stingray city cayman islands

Get Cultured: Cayman – A Local Guide that Begins and Ends at the Cotton Tree

stingray city cayman islands

Heather Lockington, owner of the luxury boutique hotel Cotton Tree, gives us an armchair tour of this laid-back Caribbean island. 

On your first day here, seeing this is a must:

If there is one thing that Cayman represents it is relaxing and taking it easy (chillin’).  Find a restaurant or a bar overlooking the sea, order your favorite cocktail, kick off your shoes, sink your toes into the powdery golden sand and watch the sun set into the azure blue sea. Simple as this may seem, seeing a beautiful sunset with melting hues of purple, pink and orange is the perfect way to start anyone’s Caribbean get away. De-stressing is what a vacation should be about and there is no better place to do it than the Cayman Islands.

Most people don’t know this, but to get a true taste of the local culture”…

Visit the Fish Market in George Town where the local fishermen sell their locally caught fish. Apart from seeing the wide range of fish caught that very same day, the fishermen can tell you all about what they’ve reeled in, the best way to prepare the fish and the best way to cook it ““ Caribbean style! Going to the fish market gives you an opportunity to see and hear locals going about their daily business as they buy fish to prepare for their families and gossip about the latest news. Cotton Tree is keen on giving guests the opportunity to sample some of the best of what the market has to offer, and regularly buys fish for guests to cook on the terrace of their cottage using one of Cotton Tree’s grills. Cotton Tree also uses fresh wahoo, mahi mahi, parrot fish and red and black snapper for Caymanian style fish fries done on property in an old Caymanian caboose, where we offer authentic Caymanian cooking classes to our guests.

For a glimpse of daily life, I recommend this form of transportation:

One of the best ways to get around Cayman is on one of the local buses, which have routes all across the island. Just stand on the side of the road — anywhere on the island — (it does not have to be a bus stop), look for a van-like bus with blue numbered plates and stretch out your hand! Buses are not always on schedule, but run daily beginning at 6 a.m. to about 11p.m. Sitting among locals and listening to them chat away on the way to their destination is, in my opinion, the best way to see the island and experience a bit of the culture.  Everyone is friendly, so don’t be shy to strike up conversation with a stranger — they will have lots to say and many answers to give!

cotton tree cottage cayman islands

I had my best night’s sleep at:

Cotton Tree. And I say that objectively having traveled all over the world! Many of my guests also say that they have had their best night’s sleep ever here. I’m not sure whether this is due to time spent relaxing on the lush grounds of the property and by the pool, or because of the fantastic quality of the beds, but having spent quite a few nights there myself on multiple occasions (which I like to do so that I can see exactly how a guest experiences what the hotel has to offer), I can certainly vouch for the comfort of the beds!

The meal at this local eatery had me salivating for days:

There are many local places to eat on the island, but my favorite is the Brasserie. I love this restaurant because they use local seasonal produce (some of which is grown right behind the restaurant) and turn it into the most wonderful mouth-watering dishes, which typically have a Caribbean twist. They also have a market deli where you can get fresh salads, soups, sandwiches all freshly prepared with local ingredients. Besides that, I love the dishes that our private chefs turn out at Cotton Tree. We also use fresh, local ingredients and Caymanian spices. Our guests just love that they can relax in their cottage while their own chef whips up an exquisite meal for them.

Best place to find artisan handicrafts:

Usually by word of mouth. Many elderly Caymanians use old-time techniques to make a variety of handcrafted products, such as thatch hats and baskets. In fact, my mother makes her own crafts including crocheted products such as dolls, swimwear, tablecloths and table settings. A few Caymanians will sell their crafts at Caymana Bay on Wednesdays during the Farmers Market, or you can find local products at the Farmers Market in Savannah on Saturdays. Alternatively, Chris Christian who runs a business called Cayman Traditional, would be happy to show you his handmade goods, which range from toys to paintings.

 batabano festival - cayman

Local celebration not to be missed:

Batabano is a carnival held in the Cayman Islands every May. The name originates from Cayman’s turtling history and is the name given to the tracks left by turtles when they climb onto the beach to nest in the sand (like they do on Barkers Beach where Cotton Tree is located). It’s a rowdy and fun festival but it’s still safe for families.

Favorite pastimes:

Weekends in Cayman wouldn’t be complete without some family time on the beach, a few beers and a game of dominoes on Sunday after church. This has been a tradition on the island for years and years. So find a dominoes gathering and join in on the fun. You’ll be very welcomed and may even get the local scoop on the latest news and gossip.

For a more bucolic/green setting I escape here:

I drive to Northside and visit the Queen Elizabeth Botanical Gardens where I relax during a long walk and soak in the beauty and ambrosial delights of the local flora and fauna. If I want something closer, I can step onto the beach from Cotton Tree and walk up to Barkers National Park. I particularly like doing this early in the morning as the sun begins to rise when it’s just me, the beach, the sea and the odd fisherman making his way out beyond the reef.

cotton tree cayman islands cottage

The art/music scene is alive and well here:

The recently opened National Gallery houses the National Collection as well as temporary exhibitions from various local artists. At Cotton Tree, we display a lovely collection of local art featuring some of my favorite artists including Chris Christian.

A number of local musicians perform in the evenings at various bars and restaurants, but the local favorite is Royal Palms. There is also an annual Cayman Jazz Festival in December, which attracts a number of artists from the island and beyond.

Where the locals get tipsy:

Havana Club, a lively spot that hosts live bands a few evenings each week and on weekends. Everyone knows everyone there and even if you don’t, the strong cocktails will surely have you chatting away in no time. Royal Palms also has a bar on the beach and features a local band which plays music under the starlit sky. You can actually dance on water here thanks to a large glass cover which converts the pool into a watery dance floor with underground lighting!

 Conch Fritters Cayman Islands

If I had only 24 hours to explore Grand Cayman I would:

That’s tough! One of my favorite things to do in Cayman is visit the sister islands (Cayman Brac and Little Cayman). Visitors are always surprised to see how they differ from Grand Cayman. But that’s tough to do in just 24 hours.

On Grand Cayman, I would make a point to visit each of the districts as they each have a different feel and unique characteristics — not to mention different dialect! Of course, any exploration of Grand Cayman would not be complete without getting into the water, whether it is scuba diving at one of the many dive sites around the island, snorkeling off Cemetery Beach in West Bay, or playing with the stingrays at Stingray City on the north side of the island. Northside is completely different from Georgetown and is home to the botanical gardens and my favorite haunts, Kaibo and “The Edge” where you can find the area’s best local food. The conch and crab fritters are my personal favorite! The drive back to Georgetown highlightss the most beautiful coastline on the island. For dinner, head over to West Bay to dine at local favorites such as Morgan’s Harbor, Calypso Grill or Papagallo. If you’re lucky and have a friend with a boat you can moor right outside some of these excellent restaurants, which is really one of the most fabulous ways to arrive for dinner!

cotton tree grand cayman pool

*For more in our “Get Cultured” series, check out last week’s guide to Lima, Peru and be on the lookout for the next installment in the series.

Heather Lockington Cotton TreeAbout Heather Lockington

Heather is a Caymanian native who returned to the islands from the UK to fulfill her dream of creating a boutique luxury property that would embody her beloved Caymanian culture. At Cotton Tree, Heather offers her guests what she would want on her ideal vacation: private chefs, beachside spa treatments, lush gardens, and a true escape from the world. A wealth of local knowledge, she also happily points her guests in the right direction to experience authentic Cayman.

Feature photo by Fevi Yu/flickr
Batabano festival photo by LuisValecillo/flickr
All other photos property of Cotton Tree Cayman

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The Culture-ist