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On island time: The Cayman Islands offer an easy getaway from TPA

Just south of Cuba, Grand Cayman is a special place in the Caribbean, full of hidden gems and beautiful sights. And the best part? It’s only a quick, 90-minute flight from TPA. TPA has a growing list of nonstop options, but did you know that our nonstop flight from TPA to GCM aboard Cayman Airways is one of the oldest international routes at TPA? 

IMG_3365We recently sent our Communications Specialist, C.J. Johnson, on a trip to explore the Cayman Islands, sampling the local cuisine and taking in the sights. C.J. manages the TPA social media accounts and is an avid traveler, recently setting (and meeting) a goal of visiting 30 countries and all 50 states before turning 30 last fall. Having never visited the Cayman Islands, he shared the below travelogue highlighting his experience. 

A breezy boarding process and fun flight

I may be a bit biased, but flying out of TPA is a form of self-care. It’s truly unlike any airport in the world – quick, easy and efficient. And, where else can you grab a selfie with a giant pink flamingo before your flight? 

For this trip, Cayman Airways bumped me into business class, so I was able to check in using their fast pass lane on the ticketing level and was then granted access to the American Airlines Admirals Club at TPA. It took me only minutes to check a bag, grab my boarding pass, make it through security, and settle in at the lounge before my flight. 

From my perch in the lounge, I spied our plane arriving. One of my favorite things about Cayman Airways is their colorful livery, and the coat of arms that adorns the wings makes their aircraft easily recognizable. Last year alone, I flew almost 60,000 miles, so I was excited to rack up a few more aboard a (new to me) carrier. After I boarded, I was immediately impressed with the colorful uniforms worn by the flight attendants and how warmly they greeted passengers. Before long, I noticed the sounds of island music filling the cabin. We took off from Tampa and were shortly treated to an island-flavored beverage. Few, if any, passengers were mad about that! IMG_9548 2

I always try to snag a window seat, especially when I'm flying somewhere I haven't yet been. After a quick hop south, I spied the Cayman Islands out my window. Upon touching down, the door opened and instead of using a traditional jet bridge, we walked down on a ramp. I immediately felt that I was in a special place and was greeted by an airport official who guided me through their Meet and Greet Fast Track service, clearing customs in no time. Minutes later, I had my checked bag in hand and was on my way to explore Grand Cayman. 

 Sunsets, stingrays and sparkling caves

As soon as I exited the airport, I was greeted by cars driving on the opposite side of the road and chickens roaming all over town. So, if you plan on visiting, keep an eye both on the traffic AND the wildlife. 

One of the first activities I tried was a breakfast swim with the stingrays. I know that sounds crazy and if I’m being honest, I was quite nervous about it. After waking up early, I made my way to Stingray City aboard a charter boat from Red Sail Sports. The morning sun rose as we glided out to the shallows. The water was absolutely stunning – it looked as if an Instagram filter had been applied to it. After arriving at Stingray City and listening to a safety briefing by the captain, we hopped in the shallow water and watched as stingrays of all sizes began to swim by. Before long, I worked up the courage to not only touch one, but to gently hold a large stingray. My courage ran out after approximately 4 seconds, so I gingerly released that huge creature back into the cool waters of the Caribbean Sea. After we wrapped up our swim with the stingrays, the captain took us over to a nearby coral reef for snorkeling. I jumped off the side of the boat into an entirely different world. I've snorkeled before, but this experience made me feel like I was swimming in an aquarium. Fish of all colors and sizes streamed by and here, under the water,  I began to truly relax and settle into the pace of the island. IMG_0015 2

Another of my favorite adventures on the island included a trip to the Cayman Crystal Caves. Nestled in a large forest, these caves are truly a unique experience. After loading up in a van, we bounced down a dirt road as we made our way to see these underground beauties. Before long, we were taking steps down deep into the earth. I marveled at the large formations dangling from the ceiling and saw sparkling passageways become illuminated by the lights of a dozen iPhones, bringing together the modern and the ancient. Kids and adults alike gaped in wonder at these caves that have been forming for over a millennia. As our tour guide took us through cave after cave, they asked the group to stand still. Then, the solar-powered lights were flipped off and we were surrounded by total darkness. It was unlike anything I’ve experienced. As we emerged from the caves, we squinted at the bright sun and kept an eye on the numerous bats who also shared the caves with us.

IMG_0484On my final night in Grand Cayman, I went out for a sunset cruise. Again, the team at Red Sail Sports pulled through with a dreamy experience. We pushed back from land and soon those onboard were feasting on complimentary snacks as we made our way out into deeper water. Speaking of water, the blue hue of the Caribbean Sea is simply stunning. Before long, the sun began its gradual dip into the horizon. Families and couples and solo travelers alike grabbed dozens of selfies, capturing this amazing experience to share with their friends back home. As we made our way back, the moon came out and the stars shone overhead. It was sheer magic.

Delicious meals served with divine views

You may be wondering where one should refuel after all of this exploring. You’re in luck: in the Culinary Capital of the Caribbean, options abound! One of my new favorite spots to grab a bite is at Tillies, located within the Palm Heights resort on Seven Mile Beach. This stretch of the island is adorned with high-end resorts and cute boutique hotels. Each seat at this restaurant is surrounded by open canopies and palm trees with several of the seats being directly in the sand. The hospitality of the team at Tillies is unmatched and in many ways, I felt like I was living a real-life version of “White Lotus.” IMG_0176 2

One of my other favorite spots for a bite is Ms. Piper’s Kitchen + Garden, a chic restaurant right next to the beach. This quaint spot features intimate dining with some of the best food I’ve ever had. For dinner, I feasted on a delicious appetizer, enjoyed a sizzling skillet of steak and chicken, and finished off my meal with a lime sorbet that was truly divine.  

Located in the Caribbean Club, Luca is a restaurant that is sure to please the entire family. I visited this spot for dinner and was impressed with the outdoor seating that provided beautiful views of the Caribbean Sea. Pro tip: Go in the evening and watch as the golden hour light floods Seven Mile Beach and bask in the final rays of the day. 

In addition, I also visited Abacus at Camana Bay. This lovely restaurant, located within a convenient shopping center, features all kinds of dishes and drinks. On the evening I visited, I chose to indulge in the endless lobster dish. What better way to get a taste of the island than sitting under the palm trees with lobster rolling out, plate after plate? IMG_0831

My final takeaways

This experience was made so much easier by the team at Cayman Airways. From the moment I checked in at TPA, they made the journey down to the Cayman Islands a breeze. Instead of the hassle of a connecting flight, I was able to take off from America’s Favorite Airport and land 90 minutes later in an entirely different world. The onboard experience set the tone for the entire trip with warm island hospitality and music. Cayman Airways offers nonstop flights five days a week (Monday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday) from TPA to GCM, so it's never been easier to get away for a few days and enjoy some time on the island. One of my new favorite spots on the planet is now just a short flight away, so I can't wait to visit again. 

Ready to book your trip to the Cayman Islands? Click here.