CAYMAN ISLANDS

For the American traveler, perhaps no other Caribbean islands offer the comforts and "this is almost like back home" feeling of the Cayman Islands, especially the most popular destination: Grand Cayman. This island, together with its smaller cousins, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, enjoys the highest per capita income in the Caribbean, is friendly, safe, and tailor-made for couples looking for a slice of home on their vacation. Here you'll find all the comforts of the US, as well as an American standard of service in many restaurants, bars, and hotels from many stateside ex-pats who make their home in these lovely isles. For some visitors, this Americanized atmosphere is as welcome as eating a Big Mac in Paris; for others it is a comforting way to experience the islands.

All that comfort comes at a price, however. The Cayman dollar is stronger than its US equivalent, so at present the US dollar is worth only 80 cents CI. Prices in hotels, restaurants, shops, and attractions reflect that unfavorable exchange rate and high standard of living; we've paid as much as $36 US for breakfast for two in a hotel restaurant.

These lofty price tags don't deter the nearly 300,000 U.S. vacationers and businesspeople who fly into these islands every year. The vacationers are drawn by protected waters as clear as white rum and teeming with marine life, offering one of the best snorkeling and scuba vacations in the region. The business world is attracted to these small islands for an entirely different reason: tax free status. (Remember The Firm? Portions of that movie, based on the John Grisham book, were filmed right here.)

Located in the westernmost reaches of the Caribbean, about 180 miles west of Jamaica, the Cayman Islands are composed of three islands: Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Little Cayman. Grand Cayman is the largest of the trio, spanning 76 square miles. The Sister Islands, are located about 80 miles east-northeast of Grand Cayman, separated by seven miles of sea.

These three islands are actually the peaks of a submarine mountain range, the Cayman Ridge, part of a chain running from Cuba to near Belize. The islands are actually limestone outcroppings with little soil, so vegetation is not as lush as on some islands. Most of the rain is quickly absorbed in the porous limestone, so there are no rivers on these islands. That means little runoff and therefore greater visibility in the waters surrounding the islands. Divers rave about the visibility, often 100 to 150 feet.

Beyond the reaches of land, each island is surrounded by coral reefs, producing some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the Caribbean. Divers have a chance at spotting a wide array of marine life, partly because of the deep water located nearby. The deepest waters in the Caribbean are found between this nation and Jamaica, depths that plunge into inky blackness over four miles beneath the ocean's surface.

The Cayman Islands have taken strict measures to protect the marine life of these waters. Today the sea turtle is protected and no one may disturb, molest, or take turtles in Cayman waters without a license. Other marine conservation laws prohibit the taking of any marine life while scuba diving or damaging coral with anchors. Over 200 permanent boat moorings prevent further coral damage by anchoring.

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