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.
(Click the bold words to see Amberly's Twitter videos and photos.)
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.
We make multiple stops – "you must see the blowholes!" Steven from Toronto insisted, and "Collier's Beach is heaven!" wrote Sherry from Winnipeg. The beach – about an hour from the main Grand Cayman centre – is vast with no end in sight, and absolutely empty. We pull over and walk the shores in silence. I run in and out of the water. My mom perches on a turquoise bench: We are the only signs of life on land, save for a few scampering crabs and a newly built sandcastle.
A grander journey proves just as rewarding. "Take the quick flight and explore beyond Grand Cayman to get the full experience," Robin from Toronto advised. So we book the trip to Little Cayman on a tiny, 18-seat plane. Thirty minutes later – after stunning views and chatting with the pilot (there is no cockpit divider) – we are in a very different place. Here, iguanas outnumber people (3,000 to 135), the lone bank is open for two days a week, and entire afternoons are spent swinging in hammocks in silence.
Since nearly everyone who visits Little Cayman is a diver – the attraction here is Bloody Bay Wall where the sea floor drops off in a 1,824-metre vertical cliff – we are largely alone. Even when the divers return after dinner, it's quiet: We are the only people in the beach-front hot tub watching the palm trees fade into the night sky.
We decide to grab a bite on the patio of the top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor, which supposedly has a "relaxed island vibe" and where the "service is wonderful" and the food "fantastic and varied."
Turns out, the service is comically bad: The waitress forgets we exist four times. But we are hungry and tired after a day of snorkelling. We mindlessly dig in to our conch ceviche.
Two hours later, as the food poisoning takes hold, my mom and I make a pact on the bathroom floor: Online reviews must no longer be blindly trusted.
The next day, as the hotel staff gets word of our misfortune: You ate there? You ordered fish?
Talking to Alyssa, a hip, young scuba instructor from B.C., I learn that the restaurant changed ownership recently, and everyone – except us and TripAdvisor – knew the place had taken a nose dive.
It's possible that the restaurant had an off-night (maybe the snarky waitress was newly single, maybe the chef had just lost his dog). But such is the inherent problem with reviews: You are never guaranteed the same experience. So after three days of idyllic vacation, I am taught an invaluable lesson: Always ask the locals. (Oh, and don't order ceviche after 9 p.m.)
Fortunately, it's easy to bounce back in a hammock overlooking clear blue ocean. By the time we return to the main island, I am ready to put the most surprising recommendation to the test.
It came from Katherine Wootton Joyce, who was born in Grand Cayman and now calls Calgary home. She returns at least once a year.
She's a local, but also a tourist, who knows all the best hideaways and insider secrets – which is why I was astounded by her all-caps "MUST-DO": a borderline tacky-tourist submarine ride.
"If you don't dive, it's the next best thing," she urged. She was right. The ride was spectacular – albeit the most touristy thing we did all week (the submarine gift shop sells gold stingray pendant necklaces). We travel 30 metres down, and I came nose to nose with a sea turtle, separated only by the window. I swear he smiled.
That night at Osetra Bay, a superslick restaurant on the sea, we bond with a chatty British couple over the adventurous food: Is that lemongrass foam? How are the Madagascar prawns? You must eat the chocolate tree immediately! They tell us this is their go-to place when "on island" (a term people use here, aptly, almost to signify a change of being). My mom insists the Brits try Blue for their next dinner, which is simply the best dining experience either one of us have ever had.
"Never heard of it!"
My mom and I grin, proud to be veteran advisers.
To thank us, they tell us the "secret" they've been keeping from all other travellers: an out-of-this-world Mexican restaurant in the heart of George Town. The signage and outside decor is heinous – on purpose, apparently: The locals never talk about it, in an effort to keep it for themselves.
I cannot leave the island without tasting the tequila shrimp, the man pleads. The problem: Our flight leaves in the morning.
And therein lies the rub: We cannot possibly see, taste and do it all. (Sorry Katherine, Edoardo's was all out of key lime pie.) But at least I have many important reasons to return.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay:
The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman sits like a massive sand castle along Seven Mile Beach. "You feel special from the moment you walk in," writes one reader. It's true: I dare you to open a door yourself, just once (I tried, unsuccessfully). Waiters at Blue, the hotel's fine-dining restaurant, send a handwritten thank-you note to our room, and at the breakfast buffet I have the best eggs Benedict I've ever eaten. Opt for an ocean-side room: Drifting off on a plush, pillowy bed as the ocean lulls you to sleep is heaven. Rooms start at $379 (U.S.). Grand Cayman; ritzcarlton.com
At the Caribbean Club – rated the top resort in the Carribean on TripAdvisor – three-bedroom, three-bath condos make for a good, high-end choice for families and groups. A beachfront pool, oceanfront cabanas and a nanny service top it off. Rooms start at $800 (U.S.) Grand Cayman; caribclub.com
Little Cayman Beach Resort, or its high-end sister the Club, is a luxe choice on the smaller island. The hot tub overlooking the ocean is worth the splurge. Bonus: the scuba-diving school, if you're so inclined, is right on shore. Rooms from $200 (U.S.). Rooms at the Club start at $350 (U.S.). littlecayman.com
Where to eat:
For decadent, taste-bud awakening meals, There is no shortage of awesome food in Grand Cayman. At Camana Bay, lunch on the patio at Abacus (abacus.ky) and don't leave without trying the signature cocktail and watermelon salad. For show-stopping dinners, I have a grocery list of must-try spots: Luca's tuna steaks (luca.ky), the lobster in balsamic and truffle sauce at Blue by Eric Ripert and the chocolate tree at Osetra Bay (osetrabay.com). As a chocolate addict, this was my Everest: I'll never forgive you if you go and don't order this. For casual dining, dozens of Globe readers recommended the fish tacos at the Sunshine Grill just across the street from Seven Mile Beach inside Sunshine Suites Resort (sunshinesuites.com). They lived up to their "world famous" reputation.
What to do:
Hang out with dozens of rays at Stingray City, an area of shallow sand bars in the North Sound off Grand Cayman. Dozens of tours and charter boats take you here, but I had a great time with Red Sail Sports. Trips from $75 (U.S.) a person. redsailcayman.com
Don't dive? See the Cayman reef with Atlantis Submarines. Rates start at $84 (U.S) for adults, $54 for children. 30 South Church St., Grand Cayman, caymanislandssubmarines.com
Chill with the iguanas and swing life away in a hammock on Little Cayman. Return flights from $150 (U.S.) on Cayman Airways. caymanairways.com
Amberly McAteer is a community and social media editor at The Globe. She travelled as a guest of the Cayman Department of Tourism. The tourism board did not review or approve this article.