James Innes-Smith

Welcome to globalised paradise

Welcome to globalised paradise
Seven mile beach, Grand Cayman
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'I remember when this was a dusty old coastal road with stunning views across the length of Seven Mile Beach' recalls my charming cab driver as we cruise along one of Grand Cayman's many spotless highways. That was back in the 80s before mass tourism and the financial sector barricaded the island's most bankable asset behind a ribbon of luxury hotels and apartment blocks. Back in the early 60s Grand Cayman, the largest of a three-island archipelago, was little more than a sparsely populated, mosquito-infested swamp surrounded by some of the loveliest beaches in the Caribbean.

Pronounced CayMan by locals, this British Overseas Territory continues to be a land of extremes. While the summer heat is off the scale so too are the income disparities. The lives of local migrant workers remain in stark contrast to the financiers and wealthy tourists who flock here for a piece of the good life.

A proportion of the swanky new beach hotels such as the Ritz Carlton and Kimpton are the responsibility of one of the island's most enigmatic figures. The reclusive foam container billionaire Ken Dart owns much of the island's infrastructure, including some of the many highways that connect the more remote parts of the island. Few of the locals I spoke to had ever caught sight of the mysterious Dart although they were all aware that he came to Cayman seeking refuge and has since embraced an extraordinarily lavish island lifestyle. With his vast property portfolio, rambling Seven Mile Beach hotel residence and Dart Enterprises business, this middle-aged magnet holds much of the islands’ future in his hands.

In 2007 he commissioned a glitzy $800 million, 700,000 sq ft residential, retail and office development called Camana Bay just north of the capital with its own mini manmade tropical island and assortment of upscale restaurants. His latest venture is a proposed $1.5 billion 'iconic skyscraper' that would rival the Eiffel Tower and the Dubai's Burj Khalifa.

Grand Cayman

Despite Grand Cayman's reputation as an offshore tax haven it's actually remarkably difficult to open a bank account here, not that this has dampened prospectors' enthusiasm for what is now a major tourist hotspot. Of course, the benefits of not having to pay income or corporate tax remains a major draw for businesses and individuals with money to burn but there is far more to the Caymans than profitable business opportunities.

Look beyond the disparities and the Caymans have plenty to offer the discerning tourist. There are the famously white sands of Seven Mile Beach of course (it's actually just over five miles but who's counting) while restaurants are plentiful and varied with some world beating seafood joints.

While the Seven Mile Beach hotels house some excellent restaurants - Taikun at the Ritz Carlton has great sushi while the Coccoloba beach bar at Kimpton Seafire serves a mean fish taco - it's worth seeking out some of the quirkier local gems. George Town's Lobster Pot with its panoramic waterfront terrace has been offering up freshly caught crustaceans to enthusiastic locals since the mid 60s with dishes such as the legendary 'Cayman Trio' consisting of lobster tail, garlic prawns and mahi mahi. Sunsets are particularly dreamy from this vantage point, especially when accompanied by one of the barman's signature pina coladas.

Over at the colourful Calypso Grill overlooking Morgan's Harbour at West Bay with its warm breezes and raucous native parrots, authentic Caribbean dishes include grilled ginger tuna and lobster and shrimp champagne. Fresh fish arrive daily from the nearby dock.

If lounging on Seven Mile Beach isn’t really your thing (all beaches on Cayman are publicly owned) travel a few miles up the coast to the charming capital George Town with its homely atmosphere and colourful Caymanian architecture.

Those seeking adventure should take one of the organised catamaran trips from Camana Bay out to Stingray City, a sandbank in the middle of the warm turquoise sea where inquisitive rays gather to feed and be ogled at by enchanted tourists. Stargazers should hire a kayak at Rum Point and marvel at the pristine night sky. Trail your hand along the surface of the sea and watch bioluminescent creatures light up the water. Grand Cayman also a thriving art scene with several galleries showing a wide range of home-grown talent.

While all three islands have retained much of their tropical appeal those seeking the full Robinson Crusoe experience should head to Little Cayman where the pace of life is slower. The island is barely ten miles long and sparsely populated so there are plenty of empty white sand beaches to live out your castaway fantasies. Electricity only arrived on the island in 1992 so there is still a sense of untrammelled wildness about the place. At Pirates Point you'll stay in comfortable huts right on the beach and enjoy communal meals with fellow island hoppers. Keep an eye out for flocks of giant native boobies and the odd plodding iguana.

The island remains a must for underwater enthusiasts. Divers travel from all over the world to marvel at Bloody Bay Wall, a sheer 1000 ft coral cliff less than a hundred metres from shore. Unlike so much of the world's bleached out coral, this particular stretch of volcanic artistry remains in rude health but for how much longer is the question on everyone's lips. There are rumours that Mr Dart has his developer's eye on one or two of the beaches here so let's hope his arrows fall short of the mark.