 5 days at the end of July to spend cruising around the Chesapeake on our boat. However, as the time to shove off drew closer, my husband suggested that instead of sailing (which we’ll have done for 2 other vacations this year), maybe we could do something I wanted to do. For me, that means tennis, and in my research, I learned that the Ritz Carlton on Grand Cayman has a tennis facility associated with supercoach Nick Bollettieri. Beach and tennis – what was not to like? As I soon learned, while there is nothing to criticize about a trip such as the one we just returned from, it’s simply not my style. While I expected that in advance, I also know that when I manage my expectations and try hard to find things that suit me, I can have a great trip; nevertheless, I just couldn’t make this destination “fit” me very well.
I try not to let the flights down and back cloud my judgment, which is not an easy thing to do when you must pass through the portals of he!! (aka MIA) to reach your destination. But the man sitting next to me on the flight from MIA to GCM – the thought of whom still leaves me shaking my head in disbelief – was something of a harbinger of what I saw in our travels. This European “gentleman” was sitting in the window seat, with me in the middle; though he was slight of physique, he completely monopolized the armrest between us and used ¼ of my seat as well, never taking a hint even as I passive-aggressively tried to edge my elbow on the armrest or reclaim my seat. But that was not the coup de grace. No, that was when the plane stopped and he flung off his seatbelt and CLIMBED over me and my husband into the aisle to gain a 2 passenger advantage in deplaning. I admit to chuckling a little when I saw him caught up in the same immigration lines as the rest of us….
The European Gentleman’s jockeying for position was a taste of things to come, for when we arrived at the Ritz Carlton – an amazingly smooth and gentle process – we found the resort to be full of vacationing families. The RC sits on a prime swath of 7 Mile Beach, as well as having 2 pools. On the beach, there are several rows of comfortable beach loungers for guests (packed quite tightly, as the RC beachfront is narrow and guests are many). Since my husband and I rarely frequent large beach resorts, we were innocently unaware of the piggy practice of claiming a prime beach chair early in the day by dumping your junk on it, and then disappearing only to reclaim the chair many hours later, if at all. This means the best chairs are rendered un-usable, while the clueless, hapless, or later-arriving guests are left several rows away from the beach, or giving up altogether. We could cope with that, but one very angry guest loudly berated the attendant in the towel hut because she could not get a prime chair. I could do nothing but roll my eyes (I couldn’t help but hear) as she proclaimed that she, Her Highness – a Repeat Visitor, could not believe she was being so shabbily treated and that she would not be returning to the Ritz Carlton Grand Cayman. I really felt for the attendant – what could he do? If it were me, I’d pleasantly inform her that she could guarantee the prime spot she deserved by renting a cabana … perhaps she was angling to have the pool attendant comp that for her…
Anyway, other than the somewhat entitled crowds at the Ritz, staying at the resort was a first-class experience. The Ritz property straddles the road which runs along 7 Mile Beach, with the oceanfront rooms located on the beach side, and the gardenview rooms across the street on the lagoon side, connected by an elevated walkway. For our purposes, since we’d spend little time in the room, and would be taking advantage of other lagoon-side amenities (tennis, restaurants, rental car), a gardenview room would be fine – and as it turned out, the room we had offered a view of the sea from the balcony anyway. The room was spacious, bright and luxurious. I’m nuts about the RC beds, and looked forward to sliding between the silken sheets and downy featherbed every evening. The bath was equally luxurious, clad in marble that had, on closer inspection, fossils of shells embedded in it.
Of course, for me it seems a bit unusual to stay in such grand surroundings when I’m staying at the beach. We prefer our island trips a lot more casual – rolling out of bed onto the beach, or dinghy-ing in from a chartered sailboat. As well, staying at “boutique” properties like some favorites in the Out Islands of the Bahamas, we are used to fending for ourselves at the honor bar. So it took a bit of effort to put on shoes and a proper coverup to walk over to the beach. Nevertheless, we are not unwilling to accept a little pampering from time to time, so if the price of having a mojito delivered to my beach lounger is that I have to wear shoes to get to the beach, so be it.
And, since we have been taking long weekends to play tennis for the last half-dozen years, we’ve also learned that the best tennis facilities tend to be at the larger resorts. Like everything else at the RC, the tennis facility was top-notch. The RC boasts 4 immaculately groomed courts – 3 clay and 1 grass. We’d reserved court time every morning from 8-9, before it got too horribly hot, and at 7:55 every morning, a court attendant with a golf cart picked us up at the hotel entrance and drove us through the meticulously groomed Blue Tip golf course to the courts. While we warmed up, the attendant brought us crested towels rolled up on a silver platter, as well as a cooler full of bottled water on ice – both were quite necessary in the heat and humidity. As if to live up to my surroundings, I raised my game as well. Afterwards, we cleaned that rusty clay off our shoes before being spirited back to the hotel, feeling justified to indulge ourselves for the rest of the day.
Most days, we spent at least a few hours on the beach at the resort. Seven Mile Beach deservedly has a reputation as one of the loveliest in the Caribbean. However (and I’m ducking for cover here), I have had the pleasure of spending time on many that I consider lovelier. My opinion only – yours may differ! Grace Bay on Providenciales is at least a peer. And to me, a favorite beach will not be blockaded in with resorts and condos on the shoreside, with jetskis and parasailing buzzing around offshore, lots of people in roped-off swimming areas (though the ropes are necessary to protect them from the jetskis), and 3 or more behemoth cruise ships looming in the distance. I spent a good bit of time daydreaming about some of the miles-long pink-tinged strands of both windward and leeward beaches that I’ve shared with no one but my husband in the Out Islands….
Needless to say, for us, at least the opportunity of escape from the crowds was essential. Our first day, we simply walked north along the beach until we reached Calico Jack’s, a ramshackle open-air beach bar that was just our speed (well, except for the jetski concession…). On a Thursday afternoon, it was uncrowded and mellow, a great spot to enjoy the water and a drink or two – we might not enjoyed it so much on a Saturday night, when driving past it we saw it to be very busy.
Later, we picked up our rented car from Avis, which had a convenient location at the RC – once our paperwork was completed, the valet brought our Jeep around. We drove around, looking for more lightly populated spots on the island. An early-in-day visit to Cemetery Beach yielded a few hours of snorkeling at vibrant patch reefs (all in the midst of a rain shower, with top down on the Jeep… bad on us). When my sister visited Rum Point in May, she said they had the beach to themselves; however, in July it was wall-to-wall people and watertoys and loungers. Gack! Elsewhere, with the exception of public beach access points (good job, that – access, sometimes parking, and public toilets), most beaches were developed, and some limited land-side access to registered guests. If we’d had more time on the island, we might have found more spots to our liking, but that was not to be.
Dining didn’t require too much effort to get away from the banality of U.S. fast food chains (which are here in force … Wendy’s anyone?). But it did take some planning. When I called highly-recommended Calypso Grill for a same-day reservation, they chuckled and told me that I could either have a 9:30 p.m. table (not happening after having left home at 3:30 a.m.!) or plan ahead for another night. When we stopped there for lunch, which is not crowded, we were so impressed with the offerings – AMAZING wahoo ceviche! – and the setting (waterfront on the sound) that we booked dinner for Sunday night. While dinner at Calypso Grill did not live up to the promise of lunch, partly because every seat was full and the wait staff were pressed, we still enjoyed delicious fresh seafood with crisp, dry rose wine. We also enjoyed good meals at the Cracked Conch and Lighthouse Reef, and breakfast at Eats, while concluding that our favorite venue was the broken-down, off-the-beaten-path, local favorite Over the Edge (on the way to Rum Point).
In sharp contrast to Over the Edge was dinner at the RC’s flagship restaurant, Blue. Despite the staggering prices, Blue – which requires reservations and proper attire – was completely full with hotel guests, visitors and Cayman residents alike. Justly so, since the décor is stunning (blue-themed, martini-bar meets British colonial), the service impeccable and personable, and the food fresh and innovative.
By the time we had our dinner at Blue, we’d become accustomed to prices on Grand Cayman. As regular Caribbean travelers, we’re quite used to things costing more, since many basic necessities are shipped in and then subject to duty. Grand Cayman prices are a few notches higher than the Caribbean in general, such that staying at a hotel like the Ritz Carlton isn’t necessarily going to result in a significant premium. This past winter, just before we’d left for a sailing trip that would have us based in St. Martin and visiting Anguilla and St. Barth, we’d read a column by Dave Barry about taking his family on a vacation to St. Barth (maybe Dave Barry can adopt me…). He noted that St. Barth was very pricey, and in his inimitable way, claimed that everything (dinner, hotel room, taxi ride) cost $17,000. In comparison, he might have found everything on Grand Cayman to cost $16,500….
High prices may indeed be the price of entry for an island paradise which is clean, relatively crime-free, and prosperous. And I’m sure that with a little effort and forbearance (pass on that rum drink…), it needn’t be excessively expensive. But what some people understandably consider paradise, I personally found too sanitized and homogenized and groomed for my taste. Clearly, I’m outnumbered in my opinions, since a great many people visit Grand Cayman, many of whom would be taken aback by my favorite island destinations. Amen to that, since variety is the spice of life, and if we all liked the same things, it would be a boring world indeed. (Interestingly, the troubadour of Grand Cayman, Barefoot Man, vacations on one of my favorite islands … Great Guana Cay… Even Caymanians need to get away sometimes). I will emphasize that my husband and I had a good experience on Grand Cayman – just as we can enjoy different travel experiences throughout the world – but for a Caribbean island experience, Grand Cayman would not be my first choice.