The Caribbean is (re)open for business | AspenTimes.com

The Caribbean is (re)open for business

Meredith C. Carroll

While spending a semester abroad in college, a friend and I island-hopped around Greece during our fall break. Starting from Athens, we ferried over to Mykonos then planned on heading to Santorini, although since it was nearing offseason and some Greek islands experience flash floods (and we were in a pre-iPhone era), we kept calling ahead to the hotel we'd booked to make sure the weather remained favorable.

"It's always sunny in Santorini," the receptionist said each time. When we got there, we realized with great delight she was correct.

The always-sunny forecast might also be true for Grand Cayman, which I visited in September. Despite being in proximity to so many other Caribbean destinations decimated by arguably the worst hurricane season on record, Grand Cayman remains blessedly unscathed. And now with daily direct service from Denver to Miami (plus a quick flight from Miami to the Caymans) on Southwest Airlines, not only is it easier than ever to hop down there for some rest and relaxation, it's basically an act of kindness to support an area of the world that's seen a significant drop in tourism.

Just below Cuba and next to Belize, Grand Cayman is the largest of the Caymanian Islands, although "large" is a relative term, with the entire island stretching just 22 miles. You won't have to search far to figure out why the travel industry continually heaps accolades on Grand Cayman — and that's partly because you don't have do much more than step outside to indulge in dreamy weather with a backdrop so stunning it could easily be mistaken for a film set.

There are fancy-schmancier hotels than the Westin Grand Cayman Seven Mile Beach Resort (namely, the Ritz Carlton, which is a seashell's throw away), but for the best stretch of beach and an impeccably chic hotel, the Westin is where you'll want to be, especially if your primary goal is trading white snow for white sand.

The Caribbean Sea is the star of the show, which is clear from just about every angle of the $50 million newly remodeled Westin Grand Cayman. The resort's interior was designed as a playful extension of the beach, with blue jewel tones flowing like a wave throughout private and shared spaces, making each area feel like an underwater retreat or cove. Caribbean elegance combines with distinct Caymanian flair to pour out of each detail, including a tiny jar of sand and seashells that accompany room-service trays, plus blinged-out corals gilding the walls. With secluded balconies facing the water, and living room areas divinely situated in even non-suite accommodations, you could possibly be forgiven for wanting to stay inside to luxuriate.

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Except staying inside isn't why you go to Grand Cayman.

Red Sail Sports, a Grand Cayman dive operator for nearly three decades, has an outpost at the Westin, which means access to a variety of water equipment plus an abundance of inside information on local pristine reefs. The fully stocked watersports center offers stand-up paddleboards, snorkeling equipment, foam floats, banana boat rides, wave runners, waterskiing, parasailing, Hobie cats, wakeboarding and speedboat charters. Red Sail Sports also hosts dinner and reef sails, and breakfast with the rays.

You wouldn't go to Paris without at least glancing up at the Eiffel Tower or San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. Likewise, you just can't go to Grand Cayman without venturing to Stingray City. Stingray Sandbar and Reef Sail is among the outfitters that can cruise you out via catamaran to quite possibly the clearest, bluest water you'll ever see (through) to a designated spot where the stingrays come to play. Hanging in Stingray City in Grand Cayman's North Sound means little more than padding around in a waist-deep, honeyed sandbar with a fleet of southern stingrays (which is a different species of stingray than the one that killed Steve Irwin). They'll tickle your legs as they swim through and possibly even come up for a kiss — especially if you follow directions and hold them just so (although hugging is a more apt description for what you actually do), which is easier than it looks considering how much muscle the gentle rays hide under their soft, silky exteriors.

While you're out and about, if you're thirsty (which, since you're on vacation, of course you are), a stop in Camana Bay's town center at the West Indies Wine Co. is always a good idea. A refined space with fresh white décor that stays on message with its seaside surroundings, it's the largest wine-tasting room in the Caribbean, with over 80 different wines by the glass served in wine station machines. If keg stands in a smelly bar with college kids in wife-beaters during spring break in Fort Lauderdale were part of your youth, you'll need to graduate here to see exactly how far you've come.

And to be sure, you're on holiday, which means relaxation is the highest priority. The Westin's Hibiscus spa promotes a "total lifestyle approached that encompasses the entire person — body, mind and soul." Organic essential oils and plant extracts are used in signature services, including a 7 Chakras Energy Balancing Ritual massage and Organic Ginger Healing Body Renewal.

The Westin Grand Cayman's centerpiece restaurant, the Beach House, features fresh, sustainable local fare along with other regional and international produce and flavors. Executive chef Sandy Tuason pairs the unobstructed views of Seven Mile Beach with I'll-never-eat-anything-but-this-again dishes including the sublime sea scallops benedict with sunnyside-up quail eggs, truffle pumpkin puree, pineapple bacon relish and sherry mushroom cappuccino, and a show-stopping butter-poached lobster and shrimp with a local shellfish broth — all in a casual-enough setting that it won't be too hard to motivate you out of your swimsuit for supper.

With 365 diving sites in the deepest water in the entire Caribbean Sea, scuba divers will feel sufficiently loved by the underwater treasures in Grand Cayman. But even if your escape includes little more than lounging by the Westin's freshwater pool with swim-up bar while local musicians play during sunset (and hopefully you'll be treated to the famed "green flash"), or peeling yourself away from the beach with a bucket full of local beer (Caybrew or White Tip are favorites) to go combing for coral — the most difficult part of your trip will be packing up to leave.

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