A split level image of Southern stingray (Dasyatis americana) swimming over a sand bar. Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands. Caribbean Sea. Digital composite.

The Haven-ly Cayman Islands

Views from this slice of paradise, beyond that whole no-income-tax thing.

Chances are you’ve heard a thing or two about the Cayman Islands, including one reason it’s popular among a certain kind of clientele: its status as a tax haven. But there’s so much more to know and love about these tiny three gems in the British West Indies (nestled under Cuba, between Jamaica and Belize). No need to adjust your screens on this virtual tour: The striking blues are true to life.

LIVING BARRIERS Westend61 LIVING BARRIERS Most of Grand Cayman, the largest of the three islands, is surrounded by a barrier reef protecting the land from the open ocean. Here you can see "the cut" where the reef breaks, and where boats move in and out of the two blues. The dramatic difference in hues is due to the change in the water’s depth. TRANQUIL TURQUOISE WATERS Creatas Images TRANQUIL TURQUOISE WATERS The waters inside the reef are calm as a swimming pool with a gentle tide — perfect for setting up a chair and sipping piña coladas. SHIPWRECKS Design Pics SHIPWRECKS Protruding from the reef, and a signature part of the East End skyline on Grand Cayman, is the Wreck of the Ridgefield — the jagged, slowly decaying remains of a ship that ran aground here in 1962. Shipwreck sites are scattered around all three islands, the result of vessels crashing into reefs after getting thrown off their routes by storms and poor navigation. (And it’s the legend of another wreck — of a 10-ship fleet carrying Britain’s King George III in 1794 — that is rumored to be the origin of a tradition: As the story goes, the monarch was so grateful to the locals who rescued him that he declared the Cayman Islands income-tax-free.) STINGRAY CITY Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media via Getty Images STINGRAY CITY The most popular tourist stop on Grand Cayman is Stingray City, a sandbar on the north side where wild stingrays gather in anticipation of chow doled out by visitors (chopped-up dead squid — yum). The “city” is zoned by the environmental department, but not run by any establishment. Charters, cruise ships, and privately owned boats visit the area daily to interact with the friendly rays, which lap right up to you like puppies in the waist-high water; they feel like jelly covered in velvet. ISLAND AFTER-HOURS ACTION EXTREME-PHOTOGRAPHER ISLAND AFTER-HOURS ACTION Seven Mile Beach, located on the west side of Grand Cayman, is where you’ll find the best views of sunset. And after dark, there's plenty of fun to be had at the hotels and restaurants that line the beaches when you're ready for a mudslide and some dancing. SEASONAL SCUBA SIGHTS EXTREME-PHOTOGRAPHER SEASONAL SCUBA SIGHTS Schools of silversides (pictured among large tarpon) are a common summer sight in the district of East End, attracting seasonal scuba fans from all over. EAT LIKE A LOCAL Veronica Garbutt EAT LIKE A LOCAL Try some breadfruit while on island: It's a Caymanian staple, and despite being a fruit (and a huge one at that), it tastes more like a potato. Breadfruit can be fried, baked in cakes, roasted with some scotch bonnet peppers (a locally grown favorite), or added to Caribbean curries. THE BIOLUMINESCENT BAY watcherFF THE BIOLUMINESCENT BAY Accessible via a short and easy kayak ride, this small bay by Rum Point is filled what looks like a galaxy of stars, created by bioluminescent, or light-emitting, plankton. They illuminate when agitated, so each stroke of the paddle — or your arms, if you’re comfortable with night-swimming — lights up a trail of sparkles (as well as the fish traveling through). It’s a truly surreal experience. THE TURTLE FARM Amanda Nicholls/Stocktrek Images THE TURTLE FARM Today a green sea turtle is an exciting and lucky sight in the waters. The islands were once so populated with them that when Christopher Columbus encountered Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, he christened them Las Tortugas. In West Bay you’ll find Cayman Turtle Farm, a conservation and tourist center that’s successfully replenished much of the lagging population. It’s a hub of scientific research, plus a fun stop for visitors to play with and learn about the turtles. OUTSIDE THE ‘BIG’ ISLAND Chris Bickford OUTSIDE THE ‘BIG’ ISLAND It takes just three hours to drive the perimeter of Grand Cayman (population 55,000), and the other two islands are even smaller. Cayman Brac (pop. 2,300) and Little Cayman (pop. 170) have their own chill vibe and remote dive locations. Pictured: the bluffs of Cayman Brac, with low-key diver-oriented hotels and rental properties. WORLD-CLASS SNORKELING Jeff Hunter WORLD-CLASS SNORKELING If diving isn’t on the agenda, go snorkeling: There’s an incredible world to see inside the reef. CONCH OUT mcrosno CONCH OUT Fried in fritters or spicy and marinated, fresh-caught conch is a delicious local option. GO HUNTING KenHoward GO HUNTING Indigenous to the Indian Ocean, lionfish are unwanted occupiers of the reefs of the Caribbean — since being introduced to the waters around the Cayman Islands sometime in the 1980s, they have reproduced rapidly and now devour native species at a startling rate. Adventurous divers can get certified for a lionfish culling license to help kill and curtail the populations. You can even cook your catch, or sell it to a local restaurant. NO SUCH THING AS TRESPASSING inikep2 NO SUCH THING AS TRESPASSING Not a diver? No worries. Walking on the soft white sand is delightful, and always completely legal: All beaches in the Caymans are public property (yes, even the beaches outside the fancy resorts). THE BLUE IGUANA Simon Tonge THE BLUE IGUANA The Cayman Islands have their own indigenous breed of blue iguana. It's common to see the small green juveniles running around, and the very large adults lounging everywhere — including near the roads. Watch out for them while driving (on the left, of course).