The Caribbean Defined

Cayman Brac: Where Beauty is Skin-Diver Deep

Nov 15, 2001
Outside Magazine

Looking to open an offshore bank account? Book a trip to Grand Cayman. Dock-flat desolation? Little Cayman. But if you want stellar scuba diving, climbable cliffs, ridiculously friendly locals, a smattering of beachfront resorts, and enough Happy Hours to keep you steeped in a week's worth of perma-grins, head for cigar-shaped Cayman Brac, about 165 miles northwest of Jamaica. This scruffy, hard-baked, 12-by-two-mile isle is not Bali-Hai beautiful, but it does have some pleasantly surprising topography: A cave-pocked limestone spine runs along the middle of the island, rising to 140 feet on its sheer east end; just offshore, teeming spur-and-groove reefs, coral- and sponge-flocked 3,000-foot vertical walls, and vertigo-inducing water clarity combine to produce some of the planet's best diving.

The Sporting Life
There are 50 or so mostly current-free dive sites around the Brac, with water temperatures hovering between 75 and 85 degrees and visibility usually to 150 feet. Some sites, including the sponge-heavy Radar Reef, just 150 yards off the boat ramp at Stake Bay, can be reached from shore by strong swimmers. Other notable dives: Tarpon Reef, with deep sand gullies, thick staghorn coral, and schools of nearly unspookable giant tarpon; Rock Monster Chimney wall, with several coral-chimney swim-throughs; and an intentionally sunk 300-foot Russian frigate, home now to barracuda, angelfish, jacks, groupers, and giant jewfish. Call Reef Divers (two-tank dive, $80; 800-327-3835; or Dive Tiara (two-tank dive, $60Ð$90; 800-367-3484; Climbers can tackle some 70 bolted routes between 5.8 and 5.12 at seven different locations on the bluff; locals rebolted most routes with titanium glue-ins after stainless-steel bolts began breaking down. There are no climbing outfitters on the island; get detailed climbing-route information from local rock jock John Byrnes, owner of the Bluff View House (970-493-5801; Anglers will find bonefish, tarpon, and possibly permit in the flats ($80Ð $150; Munny's Fishing Service, 345-948-1228); and marlin, tuna, and wahoo out beyond the reef ($350Ð$600; Barefoot Watersports Ltd; 345-948-1537).

The Beach
While most of the shoreline is ironstone that will shred your bare feet, there are stretches of sweet sand, especially on the island's west end, where the Brac's few resorts are clustered. The best swimming area is in the lagoon at the small public beach on Southeast Bay; it's protected by a snorkelable coral reef about 50 yards offshore.

After the Sun Goes Down
Head for The Captain's Table Bar and Restaurant at the west-end beachfront Brac Caribbean Beach Village—just past the 15-foot-high statue of Blackbeard the Pirate—where visitors, divemasters, and expats load up on Coronas and conch fritters.

Lay Your Sunburned Head At...
The Brac Reef Beach Resort (three-night packages with diving cost $528Ð$686 per person; 800-327-3835;, on the island's westernmost point, has a pool, a sandy beach, 40 air-conditioned rooms, and the ubiquitous yet essential tiki bar; the excellent Reef Divers operation is based here. Climbers head for the two-unit east-end Bluff View House (doubles from $80 per night, with full kitchens; 970-493-5801), within easy walking distance of some of the island's best climbing routes.

Très Cayman Brac
Dive as deeply and as frequently as your divemaster and decompression charts will allow. Take an afternoon jeep ride to the east end and be waved at by every human you encounter. The night before you head home, power down several frozen mudslide cocktails at The Captain's Table, ask the bartender for paint, decorate a piece of driftwood with witty farewell rhymes, and hammer your sign onto the already jammed post by the pool.

The Price of Paradise
Construction of homes for wealthy foreigners has jacked land prices out of reach for most—1.75 acres of prime beachfront can cost as much as $925,000—and has created potential for reef-wrecking runoff, and an overabundance of know-it-all divers with expensive gadgets.

Resources: Cayman Islands Tourist Board (800-346-3313; Cayman Brac info:

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