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Bird-watching

The Cayman Islands are an ornithologist's dream, providing perches for a wide range of resident and migratory birds—219 species at last count, many of them endangered, such as the Cayman parrot. The National Trust organizes regular bird-watching field trips conducted by local ornithologists through the Governor Michael Gore Bird Sanctuary, Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, Mastic Reserve, Salina Reserve, Central Mangrove Wetland, Meagre Bay Pond Reserve in Pease Bay, Colliers Pond in East End, and Palmetto Pond at Barkers in West Bay. Prime time for bird-watching is either early in the morning or late in the afternoon; take strong binoculars and a field guide to identify the birds.

Silver Thatch Tours. Silver Thatch Tours is run by Geddes Hislop, who knows his birds and his island (though he's Trinidadian by birth). He specializes in customizable five-hour natural and historic heritage tours that culminate at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park's nature trail and lake or other prime birding spots. The cost is $60 per hour for one to four people. Serious birders leave at the crack of dawn, but you can choose the time and leave at the crack of noon instead. The cost includes guide service, pickup and return transport, and refreshments such as local drinks (a great excuse for discourse on herbal medicinal folklore); tours must be arranged in advance. Grand Cayman. 345/925–7401. www.earthfoot.org/places/ky001.htm.

Diving

One of the world's leading dive destinations, Grand Cayman has dramatic underwater topography that features plunging walls, soaring skyscraper pinnacles, grottoes, arches, swim-throughs adorned with vibrant sponges, coral-encrusted caverns, and canyons patrolled by lilliputian grunts to gargantuan groupers, darting jacks to jewfish, moray eels to eagle rays. Gorgonians and sea fans wave like come-hither courtesans. Pyrotechnic reefs provide homes for all manner of marine life, ecosystems encased within each other like an intricate series of Chinese boxes.

Dive Sites

There are more than 200 pristine dive sites, many less than a half mile from the island and easily accessible, including wreck, wall, and shore options. Add exceptional visibility from 80 to 150 feet (no rivers deposit silt) and calm, current-free water at a constant bathlike 80°F. Cayman is serious about conservation, with stringently enforced laws to protect the fragile, endangered marine environment (fines up to $500,000 and a year in prison for damaging living coral, which can take years to regrow), protected by the creation of Marine Park, Replenishment, and Environmental Park Zones. Local water-sports operators enthusiastically cooperate: Most boats use biodegradable cleansers and environmentally friendly drinking cups. Moorings at all popular dive sites prevent coral and sponge damage due to continual anchoring; in addition, diving with gloves is prohibited to reduce the temptation to touch.

Pristine water, breathtaking coral formations, and plentiful marine life including hammerheads and hawksbill turtles mark the North Wall —a world-renowned dive area along the North Side of Grand Cayman.

Trinity Caves, in West Bay, is a deep dive with numerous canyons starting at about 60 feet and sloping to the wall at 130 feet. The South Side is the deepest, with the top of its wall starting 80 feet deep before plummeting, though its shallows offer a lovely labyrinth of caverns and tunnels in such sites as Japanese Gardens and Della's Delight.

The less-visited, virgin East End is less varied geographically beyond the magnificent Ironshore Caves and Babylon Hanging Gardens (trees of black coral plunging 100 feet), but it teems with "Swiss-cheese" swim-throughs and exotic life in such renowned gathering spots as The Maze (a hangout for reef, burse, and occasional hammerhead sharks), Snapper Hole, and Grouper Grotto.

The Cayman Islands government acquired the 251-foot, decommissioned USS Kittiwake ( www.kittiwakecayman.com). Sunk in January 2011, it has already become an exciting new dive attraction, while providing necessary relief for some of the most frequently visited dive sites. The top of the bridge is just 15 feet down, making it accessible to snorkelers. There’s a single-use entry fee of $10 ($5 for snorkelers).

Stingray City. Most dive operators offer scuba trips to Stingray City in the North Sound. Widely considered the best 12-foot dive in the world, it's a must-see for adventurous souls. Here dozens of stingrays congregate—tame enough to suction squid from your outstretched palm. You can stand in 3 feet of water at Stingray City Sandbar as the gentle stingrays glide around your legs looking for a handout. Don't worry—these stingrays are so acclimated to tourist encounters that they pose no danger; the experience is often a highlight of a Grand Cayman trip. Near West Bay, North Sound, Grand Cayman.

Shore Diving

Shore diving around the island provides easy access to kaleidoscopic reefs, fanciful rock formations, and enthralling shipwrecks. The areas are well marked by buoys to facilitate navigation. If the water looks rough where you are, there's usually a side of the island that's wonderfully calm.

Eden Rock. If someone tells you that the silverside minnows are in at Eden Rock, drop everything and dive here. The schools swarm around you as you glide through the grottoes, forming quivering curtains of liquid silver as shafts of sunlight pierce the sandy bottom. The grottoes themselves are safe—not complex caves—and the entries and exits are clearly visible at all times. Snorkelers can enjoy the outside of the grottoes as the reef rises and falls from 10 to 30 feet deep. Avoid carrying fish food unless you know how not to get bitten by eager yellowtail snappers. S.Church St., across from Harbour Place Mall by Paradise Restaurant, George Town, Grand Cayman.

Devil's Grotto. Its neighbor, Devil's Grotto, resembles an abstract painting of anemones, tangs, parrotfish, and bright purple Pederson cleaner shrimp (nicknamed the dentists of the reef, as they gorge on whatever they scrape off fish teeth and gills). Extensive coral heads and fingers teem with blue wrasse, horse-eyed jacks, butterfly fish, Indigo hamlets, and more. The cathedral-like caves are phenomenal, but tunnel entries here aren't clearly marked, so you're best off with a dive master. George Town, Grand Cayman.

Turtle Reef. Turtle Reef begins 20 feet out and gradually descends to a 60-foot mini-wall pulsing with sea life and corals of every variety. From there it's just another 15 feet to the dramatic main wall. Ladders provide easy entrance to a shallow cover perfect for pre-dive checks, and since the area isn't buoyed for boats, it's quite pristine. West Bay, Grand Cayman.

Dive Operators

As one of the Caribbean's top diving destinations, Grand Cayman is blessed with many top-notch dive operations offering diving, instruction, and equipment for sale and rent. A single-tank boat dive averages $75, a two-tank dive about $100. Snorkel-equipment rental is about $15 a day. Divers are required to be certified and possess a "C" card. If you're getting certified, to save time during your limited holiday you can start the book and pool work at home and finish the open-water portion in warm, clear Cayman waters. Certifying agencies offer this referral service all around the world.

When choosing a dive operator, here are a few things to ask: Do they require that you stay with the group? Do they include towels? camera rinse water? protection from inclement weather? tank-change service? beach or resort pickup? snacks between dives? Ask what dive options they have during a winter storm (called a nor'wester here). What kind of boat do they have? (Don't assume that a small, less crowded boat is better. Some large boats are more comfortable, even when full, than a tiny, uncovered boat without a marine toilet. Small boats, however, offer more personal service and less-crowded dives.)

Strict marine protection laws prohibit you from taking any marine life from many areas around the island. Always check with the Department of Environment (345/949–8469) before diving, snorkeling, and fishing. To report violations, call Marine Enforcement (345/948–6002).

Ambassador Divers. Ambassador Divers is an on-call, guided scuba-diving operation offering dive trips to parties of two to eight persons. Co-owner Jason Washington's favorite spots include the excellent dive sites on the West Side and South and North Wall. Ambassador offers three boats, a 28-foot custom Parker (maximum six divers), a 46-foot completely custom overhauled boat, and a 26-footer primarily for snorkeling. They are available around the clock, and interested divers can be picked up from their hotels or condos. The price for a two-tank boat dive is $105 ($90 for two or more days). Comfort Suites, 22 Piper Way, West Bay Rd., Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman, KY1-1106. 345/743–5513 or 345/949–4530. www.ambassadordivers.com.

Cayman Aggressor IV. Cayman Aggressor IV, a 110-foot live-aboard dive boat, offers one-week cruises for divers who want to get serious bottom time, as many as five dives daily. Nine staterooms with en suite bathrooms sleep 18. The fresh food is basic but bountiful (three meals, two in-between snacks), and the crew offers a great mix of diving, especially when weather allows the crossing to Little Cayman. Digital photography and video courses are also offered (there's an E-6 film-processing lab aboard) as well as Nitrox certification. The price is $2,595 to $2,995 double occupancy for the week. Grand Cayman. 345/949–5551 or 800/348–2628. www.aggressor.com.

Deep Blue Divers. Deep Blue Divers has two custom-designed 27-foot outward driven Dusky boats, which ensure a smooth, speedy ride and can access sites that much larger boats can't. They accept a maximum of eight guests, under the watchful eyes of Patrick Weir and Nick Buckley, who joke that diving is "relaxing under pressure." Personalized valet attention and flexibility have ensured a high repeat clientele; Nick's particularly good with kids and has taught three generations of families. He's often asked by happy customers to join them on dive trips around the world. He and his crew delight in telling stories about Cayman culture and history, including pirate tales and often hilarious anecdotes about life in the Cayman Islands. He offers underwater photo–video services and a range of PADI-certified courses; beach pickup is included. 245 N. Church St., George Town, Grand Cayman, KY1-1104. 345/916–1293. www.deepbluediverscayman.com.

DiveTech. DiveTech has opportunities for shore diving at its two north-coast locations, which provide loads of interesting creatures, a mini-wall, and the North Wall. With quick access to West Bay, the boats are quite comfortable. Technical training (a specialty of owner Nancy Easterbrook) is unparalleled, and the company offers good, personable service as well as the latest gadgetry such as underwater DPV scooters and rebreathing equipment. They even mix their own gases, and there are multiple dive instructors for different specialties, with everything from extended cross-training Ranger packages to Dive and Art workshop weeks, popular photography–video seminars with Courtney Platt, deep diving, less disruptive free diving, search and recovery, stingray interaction, reef awareness, and underwater naturalist. Snorkel and diving programs are available year-round for children ages eight and up, SASY (supplied-air snorkeling, which keeps the unit on a personal flotation device) for five and up. Excellent multiday discounts are a bonus. Cobalt Coast Resort & Suites, 18-A Sea Fan Dr., West Bay, Grand Cayman, KY1-1206. 345/946–5658 or 888/946–5656. www.divetech.com. Lighthouse Point, near Boatswain's Beach, 571 N.W. Point Rd. 345/949–1700.

DiveTech (Lighthouse Point, near Boatswain's Beach, 571 N.W. Point Rd. 345/949–1700.)

Don Foster's Dive Cayman Islands. Don Foster's Dive Cayman Islands has a pool with a shower as well as snorkeling along the ironshore at Casuarina Point, easily accessed starting at 20 feet, extending to depths of 55 feet. There's an underwater photo center, and there are night dives and Stingray City trips with divers and snorkelers in the same boat (perfect for families). Specialties include Nitrox, Wreck, and Peak Performance Buoyancy courses. Rates are competitive, and there's free shuttle pickup–drop-off along Seven Mile Beach. If you go out with Don, he might recount stories of his wild times as a drummer in the islands, but all the crews are personable and efficient. The drawback is larger boats and groups. 218 S. Church St., George Town, Grand Cayman, KY1-1206. 345/949–5679 or 345/945–5132. www.donfosters.com.

Eden Rock Diving Center. Eden Rock Diving Center, south of George Town, provides easy access to Eden Rock and Devil's Grotto. It features full equipment rental, lockers, shower facilities, and a full range of PADI courses from a helpful, cheerful staff on its Pro 42 jet boat. 124 S. Church St., George Town, Grand Cayman, KY1-1110. 345/949–7243. www.edenrockdive.com.

Indigo Divers. Indigo Divers is a full-service, mobile PADI teaching facility specializing in exclusive guided dives from its 28-foot Sea Ray Bow Rider or 32-foot Donzi Express Cruiser, the Cats Meow and the Cats Pyjamas. Comfort and safety are paramount, and the attention to detail is superior. Luxury transfers in a Chevy Avalanche are included, and the boat is stocked with goodies like fresh fruit and homemade cookies. Captain Chris Alpers has impeccable credentials: a licensed U.S. Coast Guard captain, PADI master scuba diver trainer, and Cayman Islands Marine Park officer. Katie Alpers specializes in wreck, DPV, dry suit, boat, and deep diving, but her primary role is resident videographer, and she edits superlative DVDs of your adventures, complete with music and titles. They guarantee a maximum of six divers. The individual attention is a bit pricier, but the larger your group, the more you save. Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman, KY1-1202. 345/946–7279 or 345/525–3932. www.indigodivers.com.

Neptune's Divers. Neptune's Divers offers competitive package rates, in addition to free shuttle service along Seven Mile Beach. It's also one of the best companies for physically challenged divers. Captain Keith Keller and his staff try to customize trips as best they can, taking no more than eight divers out on their 30-foot custom Island Hopper and 36-foot Crusader. A wide range of PADI courses are available; the instructors are patient and knowledgeable about reef life; Casey Keller can offer helpful tips on your underwater photography. The operation is computer-friendly to permit longer bottom time. West Bay Rd., Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman, KY1-1203. 345/945–3990. www.neptunesdivers.com.

Ocean Frontiers. Ocean Frontiers is an excellent ecocentric operation, offering friendly small-group diving and a technical training facility, exploring the less trammeled, trafficked East End. The company provides valet service, personalized attention, a complimentary courtesy shuttle, and an emphasis on green initiatives and specialized diving, including unguided computer, Technical, Nitrox Instructor, underwater naturalist, and cave diving for advanced participants. You can even participate in lionfish culls. But even beginners and rusty divers (there's a wonderful Skills Review and Tune-Up course) won't feel over their heads. Special touches include hot chocolate and homemade muffins on night dives; the owner, Steve, will arrange for a minister to conduct weddings in full face masks. Compass Point, 346 Austin Connelly Dr., East End, Grand Cayman, KY1-1801. 345/640–7500, 800/348–6096, or 345/947–0000. www.oceanfrontiers.com.

Red Sail Sports. Red Sail Sports offers daily trips from most of the major hotels. Dives are often run as guided tours, a perfect option for beginners. If you're experienced and your air lasts a long time, consult the boat captain to see if he requires that you come up with the group (determined by the first person who runs low on air). There is a full range of kids' dive options for ages 5 to 15, including SASY and Bubblemakers. The company also operates Stingray City tours, dinner and sunset sails, and just about every major water sport from Wave Runners to windsurfing. Grand Cayman, KY1-1206. 345/949–8745, 345/623–5965, or 877/506–6368. www.redsailcayman.com.

Sundivers. Sundivers, owned by Ollen Miller, one of Cayman's first dive masters, has the on-site dive shop at the Cracked Conch restaurant next to Boatswain's Beach, offering competitive rates for air, lessons, and rentals; shore access to Turtle Reef; and such amenities as showers, rinse tanks, and storage. The Cracked Conch, N.W. Point Rd., West Bay, Grand Cayman, KY1-1201. 345/916–1064 or 345/949–6606.

Sunset Divers. Sunset Divers, a full-service PADI teaching facility at the George Town hostelry catering to the scuba set, has great shore diving and six dive boats to hit all sides of the island. Divers can be independent on their boats as long as they abide by the maximum time and depth standards. Instruction and packages are comparatively inexpensive. Though the company is not directly affiliated with acclaimed underwater shutterbug Cathy Church (whose shop is also at the hotel), she'll often work with the instructors on special courses. Sunset House, 390 S. Church St., George Town, Grand Cayman, KY1-1106. 345/949–7111 or 800/854–4767. www.sunsethouse.com.

Fishing

The Cayman Islands are widely hailed as a prime action-packed destination for all types of sportfishing, from casting in the flats for the wily, surprisingly strong "gray ghost" bonefish to trolling for giant, equally combative blue marlin. Conditions are ideal for big game fish: The water temperature varies only eight to 10 degrees annually, so the bait and their pelagic predators hang out all year. The big lure for anglers is the big game-fish run near the coast, as close as a quarter-mile offshore.

Experienced, knowledgeable local captains charter boats with top-of-the-line equipment, bait, ice, and often lunch included in the price (usually $550–$750 per half-day, $900–$1,500 for a full day). Options include deep-sea, reef, bone, tarpon, light-tackle, and fly-fishing. June and July are particularly good all-around months for reeling in blue marlin, yellow- and blackfin tuna, dolphinfish (dorado), and bonefish. Bonefish have a second season in the winter months, along with wahoo and skipjack tuna. Marine Park laws prohibit fishing or taking any type of marine life in protected areas. Local captains promote conservation and sportsmanship through catch-and-release of both reef and pelagic fish not intended for eating and all billfish, unless they are local records or potential tournament winners.

Bayside Watersports. Longtime fisherman Captain Eugene Ebanks established Bayside Watersports in 1974. The family-run West Bay–based company operates two first-class fishing boats, the "Hooker" fleet, ranging from 31 feet (Lil Hooker) to 53 feet (the Happy Hooker, which sleeps six for overnight charters farther afield). The tradition began with the original Hooker, named after the Moldcraft Hooker lure, whose team led by son Al Ebanks caught a 189.4-pound yellowfin tuna in 1989 that still stands as the island record. They do reef-, tarpon-, and bonefishing trips as well, but their real specialty is deep-water fishing, such as at 12-Mile Bank, a 3-mi (5-km) strip just 90 minutes west of Grand Cayman, where leviathan fighters congregate around the submerged peak of an underwater mountain. Morgan's Harbour, West Bay, Grand Cayman. 345/949–3200. www.baysidewatersports.com.

Black Princess Charters. Black Princess Charters, owned by Captain Chuckie Ebanks, is fully equipped for deep-sea and reef fishing as well as snorkel trips on his fully equipped and supplied eponymous 40-foot Sea Ray. His rates are comparatively reasonable, and he can arrange clean, inexpensive local accommodations. Grand Cayman. 345/916–6319 or 345/949–0400. www.fishgrandcayman.com.

Captain Asley's Watersports. Captain Asley's Watersports prides itself on personable, flexible, and customized charter services for deep-sea, light-tackle, and bonefishing. The cost for a privately chartered fishing vessel can run from $500 (small boat, half day) to $1,200 (big boat, full day). The owner of this family-run operation, Captain Asley has plied these waters since the 1960s; now his affable, patient kids and extended family (usually Darrin, Dwight, and Kevin) captain the five boats. They're all expert coaches, coaxing a confident approach even from first-timers, though they'll take experts to troll all the lesser-known depths; ESPN's Bass Pros selected them as a "preferred outfitter guide." Like many other operators, they also run snorkeling, diving, and sunset and dinner cruises. Grand Cayman, KY1-1110. 345/949–3054. .

The excellent, environmentally conscious dive outfit Ocean Frontiers also offers fishing on a 26-foot, diesel-powered MerPanga with depth sounder, GPS, six lines, and all safety gear including life jackets and emergency radio beacons. Captain Joey Welcome plies his secret spots along the East End, where marlin, wahoo, and tuna congregate within a mile offshore, and at Coxain Bank, which teems with snapper. The inner reef is ideal for shore and night fishing, providing a sheltered site for tarpon, snapper, and barracuda.

Oh Boy Charters. Oh Boy Charters charters a 60-foot yacht with complete amenities for day (and overnight) trips, as well as sunset and dinner cruises, plus a 34-foot Crusader. Alvin Ebanks—son of Caymanian marine royalty, the indomitable Captain Marvin Ebanks—jokingly claims he's been playing in and plying the waters for a century and tells tales (tall and otherwise) of his father reeling him in for fishing expeditions. No more than eight passengers on the deep-sea boats ensures the personal touch (snorkeling on the 60-footer accommodates more people). Guests always receive a good selection of their catch; if you prefer others to do the cooking, go night fishing (including catch-and-release shark safaris), which includes dinner. Grand Cayman, KY1-1302. 345/949–6341 or 345/926–0898. www.ohboycharters.com.

R&M Fly Shop and Charters. Captain Ronald Ebanks of R&M Fly Shop and Charters is arguably the island's most knowledgeable fly-fishing guide, with more than 10 years' experience in Cayman and Scotland. He also runs light-tackle trips on a 24-foot Robalo. Everyone from beginners—even children—to experienced casters will enjoy and learn from the trip (whether wading or poling from a 17' Stratos Flats boat); free transfers are included. Captain Ronald even ties his own flies (he'll show you how). Grand Cayman. 345/947–3146 or 345/946–0214. www.flyfishgrandcayman.com.

Sea Star Charters. Sea Star Charters, aka Captain Clinton's Watersports, is run by Clinton Ebanks, a fine and very friendly Caymanian who will do whatever it takes to make sure that you have a wonderful time on his two 27- and 28-foot cabin cruisers (and from the 35-foot trimaran used primarily for snorkeling cruises), enjoying light-tackle, bone-, and bottom-fishing. He's a good choice for beginners and offers a nice cultural experience as well as sailing charters and snorkeling with complimentary transportation and equipment. Only cash and traveler's checks are accepted. Grand Cayman. 345/949–1016 evenings; 345/916–5234.

White Rose Charters, owned by Captain Alphonso Ebanks, has one of the highest catches in bone-, tarpon-, reef, and drift fishing. He has two boats, the 24-foot White Rose #1 and 39-foot White Rose #2, both fully equipped for fishing and comfort, and he knows every crevice and cranny along the shore.

Golf

Blue Tip. Designed by Greg Norman in 2006 and built on flat terrain near mangroves, Blue Tip is open only to Ritz-Carlton guests. Five of the holes are par-4s, and two are par-5s, including a 600-yarder so there is lots of muscle to the layout. The course is open only to guests of the Ritz-Carlton and to owners of the Residences (luxury condominiums). No jeans are allowed, and you must wear collared golf shirts. Club rentals are available at the golf shop. Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, West Bay Rd., Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman, KY1-1209. 345/943–9000 or 345/815–6500. www.ritzcarlton.com. $150 for 9 holes; $215 for 18 holes. 9 holes, 3515 yards, par 36.

Britannia. The Britannia golf course, next to the Grand Cayman Beach Suites, was designed by Jack Nicklaus. The course is really a 9-hole routing with two sets of different tees so as to provide an 18-hole experience when played twice. The courses feature artificial abrupt mounding and lots of water similar to what Nicklaus did early on in Florida. Signature tough holes include 3 and 10; beware tricky winds on 7 through 11. Amenities include a full pro shop and the Britannia Golf Grille (with particularly good breakfasts and local fare). West Bay Rd., Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman, KY1-1209. 345/745–4653. www.britannia-golf.com. $100 for 9 holes, $150 for 18 ($75/$115 during the off-season). 9-hole course w/ two tees for 18 hole equivalent, 5829 yards, par 70.

North Sound Golf Club. Formerly the Links at Safehaven, the North Sound Golf is Cayman’s only 18-hole golf course and infamous among duffers for its strong wind gusts. Roy Case factored the wind into his design, which incorporates lots of looming water and sand bunkers. The handsome setting features many mature mahogany and silver thatch trees where iguana lurk. Wear shorts at least 14 inches long (15 inches for women); no T-shirts are allowed, only collared shirts. Green fees change seasonally, and there are twilight and walking discounts (though carts are recommended), and there’s a fine pro shop and an open-air bar with large-screen TVs. Off West Bay Rd., Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman, KY1-1209. 345/947–4653. www.northsoundclub.com. $175 for 18 holes; $110 for 9 holes, including cart. 18 holes, 6605 yards, par 71.

Hiking

Mastic Trail. The National Trust's internationally significant Mastic Trail, used in the 1800s as the only direct path to and from the North Side, is a rugged 2-mi (3-km) slash through 776 dense acres of woodlands, black mangrove swamps, savannah, agricultural remnants, and ancient rock formations. It embraces more than 700 species, including Cayman's largest remaining contiguous ancient forest (one of the heavily deforested Caribbean's last examples). A comfortable walk depends on weather—winter is better because it's drier, though flowering plants such as the banana orchid set the trail ablaze in summer. Call the National Trust to determine suitability and to book a guide for $30; tours are run daily from 9 to 5 by appointment only, regularly on Wednesday at 9 am (sometimes earlier in summer). Or walk on the wild side with a $5 guidebook that provides information on the ecosystems you traverse, the endemic wildlife you might encounter, seasonal changes, poisonous plants to avoid, and folkloric uses of various flora. The trip takes about three hours. Frank Sound Rd., entrance by fire station at botanic park, Breakers, East End, Grand Cayman. 345/749–1121; 345/749–1124 for guide reservations. www.nationaltrust.org.ky.

Horseback Riding

Coral Stone Stables. Coral Stone Stables offers 90-minute leisurely horseback rides along the white-sand beaches at Barkers, and inland trails at Savannah; complimentary photos are included. Your guide is Nolan Stewart, whose ranch contains 20 horses, chickens, and "randy" roosters. Nolan offers a nonstop narrative on flora, fauna, and history. He's an entertaining, endless font of local information, some of it unprintable. Rides are $80; swim rides cost $120. Conch Point Rd., next to Restaurante Papagallo on the left., West Bay, Grand Cayman, KY1-1301. 345/916–4799. www.csstables.com.

Horseback in Paradise. Horseback in Paradise is the domain of gregarious Nicki Eldemire, who loves telling stories about horse training and life on Cayman. She leads guided tours through Barkers National Park on the West End: a pristine peninsular area filled with enthralling plant and animal life along the beaches and wetlands. The steeper price (starting at $90) includes transportation, but it's a private, exclusive experience with no more than four riders per group. Barkers National Park, Conch Point, West Bay, Grand Cayman, KY1-1301. 345/945–5839 or 345/916–3530. www.caymanhorseriding.com.

Mary's Stables and Equestrian Center. Mary's Stables and Equestrian Center, the top-notch training facility for the Cayman national equestrian team, offers classic English riding lessons (dressage is also an option) and allows you to help groom the exotic horses. Half Way Pond, George Town, Grand Cayman, KY1-1103. 345/949–7360 or 345/516–1751.

Pampered Ponies. Pampered Ponies offers what is called "the ultimate tanning machine": horses walking, trotting, and cantering along the beaches. You can do either private tours or a variety of guided trips, including sunset, moonlight, and swim rides along the uninhabited beach from Conch Point to Morgan's Harbour on the north tip beyond West Bay. 355 Conch Point Rd., Barkers, West Bay, Grand Cayman, KY1-1303. 345/945–2262 or 345/916–2540. www.ponies.ky.

Kayaking

Cayman Kayaks. Cayman Kayaks explores Grand Cayman's protected mangrove wetlands, providing an absorbing discussion of the indigenous animals (including a mesmerizing stop at a gently pulsing, nonstinging Cassiopeia jellyfish pond) and plants, the effects of hurricanes, and conservation efforts. Even beginners will find the tours easy (the guides dub it low-impact aerobics), and the sit-on-top tandem kayaks are quite stable and comfortable. The Bio Bay tour involves more strenuous paddling, but the underwater light show is magical as millions of bio-luminescent microorganisms called dinoflagellates glow like fireflies when disturbed. It runs only on moonless nights for full effect and books well in advance. This is a mobile operation, so tours depart from different locations, most from the public access jetty just to the left of Rum Point; costs run from $25 to $59 (some tours offer kids' and group discounts). Rum Point, Cayman Kai, North Side, Grand Cayman, KY1-9006. 345/746–3249 or 345/926–4467. www.caymankayaks.com.

Sailing

Though Cayman has a large sailing community, it isn't a big charter-yacht destination. Still, you can skipper your own craft (albeit sometimes under the watchful eye of the boat's captain). The protected waters of the North Sound are especially delightful, but chartering a sailboat is also a wonderful way to discover lesser-known snorkeling, diving, and fishing spots around the island.

Cayman Island Sailing Club. Cayman Island Sailing Club is a private club that sometimes offers lessons to nonmembers (CI$275) but always has boats, including lasers and J-22s, for hourly or half- and full-day rental (CI$30–CI$300). They also feature windsurfing lessons. The club's a great hangout, and chatting up the friendly members provides invaluable insights into all subjects Caymanian. 320 Spinnaker Rd., and Selkirk Dr., Red Bay, Grand Cayman, KY1-1205. 345/947–7913. www.sailing.ky.

Sail Cayman. Neil Galway, an experienced RYA Yacht Master, runs Sail Cayman, offering 30-foot Gemini RIB ecotours and three seaworthy sailboats including the plush 45-foot Gibsea, the NautiGal, for full-day or half-day private sailing or snorkeling. Though not bareboating, it is hands-on: you can crew and even captain if you enjoy sailing. Neil personalizes the cruise to suit any family or group, accommodating a maximum of 12–15 passengers. A half day runs $600–$700, a full day $1,000–$1,200, which includes a deli-style lunch: if you have a large group, it's little more than the total price for crowded excursions with twice as many strangers. Yacht Club dock C-31, Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman. 345/916–4333. www.sailcayman.com.

Sea Excursions

The most impressive sights in the Cayman Islands are on and under water, and several submarines, semisubmersibles, glass-bottom boats, and Jules Verne–like contraptions allow you to see these underwater wonders without getting your feet wet. Sunset sails, dinner cruises, and other theme (dance, booze, pirate) cruises are available from $30–$70 per person.

Atlantis Submarines. This submarine takes 48 passengers safely and comfortably along the Cayman Wall down to 100 feet. You peep through panoramic portholes as good-natured guides keep up a humorous but informative patter. A guide dons scuba gear to feed fish, who form a whirling frenzy of color rivaling anything by Picasso. At night, the 10,000-watt lights show the kaleidoscopic underwater colors and nocturnal stealth predators more brilliantly than during the day. Try to sit toward the front so you can watch the pilot's nimble maneuverings and the depth gauge. If that literally in-depth tour seems daunting, get up close and personal on the Seaworld Observatory semisubmersible (glorified glass-bottom boat), which just cruises the harbor (including glimpses of the Cali and Balboa shipwrecks). The cost is $89–$104 (children $49–$64) for the submarine, $39 (children $24) for the semisubmersible. There are frequent online booking discounts. 30 S. Church St., George Town, Grand Cayman, KY1-1003. 345/949–7700 or 800/887–8571. www.caymanislandssubmarines.com.

Scientists often call our oceans just as mysterious as deep space, and Deep See Cayman provides spellbinding proof. Its personable owner was pilot for Paul Allen's Octopus, one of the world's largest yachts; helped film David Attenborough's compelling The Blue Planet; and currently works with Scripps on underwater research with his little toy, an ROV underwater robot that plumbs the Cayman Trench's depths down to 2,400 feet while you comfortably watch the real-time high-definition images it transmits aboard a luxury yacht, the Deep Seeker. Some wrecks have gradually sunk to those depths, but the real prize is otherworldly oddly-shaped creatures straight out of sci-fi. The two-hour excursions depart from the West Bay dock several times daily (including a night tour), with an 8-person maximum, costing a reasonable $74 ($5 discount for advance online booking). Gary will even let kids particularly adept with joysticks from video game mastery navigate the Little Tyche (an appropriate name, given the eager would-be pilots).

Jolly Roger. The Jolly Roger is a two-thirds-size replica of Christopher Columbus's 17th-century Spanish galleon Niña; the company also owns the Anne Bonny, a wooden Norwegian brig built in 1934 that holds more than 100 passengers. On the afternoon snorkel cruise, play Captain Jack Sparrow while experiencing swashbuckling pirate antics, including a trial, sword fight, and walking the plank; the kids can fire the cannon, help hoist the main sail, and scrub the decks (it's guaranteed that they will love it even if they loathe doing chores at home). The evening options (sunset and dinner sails) are more standard booze cruises, less appropriate for the kiddies. Food is more appropriate to the brig, and it's more yo-ho-hokum than remotely authentic, but it's fun. Prices range from $40 to $60. South Terminal, Next to Atlantis Submarines, George Town, Grand Cayman, KY1-1003. 345/945–7245. www.jollyrogercayman.com, www.piratesofthecaymans.com.

Nautilus. On the semisubmersible Nautilus you can sit above deck or venture below, where you can view the reefs and marine life through a sturdy glass hull. A one-hour undersea tour is $50. Watch divers feed the fish, or take the Captain's Nemo's Tour that includes snorkeling; a catamaran cruise to Stingray City and land-sea tours are also offered. As on the Atlantis semisubmersible, you get a close-up look at the Cheeseburger Reef and two of Cayman's mysterious shipwrecks (Cali and Balboa), with a bit of entertaining educational narrative. N. Church St., George Town, Grand Cayman. 345/945–1355. www.nautilus.ky.

Sea Trek. Sea Trek offers helmet diving, permitting you to walk and breathe 26 feet underwater—without getting your hair wet—for an hour. No training or even swimming ability is required, and you can wear glasses. Guides give a thorough safety briefing, and a sophisticated system of compressors and cylinders provides triple the amount of air necessary for normal breathing while a safety diver program ensures four distinct levels of backup. The result at near-zero gravity resembles an exhilarating moonwalk. The minimum age is eight. The cost is $89 to $99 per person (the latter for an "Ultimate Stingray City" excursion). The Cabana, N. Church St., George Town, Grand Cayman, KY1-1109. 345/949–0008. www.seatrekcayman.com, www.snubacayman.com.

Skating and Skateboarding

Black Pearl Skate and Surf Park, a great skating park (skateboards, in-line skates), is the size of a football field (at 52,000 square feet the world's second-largest such facility) with stairs, half pipe, rails, 20-foot vert ramp, and flow course offering innumerable lies. International professional skaters such as Tony Hawk, Ryan Sheckler, and Mark Appleyard have practiced their kickflips, tailslides, wheelies, and grinds. The park also has one of only three Waveloch standing wave–surf machines in the world, which generates adjustable 11-foot swells. You can arrange lessons or rent anything you need at the adjacent skate–surf shop. The outdoor patio of the surprisingly elegant Brick House restaurant (terrific pizzas and playground) is the perfect vantage point for the rad performances local daredevils mount Friday and Saturday nights.

Stingray City

Hundreds of gray and khaki Atlantic Southern stingrays, resembling inquisitive alien life forms, enact an acrobatic aqua-ballet as they circle this North Sound site seeking handouts from divers and snorkelers. The area actually encompasses two separate locations: Stingray City, called by many the world's greatest 12-foot dive, and the nearby sandbar, where people can wade in waist-deep water.

Steve Irwin's tragic demise rekindled humankind's age-old fear of these beautiful, mysterious "devil" creatures with their barbed tails. The Atlantic southern stingrays are a different, smaller species than the stingray that killed Irwin and as close to tame as possible. Shy and unaggressive by nature, they use their tails only in defense; nonetheless, don't pick rays up unless you follow your guide's careful instructions.

Stingray City's origins can be traced to local fishermen who would moor inside the fringe reef, then clean their catch, tossing the scraps overboard. Captain Marvin Ebanks, who still runs trips in his 90s, recalls feeding them as a child. The rays, who hunt via keen smell (and sensitive electro-receptors stippling their underside, near the mouth), realized they'd discovered their own restaurant and began hanging around. They slowly became inured to human interaction, rarely displaying the species' typical timidity. They glide like graceful giants (up to 4 feet in diameter), practically nuzzling you with their silken bellies, begging pet-like for food. Indeed, crews recognize them (and vice versa), fondly giving the rays nicknames (Hoo-Ray, X-Ray, Gamma Ray), insisting they have distinct personalities.

Instead of teeth, their mouths contain vise-like sucking grips. Keep your palms face-up and as flat as possible so they don't unintentionally "swallow" your fingers (their eyes are located atop their bodies, so they hover over and practically hoover your hand in excitement).

More formal visitation guidelines have now been established because five to 20 boats visit twice daily, and the population is growing at an alarming rate. Feeding is restricted to appointed tour operators; only natural bait fish like ballyhoo and squid are permitted; the food amount is limited; and any remains and litter must be removed. Many Caymanians and divers oppose altered feeding because it changes the ecosystem's natural food chain. But some concede the good outweighs the bad: The interaction is magical, not to mention fostering greater appreciation and environmental awareness.

Snorkeling

The proximity of healthy, Technicolor reef to the Grand Cayman shore means endless possibilities for snorkelers. Some sites require you to simply wade or swim into the surf; others are only accessible via boat. Nearly every snorkeling outfit follows the same route, beginning with the scintillating Stingray City and Sandbar. They usually continue to the adjacent Coral Gardens and often farther out along the Barrier Reef. Equipment is included, sometimes drinks, snacks, and lunch. Half-day tours run $35–$40, full-day $60–$70, and there are often extras such as kids' discounts and a complimentary shuttle to and from Seven Mile Beach resorts. Other popular trips combine Eden Rock, Cheeseburger Reef, and the wreck of the Cali off George Town. Most decent-size boats offer cover, but bring sunscreen and a hat.

Snorkeling Sites

Barrier Reef. A Barrier Reef separates the North Sound and Cayman's celebrated wall drop-off (part of a 6,000-foot underwater mountain). You can snorkel along the shallow side, which is crawling with critters of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Grand Cayman.

Cemetery Reef. Cemetery Reef sits 50 yards out from the north end of Seven Mile Beach, within walking distance of several condo resorts. Fish here are also accustomed to being fed, so blue tangs to blue-headed wrasse and bat jacks to black durgeon could swarm around you. Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman.

Cheeseburger Reef. Cheeseburger Reef earned its unusual moniker thanks to its location straight out from the downtown Burger King. It's also known as Soto's Reef after legendary diver Bob Soto, one of the islands' original dive operators. The eye-popping, 12,000-year-old coral formations begin 20 yards offshore, with larger heads a mere 10 feet down, though it reaches depths of 40 feet. You can swim through numerous tunnels where turtles and tarpon hang out; people have long fed fish in the area, and they're not shy, wanting it their way, but beware of snapping snappers if you bring food. George Town, Grand Cayman.

Coral Gardens. Coral Gardens, which is very near Stingray Sandbar, attracts nurse sharks, moray eels, queen conch, lobster, and not just schools but universities of jacks, tangs, sergeant majors, parrot fish, yellowtails, and others playing hide-and-seek with riotously colored soft and hard corals. It really is like swimming in an aquarium. North Sound, Grand Cayman.

Eden Rock. Eden Rock is even more spectacular for divers, who can explore its caves and tunnels, then proceed to Devil's Grotto. Still, from the surface you can see schools of sergeant majors, yellowtail snappers, parrot fish, tarpon, Bermuda chubs, even the occasional stingray and turtle. George Town, Grand Cayman.

Stingray City Sandbar. Stingray City Sandbar (as opposed to Stingray City, the popular 12-foot dive) is the stellar snorkeling attraction on Grand Cayman and simply not to be missed; dozens of boats head here several times daily. The area is always less crowded if you can go on a day when there are fewer cruise ships in port. Pick up from your hotel can be arranged. North Sound, Grand Cayman.

Wreck of the Cali. You can still identify the engines and winches of the Wreck of the Cali, an old sailing freighter, which settled about 20 feet down. The sponges are particularly vivid, and tropical fish, shrimp, and lobster abound. Many operators based in George Town and Seven Mile Beach come here, as well as Eden Rock. About 50 yards out from Rackam's Waterfront Pub, 93 N. Church St., George Town, Grand Cayman, KY1-1201.

Snorkeling Operators

Bayside Watersports. Bayside Watersports offers half-day snorkeling trips, North Sound beach lunch excursions, Stingray City and dinner cruises, and full-day deep-sea fishing. The company operates several popular boats out of West Bay's Morgan's Harbour. Full-day trips include lunch and conch diving in season (November–April). Morgan's Harbour, West Bay, Grand Cayman, KY1-1401. 345/949–3200. www.baysidewatersports.com.

Captain Crosby's Watersports. Captain Crosby's Watersports offers favorably priced snorkeling (and dive) excursions on well-equipped 47- and 40-foot trimarans; $40 includes lunch. Captain Crosby is one of the more colorful captains among a group of genuine characters (he maintains a friendly rivalry with his fellow sailors regarding who really jump-started Stingray City tours). He's actively involved in preserving Cayman's maritime heritage as a founder of the Catboat Association. As a bonus, the trips are usually a little longer in duration; expect a sing-along with the "Singing Captain" on his guitar at some point. You can also arrange deep-sea fishing charters. Grand Cayman. 345/945–4049 or 345/916–1725. www.captaincrosbywatersports.com.

Captain Marvin's. Multistop North Sound snorkeling trips, as well as fishing charters and land tours, are offered here. The indomitable, irrepressible Captain Marvin, one of the first regular Stingray City operators (in business since 1951), is still going strong in his 90s. Full-day trips include lunch and conch dives in season (November–April), when the crew prepares marinated conch as the appetizer. The half day (three hours) is a better deal than the quickie trips; the only drawback is the relatively large groups. Reservations can be made only from 10 am to 3 pm on weekdays or via the website. Cash payments usually receive a discount. Cayman Islands Yacht Club Marina, Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman. 345/945–7306, 345/945–6975, or 866/978–6364. www.captainmarvins.com.

Ebanks Watersports. Ebanks Watersports is run by a large family long known for its aquatic activities. Shawn Ebanks offers a range of water-sports activities, including various snorkeling tours, private charters, fishing, and his popular Yamaha wave-runner snorkel tours (the last are costlier, $125 for single riders, $175 for two). The crew is both friendly and experienced; they're particularly adept at holding the stingrays for the ultimate photo op; they'll even teach you how to pick one up yourself. His two custom-fitted boats (a 45-foot Garcia and 34-foot Wellcaraft Scarab) include GPS navigation, VHS radio, freshwater shower, and other necessities. Cayman Islands Yacht Club, Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman, KY1-1010. 345/925–5273 or 345/916–1631. www.ebankswatersports.com.

Fantasea Tours. Captain Dexter Ebanks runs Fantasea Tours on his 38-foot trimaran, Don't Even Ask, usually departing from the Cayman Islands Yacht Club. He doesn't pack you in like sardines (20 people max) and is particularly helpful with first-timers. Like many of the captains, he has his own pet names for the rays (ask him to find Lucy, whom he "adopted") and rattles off fascinating factoids during an entertaining, non-stop narration. It's a laid-back trip, with Bob Marley and Norah Jones on the sound system, and fresh fruit and rum punch on tap. West Bay Rd., Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman. 345/916–0754. www.dexters-fantaseatours.com.

Kirk Sea Tours caters to cruise-ship passengers on 60- to 65-foot boats, as well as the 28-passenger glass-bottom Reef Roamer, snorkeling along the West Wall including Cheeseburger Reef. Sometimes it seems the snorkelers outnumber the fish, but the price is right and it's less frenzied when fewer cruise ships are in port. Kirk also rents kayaks for $20 (and can arrange guided tours), Jet Skis ($65 single, $90 double per half hour), paddleboats ($20), and Snuba gear (with instruction).

Red Sail Sports. Red Sail Sports offers Stingray City, sunset, and evening sails (including dinner in winter) on its luxurious 62- and 65-foot catamarans, the Spirits of Cayman, Poseidon, Calypso, and Ppalu. It often carries large groups; although the service may not be personal, it will be efficient. In addition to the large cats, a glass-bottom boat takes passengers to Stingray City/Sandbar and nearby coral reefs. It operates from several hotels, including the Westin and Morritt's, in addition to its Rum Point headquarters. The cost ranges from $40 to $80 ($20 to $40 for children under 12). Grand Cayman, KY1-1206. 345/949–8745, 345/623–5965, or 877/506–6368. www.redsailcayman.com.

Squash and Tennis

Most resorts and condominium complexes have their own courts, often lit for night play, but guests have top priority. When empty, you can book a court, which normally costs around $25 per hour.

The Courts. The Courts is a collaboration between Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman and tennis coach Nick Bollettieri (former mentor of Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova, Jim Courier, and the Williams sisters at his legendary Florida academy). The club offers three French-style red clay courts and a Wimbledon-worthy grass court. Bollettieri personally trained the director, who gives private lessons ($125); Bollettieri himself occasionally drops by for tournaments and clinics. Court rental is $40 per hour. West Bay Rd., Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman, KY1-1208. 345/943–9000.

South Sound Squash Club. This club has seven international courts, a changing room, a bar and lounge, and coaches. It's a private club, but temporary memberships can be arranged, as well as lessons from world-champion instructors. 25 Anne Bonny Crescent, South Sound, George Town, Grand Cayman, KY1-1110. 345/949–9469. www.squash.ky.

Windsurfing and Kiteboarding

The East End's reef-protected shallows extend for miles, offering ideal blustery conditions (15 to 35 mph in winter, 6- to 10-knot southerlies in summer) for windsurfing and kiteboarding. Boarders claim only rank amateurs will "tea-bag" (kite-speak for skidding in and out of the water) in those "nuking" winds. They also rarely "Hindenburg" (stall due to lack of breeze) off West Bay's Palmetto Point and Conch Point.

Cayman Windsurfing with Red Sail Sports at Morritt's. Cayman Windsurfing with Red Sail Sports at Morritt's offers a full range of top-flight equipment as well as lessons. Rentals start at $40 per hour; lessons are $65 per hour. Call ahead, as they may discontinue operations. Morritt's Tortuga Resort, Colliers, East End, Grand Cayman, KY1-1206. 345/947–2097. www.tortugadivers.com.

Cayman Windsurfing with Red Sail Sports at the Westin currently only offers lessons.

Kitesurf Cayman. Here you can take full advantage of the gusty conditions at Barkers Beach. Head instructor Jhon Mora is a member of the Columbian National Kitesurfing Team; lessons, including tricks such as loops and rolls, are geared toward experienced boarders. Group rates are $150 for two hours (private introductory courses are $250); hotel transfers are free with pre-booked lessons. Barkers, near Papagallo's Restaurant, West Bay, Grand Cayman, KY1-1207. 345/916–5483. www.kitesurfcayman.com.

Ocean Frontiers offers kiteboarding rentals and instruction, working with the respected Kitehouse team, with locations from Costa Rica to Key West. Private two-hour lessons are $250; half-day rental is $75. They'll help you achieve 60 feet of big air to practice your triple loops.