For the Floating Island:
1. Pour the milk into an 8- or 9-inch skillet and add the vanilla bean. Over low heat let the milk warm to a point where bubbles appear around the edge.
2. Meanwhile, beat the egg whites until foamy. At this point, gradually start to add the sugar, continuing to beat until the egg whites are stiff.
3. Remove the skillet from the heat and drop the beaten egg whites on the milk in very large, rounded spoonfuls.
4. Return the skillet to very low heat; the surface of the milk should barely quiver. Cook the mounds of egg white 2 minutes. Using a skimmer or 2 forks, turn and cook 2 minutes on the other side, or until the meringues are firm to the touch.
5. Remove the meringues to a towel and drain. Reserve the milk and vanilla bean for the English cream.
6. Pile the meringues in a shallow bowl and chill. To serve the dessert, fill a crystal bowl with the chilled English cream, float the poached meringues on top and trickle the caramel over the meringues.
For the Caramel:
Melt the sugar in a small heavy skillet over very low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Remove from the heat and add the water. Return the skillet to very low heat and simmer until the syrup is slightly thick and smooth. Trickle over the meringues.
Note: If desired, the caramel may be prepared in advance, kept at room temperature and reheated just before use. (ABOUT ½ CUP)
For the English Cream:
1. Strain the milk from the meringues into a 2-cup measure. Add enough fresh milk to fill it. Pour the milk into the top of a double boiler, add the half of vanilla bean and, over boiling water, heat the milk to a point where bubbles appear around the edge.
2. Blend the egg yolks with the sugar, using a fork. Add the hot milk gradually, stirring constantly.
3. Return the mixture, with the bean in it, to the top of the double boiler and cook over simmering water, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and coats a metal spoon.
4. Chill the mixture quickly by holding the top of the boiler in ice water; stir occasionally while the mixture cools. Strain and chill. (2½ CUPS)