When I'd mentioned that I was off to the Cayman Islands, a friend had exclaimed, "You'll hate it." I could see what he meant: I'm a long-time lover of the uncombed, dishevelled adventure of Africa – and Cayman's reputation is certainly tame in comparison. Nevertheless, a close friend had moved to Grand Cayman, and I wanted to visit her. So I decided to base myself in the east side of the island: quieter and less developed than the manicured sands and luxury resorts of Seven Mile Beach on the opposite shore.
Grand Cayman has certainly received a hammering, changing rapidly since the Sixties. For many years, its population was tiny and subsisted primarily on turtle-fishing and making rope. Then big money transformed the island into a prosperous offshore-banking haven. Now its western shore is most often compared to the fleshpots of Miami Beach. On the other hand, the eastern side has retained a sense of community and of the past – although how long this situation will last is hard to tell. The island's Ministry of Tourism is pushing a "Go East" initiative, encouraging the crowds to spread their numbers ever wider.
As I touched down at the airport I realised I had left my driving licence at home. I therefore proceeded to hitch, bus and cycle around the island: modes of transport I strongly recommend. The bus drivers are full of island knowledge and are prepared to detour from their usual routes for an extra dollar or two. And by hitching I met Hawaiians, Canadians, and Jamaicans. Cayman is a hotch-potch of nationalities; as the world's fifth-largest financial centre, it draws people from all over.
In George Town I goggle at the cruise shippers trailing behind their leader as they dash off to buy duty free and trawl the Hard Rock Café and similar uninspiring hang-outs. Later, in procession, they clamber into a line of identical black jeeps to spin off on a whirlwind tour. Beyond, jetskis burst through the waves of Seven Mile Beach, which is lined with identikit shopping malls, all in candy pink and pastel shades.
The east is only an hour's drive away, but it's a journey few visitors make. I jump on a bus at the small station in George Town's main square. The driver plays Gospel FM too loudly, but fortunately there is a lot to distract me. The buildings of George Town, Red Bay and Savannah are left behind, and the road winds next to ivory sands and piercing turquoise waters. We pass several of Cayman's spectacular cemeteries: sand graves that traditionally face east, and which are full of vibrant flowers. Eventually, I'm dropped outside Compass Point, the hotel where I am staying. Now that's service.
Compass Point is painted green and is set on a beach backed with casuarina trees, pink bindweed trundling along the sand. Steve, the owner, is an instantly likeable man. Originally from Yorkshire, he has been living on Grand Cayman for 16 years, and set up Compass Point in 2004. It has 27 rooms, although Steve is extending; the east is going to develop fast, he says. A passionate diver, Steve built the hotel's dive boat, Nauti-Cat, himself. He books me in for a dive the following day with Ocean Frontiers, the resort's onsite dive company.
The day begins magically: Cayman's early morning light tantalises, brushing the sand in a pinkish glow. Someone stretches a yoga pose at the end of the pier. And the diving itself is stunning. I swim through caves and tunnels, weaving along a path of coral, spying swaying purple sea fans, giant lobsters and parrotfish with their comical green and blue pouted lips. Cayman is the peak of a submarine mountain: its surrounding coral reefs lie at the top of dramatic vertical walls, plunging deep into the abyss below.
Compass Point is the ideal place from which to explore the east. I use one of the hotel's bikes to get around. The roads are quiet and cycling is easy: everything perfectly flat. I pass blow holes spurting out powerful explosions of water, small coves and paths leading to wild, deserted beaches. Down these paths lies the essence of Caribbean life: wooden buildings with big shuttered windows; Caymanians swinging in hammocks on their verandas; chickens scratching around jackfruit trees; radios playing reggae. The houses are scruffy but charming, resting on stilts. An old oven stands outside one, another has a broken chair and an antique rocking horse. A lady pulls water from a well (the East Enders have just been connected to a mains supply, but well water is still used). Nearby, an iguana sits stoically in a cage. I turn off down Farm Lane, where cows snooze under trees, and a mango and papaya farm stretches out at the end.
"Come to my mum's for coffee," Billy offers in his broad Caymanian accent. I soon discover that part of the east's allure is the friendliness of its locals. Billy's house feels like a farmstead, with wooden cockerels hanging on the wall. His mother gives me home-baked banana bread and tells me of a visit she once made to Cambridge. I ask if she went punting on the boats. "If I can't see through the water, I ain't going near it, ma'am," she replies emphatically. Glancing out of her window at the bathwater-clear ocean, I can see her point.
But the sea is not as saintly as it looks. The "Wreck of the Ten Sails" took place in 1794, when the Cordelia, a British merchant ship, ran aground on the reef. A frantic signal warning the others in her convoy of the dangers was misinterpreted and one by one the other ships sailed to their doom. Legend has it that the East Enders managed to save every passenger; Britain made Grand Cayman tax-free in grateful thanks.
Later, I took a helicopter ride with Jerome, a French pilot. The island's contrasts are even more apparent from the air: built-up and oppressive on the west, the east is all mangroves and swampland, edged by the sea's flamboyant array of blue shades. Around the island the shallows show in turquoise and aquamarine, turning midnight blue where the walls disappear into the ocean. We hover close, marvelling at stingrays, nurse sharks and turtles on the sea bed. "Cayman's water is so clear because without mountains or rivers, no run-off or sediment enters it," explains Jerome.
On my last day I decide to walk the Mastic Trail, the route used by islanders until the 18th century, as they transported timber from Northside to Bodden Town. Although the path is easy to follow, I travel with Geddes, who runs a small-scale walking company called Silver Thatch. Endemic Cayman parrots feed in the trees, their iridescent feathers a spectacular flurry of colour when they take flight.
The trail runs through a jungle of banana orchids, bromeliads and mangroves, roots twisting to find crevices in the rocky ground, and past ancient mastic trees with mottled, patchy trunks. Birds are everywhere: West Indian woodpeckers, Caribbean doves, bananaquits and vitelline warblers. Sitting under the forest's largest mastic tree I gulp dirty juice (a local drink of lime juice and brown sugar) and munch on corned-beef sandwiches.
Geddes's tale of this tree has a lasting impact on me: being consumed by a strangler fig, the tree's demise was likely, and there was much debate as to whether to remove it. Eventually they chose to leave nature alone. Hurricane Ivan then wreaked its havoc and this giant tree survived, held up by the strangler. I hope the eastern side of Grand Cayman is also allowed to run its course, undamaged by thoughtless development.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through www.reducemyfootprint.travel.
Compass Point, Austin Connolly Drive, East End, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands (001 345 947 7600; www.compasspoint.ky). Double rooms start at US$237 (£125), room only.
Ocean Frontiers (001 345 947 7500; www.oceanfrontiers.com) can organise scuba diving and snorkelling in East End.
Cayman Islands Tourism: 020-7491 7771; www.caymanislands.co.uk