My marine biologist friend had the enviable job of monitoring biodiversity in her coral back garden in the Caymans. The underwater images of her swimming with rays and smiling amid clouds of swirling tropical fish are pretty much all I know of the trio of Caribbean islands, known individually as Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, situated to the south of Cuba. So, when I started planning a recent trip I wasn't surprised to learn that the islands' chief attractions are of the aquatic kind.
Swimming in the Caribbean's warm crystalline waters is usually the first thing on my mind when I touch down in the region. And fortunately for me, the Caymans are largely defined by diaphanous waters and ribbons of coralline sand with most settlements, resorts and activities set in and around the sublime coastline.
Famed for its underwater wonders, the islands sit atop an oceanic mountain range – the Cayman Ridge – so scuba diving and snorkelling are obviously high on the agenda. The main island, Grand Cayman, is encircled with fairytale-like dive sites such as Cinderella's Castle, the Black Forest and Disappearing Canyon that sound like a scuba-diver's dream.
Don Fosters is just one of the Caymans' PADI-accredited dive centres that offer shore dives, daily boat trips, snorkelling excursions, try-dives for beginners, and thrilling wreck dives. If I get the chance I plan to explore the well-known Kittywake Wreck, apparently an easy-ish dive in fairly shallow calm water, frequented by eagle rays and schools of jacks.
There's more world-class diving around Cayman Brac, where the Brac Scuba Shack runs boat trips out to see my two favourite sea creatures – manta rays and turtles – as well as dives down to Mud Bay Wall, said to be one of the most spectacular drop-offs on earth.
But you can glimpse Caymans' sub-aquatic beauty with just a mask and snorkel at many points around the islands. Around Grand Cayman, Smith's Cove – a deep enclave of clear water hemmed in by low rocks, encrusted with coral reefs and edged by a steep soft sandy beach – is a top snorkelling spot. No equipment is required to see the watery wonders in the transparent shallows of Starfish Point where hundreds of starfish congregate on the sandy seabed near the shore.
There are a few unique chances to interact with aquatic animals in the Caymans that are not-to-be-missed. Meeting the wild southern stingrays on a sand bar at Stingray City is a highlight of many visitors' trips. At Dolphin Cove you can swim with dolphins in pools adjoining the sea. The fee here includes a free trip to either Stingray City or the Cayman Turtle Centre, though it's worth considering that the endangered green sea turtles have been shown not to do well in captivity and some are sold for meat.
For motorised watersports, the Caymans' most renowned stretch of sand – Seven Mile Beach – is the best place to go. Here you can arrange to go jetskiing and parasailing among other activities. On top of the usual offering, you can try out the unique new "Jetivator" at White Sand Watersports. I'm abit more reluctant when it comes to noisier aquatic activities that involve engines, but at Seven Mile Beach if you can't beat them join them. I'll look forward to trying on the water jet pack and making off like an aquatic Iron Man.
Beaches and botanicals
The Caymans are known for having some of the Caribbean's top beaches. In a region of beauty pageant-worthy beaches, that's saying alot. To compete with the best, the sand must be soft and pale, the waters calm, clear and turquoise tinted, the beach wide and framed by palms. My personal criteria also includes zero development, good snorkelling and a backdrop of tropical hills. I've seen plenty of pictures of scenic beaches in the Caymans, but until I feel the sand on my soles and test the waters for myself, I'll reserve my judgment.
Seven Mile Beach, which skims the western tale of whale-shaped Grand Cayman, is world-famous for its heavenly vistas, and this is also where most of the island's holiday resorts are concentrated. There are quieter and more low-key beaches around the island that I'd like to explore too. Rum Point on the tip of Grand Cayman's northern shore is said to have a more bohemian atmosphere than Seven Mile with palms strung with hammocks, a local island atmosphere and the Caymans' best signature mudslides served up at the beach-side Wreck Bar.
Along the island's North Side, Kaibo Beach also looks trip-worthy. Its dazzling ribbon of white sand and tall arching palms is popular with locals at weekends, and apparently you can find decent island food and music at Kaibo Beach Bar and Grill. Tuesday sounds like a good day to visit – with a rum-fuelled beach barbeque and live bands.
Some of the island's top snorkelling spots also seem to sport the best beaches. The curving beach of wide creamy sand and opalescent water at Starfish Point is my top pick for an idyllic day at the beach. While at Smith Cove, the fine white sand is shadowed by sea grape trees with bench-like trunks that can provide the perfect shade on a scorching day.
The tranquil Queen Elizabeth Botanic Park could act as an enchanting diversion from Grand Cayman's coast. Its exotic gardens include endemic edible and fragrant plants, as well as tropical flora from around the world interspersed with lakes, waterfalls, fountains and streams. The woodland trail loop is nearly a mile long and there's a good chance of spotting a blue dragon – a local species of iguana.
For a more laid-back vibe away from the main island, teamed with a strong dose of outdoors exploration, the empty palm-fringed sands, undisturbed reefs, colourful sunsets and beach shacks of Cayman Brac are surely more than suitable. A little-developed natural paradise, it's crisscrossed with hiking trails, indented with caves, underground chambers and limestone tunnels, and topped by a towering limestone bluff. Accessible caves include Peter's Cave and Bat's Cave, and there are places to stay by the beach at Carib Sands and Kings Point. Daily domestic flights from Grand Cayman make the hop across quick and easy.
The quietest of the islands, Little Cayman is the ultimate escape. If I make it to this tropical wilderness, I plan to rent a bike or scooter to explore and visit the Point of Sand, kayak to desert islands, hunt for native rock iguanas and luxuriate on long empty sand bars lapped by crystalline sea.
Signature rum cocktails and classic Caribbean dishes seem to be the order of the day at many of Caymans' restaurants and bars, and the annual Cayman Cookout food festival has put the islands firmly on the culinary map. When I'm not immersed in the ocean, I'll be sampling the local food and fire water. As you would expect, the country's capital Georgetown has the best variety of eateries and bars, as well as a working rum distillery that offers tours and tastings.
I'll likely stop by the colourful wooden waterfront eatery that is Breezes by the Bay in downtown Georgetown for a casual meal, a fruit smoothie or a house "Hurricane Category Five" cocktail. To sample some gourmet local flavours, the Cracked Conch in West Bay has a reputation for delicious conch chowder and great sea views. Georgetown's Mango Tree sounds like a more relaxed option when I'm craving classic jerk chicken.
With a gorgeous location perched above the Caribbean Sea west of Georgetown and proprietors clearly passionate about "clean" food – fresh, local, organic, gluten-free and probably pretty healthy – the Greenhouse Cafe could be an interesting lunch option. For anyone partial to abit of vegetarian food, the inventive and mouth-watering menu at the Bread and Chocolate in Georgetown is definitely worth a try.
To explore the wider culinary offering on Cayman, you can take foodie tours with an expert local guide to enjoy fresh fish, meet local artisans and learn about island history. Cayman Farm and Garden gives tours of its vegetable patches, greenhouses, fields and flower gardens, and you can also buy fresh island produce including sauces and salsas. If you don't make it to the farm, look out for its stalls in Camana Bay Market or at the Market at the Grounds in Bodden Town.
A little souvenir shopping is an apt way to end a trip and I usually like to take some local flavours home. On Georgetown's waterfront, you can pick up the island specialty Black Beard's Rum Cake that comes in flavours such as banana and coconut. The Rum Stop has a wide variety of rums and cakes to take away, or you can take a break at its picnic benches to savour them there and then.