Cayman Islands aerial view
Credit: iStockphoto

I was standing waist-deep in the warm cyan waters of the Caribbean Sea off the northern shore of Grand Cayman at one of the string of sandbars dubbed Stingray City when the charter boat captain assured me, “If you kiss a stingray, you’ll enjoy seven years of good luck.”

Dozens of the fossil gray creatures glided through the sea around us, but no one seemed to be concerned. Quite the opposite, in fact. People were feeding, petting, and—yes—planting big wet smooches on the prehistoric looking fish.

Stingray City in Cayman Islands
Credit: © Jo Ann Snover / Alamy

Ultimately, I couldn’t resist. I crouched down, let a passing ray swim into my outstretched arms and kissed its top. Mission accomplished!

For many people, the Cayman Islands conjure images of luxury waterfront hotels and shady offshore banking. But there’s a wealth of natural beauty to discover if you venture beyond the boundaries of your resort and the capital city of George Town. Better yet, it’s easy to do.

We hired a boat to pick us up at the Camana Bay development, making sure to stop in Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink for some Caymanian-infused American fare and West Indies Wine Company for a sampling of the shop’s nearly 80 vintages before departing. As we motored from the marina to the open water, we kept a close eye on the trees along the shore. Many sported iguanas on their branches soaking up the morning sun.

Snorkeler with sea turtle
Credit: iStockphoto

After the make-out session with the stingrays, we stopped at Starfish Point. The warm shallows around the elbow of land are dotted with a number of the five-armed, red-hued namesake. You’re technically allowed to pick them up—if you don’t take them out of the water. However, it’s better for the echinoderms if you slip on a snorkel and mask to simply observe them.

Keep your gear on hand for a final stop at Rum Point. Somewhat ironically, it’s the home of the frozen Mudslide cocktail, which contains Kahlua, Bailey’s, and vodka—but none of the location’s namesake.

Starfish Point in Cayman Islands
Credit: © Colin D. Young / Alamy

Walk into the water or dive off the dock. Turtles, octopi, and rays—as well as plenty of the requisite brightly colored fish—are common sights. I was lucky to be there on an off-day, so there were few boats and jet skis cruising the waters and hordes of tourists weren’t clogging the beach.

Looking to enjoy some more terrestrial sightseeing, I later headed out to East End to catch a glimpse of the blowholes. There’s no fanfare when you get there; simply pull your car over to the side of the road and walk down the well-worn wooden steps to the hard coral shoreline. When the waves come crashing in, water rushes through underground passageways and shoots up in impressive sprays that reached about 15 feet high on the relatively calm day I was there. Making sure to avoid the downpour, it’s easy to explore the tide pools, where you can find all sorts of interesting marine life.

Blue iguana
Credit: © Colin D. Young / Alamy

Just a short drive away, there’s the must-see Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, home to many of the island’s iconic blue iguanas. The endangered native species is only naturally found on the Cayman Islands. After walks along the orchid trail and through a heritage garden showcasing local plants arrayed around a traditional Caymanian home built in approximately 1900, I came across one of the prized reptiles sitting still in the shade. Over a yard long with azure highlighted green skin, the lizard did little more than blink as I approached. Though they can waddle away with surprisingly speed when they feel threatened, they are more than happy to stay sedentary. It’s illegal to touch them, so keep your hands to yourself.

On the last day of my trip, I hiked the Mastic Trail, which winds it way through the National Trust's Nature Preserve at the wild heart of the island. The organization’s field officer, Stuart Mailer, served as my guide for the three and a half hour trek. Part Charles Darwin, part David Attenborough, he was full of knowledge related to the wildlife, plants, island history and local gossip. The rough pathway wended its way through mahogany trees and scrub before the landscape transitioned to a briny wetlands and then rocky grounded forest.

Green parrot in tree
Credit: iStockphoto

As we walked, he identified the flora and fauna around us. Peering into the crooks and crannies of the trees on either side of the trail, he routinely pointed out Cuban tree frogs, their rough silvery gray skin almost seamlessly blending into the bark. At one point, a number of bright green Cayman Islands parrots, the country’s national bird, settled into the foliage above us and began squawking energetically.

“You’re lucky,” Mailer told me. “Not everyone gets to see them.”

I guess kissing that stingray paid off.