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Family Breaks: Let's go and play with the Cayman stingrays

Long a favourite with divers, these Caribbean islands also have much to offer families, says Amar Grover

For years, the Cayman Islands have largely sold themselves as one of the world's premier diving destinations. But that niche is widening, with visitors now lured by romantic getaways and the cruise market.

Eager to break new ground, my four-year-old boy, Amrik, and I have discovered another option the family holiday. We arrived on Grand Cayman in the evening, tantrum-free, and promptly fell into bed. "Tomorrow," I told him, "we'll see some monsters." That is no way to talk about blue iguanas the world's rarest but it has a certain appeal that "botanic park" simply hasn't, the first stop on our family-friendly tour.

Next morning we met the monsters face to face courtesy of the Botanic Park's Blue Iguana Recovery Program, which aims to save the blues, as they are known, from dogs, rats, cats, cars and a meagre gene pool. We watched little ones in cages and big chaps sunning themselves in pens. Amrik was transfixed by their size, texture, creepy eyes and exotic hue.

We sang goodbye to the blues and headed for the beach. Amrik has done a few beaches in his time but the volleyball at Seven Mile Beach was new to him and rather more fascinating than its immense golden sands. For a more intimate Caribbean vibe, we made for Rum Point at the far tip of North Sound where the beach shelves reluctantly and even adults can enjoy childish pleasures by hiring tractor-styled pedalos.

Next stop, Stingray City. "What's a stingray?" asked Amrik a little nervously as we boarded a catamaran. Sting really isn't a child-friendly word so I let the fun of the boat trip work its magic. Having become habituated to fishermen discarding scraps, schools of stingrays gather in the shallow waters to sidle up alongside visitors and be fed. Amrik leaned over the gunwales and delighted in tracking their dark outlines. There were "mummy", "daddy" and "baby" ones, and soon it was easy to coax him into the water.

However, for most of the younger children and even some squealing adults, these were encounters where fear and fascination ran in parallel. The stingrays' profound weirdness and flicking tails became a little too much, so we ignored them and instead pretended to be frolicking dolphins.

For an altogether more thoughtful approach to nature, I took Amrik along to the Ambassadors of the Environment. Developed by Jean-Michel Cousteau (son of Jacques) as an offshoot of his Ocean Futures Society, this educational programme is new to Grand Cayman. It aims to give children an understanding of and respect for the environment the sea in particular.

One morning we joined other young "ambassadors" to sail across North Sound towards the protected Central Mangrove Wetlands and into a calm inlet. Two of our onboard naturalists demonstrated how resistant mangroves are to hurricanes, and how they thrive in salty water. One then popped into the sea and carefully brought aboard an upside-down jellyfish. We learned how it floats head down and tentacles up, and so farms algae, its own food. Moving on to an isolated stretch of beach, we found (and fondled) an auburn sea star between bouts of fish chasing.

Amrik's firsts were clocking up fast. At Boatswain's Beach, a new complex comprising Caymanian culture, marine park and turtle farm, he was entranced by the breeding pond. It usually heaves with green sea turtles wolfing food pellets. At the small touch tanks containing endearing yearlings, children can carefully hold young ones by their flippers an option Amrik declined.

We even managed to get away from it all. The two-mile jungly Mastic Trail isn't an obvious child-friendly choice, but Amrik can walk when he's in the mood. It's a largely straightforward trail outside the wet season, yet it immediately feels like another, more remote place thick with tamarind trees, parrots and lizards.

"Daddy," he whispered, "where are the crocodiles?"

"Extinct," I replied. "All gone." And that, it seemed, was the only disappointment in our fun-filled week.

How to get there

BA Holidays (0870 243 3406; ba.com/ caribbean) offers seven nights at the four-star Sunshine Suites, Grand Cayman, from 1,198 per adult and 594 per child departing January 2008. The price includes return BA flights from Heathrow, resort transfers and b&b.

Further information

The Ambassadors of the Environment (aote.org) operates out of the Ritz Carlton Hotel (ritzcarlton.com) on Grand Cayman. Prices for morning or afternoon activities range from $65-$120 (32-59). Book in advance.

Cayman Islands Department of Tourism (020-7491 7771; cayman islands.co.uk).