GEORGETOWN, Cayman Islands — If the city of Zurich were an island afloat somewhere in an azure sea, the temptation would be great to compare it to this place: 500 aggressive banks, zero poverty or slums, ultra-stable government and a civil population free of racial tensions and turmoil.
With all respect to the Alpine city, Grand Cayman has more than a few things going for it that you won't find in the above comparisons. Such as endless ribbons of some of the world's most gorgeous beaches, a year-round average temperature of sunny 77 and beautiful coral reefs.
Not too long ago the Caymans were just another three-island chain bobbing about in the Caribbean, with little to distinguish them from their somnolent neighbors. They were largely untouched since Columbus likened them to turtles, named them Las Tortugas and sailed on.
A couple of centuries after Columbus, the Spaniards discovered that Las Tortugas was a name already spoken for, renamed them the Caymans for the crocodile-like critters crawling around and practically turned the place over to pirates, who helped litter the surrounding waters with about 300 derelicts.
In 1670, the Spaniards gave way to the Brits, who have run the islands as a low-key but fiercely loyal Crown colony since. That is, until the bankers landed and decided to make it the tax haven of the universe.
The Caymans have become a mecca for scuba divers snooping about reefs and wrecks, a repository for more confidential bank accounts than you can count and a bonanza for wind-wizened fishermen who would rather boat a blue marlin than break the bank at Monte Carlo.
Here to there: Fly Eastern or Northwest through Miami, Cayman Airways from there to Georgetown in just more than an hour.
How long/how much? Most visitors stay about a week. Lodging and dining costs on the high-moderate side, as more than 80% of the food is imported from the United States.
A few fast facts: The Cayman dollar is worth 80 cents U.S., but banks will give you about 82 cents for a traveler's check dollar. Weather is superb year-round, with some rain in June. Language is English-Southern, with a dash of Scot lilt and Jamaican patois.
Getting settled: Sunset House (Box 479, Grand Cayman; $90 to $110 double, mid-December to mid-April, $70-$90 the rest of the year) is a couple of miles from town, but only a frog jump from water so clear that divers have made this one their headquarters for 30 years. The hotel has three dive boats, a yacht and a deep-sea fishing power boat.
Sunset has a very informal island feel, rooms with two double beds and bright colors, a jolly and helpful staff and the most popular bar on the island. Sunset's diving packages of three or seven nights, including boats and all equipment, are an excellent value.
Cayman Islander (Seven-Mile Beach; $89 double high season, $50 low) is just across the road from Grand Cayman's famed beach, with the same casual atmosphere as the Sunset but with more of a motel look and feel.
Don't let the cluttered lobby (it's a mess) turn you off. You'll find large rooms with cable TV and air conditioning, twin buildings facing the pool and small thatched pagodas, where you crawl into a hammock with book and cooler and maybe never get out.
A couple at opposite ends of the price spectrum are Treasure Island (Seven-Mile Beach; $145 double high season, $120 low), a huge palatial resort owned by a clutch of Nashville country music stars, with live music by the lobby waterfall and maybe Conrad Twitty in residence.
Island House (near West Bay; $65 high season, $45 the rest of the year) is an 11-room guest house noted for its island cooking and hospitable staff. Lots of quiet beaches nearby.
Regional food and drink: While most of the food is imported, you'll find plenty of conch, turtle and other fresh seafood. The conch is made into delicious chowders with coconut milk, the turtle prepared in several ways--often with peppers and onions in a stew, in soups and chowders, and the most tender parts sauteed like veal scaloppine. Wahoo, dolphin and snapper are the most popular fish.
Peas cooked with coconut, scallions, bacon, onion and hot pepper, then mixed with rice, is an island favorite. And a traditional weekend breakfast is made up of cassava, yams, fried plantain, plus callaloo, bacon and peppers cooked into a spicy melange. Jamaica's Red Stripe is excellent beer, while island rums are mixed with anything into the wildest concoctions imaginable.
Moderate-cost dining: Crows Nest (South Sound) has a funky diner atmosphere inside, green picnic tables outside overlooking the sound. Caribbean seafood is the thing here, the likes of conch fritters and stew, grilled dolphin, turtle steak with vermouth sauce and a Caesar salad with marinated conch.