If you’re going to learn to do something as slightly terrifying as scuba diving, it helps to be taught by a woman with a full-back tattoo of a cheetah. As I prepared to follow Rumi, my Grand Cayman dive instructor, 30 feet below the ocean’s surface for the very first time, her inked Cheshire jungle cat looked me straight in the eye and provided some much-needed reassurance. Body art that bold orders you to push past your nerves and get extreme.
“We will look out for snapping turtles,” she said in her thick Bulgarian accent. Before I had time to consider how she meant that — were snapping turtles a good thing, or a scary thing? — she’d already put her regulator into her mouth, commenced heavy Darth Vader–style breathing, and signalled for me to follow suit and begin deflating my buoyancy control device. Down we went.
Scuba diving, for the unitiated, is a wild ride. Imagine flying, crossed with meditating, all the while watching an IMAX movie. As you kick your way gently forward, your eyes dart between all those wonders unique to the deep sea: algae-slicked shipwrecks steeped in pirate lore, for instance, or spiky fish striped in colours way too crazy to ever paint a living room with.
Off the coast of Grand Cayman, these spectacles abound, which is why it’s officially our spring break travel destination endorsement. Sure, Australia might have the larger reef — but it’s also a hell of a lot harder to get to it. Plus, for that rare time you’re on dry land, Grand Cayman’s resorts skew a lot less rowdy — and make a much better piña colada — than those in places like Cancun, packed with cheap all-inclusives.
Oh, and if you do come across a snapping turtle, it turns out they mostly keep to themselves. When you’re that deep, they just see you as someone who belongs.
Focusing on freshly caught fish, plus vegetables grown in the on-site garden (which, come nighttime, makes for a particularly romantic dining spot), this elegant eatery is the perfect place to get introduced to breadfruit, a potato-like vegetable that’s a specialty of the Caribbean.
Thanks to this oceanside spot’s sprawling deck, you can enjoy the blackened catch of the day all the while looking out to the very waters it originated from. Have your camera ready at 9 p.m. each night, when staff toss out scraps to attract a swarm of large, vaguely shark-ian tarpon.
The Lobster Pot
Another waterfront restaurant with a killer patio, this seafood hotspot invites you to enjoy local specialties — marinated conch in Cayman-style tomato and pepper sauce or, for the more adventurous, turtle steak — paired with a first-rate wine list. Not to mention lobster, of course.
Brush up on the difference between stalactites and stalagmites on a guided tour through three underground caves, one complete with a spectacular turquoise pool. The only caveat: those with severe chiroptophobia (that would be a fear of bats) might be best to sit this one out.
Queen Elizabeth II Royal Botanic Park
Proper decompression protocol is to wait 18 hours after your last dive before flying. Spend your pre-departure day admiring the colourful gardens at this 65-acre oasis, which is also home to a blue iguana sanctuary that lets you get up close and personal with the rare reptiles.
The hand-painted “no shirt, no shoes, no problem” sign hanging next to the bar appropriately conveys the relaxed atmosphere that awaits at this beachy compound of brightly painted picnic tables. Order a boozy Mudslide, load up on SPF, and spend an afternoon watching boats sail by.
Come for the two outdoor pools, stay for the six restaurants (one of them run by seafood master Éric Ripert), and leave marvelling at the expert service and fine finishing touches, like an on-site gallery dedicated to ocean-themed canvases by local painters.