Monday, June 8, 2015

Grand Cayman with kids: Final Thoughts

Our vacation to Grand Cayman was just what we had hoped for: gorgeous beaches with powdery white sand, incredible clear, turquoise water, a chance to swim with stingrays, and trying out snorkeling for the first time. We also could not have been happier with our stay at the Marriott Beach Resort, perfectly located right on famed Seven Mile Beach. The resort itself is beautifully decorated in a contemporary Caribbean theme with plenty of lounge areas in the lobby, restaurants on site, and a gift shop in case there is a sudden need for a Grand Cayman t-shirt :) What we loved the most, though, were the staff members of the beach resort. One went out of his way to check ingredients on some muffins for Ava to see if they had any dairy-free varieties. When he found that she, unfortunately, would not be able to have one, he led us to the buffet and told her to fill her plate with as many fruit and berries as she could. That type of service just goes above and beyond what one expects! Another time Skylar accidentally left her wallet behind on a chair in the lobby. Before the evening was over housekeeping had returned it to us. The day we were leaving, we asked the doormen where a local carwash was so we could vacuum out our rental car as we had a good bit of beach sand in it. They insisted on actually vacuuming it out themselves! The staff was always professional and made sure we were all enjoying our time at the resort. Probably our best time with the staff was during one of our final nights when we enjoyed the beach bonfires and s'more making. The staff really seems to enjoy hanging out with the guests, telling funny stories, and making you feel like you are more than a guest at their property, more like old friends.

We enjoyed soaking up the sun and surf one last time on our last day here during the morning. In the afternoon, we explored some of the souvenir shops in Georgetown as the kids had some souvenir money they wanted to spend. The shopping area is easily walkable as it's a fairly compact with most of the shops carrying the same typical souvenir fare. The kids enjoyed it and were pleased with their purchases. We stayed up past bedtime our final night as well to enjoy one more s'mores night on the beach. With my final thoughts are some final photos of our last day there. Grand Cayman - we thank you for hosting us on your gorgeous island...we will be back!

resort view from chair

Beach b and a 2

Georgetown B and A

Georgetown

Resort sunset sailboat

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Monday, May 25, 2015

Grand Cayman with Kids: Snorkeling & The Waterfront

Day Three

With an adventurous day behind us, we wanted to relax a bit and begin our day at our resort, just spending the morning/afternoon swimming and snorkeling. Mike got up early again to go for a run on the beach and this time put the towels on the chairs before he ran. Great thinking! He got the last five chairs available in the front. It made all the difference to not have our view blocked by the row of chairs in front of us. Nothing but white sand and beautiful turquoise water as our view today!

I had also been wanting to try snorkeling after hearing from my family how awesome it was. I admittedly never have once opened my eyes under water, even with goggles on. I know it sounds silly but I was always afraid water would still get in. Mike insisted I try it and I figured now was as good of a time as ever. I put on the snorkel goggles and gently placed my face in the water. I wanted to gasp but obviously that wouldn't have ended well under water! The sun reflected so peacefully off the bottom of the sand while the fish swam in a carefree yet purposeful manner--it was a beautiful sight to witness for the first time. After marveling over my new view I decided to give the actual snorkel a try. I took a few practices before trying with my face in the water--it was so easy! It's amazing how you get used to just seeing life on earth...when you explore new depths {pun intended} you are greatly rewarded. My kids were excited I was finally snorkeling and my son really wanted to take me out to the reef. I went out with him but when I saw sea urchins I turned around! I was afraid I'd accidentally land on one. Of course he thought that was silly but I was new to this and needed time to warm up to all these creatures!

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Some of the fish we saw

Beach B with fish guide
Braden studying the fish guide, post-snorkel

After we spent the better part of the day here, we headed out to get some beach photos of the kids. I really loved the look of Spott's Beach, where we had visited a few days before, so we kept that in mind in case we weren't lucky with a closer location. We came across several beach access signs while driving along Seven Mile Beach but could not see the beach from the narrow pathway that we drove by. We played it safe and stayed with what we knew so we headed back to Spott's Beach. When we arrived, all spots were taken in the tiny parking area but people were beginning to pack up and head out for the day. The beautiful palm trees were free from people lounging beneath their shady branches, which gave the impression that our beach was deserted. It was a beautiful backdrop for sure!

Beach photo Florabella
Spott's Beach was a great backdrop for Beach Photos!

After the beach photos we were really hungry so I consulted my Fodor's guide book to find a restaurant for dinner. Ava also had a school project she needed to complete while we were in Grand Cayman. The purpose of the project was to visit an ethnic restaurant so the kids could experience a new type of food and restaurant. I brought the worksheet along to complete in Grand Cayman as I figured we'd find a Caribbean restaurant to try out.

We decided to try The Waterfront restaurant which is located in Camana Bay. Camana Bay is a newly-built planned community, consisting of shops, restaurants, businesses, and apartments all steps from the waterfront. We thought it would be a fun place to live when you are young as you can work there, eat there, shop there, and live there. Oh the carefree days of youth!

We were really pleased with the Waterfront restaurant! It's at a beautiful location, right on the water, just a bit down from the yacht club where we had gotten on our stingray tour. There was ample seating outside, with palm trees overhead and pretty lights strung among the branches. The atmosphere was perfect! Our waitress was wonderful, her name just so happened to be Ava as well. When we told her our youngest member of the family shared her name she gave her a hug and said she had never met another Ava! Ava felt special, that's for sure! The staff was also very good about trying to accommodate our children's allergies which is always appreciated. Ava ended up with a frankfurter that was covered in bacon pieces and french fries on the side. The others had bunless hamburgers and fries, their usual go-to. I had a salad with grilled chicken as I needed to eat something lite and healthy after days of indulging. Mike had a delicious burger. Ava was pleased to have finished her restaurant worksheet in such a fun, beautiful setting with a full belly! I realize the food she tried was not exactly Caribbean but we have to go with what works when eating out with allergies. She was still able to explore the full menu and understand the different types of Caribbean fare offered such as coconut shrimp and a Caribbean jerk pork. School project mission accomplished!

We headed back to the resort and got to bed as we were tired from another full day. We had just one more full day left!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Grand Cayman with kids: Stingray City!

Day Two

One of the most popular attractions in Grand Cayman is Stingray City. It is a unique opportunity to swim with these seemingly mythical creatures that freely swim about in the north sound of Grand Cayman Island. The water in the sound is anywhere between 3-12 ft deep, so really fairly shallow. It is an absolutely gorgeous turquoise blue color, a beautiful home for these creatures.

We booked our tour ahead of time with Acquarius Sea Tours. I had read a lot of reviews online before booking and they seemed to fit the bill for us. We did not have to pay to secure our spot ahead of time although they did send a reminder email stating if you wish to cancel please let them know. It is a smaller company so not only is that courteous but it would end up claiming spots someone else could have filled.

The day we were going to Stingray City was a very hot, sunny day. We wore our swimsuits with a light cover up and packed sun hats, sunglasses, and plenty of sunblock. I only wish I had packed our own water bottles. The tour provides water and fruit punch but it is just much handier to have your own bottles on hand. The tour also provides a very delicious margarita pizza but with the allergies we had to have our own food on hand as well, so I had some snacks in a cooler for the kids.

We drove out to the yacht club which was our departure point and located the slip where the boat was, "Big John". Other folks on the dock who were working on their own boats mentioned Mario, our captain, had not arrived yet. We decided to re-sunblock as it was a hot day! The sun coupled with being on the water for hours could be a recipe for a disastrous sunburn so we were playing it safe. Soon we saw the "First Mate", Duane, and he allowed us on the boat while he got things ready.

The boat was a nice size for a small group, I think we ended up with 25 guests in our party. We ended up sitting up at the top with the captain which was a great view and a safe place to sit with kids. The majority of the other guests sat on the bow of the boat which probably provided them with a great view and wonderful sea breeze as we headed out!

Boat tour A and B
Boat tour A in captains chari
Boat tour S and B
On our boat, ready to go

The captain Mario and the first mate explained the process of driving out into the north sound and what our stops would be. Mario decided that our first stop would be Starfish Point, where sea stars reside in clear, shallow waters. When approaching that beach Mario mentioned that the owner of the land around it was the lady who owned Maybelline! No wonder, it is such a gorgeous, calm, peaceful beach, reminding me of a deserted island.

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Boat tour Starfish Point landscape
Boat tour starfish point beach
Arriving at the gorgeous Starfish Point

Now I had researched ahead and learned that removing sea stars from the water can be detrimental to their health. People often forget that these creatures are actually living things and are calmly residing in their watery home. Yet people carelessly put them on their shoulders and other places that I don't care to mention for what they think is the perfect photo-op. Before our trip I talked with the kids a lot about not touching them unless it was deemed okay. I explained to them that it's not good for their health to be handled excessively by humans as it stresses them out. They understood and decided if everyone else was doing it and asked them about it they would simply say that they prefer not to touch.

So the captain surprised me and actually explained to all guests on the boat, as we approached Starfish Point, that removing the sea stars from the water can be detrimental to their health. I was glad to hear it as it showed that the captain was being responsible in the environment that provides his career, not just pleasing guests with their desired photo-ops. The kids happily looked at me as they felt reassured by what I had told them. He said you can gently lift them up but to keep them under water at all times. As we approached the shore he pointed out a boat with people who were doing what I described above - placing the poor sea stars on their shoulders and various other places. Captain Mario said he has personally talked with the boat captain in the past but the other boat captain didn't care to change his ways. Very sad!

With all that said, it was now our time to disembark and enter the crystal clear waters the sea stars call home. What a neat experience! The kids happily searched for them, discovering that they were quite easy to spot as the sea stars are red and the water clear. The kids carefully touched the top of them and also gently lifted them all while consciously keeping them under the water and then carefully placing them back down.

Boat tour kids starfish point
boat tour starfish point
Boat tour B with starfish
Boat tour A with starfish
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Starfish Point

The water was surprisingly cool here, but I suppose the sound opens right up to the Atlantic so it should be expected. We spent a good half hour here and Captain Mario brought out the pizza, fruit punch, and water. It was a great experience to eat and drink while wading knee deep in the water with sea stars!

From here, Captain Mario decided our next stop would be the deeper Stingray City. The water is about 10 ft deep and you can snorkel and dive with all the various creatures including, of course, the stingrays. The water was a bit choppy, at least it felt that way in a boat our size. I am admittedly a bit nervous of water, always have been, although the swaying of the boat was oddly relaxing! A few folks mentioned they were getting motion sick so they were given some Dramamine and water that the crew keeps on hand. They were told if you stay in the inside of the boat you'll feel the motion less. Thankfully the medicine seemed to work as no one got really sick!

Due to the waves it took some time to anchor the boat. The captain and first mate also fitted everyone for the snorkel gear and fins, which took a while as well. Finally, when everyone jump in, I decided I'd stay on the boat with Skylar as the deeper water just did not appeal to us. Braden & Ava happily jumped in with Mike, though! After the crew jumped in they announced that there was also a barracuda swimming down below! That freaked Ava out a bit and she decided she'd just sit on the edge of the back of the boat with me and watch. At the very end, I decided I'd at least jump in. I hadn't tried snorkeling yet so I didn't participate in that but was proud of myself for jumping in to the ocean!

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Sights from our Stingray City snorkel adventure

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Yup, that's me, safe as can be with life vest AND a noodle!

From here we headed over to the Stingray Sandbar, where you can stand in waist-deep water and swim with the stingrays who are gliding about. Due to some rain that we had had the day before, however, the water was choppier than usual. The captain explained the water is usually like glass so you can easily walk about slowly and enjoy these creatures swimming past your legs. We had to jump over waves, which was fun in and of itself, but didn't get a good view of the stingrays until they were right next to us...a bit freaky!

Ava was nervous at first so she decided to stay on the boat. Our kind captain had a talk with her, reassuring her that they were safe to swim with and it was not an experience to be missed. Thankfully she came around and even kissed a stingray! So she is sure to have seven years of good luck, as the old saying goes!

Boat tour Stingray Sandbar
Stingray Sandbar, you can see the waves rolling!

Boat tour stingray sandbar b with stingray
Braden getting to hold a stingray...look at it's cute eyes!

Stingray City Grand Cayman
Stingray City Grand Cayman
Stingray City Grand Cayman
Stingray City Grand Cayman
Kissing the stingrays for seven years of good luck! {photos courtesy of Acquarius Sea Tours}

I never quite got used to these things nuzzling my legs as they swam on so after our family photo I decided to watch from the boat, which was just as fun. There were quite a few other boat tours there as well and several people kept coming over, seemingly wanting to join our tour! Our first mate is known as the "stingray whisperer" and knows which stingray is which based on various markings. I was pleased to know we had booked a great tour!

Once we were done we headed back for the 30 minute ride across the North Sound back to the yacht club. The captain and first mate helped to make this a great day!

Back at the resort we were hungry from our day out on the sea and decided we would just eat dinner at the resort's restaurant right on the beach--easy and delicious! The resort was also holding a movie night in the pool. They were playing Annie and provided free popcorn. Mike took Braden and Ava down while Skylar and I got a workout in in the gym. I joined them afterwards-what a cozy way to watch a movie, under the stars with a gentle Caribbean sea breeze.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Grand Cayman with kids: Beach Day

Day One

On our first full day in Grand Cayman, my husband decided he'd get up bright and early to go for an early morning run on the beach. The sun rises quite early here so it was an easy task to look forward to. While he was gone I packed our beach bags, complete with breakfast for the kids, which was non-luxurious dried cereal and fruit. The kids are usually up early at home but for some reason decided to act like they were on vacation or something and whine about getting up - how unlike them! I guess they're getting older and realize that vacation means...sleeping in!

I did finally get them up and we all got ready and headed down by about 7:30 am. My husband had snagged the best beach chairs he could, which were actually already in the second row! Come to find out you need to be down there putting towels on the chairs before 6 am if you want a front row!!! We were happy enough with our location as we could still see the kids playing in the sand and the water.

Mike had stopped at the Boulangerie in the resort which served various breakfast items until 11 am. We enjoyed a muffin and coffee in the morning sun with our feet in the sand! After we all ate, I took a walk with Braden & Ava along the shore. The rising sun cast a beautiful pink light and was just such a beautiful start to the day.
Morning beach walk
Morning beach walk2
Beach A and B
Morning beach walk3
Our lovely morning walk on the beach

After spending the morning on the beach, we headed back to the room to get ready and head to the grocery store. Kirk Market was just down the road from our Marriott Resort. I had done some research prior to the trip and found this to be a great option due to having many allergy-friendly and organic items. Ten-year-old Braden said it reminded him of a cross between Kroger and Whole Foods...it did have that feel to it. I was very impressed that they carried our favorite allergy brand, Enjoy Life. Everything from chocolate bars, cookies, and cereal bars were available. The prices on these allergy-friendly items were fairly comparible to what we pay back home in the US. However, when you have food allergies and dietary restrictions you are used to paying more anyway so it didn't hurt too much!

We grabbed some produce, bread, lunchmeat, and then decided we would grill out for dinner that day. We also got some organic hotdogs, all the fixin's for a proper hot dog feast, along with charcoal and lighter fluid. We stopped at the resort to drop off some of the grocery items in the mini fridge and then proceeded to a beach called Spott's Bay.

Spott's Bay lies on the southern part of Grand Cayman Island. We drove south through Georgetown and then proceeded east towards the East End. We had to look carefully as the beach access areas are actually quite small. You really need to be watching for the small "beach access" signs to find them. We saw a small cemetery and lucked out with a parking spot in the small lot as well. I had read ahead that there were grilling facilities here, although it was just one rustic-style grill on a hill so it was a bit awkward to use. Nonetheless we got our fire going and enjoyed our picnic in the shade! We were very impressed by the beach. It had quite a different feel than the wide, open stretches of sand of Seven Mile Beach where our resort is on. Spott's Beach also seemed to be a hangout for the locals. It is always a point I try to make in travel to go where the locals go to truly get a sense and feel for a place. There were also some beautiful palms on the beach which not only provided shade but made the beach look so pretty!

Spotts Beach view from grill
Spotts Beach view from grill2
View from grilling area of Spott's Beach

After we cleaned up our picnic we changed in the car (took turns as there weren't any facilities here). Braden, Mike, and Ava took turns snorkeling and were so excited when they saw a huge sea turtle just swimming about! We had decided ahead of time that the famous turtle farm on Grand Cayman was not something our family would be interested in, however seeing one floating along freely in the wild was exactly what we had hoped to see!

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Braden snorkeling with the sea turtle!

Spotts Beach
Spotts Beach Mike and A snorkeling
Spotts Beach A and B
Spotts Beach B with shell
Great day at Spott's Beach!

After a bit of snorkeling and swimming we decided it was time to head back to the resort and relax for the remainder of the day. The kids and I headed down to the courtyard which had been beautifully lit up at night.

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The beautiful resort lit up for evening relaxation

Braden brought down his Mad Libs and we had fun with that for a while before heading up to bed. We needed to rest up because we had a fun adventure planned for the following morning!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Grand Cayman with kids - Travel day(s)

Our spring break trip this year was off to the sunny, beautiful island of Grand Cayman! We had quite the flight plan to get there, though, due to using airline miles and my late booking of the trip. I figured a little pain was worth the gain of going to Grand Cayman!

Grand Cayman is the largest of the three Cayman Islands, which lie just south of Cuba and northwest of Jamaica in the Caribbean Sea. It is a mostly flat "scrubby" island with sandy ground and not much in terms of lush vegetation. There are beautiful flowers and tall palms that keep it looking tropical, however.

We were most looking forward to the gorgeous beaches: powdery white sand and clear, turquoise water. Grand Cayman was originally called Las Tortugas by Christopher Columbus, which is the Spanish name for turtles. Turtles and stingrays are some of the amazing creatures living in the waters surrounding the island, which we knew would be incredible if we'd see them in their natural territory.

Our day started off with a 2 pm flight to Washington DC. From there we had a 3 hour flight to Houston with an overnight layover. We used points to cover our hotel stay at the Houston Airport Marriott so we could rest comfortably before jetting off to Grand Cayman the next morning!

We were up early as it also happened to be Easter morning. The kids used a phone as a flashlight bright and early to hunt for their baskets. Thankfully the Easter Bunny delivered their "Easter baskets" sometime in the middle of the night! They each had a few small things and of course jellybeans and Peeps. After a very early breakfast, we caught the shuttle to the airport at around 7 am. It was a quick ride to the airport and we were soon off to the Caribbean!

Once we arrived and cleared customs we walked a short distance across the street to National Car rental. Mike had to get a temporary Cayman driver's license which cost $20 at the rental agency. It took a bit for our car to finally come around. The kids and I had been waiting outside with our luggage and were getting a little hot in the strong sun! We did find it a little surprising that there were roosters and chickens just wandering about!

We soon settled into our Subaru Legacy, complete with driver's side on the right side of the car. Grand Cayman is a British Overseas Territory so you follow the rules of the road in Great Britain. Mike quickly orientated himself with driving on the left and we proceeded to the resort! Thankfully, the traffic is pretty light and the roundabouts, although they take some getting used to, help make driving there relatively smooth.

When we arrived at the Marriott we were greeted with delicious sparkling, fruity drinks. It was a great welcome to the Marriott Beach Resort! The lobby was spacious and gorgeous, with a bar and ample seating in the center. There were couches and tables for groups to hang out at, a gift shop, and a restaurant. The decor was light and airy with soaring ceilings - all perfect for a beach resort!

Resort stingrays
Beautiful stingray artwork in the lobby

resort inside
That's my family over there in the beautiful lobby!

We were initially told that our room was not ready yet so we headed to the bathrooms to change into shorts. Mike was given a resort cell phone so they could call him on it once our room was done. It just so happened once we were changed we got a call on the cell phone that our room was ready!

We got settled in, I unpacked while Mike took the kids to explore a bit, as we usually do when we arrive somewhere. We then couldn't wait to check out the beach! After a walk along the water we stopped at an outdoor table where you could have mojitos made poolside. We decided to indulge and were so glad we did - they were delicious. The bartender told the kids they could help make their own drinks, which they happily did.

Resort A making mojito/
Resort mojitos2
Making delicious mojitos...the kids even made their own non-a verions!

We had a great first day and were looking forward to the days to come!