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Cayman Islands--on the money!

Sidle up to a sand bar from $349 per person, including roundtrip airfare and four nights lodging
Image: Cayman Brac
A woman walks on the beach on Cayman BracEd Beaty / AP

It's no secret that the Cayman Islands are a private tax haven for many international financiers and corporations, its 500 offshore banks providing a shelter for countless dubious and not-so-dubious transactions. But as much as the Cayman Islands are known for wheeling and dealing the big bucks, they also benefit the little guy, or gal, seeking an affordable Caribbean vacation. With their plethora of hotel-motels, discount dive packages and breezy beachside prices, the Caymans have become one of the most popular destinations for the budget traveler in recent years.

The largest of the three islands is Grand Cayman, a British colony with a population of 32,000. Next in line is Cayman Brac, named by the 17th-century Scottish fisherman who set up home on its shores. Gaelic for "bluff," Brac is a narrow isle with a massive limestone plateau and considerably fewer inhabitants, known as "Brackers," many of whom live in weather-worn wooden cottages by the sea. The Cayman Islands are rich in lore--Blackbeard and other scoundrel pirates are said to have buried treasures here--and also teeming with life. You'll find breadfruit, bats, wild green parrots and sea grapes around the islands, in addition to more than 170 comb-like caves. And, cigar-shaped little Cayman only has 40 year-round residents.

Diving for deals--from $349

At the moment, Caradonna Carribean Tours (www.caradonna.com) has two very decent packages to the Cayman Islands. The first, and most affordable, is to Cayman Brac.

Priced from $349 per person based on double occupancy, the vacation wraps a "buy one get one free" roundtrip airfares from Miami or Ft. Lauderdale on Cayman Air, four nights at the popular Divi Tiara Beach & Dive Resort, all transfers, and breakfast daily. Other gateways are also available (see below).

Situated on a white stretch of sand just two miles from the airport, the Divi Tiara (www.divitiara.com) is a superb choice for those seeking a glimpse of sea life, while its grounds feature an abundance of tropical flora--bougainvillea and palms galore. The actual accommodations are basic but most have ocean views, Jacuzzis and king-size beds, and the on-site dining room serves both Caribbean and American cuisine buffet style. There's also a bar, pool, tennis court, free access to bicycles, and what else--a dive shop.

Good for midweek travel from Jan. 10 - Feb. 28, the package also includes a diving component for an additional $130--a reasonable cost for two tanks for two days, boat dives, and all the shore tank dives you desire. This special is only available from the above-mentioned Florida gateways, as well as Tampa ($399), Chicago ($489), and Houston ($489).

Life's a beach on Grand Cayman--from $389

For travelers who are just looking to crash on the beach for a few days and who could take or leave underwater exploration, we recommend another, slightly more expensive, Cayman Islands offer from Caradonna. Priced from $389 per person based on double occupancy, the Grand Cayman getaway includes roundtrip airfare from Miami on Cayman Air, four nights at the Comfort Suites (located on "hotel row" steps from the famous Seven Mile Beach), all transfers, and continental breakfast daily. This vacation is also being offered from Chicago and Houston for an additional cost of $158. Extra nights at the Comfort Suites on Grand Cayman run $99 per person per night until Jan. 26, when prices jump to $115 per person per night--a price that lasts through the month of February.

And here's the bad news (you knew it was coming): These offers are not available to single travelers. Also, keep in mind that the Cayman Islands will likely charge taxes of upwards of $95, so be sure to factor that little detail in when tallying your vacation budget.

For more information on either of these Cayman Islands midweek vacation specials, or to book a trip, call Caradonna Caribbean Tours at 800/328-2288, or visit: www.caradonna.com.

And, just in case you forget to bring cash to the Caymans, you can rest easy knowing there's an ATM on every corner.

{Editor’s Note: Have you ever been diving in the Cayman Islands? Do you have an instructive anecdote, tip or horror story to share? We’d love to hear it and possibly reprint it in our letters to the editor column. Simply to send a letter to our editors.}