Where to stay
Kimpton Seafire Resort & Spa Cayman’s tallest building, at nine
floors, this sustainably built resort also punches highest in the style
stakes with its chic contemporary twist on the Caribbean theme
– think earthy textures from woven wallpapers, natural driftwood chandeliers and prints by local artist Dready. Get a coconut-infused treatment in the Moorish blue-tiled spa, then bag a seat by the fire pit to watch the sunset. Doubles from £311. 60 Tanager Way, 00 1 345 746 0000, seafireresortandspa.com
Locale The newest kid on the block, Locale is a rare thing for Cayman: a boutique hotel sans big-name hospitality brand. There’s a hint of Scandi style about its simple yet stylish rooms and lofts, which come with kitchenettes, and are decked out in blonde wood and grey couches. Downstairs, the open-plan workspaces, craft cocktail bar and a wood-fired pizza joint are a draw for locals and guests alike. Rooms from £249 (sleeps four, second night free). 455 West Bay Road, 00 1 345 233 7829, staylocale.com
The Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman Straddling both the beach and canal sides of the island, this grand dame of Seven Mile resorts includes a Greg Norman-designed golf course and Jean-Michel Cousteau-backed eco-tourism centre (the night-snorkelling excursion is mind-blowing). Of the five restaurants, the omakase menu at Taikun is a must, or splash out on the seafood tasting menu at Blue by Eric Ripert. Doubles from £397. Seven Mile Beach, 00 1 345 943 9000, ritzcarlton.com
The Westin Grand Cayman The recently revamped lobby and pool area are now eminently photogenic – natural light floods into the double-height lobby and beckons guests outside to a swim-up bar, nothing-is-too-much-trouble watersports concierge and Seven Mile’s widest hotel beachfront. Doubles from £389. 30620 Seven Mile Beach, 00 1 345 945 3800, marriott.com
A British Overseas Territory, the Cayman Islands encompasses three islands in the western Caribbean Sea, the largest of which is Grand Cayman. Flights from the UK take around 12 hours, with an en-route stop in Nassau. Currency is the Cayman Islands dollar (KYD), though US dollars (USD) are widely accepted. Time is five hours behind GMT. December to April is the best time to visit, outside of the rainy season. In January, the average high is 29C and the average low, 23C.
British Airways flies from London Heathrow to Grand Cayman’s
Owen Roberts Airport with a stop in Nassau. britishairways.com
Virgin Atlantic also offers flights from London Heathrow to Grand Cayman, with a stop in Miami. virginatlantic.com
Visit Cayman Islands is the offical tourist board. Its website has lots of information to help you plan your trip. visitcaymanislands.com
Where to eat
Prices are per person for a three-course meal with a half-bottle of wine, unless otherwise stated
Agua Technically, this smart restaurant is a contemporary Italian, but a
thoroughly cosmopolitan kitchen team means that six different types of
ceviche rival the excellent handmade pastas. There’s seating inside and out,
and guests are welcome to bring their own wine for a reasonable corkage.
From £55. 47 Forum Lane, Camana Bay, 00 1 345 949 2482, agua.ky
Ave at Kimpton Seafire Canadian-Italian chef Massimo De Francesca adds Caribbean inflections to his European fine-dining background. Think
tuna tartare with crispy black quinoa and olive oil caviar, or burrata with sea
beans (mangrove-grown succulents) and local tomatoes. Under the same
roof is the island’s first open-kitchen chef’s table concept, Avecita, serving
innovative tapas while diners watch the chefs at work. From £60. 60
Tanager Way, Seven Mile Beach, 00 1 345 746 4111, averestaurant.com
Captain Herman Fish Fry Humble as it may be, you mustn’t miss this East End fish shack – a local institution. Not only is it one of the few eateries
dotted along this stretch of craggy ironshore, but vibrant murals of marine life
cover the exterior. Captain Herman’s wife fries up shrimp and fresh fish,
which guests then devour at the picnic tables as they watch the waves crash
on the shore below. Mains from £12. East End, 00 1 345 924 4007
Catch Restaurant The clue’s in the name: fresh seafood is the speciality at this refined harbourside spot in West Bay, helmed by Italian restaurateurs Walter Fajette and Cristiano Vincentini. Fresh-as-it-comes local fish gets a steakhouse treatment here, whereby diners pick their choice of the day’s catch, along with a sauce and two sides (our top pick is the plancha-grilled Brussels sprouts with capers and passion-fruit brown butter). From £87. Morgan’s Lane, West Bay, 00 1 345 949 4321, catch.ky
Cayman Cabana Luigi and Christina Moxam champion locavore dining at this laid-back spot. The Thursday supperclubs are legendary, but on any day of the week farmers’ and fishermen’s bounties become colourful dishes like avocado toast with coconut ‘bacon’ or vegetable- loaded whole steamed snapper. From £45. 53 North Church Street, George Town, 00 1 345 949 3080, caymancabanarestaurant.com
Cracked Conch Conch comes three ways (a chowder, ceviche or
‘cracked’, aka lightly breaded) at the hands of Cayman Islands Chef of
the Year Gilbert Cavallaro, among other sophisticated plates. Start off with
sunset tiki cocktails at adjoining bar Macabuca. From £81. 857 North
West Point Road, West Bay, 00 1 345 945 5217, crackedconch.com.ky
Heritage Kitchen A cute blue cabin that serves classic fish fry and
fritters in Boggy Sands (where Seven Mile Beach runs into the more
rustic West Bay). You won’t go wrong if you order whatever’s chalked up on the blackboard. Closed Mondays. Mains from £11. Boggy Sand
Road, West Bay, 00 1 345 939 3474, heritagekitchencayman.com
Lobster Pot In a dinky, nautically decorated dining room, energetic
Jamaican chef Kerryann Burnett serves up the king of crustaceans in a myriad of ways – from creamy bisque to a garlic butter-anointed surf ’n’ turf that has a devoted local following. From £80. 245 North
Church Street, George Town, 00 1 345 949 2736, lobsterpot.ky
Upstairs at Kaibo Cayman’s largest rare rum collection provides inspired drinks pairings for executive chef Kyle Jenkins’ six-course tasting menu (think dark chocolate and caramelised orange tart with Pyrat XO), amid elegant old-world interiors. Open Wednesday to Sunday, evenings only. Tasting menu £35, wine/rum pairing £27. 585 Water Cay Road, Rum Point, 00 1 345 947 9975, kaibo.ky
- The favourite local leafy greens, which are similar to kale
- Cayman style
- Fish stewed in a piquant sauce of tomato, Scotch bonnet peppers, vinegar, onions and bell pepper
- Fish fry
- Local catch, simply seasoned and flash-fried to perfection
- Fish tea
- Spicy bouillon-style soup
- Bite-sized battered saltfish
- Heavy cake
- Sticky confection made with grated cassava, coconut milk, cinnamon and vanilla
- A Jamaican classic: meat or fish that’s been dry-rubbed or wet marinated with a heady blend of hot spices
- Creamy fish stew of Jamaican origin made with coconut milk, plantain, yams, tomatoes and onion
Food and Travel Review
The languid lilt of a reggae track sets the pace. Beneath a thatched roof, the bartender slowly stirs rum and pineapple, while palm trees give slow creaking bows in the treacly heat and waves sigh beneath the decking. A pair of scuba divers pad past, dripping and dazedly smiling from the underwater kaleidoscope they’ve just seen. Their wet footprints vanish in seconds under the blazing sun. At first glance, it could be any Caribbean island.
Then the food comes out: three dainty, lightly charred coils of what appears to be calamari, stuffed with finely julienned vegetables. ‘Fine,’ I think: squid is abundant in Cayman’s warm, clear waters – often seen pulsing among the coral when snorkelling off the icing-sugar sands of Seven Mile Beach – and this restaurant, the Cracked Conch, is known for its sophisticated seafood. But when I take a bite, my taste buds do a double-take.
‘It’s coconut,’ chef Gilbert Cavallaro winks from beneath his bright green bandana, a French accent still sculpting his vowels after 20 years in Cayman. ‘I use jerk seasoning and cook it quickly to get something close to seafood. The stuffing is chayote, a kind of local squash. As a vegan, I’m curious about this kind of food, creating a Caymanian nouvelle cuisine like in France in the 1970s.’ He breaks off to point at sargassum seaweed floating atop the waves. ‘We’re using that on our new menu, too.’ He gestures towards a cluster of slender trees growing behind the ironshore (the other type of Cayman coast; volcanic black and jagged). ‘And those are amazing – moringa leaves. They’re a superfood and have a hint of heat to them that tastes a little like horseradish.’
A vegan French chef, foraged island ingredients, a creative and worldly fine-dining treatment: having lived in the Cayman Islands for two years, such a medley probably shouldn’t surprise me. Diversity is, largely, what’s earned this diminutive trio of West Indies islands – Grand Cayman only 35km long, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman even tinier specks on the map – the title ‘culinary capital of the Caribbean’. While it lacks the grand colonial architecture and mountainous panoramas of neighbouring Cuba and Jamaica, Cayman compensates with the sophistication and variety of its gastronomic scene. Here, it’s not unusual to drift happily from an Aussie-style Buddha bowl for breakfast to lunching on fish tea and fritters at a beach shack like Heritage Kitchen. For dinner? Perhaps the foie gras-layered tuna carpaccio at one of the Caribbean’s finest restaurants, Blue by Eric Ripert.
Why? Because of the sheer mix of nationalities magnetised by the financial services industry, famous beaches and first-world infrastructure. As a British Overseas Territory – the Queen’s face is printed on the local currency alongside tropical fish and parrots, while Waitrose products line supermarket shelves – Brits make up a sizable portion, but so do Canadians, Filipinos, Jamaicans, Indians and more. In fact, around half of its 66,000 population are expats. And it shows the most in the kitchen.
‘There’s Caribbean cuisine and then there’s Cayman’s food scene,’ says Eliot Wilkie, a Welsh expat and the self-proclaimed ‘shipwrecked’ head chef at Catch Restaurant. ‘Yes, you can get your jerk chicken, your plantain and outrageously sweet mango, but that’s only the start. For food-lovers, this place has got more to offer than anywhere else in the region.’
In the kitchens of Agua, Peruvian chef Antonio Mercado plates up ceviche to his grandmother’s recipe while lobbying jokes across the stainless-steel countertops at Italian colleague Fabio Andreazzoli, who’s tossing ribbons of freshly rolled tagliatelle in anchovy butter. He swirls the glistening strands into a dish and tops with a handful of what looks like tuna tartare? ‘This is the fusion that typifies Cayman,’ explains Agua’s co-owner Cristiano Vincentini. ‘The tuna is fantastic here, so we thought, let’s make a pasta dish with it.’
Similarly, executive chef of the Kimpton Seafire Resort, Massimo De Francesca, says: ‘In my kitchen, there are over 54 nationalities in my team, out of 93 employees. That creates a great playground for exchange and exploration. Island-wide it’s the same story.’
Such plurality wasn’t always the case. With the first settlers arriving in the 17th century, a relatively short culinary history revolving around a limited clutch of ingredients made for a diet ‘based on starchy veg like cassava, yam and pumpkin,’ says Britta Bush, owner of vegan café and meal delivery service Saucha Conscious Living. ‘In the past, traditional Caymanian dishes were meat-protein forward, with curried chicken, oxtail and turtle [legal here, if farmed].’
If that sounds borrowed from Jamaica’s cookbook, it’s hardly a surprise: Cayman was a dependency of its big ‘brother’ for centuries, explains Jamaican-born owner of Peppers’ Mario Machado. The breakfast dish of saltfish and ackee, a waxy yellow fruit that resembles scrambled eggs when cooked, was an import. As was jerk chicken, a Peppers’ speciality. ‘But there are differences. In Jamaica there’s a lot of wood, so meat is smoked over that; Cayman tends to use barbecue grills and adds flavour with marinades.’ Quizzed about the recipe for his, Machado chuckles that it’s ‘top secret’, but reveals that five kinds of peppers are involved.
As Cayman became known for its offshore finance (and beaches) in the 1970s, along came the expensive imported ingredients and international dishes – there’s no shortage of Indian and Chinese restaurants, American diners and Irish pubs, where you can eat in air-conditioned placelessness. Increasingly, however, the dining scene isn’t polarised into lavish bottomless brunches and, at the other end, rustic fish shacks (though both still flourish). Thriving in between is ‘glocavore’ gastronomy, where worldly techniques and trends are taking local produce in imaginative new directions.
‘The dining scene isn’t polarised into lavish brunches and rustic fish shacks. Thriving in between is ‘glocavore’ gastronomy, where worldly techniques meet local produce’
Cayman Cabana was an early adopter of the farm-to-fork approach. Owners Luigi and Christina Moxam, a young couple from Cayman and Canada respectively, explain how their daily menu stems from whatever arrives from partner farmers, such as Clarence McLaughlin, and the fishermen who land their catch on the sandy cove right next door. ‘We’re going back to what’s seasonal, what’s fresh and what we grow best, but treating it differently,’ says Luigi. Today his ceviche, for example, is made with conch – sea snails whose huge pink shells are scattered across Caymanian beaches – while that most international of hipster dishes, avocado toast, comes loaded with coconut ‘bacon’ (the fruit is dried and roasted with smoky spices) and tiny tomatoes.
Ah yes, Cayman’s tomatoes. ‘The best I’ve ever tasted,’ Eliot Wilkie declares. ‘Phenomenally sweet and flavoursome.’ Apparently that’s down to the salt content in the red clay soil. Mangoes are also greeted rapturously when they come into season in summer, while Cayman’s vibrant peppers were, he says, something of a revelation: ‘They have the flavour profile of Scotch bonnet but without the heat.’
Wander the farmers’ markets at the Cricket Grounds or Camana Bay, meanwhile, and you’ll see everything from aubergines to okra, pak choi to radishes, all grown in the island’s sleepier, less developed eastern districts. American influences – strip malls, souvenir shops and big-name hotels – fall away as you drive east to Bodden Town and Savannah. It’s a place of pastel-shuttered clapboard cottages, roadside jerk stalls, along with, increasingly, a crucible of hydroponic farms and artisan food producers.
Perhaps the most unlikely culinary Eden is to be found in the car park of George Town’s Cricket Square business park. The gleaming SUVs and offices of law peek through the foliage as I navigate The Brasserie’s organic gardens with the restaurant’s manager, Michiel Bush, and gardener, Aide Davila. Davila plucks a red bean from one glossy-leafed plant and rolls it between her fingers: ‘Coffee,’ she smiles shyly, almost as if embarrassed by the natural riches she’s cultivated on this patch of concrete. Here, too, are grapes that will be used for vinegars, cacao for desserts, and kaffir lime to make a syrup for the menu of garden-inspired cocktails.
While Caymanians have long been turning their tropical ingredients into jellies, teas and rums, the new guard is bringing fresh perspectives and techniques. An ‘obsession’ with fermentation drove Saucha’s Britta Bush to teach herself kombucha brewing and sourdough baking. ‘The artisan and wellness trends are merging here in Cayman, with delicious results,’ she says, surrounded by jars of ‘powerkraut’, a turmeric-laced pickled cabbage, in the Art Nest café. ‘And it’s not only chefs – there are many more DIY-ers out there, too.’ She ran her first fermentation workshop in 2019, and a level two series is on the cards.
‘Cayman’s kitchens happily absorb outside influences and release unexpected fusions, just as its ironside coast sucks up and spurts out seawater in blowholes’
The past two years have also seen the launches of a fruit and veg box delivery service, The Farmacy, and the 19-81 Brewing Company, which creates limited-edition craft brews from surplus harvests. ‘Our guinep [Spanish lime] beer sold out in two days... the next day, this guy came in with 18kg of guineps and said, “Hey, make some more”,’ laughs 19-81’s brewmaster Jordan MacNevin.
Life on a small island requires resourcefulness. But it doesn’t always go with an outward-looking attitude, or willing assimilation. Cayman’s kitchens happily absorb outside influences and release unexpected fusions, just as its ironshore coast sucks up and spurts out seawater in blowholes that visitors flock to photograph.
‘Cayman is such a new culture,’ reflects Bush, over a delicious dish of local honey-glazed pumpkin in The Brasserie’s gardens, ‘and as it has always been a mixture of people, it’s much more accepting of different influences. No one minds if it’s strictly a Texan barbecue or Jamaican jerk chicken; it can be a little bit of everything and for that, I think, it’s all the better.’
Food and Travel travelled to Grand Cayman courtesy of the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism. visitcaymanislands.com
Get Premium access to all the latest content online
Subscribe and view full print editions online... Subscribe