First things first -- just what, and where, are the Cayman Islands? A British Overseas Territory, the Cayman archipelago comprises Grand Cayman (the largest island), Cayman Brac, and Little Cayman (the smallest). Lying 433km (269 miles) south of Havana and about 700km (435 miles) from Mexico's Yucat√°n Peninsula, it is part of the geographic entity known as the Cayman Ridge, which extends westward from Cuba. The archipelago is actually the top of the underwater Sierra Maestra Range, which runs north into Cuba. The Cayman Trench, the deepest part of the Caribbean Sea with a depth of just over 6.4km (4 miles), separates the Cayman Islands from Jamaica, which lies 290km (180 miles) to the southeast.

Columbus found the Cayman Islands by accident when he was blown off course en route from Panama to Hispaniola in 1503. The Caymans remained, for many decades, a lair for pirates, the home of simple fishermen, and a haven for refugees from the British justice system and, in some cases, runaway slaves. The sandy soil isn't particularly fertile, and as such, the islands never developed the extensive "plantation economy" that became prevalent on neighboring Jamaica and Cuba. The economy was dependent on fishing and trade, and life for the Caymanians was hard, with many residents eking out a living from the sea.

The Cayman Islands were granted independence from Britain in 1962. They remain a staunch member of the British Commonwealth, and pro-Anglo sentiment runs high. In the 1970s, due to their growing role as a financial center and tourist destination, the Cayman Islands began to develop rapidly. Today, Grand Cayman is the condominium capital of the Caribbean and a major center of the offshore financial industry.

It's been said that residents of the Cayman Islands fall into one of three categories: foreign financial services workers (mostly British or Northern Europeans); foreign hotel and restaurant workers (mostly British, Americans, or Slavic Europeans); and local indigenous Caymanians, the descendants of fishermen, pirates, and traders, whose families have been on the islands since the late 1700s, in some cases.

If you're a beach buff, you're in luck here. The sand on the Caymans is sugary white, the surf is typically warm and gentle, and the colors are primarily aqua and turquoise. Grand Cayman is celebrated for its magnificent stretch of white sands, known as Seven Mile Beach, which is lined with hotels and condos. Crowding is rarely a problem on the beach, even with frequent cruise ship arrivals. To satisfy your inner Robinson Crusoe, explore the many hidden coves, beautiful sheltered bays, and expanses of coastline where you can escape the crowds and find your own paradise. The other islands, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, also have hidden beaches and coves.

When you tire of the beach -- if that's possible -- you'll find some of the world's best scuba diving and snorkeling here, from the plunge at Bloody Bay Wall off Little Cayman to the calm waters and gentle stingrays at Stingray City off Grand Cayman. The variety of dive sites, the clear waters and abundant marine life, and some of the best scuba-diving and snorkeling outfitters in the world make the Caymans a top diving and snorkeling destination.

In addition to little divers' inns, Grand Cayman has some of the grandest resort hotels in the Caribbean, along with dozens of beachfront condos and timeshares along Seven Mile Beach. The drawback is that there are few modest budget inns; the Caymans, for the most part, remain an upmarket destination, doing little to attract the frugal traveler, unlike such Caribbean countries as the Dominican Republic.

The Caymans offer excellent dining. The restaurants on the island are diverse and inventive, and they often boast outstanding chefs. In addition to upscale dining spots, plenty of relatively affordable restaurants serving standard Cayman fare can be found.

While the nightlife scene has improved in recent years, don't expect too much. Sipping tropical punch in a bar remains the preferred form of after-dark activity. If you're a casino devotee, you're out of luck: Gambling is not allowed in the Cayman Islands, so hustle yourself off to Puerto Rico or Aruba.

The islands have one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean. Most of their residents are hospitable and courteous, and panhandling or aggressive souvenir hawking is rare. If safety is a factor in your choice of a destination for your Caribbean vacation, you can rest assured that the low crime rate in the Cayman Islands is the envy of many small nations in the Caribbean.

The downside? Although the Cayman Islands do have splashes of floral and faunal color, along with rows of royal palms and tall pines swaying in the trade winds, far prettier and more geographically dramatic islands exist in the Caribbean. You won't see any spectacular land vistas, although some of Grand Cayman's beaches, found primarily on the western and northern coasts, rank among the most beautiful in the region.

Most people come to the Cayman Islands to get away from it all in a secluded, safe haven. Many visitors come back after their first sampling, including honeymooners who return to celebrate their anniversaries.

Grand Cayman -- The largest of the three islands and a scuba-diving mecca, Grand Cayman has become one of the Caribbean's hottest tourist destinations in recent years. With more than 500 banks, its capital, George Town, is the offshore banking center of the Caribbean. (You won't have any trouble finding an ATM here!) Retirees are drawn to the peace and tranquillity of this British crown colony, site of a major condominium development. Almost all of the Cayman Islands' 55,000-strong population lives on Grand Cayman. The civil manners of the locals reflect their British heritage.

Cayman Brac -- Short on sandy beaches and the customary Caribbean attractions (beach bars, golf, and a wide selection of restaurants), Cayman Brac may appear to be a poor sibling of Grand Cayman. However, this island has its devotees, mainly adventure seekers and scuba divers who are drawn to its 30 excellent dive sites, snorkeling, bonefishing and deep-sea fishing, and bird-watching. The island lies 143km (89 miles) northeast of Grand Cayman and 7.4km (4 2/3 miles) from Little Cayman, and is 19km (12 miles) long, with an average width of 3.5km (2 1/4 miles). It has a landmass of only 39 sq. km (15 sq. miles), and its highest point, the Bluff, is 42m (138 ft.) above sea level. The island's population is approximately 2,100.

Little Cayman -- The smallest island of the archipelago, the aptly named Little Cayman, 109km (68 miles) northeast of Grand Cayman, is only 16km (10 miles) long with an average width of 1.6km (1 mile). Relatively flat, it has a total landmass of only 16 sq. km (6 1/4 sq. miles), with its highest point 12m (39 ft.) above sea level. About 170 people reside on the island full time, sharing living space with some 20,000 red-footed boobies. Most of Little Cayman's residents aren't Caymanian at all, but long-term expats from the United States and elsewhere, including Great Britain and Canada. Who comes here and why? Little Cayman is hailed as one of the three best scuba-diving areas in the world and is a haven for nature lovers, photographers, and those in search of peace and quiet.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.