We arrived in Grand Cayman on a cruise-ship day. Two huge vessels were moored in George Town harbour, dominating the tiny capital while their passengers filled the narrow streets, videoed the wooden houses and queued for the duty-free goods that, for a certain type of visitor, are the Caymans' main attraction. We, for our part, had come for a family holiday, with snorkelling and Caribbean-style relaxation in mind, though initial doubts about the wisdom of the choice surfaced as the transfer minibus took us along the length of Seven Mile Beach, the Caymans' prime tourist asset.
Each of those seven miles is lined with luxury hotels, condominiums, shopping malls, smart restaurants not to mention a bar called Fidel O'Neill's, in mocking recognition of the legendary socialist neighbour, 150 miles north in Cuba.
Our larger-than-life driver, whose sunshield sported the no-nonsense message in huge capitals - TIPS ARE WELCOME - pointed out the understated British governor's house in the midst of the overwhelming Marriotts and Hiltons. This is one reminder that, politically, the Cayman Islands comprise a British Crown Colony rather than a holiday annexe of the United States. Within five minutes, though, we'd left the coastal strip and were in the West Beach area of the island. Globalised luxury architecture gave way to small wooden bungalows in shades of orange, green and blue, while the roads had names like Peanut Drive and Vibe Lane. And, as we turned into the drive of our pink-painted hotel an electric-green iguana sat watching our arrival from a flowerbed. That was more the ticket.
The four of us had booked a week at a smallish all-inclusive hotel at Spanish Bay Reef. This cove lies on the western edge of the island, on the thrashing tail of the sea monster that Grand Cayman vaguely resembles. The coastline here is rugged and tends to take the brunt of the prevailing winds, so our inaugural dip that first afternoon was into disturbed and murky water the same colour as the English Channel. It proved about as good as the Strait of Dover for snorkelling, even if the temperature was more welcoming.
This early disappointment was soon offset by a couple of beachside cocktails which rivalled the glorious sunset in colour and in their impact on the senses. I'd never stayed at an all-inclusive "resort-hotel" before, and it was only when we realised that virtually the full spectrum of alcoholic drinks was to all intents and purposes, free, not to mention constantly available, that the sheer scale of the challenge to one's will-power became apparent. It was equally clear that some of our fellow-guests were indeed only here for the pina coladas and, after a post-breakfast bracer, spent the whole day in a state of generally good-tempered befuddlement. Most people were more attracted by the Cayman's real offshore delights: the unrivalled diving opportunities on the encircling reef.
Evening talk around the outside bar was of close encounters with moray eels, tarpon, groupers and even species of sharks that inhabit the deeper waters. We, meanwhile, were happy with snorkelling excursions: to our sister hotel on Seven Mile Beach, which on non-cruise-ship days was as relaxing as it was beautiful, or to the nicest of the local strands. Despite its name, Cemetery Beach offered pristine white sand and warm, creamy blue water where we saw one of the region's most spectacular inshore fish, a scary-looking but harmless nurse shark, cruising through the shallows.
"You just gotta visit Sting Ray City," said our new-found friends from New York. "The boys'll love it." In fact we all did. A fast boat with a Jamaican named Captain Pete at the helm took a group of us in a blur of spray and reggae to the outer edge of the vast North Sound, where a sand-bar makes it possible to stand up to your knees in the clear water. We fed pieces of squid to the enormous rays. These fish first learnt to gather here when returning fishermen anchored at the sand bar to gut their catches and throw the nasty bits overboard.
Rays have no teeth but they do have a nasty set of gums and vacuum-cleaner like suction, which lends a bit of an edge to the feeding process. There's also the matter of their long, barbed stings. "Whatever you do," warned Captain Pete, "Don't lift up your feet when you're walking along, just kind of shuffle, you see those rays are tame but don't like being stepped on." At the time it seemed exciting and entertaining, but in the light of the death of Steve Irwin I'm not sure we'd do it again.
We went to Hell, which is another must-do Cayman experience. Hell was very different from the one I had been warned about - apart, that is, from the heat, which was made even more intense by our decision to go there by bike. I can reveal that the real Hell consists of a few souvenir shops grouped around a tiny post office, and the idea is to astonish your friends by sending them postcards bearing an infernal postmark. The place owes its name, allegedly, to an English aristocrat who was doing a spot of duck-hunting here in the 1930s and, having fired and missed, exclaimed, "Hell!".
To get a proper look at Grand Cayman we traded in the bikes and rented a car for a day, which is long enough to get to see the whole island. George Town was quiet, with one modest museum and surprisingly little evidence of the 500-plus banks that have made this the world's fifth largest financial institution. The eastern end of the island is much more sparsely populated than the area around George Town, West Beach and Seven Mile Beach. And the number of semi-wrecked buildings here made it easier to appreciate the scale of the damage wrought by Hurricane Ivan, which devastated the island in 2004.
Grand Cayman's eastern end was also the scene of our least successful expedition, a walk along the Mastic trail. This ancient track cuts across the waist of the island through the little bit of its remaining forest, taking in this low-lying island's highest point (65ft) and offering the prospect of sighting rare birds and plants. In the event, it being the middle of the day and also the rainy season, we failed even to make it to the highest point and the only bird we saw at all was in the car-park. We did, though, manage to get drenched, bitten all over by mosquitoes and collect a good few blisters. After this we stuck to snorkelling.
Grand Cayman has two even smaller sister islands, as they're called locally: Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. So, after a week of all-inclusive pampering we took the 40-minute plane-ride to Cayman Brac for a more spartan existence in a rented bungalow. "The Brac" takes its name from the Gaelic word for the bluff (braec) that runs the length of the island. If the snorkelling off Grand Cayman had been good, here it was heavenly. Each time there was something new: rainbow-hued parrot fish nibbling away at the coral, sinister barracudas like torpedoes and finally, the creature that had given the islands their original Spanish name, when Columbus had arrived here: tortugas (turtles). We saw two of the rare hawksbill turtles paddling effortlessly above the coral, and agreed that there was something magical about the experience.
Returning to Grand Cayman for the flight home, we spent a last day renewing old acquaintanceships at the hotel. A snorkelling trip to Cemetery Beach was accompanied by a violent tropical storm which blotted out the view along Seven Mile Beach and sent us running for the shelter of a luxury beach-side villa that was in mid-construction. The builders shared their lunch with us and broke open fresh coconuts for refreshment.
While the storm raged we talked about football, cricket, the Iraq war and about the decent wages and full employment which have been brought by the Cayman's curious mixture of naked capitalism and natural marvels. The house they were working on belonged to a banker and was worth $5m, they reckoned. It was all very Caymanian.