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The Cayman Islands offer that postcard-perfect appeal travelers expect from a tropical island getaway. Boasting crystal blue waters, white sandy beaches and a laid-back attitude, travelers are pretty much guaranteed that the lingering concerns carried over as excess baggage will stay on the plane and go back where they came from. Whether for a honeymoon, a family escape, a solo diving adventure, or just one of those rare weekend getaways, the Cayman Islands are a versatile paradise that allows travelers to choose their own adventure.
The Cayman Islands' economy greatly depends on tourism, so its pristine beaches and staggeringly clear ocean are considered valuable resources and are protected (if often crowded). For all of the Westernized modernization of George Town, its capital, the whole of the Cayman Islands (including Cayman Brac and Little Cayman) is home to some 50,000 residents, and lush green areas are plentiful within just a few minutes′ drive from the town centers. Divers will delight in the natural lagoons and reef walls that populate various points around the island. Hikers will enjoy exploring the nooks and crannies of the Mastic Trail, an old trading route from the early 19th century. And those looking to laze on the soft sands of Seven Mile Beach (or innumerable other equally lovely stretches of coastline) will have no trouble staking their temporary claim.
Travelers with a little more time on their itineraries will want to trek east to Cayman Brac and/or Little Cayman. Both smaller islands offer less touristy and less developed areas to visit. While most popular with divers and nature enthusiasts, they have strong appeal for any kind of traveler willing to commit to a day trip. On Cayman Brac, the Bluff offers world-renowned scuba diving and snorkeling, while on Little Cayman, the 22 diving sites of Bloody Bay Marine Park are impressive as well. Bird watchers will be enthralled by the Booby Pond Nature Reserve, home to a large colony of red-footed booby birds and swooping frigates.
The versatility of any Cayman vacation is perhaps the greatest appeal. The beautiful natural surroundings can be the heart and soul of a vacation, but equally so can a week of retail therapy amidst the boutiques of downtown George Town. This abundance of things to do makes the traveler's job easy, and if the Caribbean can teach us anything, it is that life is best taken easy. The world back home, and the stresses it holds, can wait.
You'll enjoy the Cayman Islands if you've ever had the urge to see beneath the sea. The underwater scenery is among the best in the Caribbean, full of exotic fish, coral reefs and even the occasional stingray. The water is warm, clear and often calm—and there are plenty of places to dive or snorkel.
Be aware, however, that the Cayman Islands do not offer much in the way of geographic diversity, and just about everything costs more than it does at home. Of the three islands that make up the Caymans, Grand Cayman is the largest and the center of both the tourism and offshore banking industries. Most visitors spend at least some time there, if not their entire vacation. The heavy influx of visitors to Grand Cayman has had a homogenizing effect on that island. With its traffic, chain restaurants and T-shirt shops, you could, on occasion, mistake crowded stretches of Seven Mile Beach for parts of Florida. The other islands, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, get fewer visitors.
A trio of low-lying islands surrounded by vibrant coral reefs, the Cayman Islands are limestone outcroppings—the tops of a submarine mountain range called the Cayman Ridge, which extends southwest from the Sierra Maestra range off the southeastern edge of Cuba. The islands lack rivers or streams because of the porous nature of the limestone rock. This lack of runoff gives the surrounding Caribbean Sea exceptional clarity with visibility depths of more than 120 ft/37 m. The islands are located 480 mi/770 km south of Miami, Florida, and 180 mi/290 km northwest of Jamaica.
George Town, the capital, serves as the center of business and commerce and lies on Grand Cayman, the largest of the three islands (76 sq mi/197 sq km). Cayman Brac is smaller (14 sq mi/36 sq km), but with a bluff that rises 140 ft/43 m above sea level, it has the most dramatic topography of all three islands. Little Cayman is the smallest of the islands (10 sq mi/26 sq km), and with its 203-acre/82-hectare Booby Pond Nature Reserve, it's home to the Caribbean's largest population of red-footed boobies. Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, known as the "sister islands," lie 89 mi/143 km northeast of Grand Cayman and are separated by a channel about 7 mi/11 km wide.
Columbus came upon the islands in 1503, naming them Las Tortugas because their only inhabitants were vast numbers of turtles. By the mid-1500s, they were known as the Caymanas, the Carib word for crocodile.
Ships—including pirate ships—frequently visited in the 1500s and 1600s, but the first settlers didn't arrive until 1655, when deserters from the English army that was then capturing Jamaica made their way to Grand Cayman. Later arrivals also came from the British Isles—England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Slaves of African descent played a role in the islands' development, too, although the Caymans never became lucrative plantation isles like others in the Caribbean. The slaves were emancipated in 1834, and thereafter some escaped slaves from other parts of the New World settled on the island.
Today, tourism is a large part of the economy. More than half a million people visit each year—80% are from the U.S. and Canada, but more Europeans are discovering the islands. The other big business is finance: The Caymans rank among the favorite offshore banking locales in the world. There are some 500 banks based there, holding more than US$450 billion in assets. On paper, there are more than 68,000 registered companies that take advantage of the favorable tax status offered by the islands. The government opened a stock exchange in 1996.
The Cayman Islands are an Overseas Territory of the U.K., with a governor appointed by The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, though the islands retain a largely autonomous legislature.
The main attractions of the Cayman Islands include scuba diving, snorkeling, deep-sea fishing, beaches, shopping, good food, relaxation and investing.
If you are interested primarily in watersports, beautiful beaches and exploring duty-free stores, you'll enjoy the Caymans. Fine dining is big in the Caymans, with a diverse nightlife that can go until 3 am. The people are friendly, the communities are safe and clean, and you won't be harassed by roadside vendors.
During the Hurricane of 1932, residents of Cayman Brac sought shelter in the many caves on the island. The caves saved many lives then, as they did during Hurricane Ivan in September 2004. Ivan ranks second in the islands' most devastating hurricanes.
The national flower is the wild banana orchid. These small, scented flowers with purple tips bloom after May and June rains. More than two dozen varieties of orchids grow in the Cayman Islands, including five found nowhere else in the world. Some are reportedly so small they can't be seen without a magnifying glass.
Most visitors pronounce the name Cayman with the accent on the first syllable. Though they won't tell you it's wrong, most islanders pronounce it Cay-MAN. Also, Caymanians usually refer to their homeland simply as Cayman, rather than "the Cayman Islands" or "the Caymans."
Residents from the sister islands Cayman Brac and Little Cayman find it offensive when visitors or the international media refer to the islands as "The Grand Cayman Islands."
More than 140 different nationalities are represented in Cayman. The majority of the population is Caymanian, Jamaican, British, American, Canadian, Philippine and various South American nationalities.
Caymanian Tanya Streeter was the first human to free dive to the amazing depth of 525 ft/163 m.
Dolphin is the local name for mahimahi. Don't be alarmed when you see it on a menu—it's not the mammal.
In the spring, hundreds of thousands of red bay crabs invade the three islands, filling streets and homes. The migration ritual typically lasts for a month.
Of the three islands, Grand Cayman is the only one with the capacity to host cruise ships. A US$17.5 million port facility—just 1,315 ft/400 m north of the old Port Authority dock—with a 200-ft/60-m pier can dock one or two cruise ships.
Most passengers filter through Royal Watler, a self-contained facility with immigration, tourist information, shops, restaurants, restrooms and a taxi dispatch center in the center of George Town. Some passengers arrive at the town's less-equipped South or North terminals one block from the Royal Watler.
George Town is awash with shops and restaurants all within short walking distances of the terminals. Discussions about building another pier are under way, since on any given day there can be up to six cruise ships in the harbor and some passengers still need to be tendered to the terminal. There is also talk of augmenting the cruise terminal so that the new super-sized cruise ships can berth.
In rough weather, ships may anchor off the island's southern coast and tender passengers to Spotts, which lies about 4 mi/6 km from George Town. (Cruise ships are banned from anchoring in Spotts Bay.) Taxis or buses then transport passengers to George Town for shopping and to the various attractions.
There is a tourist information booth at the airport and at Royal Watler terminal when a cruise ship is in port. Phone 345-949-0623. http://www.caymanislands.ky.
Most trips take you offshore to explore the spectacular coral and fish (in a submersible vessel or glass-bottomed boat or, for certified divers, with scuba gear). There's also the option of a party cruise. Other popular options include a visit to Boatswain Beach—home of the Cayman Turtle Farm, the Cayman Motor Museum and Hell, all located in the West Bay. A party cruise and a historical and cultural tour are also options. Shoppers will be delighted with the countless duty-free shops, especially around George Town. Check with your travel agent for additional information.
Several local tour operators await passengers at the Royal Watler terminal and offer an array of activities.
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