To most people, the Cayman Islands are all about offshore banking or diving - which means the perfect beaches, wild interiors and cultural diversity are among the world's best-kept secrets
The Cayman Islands - flat tips of three mountain peaks in the submerged Cayman Ridge range - were first documented by Christopher Columbus in 1503. He named them Las Tortugas after the large number of turtles he found there. Sir Francis Drake turned up in 1586 and renamed them Caiman, a Caribbean slang word for crocodile, and in 1670 the Cayman Islands became a British Crown Colony when the Treaty of Madrid was signed by England and Spain in a bid to bring some order to the lawless western Caribbean.
On the surface of it, Grand Cayman is a splashy, in-your-face resort island, into which the international flights swoop, and the cruise ships glide. Most of its resorts are situated along Seven Mile Beach - a long stretch of the most incredibly soft sugar-white sand, now flanked by high-rise international hotels such as the extremely luxurious 365-room Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, which sits on a 144-acre site. Take the time to explore even a tiny bit further afield and you will discover a wild and magical place.
There is some disputing who the original settlers of the Caymans actually were. One theory is that they were deserters from the British army stationed on the island of Jamaica. Most were a combination of small-time planters, servants and slaves shipped over from Jamaica and even fugitives from shipwrecks. Many of the early settler families still live there today. There are 48,000 people living on the islands, 95 per cent of them on Grand Cayman, with around 1,200 on Cayman Brac and just 150 on Little Cayman.
The breathtaking diversity of the islands, both in terms of landscape (perfect white beaches, unspoilt interiors, interesting wildlife) and population (no fewer than 100 countries are represented in the residents), makes for a far more interesting holiday than many may first suspect.
Driving east out of George Town along the south coast, the beach houses lining the road are smothered in bougainvillea in half a dozen dazzling colours. Being such low-lying islands, the Caymans have always been susceptible to the annual hurricanes blowing through the Caribbean between June and November (the most devastating have always struck in November) and their history is punctuated by devastating storms. There are visible scars of more recent hurricanes such as Ivan and Katrina: every few minutes we pass a house with its roof ripped off or walls collapsed.
I pass the Watler Family Cemetery (traditionally, each family had its own) and an old plantation house, Pedro St James (the only building to have survived a massive hurricane in 1785), where the proclamation ending slavery was read. At Bodden Town, the first capital of the Cayman Islands, still a tangle of sleepy streets of original Caymanian houses, I drop by Mission House (001 345 947 5805; www.nationaltrust.org.ky/info/mission.html), a museum in a house built by Presbyterian missionaries. It holds evening cookery classes once a week, teaching people how to make traditional foods such as cassava cakes.
I head inland, to the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park (001 345 947 9462; www.botanic-park.ky), home to a glorious reforested wilderness and headquarters of the island’s Blue Iguana Recovery Program. Blue iguanas are endemic to Grand Cayman but are on the brink of extinction. There is a breeding programme here, and injured iguanas are nursed back to health in large pens, their names (Billy and Deborah, Maria) painted on sign posts by each. With the chattering of birds and the whispering of leaves in the trees overhead, we are a world away from Seven Mile Beach.
On the North Coast road, I stop at Over the Edge (001 345 947 9568), a rustic seafront restaurant on Old Man Bay, favoured by locals, for a late lunch of pan-fried conch steak. I end up at Rum Point, a North Side hangout popular with locals and tourists alike, a cluster of little bars right on the beach, with picnic tables shaded by palm trees with hammocks strung between them. ‘A Cayman Mudslide at the Wreck Bar is the only way to finish the tour,’ I’m advised, and before I know it, I’m slurping a plastic cup of delicious, frothing vodka, Kalhua, Tia Maria and ice cream.
The next day, I head back to the East End, traditionally known as the graveyard of the Caribbean because so many ships were wrecked on its reefs, for lunch. On the way, I stop off at the lighthouse and a site called Wreck of the Ten Sails. The Cayman equivalent of a pile-up on the M5 saw 10 merchant vessels, in convoy between Jamaica and Britain, run aground on one night in 1794, because a warning signal was misunderstood. Miraculously, only eight lives were lost but there were many more such disasters before the lighthouse was erected in the early 19th century. Lunch is at Ms Vivine’s (001 345 947 7435), a local’s local restaurant, essentially a house with a few tables and chairs under an awning in the back garden overlooking the sea, where we eat salt beef and beans. After lunch, I retire to a hammock to watch the world go by.
If you’d rather skip the big international hotel scene and neon lights of Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman has an increasingly sophisticated collection of small hotels and self-catering options dotted all over the island. The loveliest is Cotton Tree Cayman, a collection of four two-bedroom beachfront cottages on the little-known, rural Barkers Beach peninsula on the island’s West Bay.
Next day, it's off to Little Cayman (another story), but the 20-seater Cessna stops at Cayman Brac en route, so I hop off for a scout around. ‘The Brac’ (Gaelic for bluff), as locals call it, tends to get overlooked because it hasn’t got the monied gloss of Grand Cayman or the small-scale exclusivity of Little Cayman. But it’s actually beautiful and unspoilt, a rustic island with a wild interior and real local charm without a whiff of commercialism. The population is almost entirely Caymanian.
Cayman Brac has the only hill (hence its name) in Cayman: a 140-foot mound of limestone, pocked with caves, that runs the length of the island. The caves have been used as hurricane-shelters over the years, saving lives on many occasions, most notably in 1932, when most homes were destroyed and almost 15 per cent of the island’s population perished. There are mass graves on the North West Coast marked by circles of stone.
There are some lovely beaches, accessed down dusty tracks and then by foot. At Stake Bay, we stop off at Walton's Mango Manor, a sweet little B&B run by Lynne and George Walton, descendants of one of the Brac’s original settler families. It’s a good spot to go snorkelling, as it has steps descending into the sea. Diving off the Brac is even better, with a Russian frigate sunk within swimming distance off the north side of the island.
We drive past sleepy turnings with names like Fantasy Lane, and lovely old wooden houses with porches where people sit in rocking chairs, watching the world go by. At the top of the bluff there are look-out points from which you can see for miles. We spot some nesting brown boobies, falcons, ospreys, hawks and herons swooping overhead.
There used to be three resorts on Cayman Brac: one closed eight-odd years ago, another two years ago and now there is just the Brac Reef Resort, two minutes’ drive from the airport. A new feature film, shot on the island last year says it all. Cayman Went, starring Michael Lombardi (of Rescue Me fame) is about a corporate Los Angeles hotel group trying to buy up land and open a resort, much to the chagrin of locals. Needless to say, the locals win. That said, there is talk of two small scale resorts - but you just know they’ll be done the ‘right way’.
Virgin Atlantic flies from Heathrow to Miami from c£330. Onwards from Miami to Grand Cayman with Cayman Airways (www.caymanairways.com) costs from c£200 return. Booking a package with a tour operator is a lot more cost effective.