Most of the population of the Cayman Islands live on the 78 square mile (202 sq km) Grand Cayman, the largest island in the chain, and every day thousands of visitors arrive, many of them on cruise liners, to besiege the narrow streets of the island capital, George Town, and delight in the beautiful beaches.
The busy little colonial capital also draws its fair share of wheelers and dealers, being a major offshore investment centre with more than 500 banks. The banking business has made Grand Cayman an affluent society, but decadence has not accompanied the wealth.
There are no glitzy casinos and wild club venues here, and nudity on the beach is frowned upon. The natural attractions are enough to draw the crowds, however, with the coral reefs, clear waters, and sandy beaches offering the chance to try out any watersport imaginable.
The tourist infrastructure on Grand Cayman is very good, providing anything travellers might need. The other islands are far less developed, making Grand Cayman the natural hub for all activities and amenities.
Just north of George Town, Seven Mile Beach is a beautiful stretch of white sand that curls around the west of Grand Cayman. A bit of a misnomer, Seven Mile Beach is actually only five and a half miles (8.8km) long, and is slowly shrinking due to erosion. A reef protects the coast and ensures that the water is blissfully calm and ideal for swimming and snorkelling. This is the most popular beach on the island and is bordered by dozens of hotels, but it is large enough to ensure sunbathers do not end up towel-to-towel. For day-visitors there are plenty of restaurants, beach bars, and even grilling facilities to relax at after a day of watersports. The calm and safe swimming conditions and ample space make Seven Mile Beach a great option for families with children. North of Seven Mile Beach is West Bay, the country's second largest town.
Boatswain's Beach is Cayman's premier attraction. It features the famous Cayman Turtle Farm, an Education Centre, as well as a one of a kind marine park, with 23 acres of reef lagoon in which guests can snorkel. When Christopher Columbus arrived at the Cayman Islands in 1503, he named them Las Tortugas, meaning 'The Turtles'. According to legend, there were so many turtles that the islands looked like they were covered with rocks. They are now a protected species and the Cayman Islands Turtle Farm is home to thousands of turtles ranging in size from six ounces (170g) to 575 pounds (261kg) each. The priority of the farm is to maintain an ideal breeding environment for the turtles. Guests at Boatswain's Beach can tour the Turtle Farm, and enjoy other attractions: Cayman Street, which showcases a bit of the Cayman Islands' culture and history; a nature trail with colourful flowers and butteflies; a free-flight bird aviary; Boatswain's Reef, with a viewing panel into the Predator Reef; the Breaker's Lagoon swimming pool; and up-close-and-personal animal encounters at the touch tanks.
East of George Town is Pedro St James, the islands' oldest surviving building, originally built by an Englishman who arrived here on Grand Cayman in 1765. Local stories also associate the house with the pirate Henry Morgan and a 17th-century Spaniard, Pedro Gómez. The house is touted as the islands' 'birthplace of democracy' because it was here in 1831 that the decision was made to vote for elected representatives, and four years later the Slavery Abolition Act was also read here. Constructed around 1780 from quarried native stone, the house has been restored by the government as an historic site. Behind a traditional coral stone wall rises an authentic, three-storey early 19th-century great house, and assorted outbuildings, with traditional grounds planted with pineapple, banana, and other provisions. The adjacent acres are covered with luxuriant tropical plants, palm-lined walkways, and a splendid manicured Great Lawn sprawling to a fantastic view over the Caribbean. A new 3D multimedia theatre shows a 20-minute film of the history of the castle, and there is a memorial to the victims of Hurricane Ivan.
The Cayman Islands are better known for their sea life than flora and fauna on land, but for keen botanists or those who would simply like a pleasant walk, the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park is hard to beat. A well-marked mile-long (3km) trail winds through lush and easy terrain, featuring almost 300 native species including roses, hibiscus, lilies, and orchids (which bloom in late May and June). The park and lake is home to the endangered and elusive Blue Iguana, as well as a fascinating array of birdlife including parrots, herons, coots, and the rare West Indian Whistling Duck. The nearby Mastic Trail meanders through the old-growth forest that once supplied early settlers with timber on Grand Cayman. The 26-hectare (65 acre) park is in the district of North Side, and is a 45-minute drive from George Town.
Rum Point Beach consists of hundreds of yards of crystal-clear shallow sand flats, perfect for snorkelling in a conservation marine park. It is a tranquil retreat where hammocks slung under shady trees, picnic tables, a sandy beach, and warm shallow waters provide a relaxing haven for the day. Many watersports are offered, with easy access to North Sound, including jet-skiing, sailing, and kayaking, and snorkellers can explore the coral formations just off the beach. The shore is dotted with ultra-casual beach bars, and slipping into a hammock with a cocktail is the perfect way to relax. Rum Point is a good option for families on Grand Cayman as the shallow waters are calm and safe and there are plenty of diversions for kids.
Stingray City and the Sandbar are snorkelling sites located in the North Sound, and are a must-visit for watersports enthusiasts. The clear shallow waters are frequented by friendly stingrays that come to find out what titbits visitors have brought them. Boat tours take snorkellers and divers to swim with and feed the stingrays on bits of squid. They will brush against swimmers and allow themselves to be touched. This famous Cayman attraction was accidentally created by fishermen who used to clean their catch in the calm waters, casting bits overboard, and so attracting the Southern Stingrays to the area. Swimming with the stingrays is a remarkable experience. Travellers should do their best to ensure, however, that they use only reputable tour operators who have respect for the environment and the animals.
A popular and slightly bizarre stop on any tour of Grand Cayman, Hell is a tiny village that features strange black limestone rock formations that are said to resemble the Underworld. Though Cayman residents are generally religious, residents of Hell show their sense of humour to tourists with a bright red post office that sends 'Postcards from Hell', and a gift shop where 'Satan' passes out souvenirs and inquires of visitors. The village, home to only 60 people, also features a restaurant and bar. The natural rock formations, comprised of the spiky Ironshore limestone found elsewhere on the island are interesting, and the residents have turned Hell into a quirky island attraction for those exploring beyond the beaches and resorts.
Grand Cayman experiences good weather all year round, with the trade winds keeping the climate temperate. Peak season runs between December and April while the rainy season runs from May to November, which also happens to be hurricane season. Many visitors still choose to travel during the rainy season as prices are cheaper, the beaches are less crowded, and the rain generally comes in short, sharp bursts and clears relatively quickly.
The pirates invade George Town each November for a fiesta of music, dancing, costumes, food, drink, and fireworks. Pirate Week is a one of a kind occasion and really the only place to celebrate these colourful characters of the past is in the warm sun of the Caribbean.
The pirates land in George Town Harbour in renovated pirate ships, hoisting their Jolly Rogers high to the delight of thousands of families who gather to enjoy the roguish heritage of the Cayman Islands. A variety of parties, sporting events, and cultural celebrations take place throughout the week and leading up to it.
The Intertrust Cayman Islands Marathon gives runners the opportunity to race on a beautiful, fast, and flat course. There's one loop for half marathoners and two for the marathoners. The option to extend the trip into a relaxing post-marathon island holiday is also available.
The race has plenty of special touches and freebies such as greeters at the airport, free shuttle services to and from the start and finish, and more. It also operates as a qualifier for those aiming to compete in the prestigious Boston Marathon the following year.
Local crowd support for the races is inspiring, with people crowding onto sidewalks to cheer. With the early start, runners avoid the worst of the day's heat and have the opportunity to set off under the clear starry skies, watching the sunrise as the run continues.
Most of the top-rated tourist attractions of the Cayman Islands can be found on Grand Cayman and many visitors, especially cruise passengers, never feel the need to explore beyond this big, beautiful island. Of course, the beaches are the main attraction, with the famous Seven Mile Beach celebrated as the best in the Caribbean.
Other popular beaches include Smith Cove, West Bay, and Rum Point. Scuba diving and snorkelling are the most popular activities and wonderful dive sites are plentiful around Grand Cayman, with shallow reef dives for beginners and interesting technical dives for the more advanced. Numerous other watersports can be arranged from Grand Cayman, including sailing and fishing trips.
Top attractions on Grand Cayman include Stingray City, where visitors can swim with stingrays; Hell, a tiny settlement on Grand Cayman which takes it's quirky name from the jagged black rock formations that surround it; Boatswain's Beach, including the Cayman Turtle Farm; the Butterfly Farm, a tropical garden full of the colourful creatures; Pedro St James Castle, for a bit of history; and, for the culturally inclined, the National Gallery and National Museum in George Town.