GRAND Caribbean Grand Cayman beckons with beautiful beaches and friendly, laid-back people

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's 7 a.m. and I'm lounging on a float in the Caribbean Sea. As I take in the sun's early-morning rays, I marvel at the calm water clear enough to be pool water.

As lazy as it sounds, this is how I started almost every day on a recent one-week vacation on Grand Cayman, which has been getting attention recently with the release of Tom Cruise's latest movie "The Firm," part of which was filmed on the island.

Grand Cayman is best known for its spectacular diving, but this laid-back island also appeals to non-divers like me, even though it's flat and not visually stunning. The people are friendly, the beaches are beautiful, there's plenty of water-related recreation, and crime is practically nonexistent. When I asked about safe-deposit boxes at my beachside condo complex, the manager assured me my valuables would be safe in my ' third-floor unit, though she offered to lock them in the office vault.

"We've never had a break-in on the third floor," she said.

There are other positives. The destination is convenient to the United States. It's also very Americanized, if the familiar appeals to you. The four major hotels are operated by Holiday Inn, Hyatt, Ramada and Radisson. Among the restaurants are familiar names such as Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Tony Roma's and Wendy's.

Most of the island's tourism activity is concentrated on the west side, along famed Seven Mile Beach. Most hotels are located along the south end of the beach, so that stretch of sand is more crowded than the north end, which is lined with condominium complexes. I stayed in a complex called the Grand Bay Club and was never bothered by crowds.

Seven Mile Beach is so inviting I spent most of my island vacation enjoying the sun, sand and sea right outside the door of my condo. If I wasn't reading under a shaded cabana, I usually was cooling off in the near-perfect water.

First-class snorkeling was just a walk away. Large rocks at the water's edge attract hundreds of colorful fish. And one of the island's better near-shore snorkeling spots -- the Cemetery -- is less than 50 yards up the beach. Its coral reef teems with fish waiting for snorkelers to feed them frozen peas and canned cheese.

Early every morning, about 50 yards down the beach from the condo, large sea turtles would swim up to the shoreline to take handouts from tourists; I fed them too. The animals seemed to like bread, but locals recommended feeding them dog or cat food.

At night, tourists relax in the many restaurants built along the busy road that runs parallel to Seven Mile Beach. A Pittsburgh family I met gave high marks to the Wharf, and a San Francisco couple at my condo raved about a small barbecue place called Eats.

A Caymanian-style buffet is served at Liberty's, an off-the-beaten-path restaurant owned by Caymanians Barbara and Grayson Liberty. A friendly waiter gave us a warm greeting upon our arrival at this very casual dining spot.

"Sit wherever you like. Our little restaurant is your home tonight," he said.

The Holiday Inn is the spot for dancing and drinks. George Nowak, better known as the Barefoot Man, performs at the hotel's open-air, beachside bar Wednesday through Saturday night. Grand Cayman guidebooks describe the entertainer as "legendary in the Caribbean" for his island-style music, so his free show attracts a crowd.

A scene in "The Firm" shot here has Gene Hackman dancing to a song called "Money, Money," which the Barefoot Man recorded for the movie.

Seven Mile Beach has its own two-screen theater and a Blockbuster Video store.

There are plenty of options from which to choose when non-divers get bored of hanging out on Seven Mile Beach. One of the best bets is a ride aboard the Atlantis Submarine, to view up close the coral reefs and sea life in the deep water off Grand Cayman.

During a 60-minute ride, a knowledgeable guide pointed out tarpon, angelfish, yellow snapper, grouper and scores of other fish. He also offered good tidbits about coral.

The ride, which costs $69, couldn't have been more comfortable -- the 46-seat cabin was air-conditioned and pressurized. A shorter ride costs $55.

Half- and full-day snorkeling excursions are offered by many boats. I went on a half-day trip aboard the Cayman Mama, a catamaran skippered by two friendly sailors.

At Stingray City, we petted tame stingrays and fed them squid. At Coral Gardens, we viewed an abundance of coral and hundreds of fish. As we sailed back to the boat's dock, our skippers served a grilled seafood lunch.

The trip costs $35.

Some guidebooks don't recommend touring the island by car because there is so little to see away from Seven Mile Beach. Still, I enjoyed checking out other beaches and seeing how undeveloped much of the island is.

North of Seven Mile Beach is the district of West Bay. One attraction there is the Cayman Turtle Farm, home to thousands of sea turtles, from tiny hatchlings to full-grown creatures weighing hundreds of pounds. Another must-see is Hell, an area named after the rugged coral-rock formations that jut out of the ground.

South of Seven Mile Beach is George Town, the capital. Numerous shops sell souvenirs and T-shirts, as well as china, perfumes and other fine imports from England. These stores share the central business district with many banks lured to the island because it charges no taxes.

For a history lesson, visit the Cayman Islands National Museum on the waterfront.

pTC Continue an island tour by heading east out of George Town.

A few miles down the road, be on the lookout for a small sign for Smith Cove (it's just past the Grand Old House, the gourmet restaurant owned by Chef Tell, the well-known TV chef).

In the cove are two small, idyllic beaches. Once visitors discover this cozy spot, my guess is they return another day to sunbathe, swim and enjoy a picnic lunch.

On the outskirts of a small town called Savannah is a seaside cemetery. Especially interesting are small house-shaped tombs, which are found in cemeteries throughout the island. Little is known about the tombs, though some people believe they were built as graves for pirates or slaves.

In Savannah, stop at Otto Watler's Honey Farm, where Mr. Watler sells fresh-bottled honey. He also breeds Grand Cayman endemic parrots in captivity. (Skip this stop if you're allergic to bee stings. My friend got stung by a stray bee.)

Farther around the island is Old Man Bay. The deserted beaches outside this small town are lined with seashells, some quite pretty. The serene setting is spoiled a bit by the trash strewn along the beaches.

The road ends at Rum Point, where there's a gorgeous beach with azure water. A casual restaurant allows anyone to use its hammocks and picnic tables for sitting, but it won't allow food and drinks to be brought in.

Grand Cayman isn't just for divers. For island lovers, it's an easily accessible getaway that offers all the conveniences of home in a tropical setting.

IF YOU GO . . .

* Lodging: The bulk of the island's accommodations are on Seven Mile Beach. Hotels are pricey. At the major properties, single rooms start at about $200 to $300 (U.S.) per night in season (Dec. 15 through April 15). Rates start at about $150 to $200 per night during other months.

The Hyatt Regency Grand Cayman is the island's most plush resort hotel, but it's across the street from the beach. It does have an oceanfront beach club with a restaurant, pool and water sports.

The Radisson, Ramada Treasure Island and Holiday Inn are beachfront properties.

There are many condominium complexes where you get a full-size apartment for about the same price of a hotel room. You'll save money because you can cook your own meals. I booked my condo through Cayman Villas, a reservations service that represents several condominiums and private villas. Call (800) 235-5888.

If you're worried about crowds on Seven Mile Beach, inquire about condos in Cayman Kai, a resort development at Rum Point the other side of the island. The area is less developed.

* Information: For more information on the islands, call the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, (800) 346-3313.

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