Celebrating catboats and craftsmen

Ailis Brennan discovers how new hotels on the Cayman Islands are paying homage to the rich heritage of the Caribbean territory.

Paid partnership with Visit Cayman Islands

Celebrating catboats and craftsmen

Ailis Brennan discovers how new hotels on the Cayman Islands are paying homage to the rich heritage of the Caribbean territory

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As the ocean breaks at my feet, its whitewater is only a shade or two lighter than the sand that meets it. In front of me, a blue expanse of ocean so crystal clear it glows like a great pulsing jewel in the midday sun; behind, canary yellow parasols flutter in neat rows above pristine white daybeds. 

This is Seven Mile Beach, a stretch of alabaster-white sand that runs along one end of Grand Cayman – which is the largest of the three Cayman Islands, but still not more than 22 miles in length – and is often heralded as one of the best beaches in the world.

Beyond the sand is water lauded for its remarkable clarity, making Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac global hotspots for divers and snorkelers. 

The parasols belong to Palm Heights, the luxury hotel by interior designer and creative director Gabriella Khalil, which has been attracting an A-list clientele to its style-drenched surroundings since its launch in 2020.

Khalil’s aesthetic vision took the bones of a relatively unremarkable hotel, and reimagined it as the hideaway of a 1970s millionaire. 

Inspired by the glamour of the era in which the Caribbean first became a luxury destination, each of the 50 individually designed, ocean-view suites are peppered with 20th century design treasures, including original pieces by the likes of Marcel Breuer, Pierre Paulin, Ettore Sottsass and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Sunshine yellow threads through the property in the form of mustard-striped soft furnishings and the ochre marble of the new 60,000 sq ft spa, contrasted with the occasional blast of cerulean blue. 

Prior to its rapid mid-century acceleration as a global centre for financial services, the industry of the Cayman Islands lay almost exclusively in fishing and ropemaking. A walk north along Seven Mile Beach will bring you to the Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa, another of the most desirable hotels on the island.

The design here touches on these histories, the ones before the millionaires arrived: rope textures are used throughout, while a traditional Caymanian catboat – affectionately named Miss Ola – hangs from the ceiling of its new bar, Library By The Sea. Intricately mosaiced cabinets inside the rooms are made by local craftsmen. 

Also situated on the beach, the longstanding Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman completed a two-year renovation in 2022. The Silver Palm bar has been repainted a sage green inspired by the leaves of the silver thatch palm, Cayman’s national tree, celebrated for its usage in the ropemaking industry.

The hotel’s very own, considerably sized art gallery plays host to works by local artists, many of whom are inspired by the island’s natural beauty and history.

When the Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa opened in 2016, it was the first major new hotel opening in Grand Cayman for a decade but the pattern of the subsequent years looks very different.

New for 2023 are the likes of Vida Ocean Adventure Lodge, a luxury boutique hotel in the Barkers National Park, where eco-focused activities include kitesurfing, horse riding and kayaking. 

In the coming year, Grand Cayman will welcome Kailani, a Curio Collection by Hilton hotel to the capital, George Town; and Hotel Indigo, the Caribbean debut for the international brand, set to open on Seven Mile Beach in April 2024. In 2025, new openings include the 351-room Grand Hyatt Grand Cayman Residences, and the highly anticipated Mandarin Oriental Grand Cayman. 

Newness is certainly the name of the game in the Cayman Islands hotel industry right now, but the most compelling hospitality initiatives of both recent and future years are providing a channel to the past.

“The most compelling hospitality initiatives… are providing a channel to the past”

Wellness is a key principle across many: Grand Cayman may be more cosmopolitan than ever but walks through the Cayman Coconut Rituals offered at Seafire’s spa invite you to indulge in its age-old principle of ‘island time’ – the celebration of slowness. 

If Palm Heights offers a taste of life as a millionaire, a trip to the two smaller islands offers a journey back in time to life for a typical Caymanian 50 years ago.

Just a 35 minute flight away is Little Cayman, which boasts a grand total of 197 permanent residents – and a colony of rare red-footed boobies, of course. 

Despite its size, there is still more than enough room for warm Caymanian hospitality: the Southern Cross Club is made up of 14 pastel-coloured bungalows along the beach, an idyllic spot for those looking to rest their head after a day of diving at the island’s world famous Bloody Bay Wall.   

We fly just another seven minutes away to Cayman Brac. Here there is just one main road – which encircles the 140ft tall ‘bluff’, the island’s dramatic rock backbone – taking drivers from one hamlet of traditional homes to the next, collectively housing just 2,000 people.

We arrive at Le Soleil D’Or, a property comprising villa-like houses and gardens that straddle the Brac’s untamed landscape.

From the beach, through waterfall-flanked paths, we climb up the bluff to its 20-acre farm, trees burgeoning with guavas, starfruit, chillies and foot-long green beans.

We feast on these gifts at the on-site restaurant that night – a jewel in the crown of the Cayman Islands’ growing farm-to-table movement. 

There is quiet here like no other. After dinner, we lie out by the pool and watch the stars in their black sky, unpolluted by city glow. For tourism in the Cayman Islands, the future is bright – but keep the past alive, and it will be beautiful too. 

Need to know

  • Getting there – British Airways offer direct* flights from London Heathrow to Grand Cayman five times per week. *The flight touches down in Nassau, Bahamas but passengers travelling on to Cayman do not disembark the plane.
  • Best time to go – the Cayman Islands experience an average temperature of 26°C all year round, making it a fantastic holiday destination at any time of year. However, the months from December-April tend to bring the most pleasant weather.
  • Where to stay – there is a range of accommodation on offer across all three islands from resorts and hotels to luxurious villas and condos, all within easy access of the beautiful beaches and Caribbean Sea. See the “Where to Stay” section of the Visit Cayman Islands website for more information.
  • Must-pack item – leave space in your suitcase to take home some of the fantastic local art and pottery, or a bottle of Seven Fathoms Rum – a rum unique to the Cayman Islands that is matured in oak barrels lowered seven fathoms under the sea, where the rolling waves and warm sea temperature create the perfect conditions to create this smooth, mellow spirit.
  • How to do it – hire a car and explore the islands yourself! Driving is on the left, just like the UK, and the islands are very easy to navigate.
  • Anything else? There are 365 different dive sites in the Cayman Islands, most of which are easily accessible and just a short boat ride from the shore. Refresher and PADI certified open water courses are available at most of the dive resorts and if you complete your theory work in the UK before you leave, you can spend more time diving when you’re in Cayman!

More information

This article on Cayman Islands Hotels was brought to you in partnership with Visit Cayman Islands. With 71,000 friendly locals to greet you, the Cayman Islands can be found in the most carefree corner of the Caribbean.

All three of the islands have their own personality, from the barefoot elegance of Grand Cayman, to the adventurous spirit of Cayman Brac to the tranquillity of Little Cayman.

For more information and suggested itineraries, go to visitcaymanislands.com.

JRNY is an independent travel magazine published in the UK. Subscribe to JRNY for more stories like this.