24 October 2016

Stingray city: stroke creatures the size of small tables at Grand Cayman
Sun, sand & stingrays
Ian Birrell discovers more than just a tax break in the natural treasure chest of the The Cayman Islands
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he Queen's portrait is on display at the airport – but it feels like arriving in Florida, with joggers pounding pavements, Jeeps on the roads and dollars in the shops. Then there is the Cayman Islands' reputation as a haven for hot money and its eagerness to hold huge corporate conventions. But when I ask my Surreyborn diving instructor if he misses Britain, I realise it's a daft question.

After all, back home it's chilly and rainy - and we have just surfaced from a superb dive in coral-rich waters. Now the sun is beating down as we bounce back in the boat towards a perfect tropical beach. Darrin simply smiles: 'What do you think? It's beautiful and you can walk down the street at night without looking over your shoulder.'
A rare encounter with the endangered Hawksbill turtle
The Westin hotel offers some of the best views
Our hotel is busy, with boisterous Americans attending an insurance convention. But looks can be deceptive. For the Westin has some of the best hotel food I have tasted in the Caribbean. And the islands turn out to be a terrific holiday location. Diving is the main attraction, with several fine wrecks dotted around the waters. There are scores of rock tunnels to swim through and underwater walls close to the shore which, draped in coral, ensure a constantly changing kaleidoscope of marine life. I glide through clouds of silvery jacks, stroke a giant grouper which follows me around - and eyeball fearsomely big barracuda with menacing looks on their fang-laden faces.
Tell people you're going on holiday to the Caymans and invariably they joke about stashing ill-gotten gains - since this trio of islands, 150 miles south of Cuba, is better known as a tax haven than tourist trap. When my wife and I land on Grand Cayman, the biggest island, we feel a business buzz.
"Diving is the main attraction, with several fine wrecks dotted around the waters."
Then there is Stingray City, where creatures the size of small tables congre-gate on shallow sandbars at the sound of boat engines. They used to scavenge when fishermen were cleaning their nets. Now they are deliberately lured with squid so that snorkellers can caress them. 'You hold them like a pizza box, with two hands underneath,' says one guide. 'It feels like stroking a wet portobello mushroom.'

My favourites, however, are the geeky-looking Hawksbill turtles - which, although endangered, seem to be plentiful in these waters. I encounter five on just one dive. They seem unconcerned as I swim alongside, admiring their striking shells and sharp beaks. These elegant reptiles were also admired by Christopher Columbus, who was the first European visitor here on his final voyage, five centuries ago.
"The Caymans can still claim more species of flora and fauna than the Galapagos Islands."
The decadent crescent of sand: Seven Mile Beach
Going authentic at the Heritage Kitchen
He even named the islands Las Tortugas in their honour, claiming that there were so many he could use them as stepping stones to the shore. Later, the archipelago was re-named after its crocodiles. These have since disappeared, but the Caymans can still claim more species of flora and fauna than the Galapagos Islands. It is the only place where I have seen signs that give iguanas right of way on the roads. The most precious of these quasi-dragons is the Blue Iguana - an endemic species which grows up to 5ft. A decade ago there were only a dozen left but an intensive breeding programme has boosted numbers back to more than 1,000.

Although not the most beautiful of beasts, they are mostly quite friendly. 'I love these guys,' says Alberto, the enthusiastic guide who shows us around their pens at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park. Another morning we walk the Mastic Trail, a lovely little hike through forests filled with woodpeckers, parrots and tree frogs. Then, after plates of jerk chicken at a cafe hanging over the water's edge, it is back to an afternoon of lazing on Seven Mile Beach. Despite the name, this decadent crescent of sand is 'only' 5.5 miles long - and also the island's main drag, lined with smart hotels, small shopping malls and restaurants.

As dusk falls, I float in the sea watching a giant cruise ship ablaze with lights. Later we drive to Heritage Kitchen - a tiny shack hidden away on the front serving conch fritters and fried wahoo, with coconut, hot spice, rice and peas. Next day we board a tiny plane to Little Cayman, a slip of a place that's home to about 170 people. A local provides a lift to our pastel-painted hotel, joking that it is rush hour when we pass another vehicle. We take to the road ourselves, hiring mopeds to chug around this ten-mile island, carefully avoiding the iguana sprawled on the Tarmac. At Point of Sand, at the north tip, we swim and soak up the last of the sun. Then it is time for the chickens to be cleared from the island's runway and our return to reality.

Original article published in Apr 2015. All info and prices correct at time of publication.
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