One of the westernmost Caribbean islands, Grand Cayman enjoys a festival almost every month. Andy Mossack drops in during Culinary Month.
It’s early evening and I’m perched at the chef’s counter at the Kimpton SeaFire Resort’s Avecita Restaurant facing a very red gazpacho. It’s the opening shot of a very impressive Spanish-inspired five-course tasting menu, with wine pairings, that takes place each night for a select group of diners. Said gazpacho, with goat’s cheese, beets and red berries for company, is paired with a cava cocktail duly entitled Scarlet Tanager, which is, so I’m told by Richard my all-knowing countertop server, a crimson-feathered bird. A bullseye all round it seems.
Considering the diversity and sheer number of eating choices on Grand Cayman perhaps this particular festival should be relabelled as culinary fest month. 30 days of hedonistic food digestion showcasing everything from epicurean to easy is a tall order, but one that most islanders seem to take in their stride. No surprise then the Cayman Islands is the undisputed culinary capital of the Caribbean.
Faced with such an array of foodie talent it’s hard to pick where to begin. I decide to start big and head for Agua Restaurant, the fine dining Italian eatery at Camana Bay. Camana is a new development owned and managed by the Dart Group spearheaded by low-key billionaire Ken Dart who has made Grand Cayman his home. Dart is influential in just about everything that moves on the Cayman Islands from real estate and construction to island employment and some generous philanthropy, so no surprise Camana Bay bears all the hallmarks of yet another successful Dart project.
Agua proudly embraces traditional Italian recipes but adding a Peruvian twist. A bold move you might say, messing with a cuisine adored by millions. To soften the shock, it flies in ingredients directly from Italy and my dinner included white truffle fresh off the plane from Piemonte. Agua’s waterfront location suits it’s mainly fish bias, but there is more than enough here for all preferences. I go with the fresh white truffle week menu – a ceviche appetizer (with shaved truffle of course) homemade tagliatelle with white truffle butter and 24-month Parmigiano and a beef fillet with fingerling croquettes and cauliflower. 3 courses CI$120.
Sunday dawns and brings brunch into play, a Caymanian tradition of some note. The premise is simple; heaps of buffet options with wine for a set price. The Anchor and Den brunch at the Marriott lobby on Seven Mile Beach is something of an island institution and it’s in full flow by the time I turn up. CI$75 bags bottomless bubbly (CI$60 without alcohol) and copious food stations inspired by dishes from all parts of the globe.
The raw fish bar and the cheese and deli offerings catch most of my attention, as does the full classic English breakfast of course. There is a golden rule when it comes to vast buffets – take no prisoners and just dive in quick before retreating to the relative calm of your table.
But Culinary Month is not all just about fine dining. Across the island from Seven Mile Beach lies Rum Point, a delightfully secluded bay where lies the Rum Point Club and Wreck Bar and Grill. Not only does this rustic beach shack knock out some very tasty no-frills fare but it is also proud to be the originator of the famous Cayman mud-slide cocktail. Basically, a tankard of rum-laden ice cream that slides down remarkably smoothly. Just as well there are more than a few hammocks to fall into afterwards.
With a deep breath I take some well-earned respite from all this decadent gluttony with a couple of excellent water-borne excursions. Stingray City has been a Caymanian staple for decades; a shallow sandbar 30 minutes out to sea where wild stingrays congregate, drawn by years of fishermen gutting and cleaning their catches here. As if taking a private yacht charter out to Stingray City and snorkelling is not cool enough, standing in the shallow water while an adult stingray willingly lies in your outstretched arms like a warm giant mushroom, is almost a life-changing experience.
Another remarkable encounter is a night-time bioluminescent cruise. It’s an opportunity to snorkel amongst luminous microscopic plankton; my hands carving glowing fairy dust like an underwater magic wand. There is an obvious marine science behind it involving the sun’s rays being absorbed and stored by millions of plankton who then jettison it on contact, but frankly I just enjoy the beauty and wonder of it all.
Back on dry land and another culinary adventure at The Brasserie awaits. But first a detour. Restaurant owners Clarence and Lisa Flowers and Consultant Chef Dean Max are pioneers in using sustainable and ethical ingredients in their restaurants and have invested heavily in farm to fork and sea to table produce. Everything from their own fishing boats to their coop of free-range laying hens.
Biologist and head gardener Aidé Lopez takes me on a tour of the company’s farm in Coco Bluff where over 200 palms produce an impressive variety of coconuts and 50 beehives are hard at work delivering fresh honey. Back at the restaurant, Aidé proudly shows me her living garden and nursery greenhouse surrounding The Brasserie; a treasure trove of fresh produce. “It’s important that people know where the food that they eat comes from and, hopefully, inspire them to eat locally and seasonally and reduce food miles.”
Fortunately, Aidé is married to The Brasserie’s chef de cuisine Artemio Lopez, so he doesn’t have to travel very far to get the ingredients he needs to make his culinary magic. The fruit of all this labour is very evident in my lunch, a veritable feast of freshness. Yellowfin tuna tartare with a spicy soy vinaigrette, cucumber, garden radish and avocado puree (CI$16) wahoo ceviche with grapefruit, local June plum, jalapeno and cucumber (CI$16) potato and leek soup (CI$9) and garden turmeric marinated chicken with pulao rice, beets, and garden callaloo (CI$28).
Another break from eating provides a memorable afternoon working off the calories on the back of a horse called Lady who turns out to be quite the swimmer. My horse-riding begins with a slow magical stroll along the beach with some of her equine buddies, the Caribbean gently lapping at our hooves, a soft breeze in our faces. Then, saddles are off and I’m climbing clumsily back on hanging on for dear life as we plunge into the sea. Of course, this is all poetic license. Lady is clearly loving this bit; she’s done it countless times before and knows the route inside out. Still, riding a horse bareback while it swims out to sea and back is a beautiful yet slightly nervy experience, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
We arrive back to our starting point and I reluctantly leave Lady who goes over to munch on grass without so much as a backward glance. At least I know, deep down, she’ll never forget me.
The evening heralds another culinary treat at the Cracked Conch, a West Bay stylish Caribbean-style restaurant with an impressive sea-facing outdoor deck. Conch chowder (CI$11) and a conch ceviche with tomato, red onions, avocado, lime juice (CI$14) are the appetizer highlights. The lobster fricassée however, with moringa mash, mushrooms, asparagus, carrot confit (CI$44) is the star of the show.
After a restful night back at Kimpton SeaFire Resort, another relentlessly sunny day dawns but where I’m going needs no sunshine. The Cayman Crystal Caves is Grand Cayman’s newest attraction; a three-cave network amid a lush tropical forest at Old Man Bay in Northside. It’s a fascinating subterranean landscape of stalactite and stalagmite crystal formations created by single drops of water and the slow passage of time.
Many of the natural formations have taken on recognisable shapes, some human, some animal, as guide Rudy points out, whilst somehow managing to remember the name of every visitor who called them out. I spot a couple and get Rudy’s nod of approval. You never know, I might be in Rudy’s hall of fame from now on.
For some above-ground nature, I have a stroll around the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park which is well worth a few hours of meandering through acres of fauna and flora, culture and history. The Chelsea Flower Show award-winning Heritage Garden is a particular stand out with its authentic turn of the century Caymanian house and medicinal garden. There’s also the Blue Iguana Habitat, a vital resource for the island’s blue iguana recovery programme, a project that has saved the species from extinction.
The busy day is rewarded with another memorable repast; the Lobster Pot Restaurant and Wine Bar, a George Town favourite for over 50 years. Gorgeous sea views and a switched-on serving team the perfect duo to complement an excellent kitchen that knows all things lobster inside out. Crispy coconut shrimp (CI$12) and baby spinach and herb-roasted tomato salad (CI$9.50) provide the perfect appetizers to the classic Cayman Trio – broiled lobster tail, grilled fresh mahi-mahi, garlic shrimp and fresh vegetables (CI$39.75).
Grand Cayman Culinary Month has lived up to the billing. Decadent days of eating only bettered perhaps by some highly memorable excursions on land and sea and more than a few colourful characters.
What can top this? Well, there is Pirate Week coming up…..
Tell me more about The Cayman Islands
For full details on all the tours and restaurants mentioned here and more, please visit The Cayman Islands Department of Tourism
British Airways offers a direct service from London Heathrow to Grand Cayman four times a week. Prices are from £622 return including taxes/fees/carrier charges. To book please visit ba.com/grandcayman
Horseback riding with Spirit of the West Horse riding and sea swim (2 hours) – US$130. Per person.
Stingray City Cayman Private Luxury Charters – Seastar holds a maximum of up to 13 people for a four-hour trip costs CI$1,500
Bioluminescent night cruise George Watersports $79 2 hour tour.
Queen Elizabeth Botanic Park – CI$15 per person
Crystal Caves – CI$34 per person
Where to stay on Grand Cayman
The Kimpton Seafire Resort Kimpton’s first hotel beyond the continental U.S offers pinch-me-I’m-dreaming views of turquoise waters and sun-bleached. Each of the 266 guestrooms and suites has its own private balcony, nearly all featuring water vistas.