When someone mentions the Cayman Islands, you might think of white sand beaches, tropical trees and snorkeling adventures somewhere far away in the middle of the ocean. But the three Cayman Islands aren’t all that far from U.S. shores. These charming slivers of land lie in the western Caribbean Sea just an hour south of Miami, Florida. The Caymans have become some of the most popular Caribbean islands, and not just because they’re close.

The Cayman Islands’ Department of Tourism recently reported 2014 was the islands’ best year for tourism in more than a decade. The number of Cayman Island tourists grew by 10% over 2013. It makes a person wonder: what makes them so appealing?

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Part of the answer is a smooth combination of rich local traditions with first-rate international attractions. It goes without saying that the islands’ clear blue waters and soft white-sand beaches are irresistible. The islands also are very good at catering to the vacation dreams of different types of visitors.

The Caymans of Upscale Adventurers
Grand Cayman is the largest of the three islands. It’s a popular destination for well-to-do ocean cruisers and upscale resort-goers. Maybe they are drawn to the fact that the island contains more banks per mile than anywhere else in the world, with one of the highest GDP per capita. Favorable financial laws in the Caymans attract businesses from across the globe.

For discerning vacationers, Grand Cayman is the perfect place to find exclusive shopping, glamorous restaurants and chic resorts along the famous Seven Mile Beach. This stretch of beach was named the Caribbean’s Best Beach by Caribbean Travel and Life magazine.

Guests can choose grand hotels or intimate luxury cottages with all of the amenities you would expect. There is plenty to do, from daring water sports and underwater shipwreck tours to grilling on the beach and glamping (glamour camping). At night, Seven Mile Beach offers a wide range of fashionable beach bars and restaurants.

The two smaller islands offer the tranquility of secluded beaches and the fun of exploration. Each island has its own personality. Brak contains more than 200 species of birds, magnificent caves, saltwater fishing and an encounter with the wreck of a Russian warship. Little Cayman is the smallest of the islands, where scuba divers feel right at home among the bay walls and deep dropouts. Look for events such as a Mardi Gras celebration, the Little Cayman cookout and a spring triathlon.

The Caymans of Family-Friendly Fun Seekers
For those who seek family-style adventures, the Cayman Islands offer both exciting and educational options. Children of all ages love swimming with the stingrays in Stingray City. The wondrous sea creatures live here in their natural habitat. They glide though the water with guests and even take bait from their hands. Many snorkeling and world-class scuba diving sites open up the wonders of the coral reef and deep ocean walls.

The Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park shows off many native species, including parrots and Blue Iguanas. Children love the Butterfly Farm. The islands contain more than 60 different butterfly species. For a mixture of education and active fun, Boatswains Beach and the Cayman Turtle Farm offer swimming attractions and close encounters with sea turtles.

At the National Trust Visitors Centre, Caymans heritage and biodiversity is served up along with homemade ice cream in the café. The Trust lends its resources to many island attractions, including hikes through the Mastic Reserve, the Mission House, Fort George and the Blue Iguana Recovery project.

The Caymans of Parties and Weddings
From a raucous annual pirate festival to quiet beach weddings, the Cayman Islands offer a wide variety of ways to celebrate. Depending on time of year, visitors can enjoy an arts festival, international fishing competition or delicious local foods at Taste of Cayman.

Batabano is the Cayman Islands’ version of Carnival, complete with joyful parades, colorful costumes, and island music. It’s a blend of culture and just plain fun. There is both an adult celebration and a junior celebration, so everyone can take part. “Batabano” is the word for the tracks turtles leaves in the sand as they crawl onto the beach to nest.

Romantic weddings are a common occurrence on these magnificent islands, where paradise and bliss come in many forms. Some lovers choose large church weddings with hundreds of attendees. Others opt for intimate barefoot ceremonies on private beaches. Everything needed to make a wedding happen on the islands can be found here, including the paperwork to make it legal.

From the time of the first-recorded visitor to the Caymans in 1586 to today, the culture of this charming destination has developed into a truly exceptional destination.