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Little Cayman

The smallest and most tranquil of the three Cayman Islands, Little Cayman has a full-time population of only 170, most of whom work in the tourism industry; they are easily outnumbered by iguanas and rare birds. This 12-square-mile (31-square-km) island is practically pristine and has only a sand-sealed airstrip, sharing its “terminal” building with the fire department and a few other vehicles. The grass runway was finally paved with blacktop a few years ago, and locals no longer have to line up their cars at night to guide emergency landings in by headlight. But some things don’t change. The speed limit remains 25 mph, as no one is in a hurry to go anywhere. In fact, the island’s population of resident iguanas uses roads more regularly than residents; signs created by local artists read “Iguanas have the right of way.”

With little commercial development, the island beckons ecotourists seeking wildlife encounters, not urban wildlife. It’s best known for its spectacular diving in world-renowned Bloody Bay Marine Park, including Bloody Bay Wall and adjacent Jackson Wall. The ravishing reefs and plummeting walls encircling the island teem with more than 500 different species of fish and more than 150 kinds of coral. Fly-, lake-, and deep-sea fishing are also popular, as well as snorkeling, kayaking, and biking. And the island’s certainly for the birds. The National Trust Booby Pond Nature Reserve is a designated wetland of international importance, which protects around 20,000 red-footed boobies, the Western Hemisphere’s largest colony. It’s just one of many superlative spots to witness avian aerial acrobatics.

Secluded beaches, unspoiled tropical wilderness and wetlands, mangrove swamps, lagoons, bejeweled coral reefs—Little Cayman practically redefines “hideaway” and “escape.” Yet aficionados appreciate that the low-key lifestyle doesn’t mean sacrificing the high-tech amenities, and some of the resorts cater to a quietly wealthy yet unpretentious crowd.

Which isn’t to say Little Cayman lacks for lively moments. Halloween parties and Mardi Gras festivities bring out wildly imaginative costumes and floats. It’s just one of those rare places that attract more colorful types who are in search of privacy, not just the ardently ecocentric. One of the largest private homes was built and owned by the late actor Burgess Meredith; island rumors persist to this day of planes full of high-school cheerleaders visiting his digs for weeks at a time. Then there’s a local who allegedly grew marijuana. The island’s two bobbies (who do a four-year stint from Great Britain and learn when to look the other way) caught him with a joint. “But it can’t be mine,” he protested, “‘cuz I woulda smoked it by now.” The plants were impounded and placed in a tub in the jail’s only cell, while the accused went free.

That doesn’t provide a license for misbehavior on this beautiful, idiosyncratic landfall. But this is definitely a place to mellow out; drugs won’t be needed. As one regular cackles, “If the island were any more laid-back, it’d be double-jointed.”

POINTS OF INTEREST

GLADYS B. HOWARD LITTLE CAYMAN NATIONAL TRUST VISITORS CENTRE

This traditional Caymanian cottage overlooks the Booby Pond Nature Reserve; telescopes on the breezy second-floor deck permit close-up views of their markings and nests, as well as other feathered friends. Inside are shell collections; panels and dioramas discussing endemic reptiles; models “in-flight”; and diagrams on the growth and life span of red-footed boobies, frigate birds, egrets, and other island “residents.” The shop sells exquisite jewelry made from Caymanite and spider-crab shells, extraordinary duck decoys and driftwood carvings, and great books on history, ornithology, and geology. Mike Vallee holds an iguana information session and tour every Friday at 4. The cheeky movie Calendar Girls inspired a local equivalent: Little Cayman women, mostly in full, ripe maturity, going topless for an important cause—raising awareness of the red-footed booby and funds to purchase the sanctuary’s land. Nicknamed, appropriately, “Support the Boobies,” the calendar is tasteful, not titillating: the lasses strategically hold conch shells, brochures, flippers, tree branches, etc.

POINT OF SAND

Stretching over a mile on the island’s easternmost point, this secluded beach is great for wading, shell collecting, and snorkeling. On a clear day, you can see 7 miles (11 km) to Cayman Brac. The beach serves as a green- and loggerhead turtle nesting site in spring and a mosaic of coral gardens blooms just offshore. It’s magical, especially at moonrise, when it earns its nickname, Lovers’ Beach. There’s a palapa for shade but no facilities. The current can be strong, so watch the kids carefully. Amenities: none. Best for: snorkeling; solitude; sunset; walking.

OWEN ISLAND

This private, forested island can be reached by rowboat, kayak, or an ambitious 200-yard swim. Anyone is welcome to come across and enjoy the deserted beaches and excellent snorkeling. Nudity is forbidden as “idle and disorderly” in the Cayman Islands, though that doesn’t always stop skinny-dippers (who may not realize they can be seen quite easily from shore). Amenities: none. Best for: snorkeling; solitude; swimming.

LITTLE CAYMAN MUSEUM

This newly renovated, gorgeously laid out and curated museum displays relics and artifacts, including one wing devoted to maritime memorabilia and another to superlative avian and marine photographs, that provide a good overview of this tiny island’s history and heritage.

LITTLE CAYMAN RESEARCH CENTER

Near the Jackson Point Bloody Bay Marine Park reserve, this vital research center supports visiting students and researchers, with a long list of projects studying the biodiversity, human impact, reef health, and ocean ecosystem of Little Cayman. Its situation is unique in that reefs this unspoiled are usually far less accessible; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration awarded it one of 16 monitoring stations worldwide. The center also solicits funding through the parent U.S. nonprofit organization Central Caribbean Marine Institute; if you value the health of our reefs, show your support on the website. Chairman Peter Hillenbrand proudly calls it the “Ritz-Carlton of marine research facilities, which often are little more than pitched tents on a beach.” Tours explain the center’s mission and eco-sensitive design (including Peter’s Potty, an off-the-grid bathroom facility using compostable toilets that recycle fertilizer into gray water for the gardens); sometimes you’ll get a peek at the upstairs functional wet labs and dormitories. To make it layperson-friendlier, scientists occasionally give talks and presentations. The Dive with a Researcher program (where you actually help survey and assess the environmental impact and ecosystem health, depending on that week’s focus) is hugely popular.