As the catamaran slows to the sandbar, a tiny dab of white in an otherwise turquoise expanse, I start counting the dark circles gliding through the shallow water. Stingrays – I lose count after nine – circle, waiting for their visitors. I step off the boat, and before I’m even waist deep, two rays snuggle into my ankles. They feel like cold, giant portobello mushrooms. I didn’t know terror and glee could co-exist.
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This is Stingray City, the top-rated attraction on TripAdvisor for the Cayman Islands. Input from absolute strangers – or user-generated content, as we call it in the digital-journalism business – has become the new standard for travel: Fodors, Lonely Planet and other expert guidebooks are becoming relics, replaced by strongly worded online opinions and star ratings from regular folks with access to a computer.
So when I started dreaming of a mother-daughter escape from the long Canadian winter, I turned to my pool of experts – Globe readers. I wanted sand and sun, but also secluded, yet bustling, safe but surprising – and please, no all-inclusives. You answered in droves, and the consensus was clear: the Cayman Islands. I decided to “crowdsource” my entire mother-daughter vacation, letting readers advise me on what to see, where to stay and what to eat. The result: I land on Grand Cayman with folders of e-mails with gems such as, “Edoardo’s Bar has life-changing key lime pie,” and “snorkel snorkel snorkel, then snorkel some more.”
So it is that I’m wading in the Caribbean, on a particularly choppy day, surrounded by dozens of rays. “Don’t be afraid, they are beautiful creatures,” wrote Sarah from Ottawa – one of 17 readers who endorsed this excursion from Red Sail Sports. “It’s truly unbelievable,” Amanda from Vancouver told me.
Stingray City sounds like a tacky tourist trap but this is no artificial recreation: The rays are in the wild, just passing through the sandbar (the guides feed them strips of squid, which I’m sure helps ensure their return).
In a matter of seconds, my fear disappears. I transform into a toddler, squealing every time a ray brushes my legs or headbutts my shoulder. I pet them, name them and – wanting to avoid a lifetime of bad luck (so readers warned) – I even kiss one. When it’s time to get back on the boat, 20 minutes later, I feel like I’m leaving a party that’s just getting started.
Jamaica and Cuba may be its closest neighbours, but Grand Cayman is hardly known for its laid-back island culture (“Going to go see your money in person?” many people joked when I told them about my impending trip.) Along Seven Mile Beach, megaresorts and high-rolling guests are everywhere (I hear a man leave this voice mail from his lounger: “Hey, sorry I missed your call earlier – was just getting a massage, at the Ritz Carlton in Grand Cayman.”)
So I was eager to follow the advice of Amanda in Vancouver: “Rent a car and drive the island.” This turned out to be no easy task. My mom and I gasp, sensing imminent death every time oncoming traffic sails by us on the right side. For the first two hours, getting anywhere takes twice as long because I am mentally incapable of making a right-hand turn. But after relearning to how to drive, the trip – mainly one coastal road spanning the croissant-shaped island – is worth the temporary chaos. Neon, tropical landscapes breeze by my open window, dotted with roosters and goats and cows, while endless blue ocean fills my mom’s passenger view.