South of Cuba in the heart of the western Caribbean, the three Cayman Islands are the visible summits of the Cayman Ridge, an underwater mountain range which drops suddenly into the 7,100 m (22,000 ft) Cayman Trench, separating them from Jamaica.
Grand Cayman is by far the largest. The ‘Sister Islands’ of Cayman Brac and Little Cayman are mostly a wilderness of fruit trees, orchids and cacti; where tranquility and an authentic West Indian culture are the main attractions. Just 145 km (90 mi) to the southwest, Grand Cayman at first resembles nothing so much as a transplanted American urban nightmare.
The capital, George Town, and Seven Mile Beach, its renowned local playground, are full of condos, resorts, satellite dishes and mini-malls. The streets teem with bankers and the faceless suits of the institutions that have made it the world’s fifth largest financial center.
Five days a week, cruise liners decant up to 22,000 tourists, joining the millions each year whose holidays have given the Cayman Islands the eighth highest GDP per capita in the world. George Town is so busy, loud, and determinedly up for it, you feel the privateers and pirates of former times have merely put on modern dress in their eagerness to empty your wallet.
In the small towns and villages outside George Town, the atmosphere changes immediately. Grand Cayman’s true self is African-European, deeply Christian, conservative and church-going (there are lots of churches); and also West Indian – openly friendly and well-mannered, laughing and hospitable.
Isolated by the central mangrove wetlands – 3,440 hectares (8,500 acres) of lush forests, emerald green parrots and bright orange frogfish, the mainspring of the complex ecology that maintains both the turtle grass and shrimp mounds of North Sound Marine Reserve – Rum Point typifies Grand Cayman at its best.
Population: Grand Cayman 49,792 (2006); Cayman Brae 2,000 (2006); Little Cayman 200 (2006)
When to go: Come between late April and early December, when it’s 40 per cent cheaper, and 70 per cent less crowded in George Town.
How to get there: By air from London, Chicago, Miami or Havana
Highlights: The endangered blue iguanas and hickatees at Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park on Grand Cayman.
The birds on Little Cayman – including the Antilles grackle, ani, snowy egret, green-backed and yellow-crowned herons, bananaquit, green parrot and red-footed booby. Ten Sails Park, East End, Grand Cayman, where ten ships were wrecked on the reefs on the same night in 1794.
House of Miss Lassie (Gladwyn K. Bush, b.1914) – the artist’s landmark house is completely covered in brilliantly coloured paintings of her religious visions since 1984.
You should know: Going topless anywhere is illegal – and don’t wear a swimsuit away from the beach! On the other hand, there are no beach-hawkers to annoy you.