A family of FTF experts share their experience on the beautiful beaches of Providenciales and the other islands of the TCI.
If you ask upscale family travelers where Turks and Caicos is, many will respond with, “Oh, that’s where Beaches is.” It’s true that the very popular, all-inclusive Beaches Turkoise resort is on Providenciales, the busiest of the eight inhabited (40 total) T&C Islands. And it’s true that this Overseas British Territory boasts some of the world’s most beautiful beaches.
Intoducing the Real Turks & Caicos
Yet it’s also true that there’s much more to this tiny nation of 24,000 inhabitants than just posh resorts and miles of fine powdery sand. Turks and Caicos has a proud history, an educated and welcoming populace, and pockets of culture that thrive outside the built-from-scratch resort island where Beaches rules.
In case you’re wondering, it’s located in the Atlantic, east of Cuba, north of Hispaniola and just a 90-minute flight from Miami.
We took advantage of a recent press trip to visit Providenciales, Grand Turk, Salt Cay, Parrot Cay, Little Water Cay or Iguana Island, Pine Cay, Middle Caicos, North Caicos and South Caicos and can report that beyond the stunning beaches of Providenciales, there’s much to see and enjoy around the country.
Unfortunately, the TCIs are separated by the deep and rough Columbus Passage, whose 7,000-foot depth guarantees a unique dive wall admired by scuba enthusiasts the world over. Tourists interested in exploring beyond the beaches will find the easterly Turks islands and the larger Caicos islands connected most easily by air, with a fleet of small prop planes that constantly dart about the country.
Provo’s Special Excursions
Most families will arrive in Providenciales (also known as Provo) and most will choose to settle into one of its deluxe beachfront hotels or condominiums. On Provo, the sea and the sand rule, with snorkeling and diving being the major pursuits… and for good reason.
We paid an hour-long visit to what claims to be the world’s only Conch Farm, where an industrious group is raising tender baby conch on an industrial scale to market as a gourmet treat to restaurants in the Caribbean and Miami. While they’ve succeeded at hatching millions of tiny specks and nurturing them in seawater pens to walnut, and even tennis-ball, size, it’s a struggle to compete with the ease with which locals (here and throughout the Caribbean) continue to pull mature conch directly from the seas.
One lunchtime we stopped to dine at the Turtle Cove Marina. Turtle Cove is also home to Ocean Vibes (649/231-6636), a snorkeling and scuba outfit run by the young Wayne Hall. A native of Grand Turk, Wayne has lived on every inhabited island in TCI, except for the exclusive enclaves on Pine Cay and Parrot Cay, and the barren salt mines on Salt Cay. He’s proud of his knowledge of the islands, their history, flora and fauna, and particularly enjoys sharing that with the many families who sign up for his day-long snorkel trips.
Whereas a big reunion group might want to charter Wayne or one of his crew with his motorized catamaran, others can join his organized half and full-day trips. Wayne tailors his service to the ages on board, looking for calm seas (not always easy in the windy TCI) and the best visibility. He has worked with disabled visitors, using sea scooters (the type of handheld motorized tractor that James Bond uses to get around underwater) and often recommends renting one for children above 10-years so they can explore the undersea world themselves. He also provides flotation belts in all sizes, preferring them to PFDs to avoid the neck chafing that sometimes troubles kids learning how to snorkel. We had a great day with him!
Middle Caicos Visit
During the week we toured many of the islands, and enjoyed another full-day trip to Middle Caicos, less than an hour by boat from Provo. Big Blue (649/946-5034), a diving operator well known for scuba outings, has recently branched out into soft adventure daytrips. On this larger island, we toured some underground caves, visited a beautiful beach where it seemed too rough to swim, and spent a hot and humid hour in the bush with “folk doctor” Mr. Higgs, an 80-year-old resident known for his way with herbs and local plants.
These very dry and hot islands are surprisingly biodiverse, and support a rare habitat known as the tropical dry forest. Within the scrub brush, visible to the untrained eye, are 500 species of hardwoods, medicinal plants, birds and animals of great interest; with eight plants known to exist only in TCI.
Mr. Higgs, though happy to treat the cuts of a member of our group who fell, was reluctant to share his bush medicine with day visitors. We can, however, vouch for the potency of his cures. He sliced a piece of the tall dildo cactus (an erect single stalk sporting a fuzzy gray ‘beard’) whose sap, if applied directly to a wound, can (and did) stop bleeding in seconds.
Another highlight of the daytrip was a hearty breakfast of grits and conch served at Daniel’s (one of the few establishments on the island). So, while it’s a costly excursion and too taxing for any but your teens, the more active family curious about local culture will learn a lot from a TCI day spent away from the beach. And if you want to stay longer, get in touch with the Blue Horizon Resort (649/946-6141), a collection of modern cottages (starting at $1150/week) overlooking a beautiful beach.
Big Blue offers a different day trip to North Caicos, to mount bicycles for a ride on this lightly inhabited island. There are so few cars that you might go for an hour without an encounter, other than with interesting natural phenomenon.
The Capital of Grand Turk
On Grand Turk, we discovered a large and laid back island reminiscent of the pre-1970’s Caribbean. Small stucco houses, Victorian-era wooden public buildings, a terrific history museum and some authentic cafes and experiences won our hearts. This is an island destination for families like the Zacharys of Richmond, Texas, who were looking for the “peace, nice people and local color of Cozumel in the 1980’s.”
Unlike the Yucatan’s vibrant Mexican culture, Grand Turk boasts a British formality combined with a Creole and Bermudian island sensibility. Local women wear long flower print dresses and big straw hats, men wear pastel, open-necked cotton guayabera shirts with slacks and shoes, neither showing signs of perspiration. Of course, tourists in shorts and flip-flops stroll amongst them, admiring Front Street’s historic facades along Columbus Landfall National Park (649/946-2321).
In 2006, a huge port complex was built and has been so successful, that in 2010, there were 285 ports of call at the island of ships carrying a total of 625,000 passengers. You can’t miss the huge Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville and dozens of shops and ticket agents offices. The cruise companies have also planned a wide variety of shore excursions – from snorkeling, scuba diving and deep sea fishing to biking, kayaking and horseback riding. – with a daily capacity of up to 4,000 people. Additional shore excursions are being planned for the coming year.
Anyone around in 1962 may recall the excitement of NASA’s Mercury space program, and on February 20th of that year, the Mercury Friendship 7 capsule splashed down just off the island. The first American astronaut to orbit the earth, passenger John Glenn became a hero. The country of T&C celebrates the event at the new Splashdown Grand Turk, located in the port’s cruise terminal. The small displays highlight memorabilia from the flight, including a model rocket, capsule and other artifacts.
For those who’d prefer a quiet stroll, don’t miss the small but quite interesting Turks & Caicos National Museum (649/946-2160) housed at the historic Guinep House on Front Street. Its manageable size, displays about the island’s flora and fauna, and memorabilia related to its status as first “landfall” on a U.S. space mission, make it ideal for a kids’ afternoon outing. At the end of Front Street’s small strip of government buildings is the funky Water’s Edge (649/946-1680), run by Elaine and Seamus (better known to the expat crowd as “Shameless”). This rum punch and conch cafe is known for its colorful drinks and conch curry.
Historic Salt Cay
We spent a day at Salt Cay, about an hour away by boat from Grand Turk. The channel we crossed is where tour boats go to watch the humpback whales calve between February and April each year. Rich in history as the center of the region’s salt trade, dating from the 1600s, today Salt Cay is a dry and desolate island whose 101 inhabitants hope a fledgling tourist trade will support the next generation. With construction, resort hotels, and attractions demanding labor, Salt Cay’s elders saw many children go to high-paying Provo after the salt mines closed in 1976.
To fight back, they launched Salt Cay.org) to promote the island. After visiting the caked salt ponds, where the skeletons of windmills explain how sea water was pumped in, left to separate, then moved into shallow ponds to thicken, we walked through the White House, home of the Harriott family. Now several generations removed from the 17th century Bermudians who had imported slaves to rake the salt flakes, clean them and bundle them for annual shipment abroad, this traditional home may one day get the makeover it needs to become a tourist-attracting museum.
Using golfcarts hired from Salt Cay Divers (649/946-6906), the most knowledgeable local dive outfitter, we continued around the island’s narrow lanes to its northern tip. Situated on what must be one of the Atlantic’s best beaches, and close to what is considered some of TCI’s best diving, is Windmills Plantation (649/946-6962). It was a real find at our visit, with a terrific restaurant supervised by Dominican Chef Milady, who served banana curry soup and conch lasagna. let us know if it’s still there.
Very Private Parrot Cay
Everyone wants to know about Parrot Cay, a 1,000-acre private island just 30 minutes by fast boat from Provo. Featured in Wallpaper, Variety and W, the tony, high-style, 60-room “hotel” is a Balinese style resort where celebrities and the discreet wealthy pay a whopping fee for an elegant seaview room. (Children under 12 are not welcomed.) We dropped a fortune for a very pleasant lunch there, but non-guests won’t find much reason to pay a call to the island. Unless, of course, you have binoculars and want to spot the likes of Bruce Willis and designer Donna Karan.
Why Turks & Caicos?
Still a British Overseas Territory, TCI has no taxation and thus, a growing ex-pat population. Most of the islands are unfit for agriculture and fishing is scarce. Government income is generated by an offshore banking industry that is on the way to rivaling Grand Cayman’s, but comparisons don’t end there.
Families planning a visit to TCI will find it as expensive as the Caymans, and more expensive than many other islands, primarily because all food and supplies are imported.
On the plus side, since goods are imported from the United States and the US dollar is the local currency, American families will feel especially at home.
Another plus is that the TCI islands are also a uniquely tropical (not Caribbean) destination because they’re found in the Atlantic, where a much cooler and less humid climate prevails.
And best of all, the TCIs’ natural beauty is still unspoiled. Add to that a friendly native populace who speak English, are well educated and drive on the “wrong” side of the road, and you’ve got potential.
Lots of it, if you can get visitors to wander just beyond the beaches.
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