Barbie-pink houses, plush beachside condos and glossy corporate buildings – stroll through capital George Town and you might see a hint of the Cayman Islandsrep as a financial hub. But look beyond the glass and youll see the archipelago is just as rich in natural charms, with extraordinary wildlife, dramatic cave formations and world-class dive sites scattered among curaçao-colored waters and snow-white sands.

Palm trees and gold sand next to an azure cove
The Cayman Islands' tropical beaches are lined with palm trees and golden sand © Anna Jedynak / Shutterstock

You could easily spend a week lazing on the beach at any one of its three very distinct isles – Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman – but linger on the sand too long at your peril. From kayaking in bioluminescent waters to spotting cerulean iguanas, youll find a string of unique experiences spread across these rather one-of-a-kind siblings. Weve rounded up some of the best for anyone wanting an alternative Caribbean escape.

1. Kayak in bioluminescence  

Picture paddling through a sea of iridescent, blue-green stars glittering in the pitch-black water, and you have a glimpse into the rather magical phenomena that awaits at Grand Caymans Bioluminescent Bay.

Two empty kayaks on a beach
Kayaks can be a great way to explore the islands, but the real show starts at night © Anna Jedynak / Shutterstock

Come nightfall, millions of light-emitting organisms illuminate the waters like fireflies, and the spectacle is impressively bright thanks to barely any light pollution. Cayman Kayaks take you out on nighttime paddling trips from Rum Point to experience the best of it – think clouds of whitish green darting around like spirits beneath your boat, and total silence except your paddles swishing gently through the ripples.

2. Explore the Crystal Caves

Peeping out from the lush, tropical rainforest is this cluster of 105 limestone caves, filled with glittering stalactites and stalagmites that prod out like icicles from marble-swirled ceilings and damp, dewy floors. Guided tours take you round three of its most impressive chambers, including the aptly named bat cave (not for the faint-hearted) and the lake cave, where a still, jade-colored patch of water shimmers like a perfect mirror.

A Blue Iguana is one of the rarest species of the reptile in the world David Rogers / Getty
Although once plentiful on Grand Cayman, the blue iguana's population dwindled to just around a dozen in 2002. Thanks to conservation efforts, the animal is making a comeback © David Rogers / Getty

3. Glimpse a blue iguana

So named for their striking color (which gets even brighter during mating season) blue iguanas are Grand Caymans largest endemic species. Theyre also seriously endangered; for the best chances of spotting them head to the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, where theyve been bred since 2001 as part of a recovery program. You can take tours to see them at the habitat area or, if youre lucky, glimpse them roaming freely among the soaring palms, wild banana orchids and other exotic plant species that populate this tropical oasis.

People riding on horse back at the Caribbean beach. Grand Cayman.; Shutterstock ID 342932357; Your name (First / Last): Alexander Howard; GL account no.: 65050; Netsuite department name: Online Editorial; Full Product or Project name including edition: The best experiences in the Cayman Islands
Horseback riding on the beach is a popular activity in the Cayman Islands © Lana_May / Shutterstock

4. Ride a horse along the beach

Gliding through the sea on the back of a horse, water splashing up as you plod peacefully along, is the stuff of childhood dreams. Spirit of the West make it a reality, with guides taking you wading through the crystalline, turquoise waves beneath a pink-orange sunset. They also offer beach tours for those whod rather admire the water from afar, with private or group options available (and pickups direct from your hotel).

5. Go on a submarine

Cayman has earned itself quite the rep in the diving world thanks to its ancient shipwrecks, dramatic drop-offs and vibrant coral formations, but if you want to experience its treasures without getting wet, try Atlantis Submarines’ underwater excursion from Seven Mile Beach or George Town. Youll descend 100 feet in a glass-enclosed, 48-passenger boat, glimpsing the likes of barracudas, turtles, jelly fish and plenty more.

Mother and daughter scuba diving in Little Cayman
The waters around the Cayman Islands are known to be some of the best diving in the Caribbean © Brent Barnes / Shutterstock

6. Dive one of the Caribbean’s most renowned drop-offs

If the submarine excursion doesnt satisfy your undersea cravings, theres only one thing for it – Bloody Bay Wall, a sheer, vertical drop-off on Little Cayman. One of the most sought-after dive spots in the Caribbean, its a mesmerizing display – all mustard-yellow tube sponges, deep red corals and mini, purple-veined trees swaying in the water – which falls off to reveal one huge, deep void thats drastic enough to give you vertigo.

Southern Cross Club, made up of a few bungalows scattered across the beach, makes an excellent base for exploring the reef, with daily dive trips taking you out to the best spots. They include Mixing Bowl, where groupers, turtles, lobsters and a myriad of rainbow-colored fish glide around an undersea forest that looks like something from another planet.

Dive here and youll understand why Philippe Cousteau reputedly named it one of the three best dive sites in the world – its not one youll forget, a little like Cayman as a whole.

Laura French traveled to the Cayman Islands with support from the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism (www.caymanislands.ky). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in return for positive coverage.

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