The first thing I noticed when boarding my 70-minute flight from Miami to George Town is that nearly every passenger was carrying a gear bag or donning a dive shirt of some kind, with PADI or the logo of their hometown dive shop emblazoned across the chest.

The second thing I noticed was the fact that the national airline, Cayman Airways, serves complimentary rum punch.

I already knew I was going to like it there from the moment I stepped on that plane.

It’s true that the Cayman Islands are widely regarded as the birthplace of recreational diving in the Caribbean, and if my flight was any indicator, the majority of people who visit there on vacation—versus a quick stopover via cruise ship—do so for the dive scene. And you can hardly blame them; this British overseas territory, after all, has a Dive 365 program that promotes the fact that you can explore a different underwater site every day of the year spread among the three Cayman isles. That’s pretty impressive for such a small, intimate place.

This past October, the Cayman Islands took that reputation as a premiere diving destination up a notch by celebrating the inaugural International Scuba Festival, themed “Legends and Lions,” comprising plenty of time underwater, along with seminars, dinners, lionfish culling courses and a Scuba Hall of Fame induction ceremony. It was the perfect introduction to the islands for someone like me who had only ever previously visited by 6,000-passenger ship.

It didn’t take me any time to—excuse my pun—dive right in either, as my first morning on Grand Cayman, I was up bright and early and on a boat with Red Sail Sports out to the famed USS Kittiwake wreck, one of the most dived sites on the island. I’m not a morning person, so it was convenient that my hotel, Sunshine Suites, was located directly across the street from the Westin where my boat departed; I needed only to roll out of bed 30 minutes before departure and collect all of my gear before the walk over.

Tip: Divers who want the full dive-and-stay package might be interested in booking a stay at the Sunset House instead.

There are plenty of places in the Caribbean where a once thriving reef has been crushed by a thriving dive industry and mass tourism. The Caymans Islands are no such place. The reef is healthy and very alive. The fish are plentiful. The dive sites are many. And the water temperature couldn’t be more ideal—a balmy 86 degrees on average, meaning you don’t necessarily even need a suit (though for safety’s sake, at least wear a skin to protect any unwelcome run-ins with coral or other marine creatures).

The Kittiwake was mighty impressive, sure—don’t forget to visit the ship’s bathroom where you can check yourself over in the mirrors or take an underwater photo of yourself at the helm in the bridge—but I didn’t do a single dive on my trip that wasn’t. There are plenty of sites spread out along the Seven Mile Beach coastline, meaning your boat time is minimal—the Kittiwake couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes from the Westin—and your underwater time optimal. 

In perfect conditions, the wall dive Babylon is a treat; you’ll see a rainbow of colorful sponges adorning the terrain. For those who love to test their wits—and eyesight—at spotting macro life, the shallow waters at Lighthouse Point are ideal. For the best underwater selfie, go to Sunset House and pose with the resident nine-foot-tall mermaid (of the bronze variety). At the Oro Verde Wreck, divers love to try to ride the old, rusty bicycle that rests on the sandy bottom.

Not a diver? Not a problem. From short Discover Scuba dives, which give you a bit of a crash course to diving before you fully commit to the sport, to full-blown Open Water Certification classes, you can try a little bit of everything via the various operators around the islands, like Red Sail Sports and Divetech.

One thing’s for sure: You don’t want to limit yourself to above-water activities while in the Cayman Islands, as not taking advantage of all the fun below the surface is a crime, plain and simple.

Sponsored by Cayman Islands Tourism.