By SAM BOYLE
CAYMAN BRAC -- There's not much reason to go to Cayman Brac. No casinos. Only a few restaurants. Not much shopping. No golf.
So what do you do with a week to kill on a Caribbean island with one of the world's best reef systems?
And snorkeling. And hiking, climbing and birding. And the all-important sitting on the beach.
If you want luxury, Grand Cayman is fine, but diving there can get crowded and expensive. If you prefer the type of place where Chocolate, the dive shop dog, plays hostess to her friends in late afternoon romps on the beach, then consider this sister island.
Cayman Brac is much smaller than Grand Cayman. It has a population of under 1,300 on an island about 12 miles by 2 miles. The third sister, Little Cayman, is smaller still, with under 170 residents on a 10-mile-by-1-mile island. Both islands are regularly ranked among the best dive locations in the world by readers of Scuba Diving magazine. Reef Divers runs the dive operation at Brac Reef Resort on Cayman Brac, and the shop, boats and staff were all first-rate.
Leila McWhorter, 63, of Perry, Ga., about 26 miles south of Macon, has been diving for 20 years with over 300 dives mostly in the Caribbean, Bahamas and Florida. A retired librarian and former teacher, she makes at least one dive trip out of the country each year. For land-based diving, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman are her favorite spots; she's been to each three times.
"Bloody Bay Wall on Little Cayman is considered the best dive site in the world, but if you've been on it six days, it loses some of its luster," she said. "Cayman Brac has so much diversity.
"Every day that you make a dive, it's not like the day before. Every day it seemed to me that the dive was different," she added.
The visibility is excellent and water temperatures are a comfortable 86 degrees in the summer and fall, a degree or two cooler in winter.
The coral and sponges are healthy and diverse, so the fish and other sea life are plentiful. And the diving options are increased with the walls so close to shore.
The walls amount to an underwater cliff with the edge about 70 to 80 feet down and the bottom thousands of feet below.
You descend, keeping a close eye on your depth gauge, and at, say, 110 feet down, you're looking at a vertical coral formation in front and a vast expanse of deep, deep blue with darting fish, turtles and rays behind.
Sea life abounds
Since nondivers seem to ask about sharks, yes, you may encounter reef sharks and nurse sharks -- both harmless to people who don't annoy them and inclined to swim away from those who do.
There were plenty of turtles, barracuda and rays -- sting, eagle, spotted eagle and southern. Smaller sightings included sea horses, jelly fish, flounder, scorpion fish, durgons and lobster.
The wreck M/V Keith Tibbetts, a Russian destroyer sunk for diving purposes, is a popular site and good for tall tales of naval battles and pirates.
McWhorter calls it "one of the best wreck dives I've ever done. ... When you are diving the Tibbetts, it's a good idea to have two cameras, one with a wide-angle lens and one for macro," or close-up shots of the rich sea life living on and around the wreck.
Lots to do
For the nondiver, there's plenty to do. Snorkeling is very popular. Rock climbing attracts visitors to the limestone cliffs.
Much of Cayman Brac is open land. A nature preserve boasts 150 species of birds. There are miles of cycling and hiking trails, rare animals to see and dramatic caves to explore.
Bonefish, which have a reputation of being hard to catch, are plentiful. Tuna, wahoo and marlin are popular game fish. Snapper, grouper and jacks attract reef anglers. The Caymans are very conservation-minded, and captains and guides will encourage release of any fish that is not going to be eaten.
During a recent visit, my wife and I stayed at Brac Reef Beach Resort. We found nothing to complain about in the accommodations, which were comfortable with a helpful staff and good meals, and we got good reports from guests of the island's other resort, Divi Tiara Beach Resort.
You can expect the Cayman Brac experience to be different from what you might find on other Caribbean islands. As McWhorter put it, "Because the Brac is not surrounded by businesses and homes, you get the feeling of being on a remote island."